You've got VHS tapes of your favorite TV shows, little Billy's first steps or that grade school football game where a linebacker accidentally plowed into the group of cheerleaders. These are videos you'd like to have for a long time, but degradation from viewing or from sitting on the shelf is unpreventable. A VHS tape has an estimated life span of 15 years, and is fast being replaced by new technologies like DVD.
Assuming a perfect world, DVDs are projected to last 100 years or more. They can be copied and recopied without any quality loss. Blank DVDs are cheap - under one dollar each if purchased in bulk. Watching DVDs doesn't wear them out. Any wear and tear is due to human mistakes - handle them carefully and don't scratch them, and they'll last three times longer than Ozzy Osbourne's career.
There are two popular techniques for DVD archiving for the home user.
One technique is to use a computer as the record-and-create device. This allows editing, special effects, audio tracks, subtitles and other effects to be placed on the finished DVD. But it requires lots of time, money and a powerful PC. Details are here.
A second technique is to purchase a device specifically designed to create DVDs from a video source (like a VHS tape). These DVD-recorders are very easy to use, are comparatively cheaper, but don't have as many special effects options as the computer.
Unless you're a real computer geek or a multimedia enthusiast, go with the second option for cost and simplicity. A DVD-recording device allows fast and easy DVD creation, which is the goal when archiving our old VHS tapes. You also get bonuses like being able to record from TV to DVD.
Recommended VHS to DVD recording equipment
Panasonic DMR-E75VS Recorder ($350)
Blank TDK DVD-R disks 50-pack ($40)
Permanent markers for labeling DVDs ($3)
Painless and quick, this recommended equipment will give you everything you need to convert your VHS tapes to DVDs. Panasonic's recorder instructions could have been organized better, but they are detailed and extensive. Panasonic generally has good tech support.
Note that this recorder will not record some retail purchased movies. This is because most store-bought VHS and DVD movies come programmed with copy-protection schemes, frustratingly preventing home users from copying material they already own, even for archival reasons. This is not a problem with the equipment, but a poorly defended law: Send complaints to the Motion Picture Association of America and the US Congress for passing the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
Many years from now, after the word "tape" applies only to Scotch and Duct, we'll have to worry about DVD conversion. Then I'll be writing about transferring to HoloVideoVirtualCube or another impressive sounding format. Until then, get those important VHS tapes converted. Whether you watch them or not, the clock is ticking.
I've had readers tell me that VHS to DVD is well and good, but what about those interested in converting vinyl records or cassette to CD?
Essentially, you plug your turntable or cassette output to your PC audio input. Then you record your audio using the PC. Then you use your PC to create an audio CD of the audio you just recorded.
The things you need are:
Interface cables to plug your turntable or cassette in to your PC.
PC software to record the music. You can try-before-you-buy with the recording software in the link above, but I prefer completely-free-no-strings-attached software if available. Audacity is one that fits the bill. You can also use software like Popfix to remove pops and clicks and hisses from vinyl recordings. See Audacity support questions and answers at the Audacity Q&A.
A CD recorder on your PC. This recorder should also come with software allowing you to create music CDs from sound files.
Learn more about vinyl and cassette conversions.
I just bought a new Dell Dimension E310 and it has a DVD burner in it. I really wanted to give each of the kids some of their old movies on DVD, but if its over my head I need to know it now! What else do i need? Is there anything else I should look at?
You seemed to really lean toward the "purchase a machine" method when you wrote this article - how do you feel about it now? I really don't want to buy a machine, even if its only a couple hundred. I was hoping this PC would do the job FOR me. Let me know what you think - ok? Thanks!
I can't tell you if the Dell you purchased will do the job, at least not without a little more information.
It has a DVD burner, so you're halfway there - you can take video and burn it to disk. Now we just need to get the video on your PC.
If this is a "multimedia" PC, we may have what we need. Specifically, look at the video card. The video card is what your monitor plugs into - it handles all video going in and out of your machine. In this case, you need a video card with a "RCA video input", "video input", "video capture", or something specifically designed to record external video (like a VCR). What you'd do is hook your VCR to this special input, press "play" on the VCR, and press "record" on the computer. Then burn a DVD from the resulting video.
I know you wanted to have your PC do everything for you, but most PCs don't do everything! Or, if you want them to do everything, you'll need to take that into account when purchasing, because a "standard PC" probably won't have the video input card you need.
At this point, unless you're pretty comfortable with the process and have specialized equipment (like a multimedia video card) and software available, I'd still recommend the hardware solution. It's been a while since I first wrote this article, and I'd still recommend the Panasonic unit. I've converted literally hundreds of VHS tapes to DVD with it, and (apart from user error) the device has worked perfectly the whole time.
I have 3 or 4 old VHS tapes that have videos of my daughter growing up that are now about 15 years. I read your column saying that old tapes like that will deteriorate and should be transferred onto a DVD. Great idea, but where could I get them done without costing an arm and a leg? I hear if is very expensive - any suggestions?
If you don't have enough tapes to justify a hardware solution, your best bet is to use a transfer service that charges per tape. Here are a couple of options. Keep in mind they charge per tape, so when you get to the point where you're converting 10 to 15 tapes you've spent as much money as you would on a home conversion system.
1) http://www.homemoviedepot.com - These guys say they do VHS, but their order form only allows for reel-to-reel conversions. Call them to figure out the right ordering process.
You recommended a Panasonic DMR-DMR-E75VS to do the job. Looking for that unit today on Panasonic's web site it appears it is no longer available. Currently I see on their web site a unit DMR-EZ47VK, would this be a comparable unit?
Click the Panasonic E75VS link you find above on this web page. That will take you to a listing of resellers who still sell the product, even if Panasonic no longer sell it.
However, if you'd rather buy direct from Panasonic, then yes, the DMR-EZ47VK does indeed look like a comparable product. While I haven't had experience with it myself, it does seem to do the same things as the DMR-E75VS, and even has some newer improved features (like creating video slideshows from digital camera memory sticks).