Do you ever dream about copying your movie DVDs to other DVDs? What about transferring videos to an Apple iPad or an Android phone, or copying films from Netflix? If you're ever frustrated by video format incompatibilities -- and who isn't? -- Any Video Converter (AVC) Ultimate might be your answer. Then again, maybe not. This handy downloadable software package can solve all kinds of video incompatibility issues quite well, but you need to be a fairly sophisticated and patient user to get great results.
Among its many functions, AVC Ultimate lets you copy video to a PC, Mac, iPod, iPad, iPhone, or Android device, as well as to another DVD.
The DVD-to-DVD copying feature stands out from the rest of the program's features in several ways. First, you won't find this capability on even the fanciest video editing programs. Second, it's a controversial feature, because it lets you copy from so-called "copy-protected" DVDs. Third, it's probably the main reason why people buy this program.
AVC Ultimate also includes video editing tools, along with the ability to do batch processing - taking a group of files, and converting them all the same way. The batch processing feature is the software's second greatest strength.
A slightly lower-priced product from the same company, called "Any DVD Converter," offers almost identical features, except for the ability to do screen captures from services like Netflix, Hulu, and Google's Youtube.
If you're only interested in copying DVD movies to other DVDs, you might be able to get away with "DVD Cloner" or "My Blu-Ray Copy," two other programs from the same company.
Everything Works, but...
In testing AVC Ultimate, I found that while everything worked sooner or later, several problems cropped up along the way that might prevent a beginner from ever getting much of anything to work.
The full program takes less than a minute to download and then another few minutes to extract and install. A free trial is also available, but the trial is limited to converting only the first three minutes of any video file, so you can't use the trial version for copying anything close to an entire DVD movie.
As an experienced video editor accustomed to working with name-brand products from vendors like Avid and Adobe, I was a bit curious about AVCLabs. I found nothing more than an email address (no physical address, no phone number) on the company's web site. All tech support is via email.
A bit of investigation then revealed that their URL is registered through GoDaddy. So I emailed AVCLabs, asking who they are. I never got an answer to that one. I then tried emailing with a tech question. I did get a response to this question the next day, but as I'll explain below, it wasn't very helpful.
I installed version 4.3.9 on an Acer Aspire One mini-notebook running Microsoft Windows 7. When the program launched, I was a bit taken aback by the simplicity of the typewriter-style (monospace) font in the "Getting Started" main screen.
Not surprisingly, "Add DVD" is the top choice here. So I popped a fresh copy of "The Matrix" into the I/O Magic external DVD drive I hooked up. In addition to the usual Windows autoplay options that showed up, another "Opening DVD" popup appeared that said, "Analyzing DVD video disc structure, please wait..."
After about 20 minutes, I got tired of waiting and clicked the "Skip" button. A message came up saying that the DVD opened successfully. A list of what appeared to be chapters showed up on the screen, seemingly the contents of the DVD. Then, however, I realized that this list repeated the same files, over and over, many times. There were several different files mixed in too, with lengths of a few minutes. Bonus materials and previews, maybe?
Also, a bug in the program made the software keep analyzing and re-analyzing the DVD's contents, without ever stopping. I closed the program and tried it again, and the same thing happened. This time I clicked "Skip" after just ten minutes.
When I wrote to tech support about this problem, the answer I got back asked me to send a screen shot and told me to just pick the main video file. It didn't really address the problem I was encountering, though. So OK, I figured, one could easily learn to stop the "Analyze" process manually, and then only check one of the many resulting files to convert. So how did this move pan out?
I selected the Apple iPod Video MPEG-4 (.mp4) output format from an extensive list of choices (about 20 for Apple alone, including numerous iPhone, iPad, iPod and Apple TV options). I then clicked the "Convert Now" button. I clicked "Continue" and the conversion began.
A Tale of Two Tests
I decided to conduct two movie tests: copy to my iPod, and copy to another DVD. I expected that the iPod version would look great, since it involves a smaller frame size with less detail. I further anticipated that the DVD copy would not look as good as the original, due to the re-transcoding that's required in copying from a "copy-protected" DVD.
As things turned out, it took about two-and-a-half hours to create the .mp4 format file for my iPod, just a little bit longer than the movie itself. The iPod .mp4 version looked excellent. The video was completely smooth, with no jerkiness. Audio was very good, with excellent synchronization. There was really nothing to complain about here.
