Put Your VHS Tapes on DVDMoving your video collection to DVD can be straightforward, painless, and--if you pick the right strategy--affordable.
Helmut Kobler, special to Digital World
Maybe you're sitting with shelves full of home movies recorded with a camcorder. Or perhaps you have a stash of favorite TV episodes, movies, and concerts saved to VHS tapes. Whatever it is you thought to preserve for posterity, chances are you--like many of us--have a slew of treasured videotapes you've accumulated over the years.
Trouble is, analog videotapes degrade with time and repeated play. Plus, VCR tapes are just not very convenient to keep around, as they take up a lot of space to store. And a tape's linear nature requires endless fast-forwarding and rewinding, making it tedious to use. And then there's the extra gear you have to keep around--playing VHS or MiniDV tapes means always having a VCR nearby, or having to dig out your camcorder from the closet, connect it up to the TV, and use its clunky controls to search through the tape. Wouldn't it be easier if you could put your cherished videos on DVD?
The good news: Transferring videos from tape to DVD can be relatively easy. You can either pay a service to do it for you, or just go ahead and do it yourself--provided you've got the right equipment.
But before you embark on your conversion odyssey, consider these two caveats. First, store-bought tapes of Hollywood films with built-in copy protection generally cannot be copied to disc (at least not without going through enough hoops and techno-witchcraft to make the effort not worth it).
Second, when you copy from tape to DVD, don't expect your resulting disc to look as crisp as your store-bought DVDs. Even at the maximum quality mode, DVD video is highly compressed, so you might lose something in the image quality (particularly with fast-moving sporting events). Generally, though, the quality differences are subtle, and in some cases, the quality of a DVD copy can substantially match your taped originals (depending on how you created that copy; more on this shortly).
Putting your videotapes on DVD can be fairly straightforward, and doesn't have to cost an arm and a leg. Read on to learn more about your options.
DVDs by Mail
The easiest way to convert a tape to DVD is to let a professional do it. This way, you don't have to buy any new equipment, consult an owner's manual, or educate yourself about the nuances of tape-to-DVD transfers.
To find a company that offers this service, simply do a Google search for "tape to DVD." You'll find a number of companies that accept your VHS or MiniDV tapes by mail; some days later, you'll get a DVD copy back, along with your original tapes. Some companies may even be able to transfer old 8mm or 16mm movies you have lying around. Additional services can also include merging multiple tapes into a single DVD (for instance, a short collection of family videos), and creating themed navigation menus and splashy cover graphics for the DVD's case.
If you're not keen on letting your tape out of your sight, you might have an alternative, depending on where you live. YesVideo, which offers its YesDVD tape conversion service by mail, has partnered with Best Buy to provide this service at selected Best Buy locations nationwide (go here for an up-to-date list of stores).
Regardless of whether you do a conversion in person or by mail, it's going to cost you. Expect to pay in the neighborhood of $25 to have a single VHS or DV tape turned into a DVD (not including your postage costs). And while that's fine for an occasional tape transfer, it can get fairly expensive if you have a lot of tapes to convert, or if you want custom features such as special menus added to your videos.
Converting Tapes By Using a DVD Recorder
If you're planning to convert lots of tapes, a DVD recorder is good bet. You'll have a higher up-front cost--DVD recorders start at about $250--but you'll make your money back after you convert as few as eight tapes. Plus, when you're not converting your tapes, you can record TV shows to DVD.
As with videotape, you can record DVD video at different quality levels. And as with videotape, the higher the quality mode you select, the less video you can fit on a DVD. For instance, a DVD can hold about an hour's worth of video if you want to record at top-notch quality (which noticeably beats the sharpness and detail you're accustomed to getting on VHS tapes). You can also stretch that recording time out to 6 or 8 hours, but expect your video to look more smudgy or blurry, with some visible artifacts during high-motion sequences.
Of course, if you want to preserve family videos or other important events, we recommend burning only an hour of video to disk. Recordable DVD discs are cheap--less than $1 each--so there's little to gain from saving a few discs, and you'll appreciate the higher image quality down the road, especially when it comes to high-motion scenes like soccer matches or gymnastics.
