Digitize those videos before it’s too late

4 May

May 4, 2006

Pretty much every home has one – a shelf full of old VHS tapes or camcorder originals, containing a decade or two of priceless memories.

Those tapes aren’t just gathering dust. They’re slowly dying.

In a nutshell, the chemical that binds the magnetic particles to the base tape breaks down over time, rendering the tape unplayable and destroying your recordings. How long do you have before baby’s first steps are lost forever? Depending on who you ask, anywhere from 10 to 20 years.

Yeah, it’s time to copy those videos onto a new medium. By my estimation, you have three options.

The first is to hire a professional video company to copy your entire tape collection to DVD. If you don’t like computers and haven’t got the patience to program a VCR, then this option is for you. It could cost several hundred dollars, but those memories are worth it. (Look in the yellow pages under Video-Production.)

Your next option is to purchase a DVD recorder, one that is designed to receive signals from your TV and VCR. This will allow you to transfer those old analog signals from VHS tapes onto DVD-R and -RW discs. Some units will allow you to edit the material, if crudely, before doing a final burn. As an added bonus, you can also record programs directly from live TV.

A variation on this idea is the VHS DVD recorder, which has ports for both VHS tape and DVD, allowing you to copy from one to the other in real time. The biggest drawback with DVD burners generally is their complexity. If you have trouble changing the time on the clock radio in your kitchen, don’t even bother with these units. They will drive you crazy.

I bought one last year, but brought it back because it rejected three different brands of DVD-R discs, despite the manual’s claim that they would work. Recently I purchased a slightly more upscale VHS DVD burner with a built-in hard drive. The hard drive offers greater editing capability, and allows you to make duplicate copies of DVDs (by copying it to hard drive, then back to another disc). This all sounds great in theory but, again, it can be a frustratingly complex process.

The third and best option – if you are not intimidated by computers – is to download video onto your hard drive for editing. You will need a digital video camcorder, a recent computer with plenty of power, and a good consumer-level video editing program. (An analog to DV converter is also an option, but I prefer the camcorder route.) The camcorder should have an ‘AV in’ jack, which allows the transfer of VHS tapes onto the digital video camera, which is then captured to your computer.

Yes, you have to do it twice, but that’s the only downside. From here it’s all fun, because you can edit your video, leaving out the boring stuff, and create DVDs that are actually worth watching. (You will need to back up everything to DVD or external drive for long-term storage because video eats a massive amount of computer memory.) The big difference is the user-friendly interface and intuitive features of video editing software, versus the complexity of stand-alone burners. The best such software is iMovie, but it’s only available for Mac. According to a review in PC magazine, the best Windows-based program is PowerDirector, followed by Ulead and Pinnacle. All retail for less than $100.

Once you’ve had a taste of home editing on a decent program, there is no going back. I used such a system at my place of work to create rough cut tapes, and it was wonderful. I plan to set up a similar system at home, but have to buy a new digital camcorder first. More on this quest in a future column…

Useful links (note: some links may be out of date or expired):


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