A Longer Story
How about copying the movie DVD to another DVD, though? That was a different and more complex story. I had to start the whole process again. As soon as I changed the output format to DVD (to make a copy of a disc), the Select DVD Drive popup changed to say, "Please select DVD drive to be ripped." I popped in "The Matrix" again and the software started analyzing again. This time I clicked "Skip" after just two minutes.
Rather than just the main movie file, I checked all five files. The main one was 2:16 long. One was 32 seconds long, another was 12 seconds long, and two were 0 seconds long each. I decided to see if AVC Ultimate could copy any bonus material or whatever else was on the DVD. Unfortunately, this proved to be a very time consuming mistake.
It took several hours to convert, or "encode," the video file. Unlike audio CDs, which can be directly copied bit for bit, copying of movie DVDs is technically prevented within the DVD hardware. So a program like AVC gets around this by first decoding the video (essentially playing it), and then re-encoding it (recording it) in the same MPEG-2 format used by the DVD player that it was just decoded from.
After AVC finally finished this "converting" process, a DVD menu screen appeared asking which style of menu to create, and whether I wanted to add background music or an image to the menu. I went with the default, and I popped in a blank DVD+R disc. I had a choice of burn speed, and I went with a conservative 8x (figuring this more likely to succeed than the faster 16x).
The Crux of the Matter
About ten minutes later, I got an error message. The disk didn't burn properly. I tried another, and the same problem happened. Then I looked at the list of the five files I was burning, and I saw that only one failed. This one was listed as 0 seconds long. So I unchecked it from the list of which files to copy to the DVD and tried again.
The real issue, however, is that there is no easy way to get back to the "Burn" menu for DVDs without starting yet again from the beginning. I checked every menu, every option, and the minimal help instructions. There was nothing. So I indeed began the process all over again, and then waited another two hours for AVC to "convert" the DVD video from my movie disk.
This time, I checked only the main movie file to convert. One of the reasons why the process takes so long is that the encoder, to its credit, uses a higher quality "2 pass" encoding system that essentially requires playing through the movie twice.
Tired of Waiting
Over three hours later, the process finished again, and the "Burn" menu popped up. Growing increasingly impatient, this time I selected a 16x burning speed. I clicked "Burn" and the progress bar appeared. I waited, and waited, and waited some more.
The progress bar was stuck at 0%. After eight minutes, I took a closer look and saw that I had neglected to check the box for the one file that had completed the conversion process. Oops!
Fearing the worst -- that I'd need to start over again still another time -- I was about to click "Cancel." Then, miraculously, the program began to write the DVD. At 16x this was fast now, and all together it took about 15 minutes to burn the disc.
And finally, success! Feeling gratified, I popped the copy DVD into a player. Actually, the menu looked nothing like the original DVD's. Instead, it was the default menu I had previously selected, with the movie titled "1.mpg" and chintzy default background music. (Of course, you can change the music if you pay attention to the DVD menu creation options. Other choices here include holiday themes and "use your own music," or "none at all.")
How good was the copy, though? Quite good, except that the wide-screen aspect ratio of the copy did not quite match the original. I discovered, however, that this problem could be fixed using the "stretch" mode in playback. (A cropping tool is also available in AVC Ultimate to help minimize the black bars, and to copy only the playback area from online videos, but I did not use this feature.)
Sound and sync were fine. There were no glitches or jitter that I could see, and the picture did not appear to freeze up, even during very fast sequences.
From a usability perspective, the biggest problem here is the lack of multiple chapters. Essentially, the entire movie becomes one huge chapter.
If you fall asleep while watching a movie, and you need to find the place where you left off, you're forced to resort to the fast search on the DVD player.
AVC Ultimate may well fulfill a specific need you have for copying videos. It will work. But it's not a very elegant program, support is minimal, and you must be a fairly sophisticated user to compensate for its quirkiness.
Those problems, however, are all in the user interface (UI) and program operation. The video itself does come out smooth, without glitches, and with high quality, if you can figure out how to use the program and you're patient enough.
So it's a mixed bag here. The price was discounted to $44.95 when we reviewed it (from $59.95), making AVC Ultimate a decent value for those who are willing to put up with its idiosyncracies.