Picking the Right DVD Recorder
With a veritable smorgasbord of DVD recorders to choose from, how should you pick one? Some have advanced features, such as VCR Plus compatibility (which easily sets an automatic timer for recording TV shows off the air), programming guides, on-disc editing, and even a hard drive. Others cater to a specialized audience, with combo units that can handle multiple tasks. (For more general tips on how to pick a DVD recorder, look here.)
If you want to copy a lot of VHS tapes to DVD, your easiest--and best--bet is to buy a DVD recorder that also has a four-head VCR built-in. All you have to do is slip a tape into the VCR, put a blank DVD into the recorder, and then press one button to copy the tape to DVD (the DVD is copied in real-time, so it takes as long to copy as the tape takes to play). If this no-hassle approach sounds appealing, then you have a number of DVD recorders to consider--for instance, the RCA DRC-8300N, the Sony RDR-VX500, the Philips DVDR600VR, or the GoVideo VR3930--all in the $300 to $400 range.
Likewise, if you want to make a DVD from MiniDV tapes you recorded with a camcorder, consider a DVD recorder that has a FireWire port. Recorders with that feature, such as the GoVideo R6740, can connect directly to your camcorder. You then just slip the MiniDV tape into the camera, and your DVD recorder will be ready to start copying. Your recorder can even fast-forward and rewind the tape, making it easy to find the right spot before recording.
Of course, any DVD recorder can record from another source via an analog connection. In fact, any no-frills recorder, such as the GoVideo R6740 or Panasonic DMR-E55S, can use standard composite-video or S-Video cables to connect the recorder's inputs to the A/V outputs on a VCR or camcorder you already have. You'll get better video quality if you can use an S-Video cable to carry the video signal, or better yet, higher-end "component" cables if your DVD recorder and video deck have them (most don't, though).
With the DVD recorder and source deck tethered, you'll play a tape and record the tape's signal on the DVD recorder. But this won't be quite as easy as pressing a single button--you'll have to fiddle with the tracking controls and inputs, and be sure to coordinate the playback and record just right.
Know Your Media
Not all DVD recorders work with all of the media types, so make sure that whatever media you buy is going to work with your device. For instance, DVD-R discs and DVD+R are both 4.7GB write-once discs that are commonly used for video; however, most DVD recorders designed to work with DVD+R won't be able to record video to a DVD-R. Only a few recorders can currently handle both the +R and-R formats; check the specs on your recorder before you buy it if this flexibility is important to you. Sony and Lite-On, for example, both have products in their lines capable of handling both formats.
As you might expect from write-once media, +R and-R discs can't be erased; but you can still add video to them in multiple sessions until you have filled the available space. Once you've finished recording to a disc, you'll need to finalize it so it can play reliably in other DVD players. Rewritable DVD media, including DVD-RW, DVD+RW, and DVD-RAM, is more like videotape, in that it should allow you to record, re-record, edit, and erase video about 1000 times (DVD-RAM media is rated for 100,000 rewrites, however). The degree to which you can edit on-disc will depend upon the capabilities of the DVD recorder you've purchased. Look for a model that supports video recording mode on rewritable discs to take the most advantage of these features.
No matter which disc format a DVD recorder uses, the Achilles' heel of any recordable DVD is that it may not play in all DVD players on the market. DVD+Rs and DVD-Rs are said to be compatible with about 65 percent of DVD players. Just because a player is new doesn't mean it will play all discs (especially the rewritable variety). DVD-RAM is the least compatible of the rewritable media. Only a relative handful of players support it, along with some DVD-ROM drives and burners from Toshiba, Panasonic, LG, and Pioneer--so you may occasionally find that a disc plays fine in your DVD player but won't play in a friend's. Of course, all rewritable discs will play just fine in their recorders.
Customizing Your Videos
Most DVD recorders give you some basic editing tools, so you can record only the video you want to a DVD, instead of a whole tape. For instance, many units work like JVC's DR-MV1S, which is a DVD recorder/VHS combo unit that starts recording from tape with a single button click. When you get to a part in your tape that you don't want to record, you can just press the JVC's pause button, then fast-forward your videotape to the next good spot, and again press the pause button to restart recording. With this approach, you can easily edit together only the content you want from your original tape.
All DVD recorders can add basic navigation controls to the DVDs you create. For starters, the recorder will automatically whip up a menu for your disc, so you can pick what program to watch, just as you would from a professionally created Hollywood movie disc.
If you like the idea of having snazzy menus for your DVDs, you'll probably be disappointed by the menus your recorder creates. Most have a no-frills feel to them. However, some models, such as Panasonic's DMR-E95H-S let you change the backgrounds and choose from among several menu template designs.
To navigate within the main menu, all recorders automatically create a program title every time you stop a recording. Think of that title as a self-contained piece of video, such that your child's birthday party might be one title, and your best friend's wedding would be another title, on the same disc. To help make these menus as informative as possible, most recorders let you name your titles by keying in letters using your remote control and an on-screen interface.
Most recorders display titles as a thumbnail picture taken from each title's video, so you can identify the title in a visual way. More advanced players let you actually pick the thumbnail image, while others simply use the first frame from a title's video, which isn't very useful if your video starts on a black frame, or the tail end of a TV commercial.
Every recorder we've seen can also insert chapter marks, or bookmarks, within a program title. From within the Options menu, you can set the increments for chapter marks (typically, every 5 or 10 minutes).
Burning DVDs on Your PC
Already have a DVD burner on your PC? Well, you can use it to convert your videos, too--instead of spending a few hundred dollars on a DVD recorder. Going the PC route is a more complicated and potentially more time-consuming process. But it also gives you finer control over the DVDs you create. For instance, it's arguably faster to edit video on a PC (it's easier to omit the scenes you don't want), and you can also add slick, animated menus that mimic a Hollywood production.
To go this route, you'll need a PC with integrated video inputs or a video-capture card (such as a TV tuner card like ATI's TV Wonder) in order to capture video from a VCR. If you prefer not to open your PC to add a peripheral, buy an external video-capture device that connects via USB 2.0. (For example, Plextor's ConvertX PX-TV402U PVR or ADS Technologies' DVD Xpress both provide analog A/V inputs to capture your video.)
If you're working with a camcorder and MiniDV tapes, your computer only needs a FireWire port. Just use a FireWire cable to attach your camcorder to your PC, and you're ready to capture video.
If you're connecting from a VCR (or other video source), then use one of the aforementioned methods to output the video signal from your VCR to the computer. To do so, you can use either the capture software that came with your computer, the DVD-burning software that came with your DVD burner, or a dedicated video editing program such as Microsoft's Movie Maker 2.1 or Ulead's VideoStudio.
Once you've digitized your video on your hard drive, you'll need to use DVD authoring software (such as Sonic's MyDVD or Ahead's Nero Vision Express) to build the menus for your DVD-to-be, and to also convert your digital video into MPEG-2, the compressed video format that all DVDs use. (Depending on the speed of your computer, this conversion process can take longer than the length of your video itself--for instance, an hour of video might take 3 hours to convert to MPEG-2. If you want faster results, some video-capture peripherals, such as the ConvertX PX-M402U mentioned above, can accelerate the conversion of video to MPEG-2).
Professional authoring applications such as Adobe's Encore DVD ($549) can do the trick, and also let you spruce up your DVDs with many advanced features, such as subtitles and commentary tracks. But if you don't require these whiz-bang features, then consider more affordable software, such as Ulead's DVD MovieFactory ($80), or Sonic's MyDVD Studio ($70). These products are designed with ease of use in mind, but they offer dozens of polished menu designs to choose from, including themed menus for such occasions as holidays, birthday celebrations, and travel videos.
After you've taken the necessary steps to prepare your video, you can burn the video to DVD. Currently available PC DVD burners can typically record to both the- and + formats. Fast, 16X drives can burn your video in as little as 6 minutes. Internal drives cost around $120, while external models cost a little extra.
But if using your computer to burn DVDs sounds like a lot of work, then remember your other option: Just buy a DVD recorder and attach it to your TV. The DVD recorder is all about ease of setup and operation, while using your computer gives you fine control over your DVD's menus and content. Either way, you'll be able to move your home videos out of the stone age and onto DVD in no time.
Helmut Kobler is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.