I’ve got two or three plastic bins in my basement, packed with hundreds VHS tapes. Among a lot of junk (Simpsons episodes, SNL reruns) lies some of the first video shorts I’ve made… um… two decades ago. So I spent hours this morning researching ways to convert them, and it comes down to a few complex choices with big tradeoffs:
- Ship your tape to a service provider (I found AMB Media Services via a Google text ad). For the price of $5 to $9, you can transfer VHS, VHS-C, Mini-DV, or Hi-8/8mm tapes. If you only have a few tapes, and want a low-maintenance solution (because your VHS still blinks 12:00), this is your best option. But when you add the shipping (about $9), converting a few tapes will cost more than buying a device. Some pharmacy and photo shops offer this service, and maybe shipping is less expensive.
- Use a camcorder with an analog input. Then you can connect your ol’ VHS to your camcorder and record it digitally. Next, you simply convert your digital tape to your computer as you would any new footage. Unfortunately my high-end Canon HV20 doesn’t have analog in. But I used an earlier camcorder to convert and upload “Woodblock Doll,” “Mint and Treats,” and “Attack of the Killer Slinky.”
- Buy a “Black Box” Device. Pinnacle’s Dazzle was the first device I bought to convert my Mini-DVs to digital footage more than 8 years ago. I researched the space, and paid maybe $200 for the device and editing software. Now there’s an AV-to-digital converter that’s selling for less than $50. There are other “black box” solutions like the Canopus ADVC-1110, but it’s pricey at $200 plus. Here’s one of the highest-rated VHS/DVD devices on Amazon (the Sony VRDMC5 DVDirect DVD Recorder). This Sony device got a favorable review from PC Magazine as well as CrunchGear, but a few customers have complained about audio problems.
- DVD/VHS Combination Units. Wired’s “Gadget Review” compares a number of other solutions, that include simple consumer decks that have both DVD and VHS. Some of these allow you to dub a VHS to a DVD… but this appears oddly complicated. Further, you’ll need software to “rip” that DVD signal to something you can edit, compress and upload. This ‘DVD/VHS combo option leaves you with a full DVD copy of your tape without all the editing and manual work.
- Additional Options and Sources. In researching this post, I did find a nice review of options by “AskBobFranklin.” And two reviews worth mentioning: Video converter software compared and Video editing software compared. I also like this post by SignVideo that describes the method and gives you tips on preserving the quality.
So what’s the bottom line? I’d go with a service (online or at a local store) if you just have a few tapes. But if you have six or more then it’s much more affordable to get a device. While writing this post, I bought the Pinnacle Dazzle DVD Recorder ($44 at Amazon.com). Then I realized that it had a few bad reviews on Amazon, and… oh… it’s not Mac compatible. D’oh. So now maybe I’ll spring for the Sony VRDMC5. Or maybe I’ll tell wifeofnalts it’s on my birthday-wish list. The black box is convenient but it’s another darned device that has limited functionality beyond this purpose.
Here’s my description of “the perfect device,” but I doubt it exists:
- It costs less than $200, and has a VHS deck and a DVD burner.
- The DVD is playable on a regular DVD player, but it also automatically chunks the video into segments that can be viewed via thumbnails. Or you can set it to chunk in 5/10-minute increments.
- You’d store the entire DVD as a safeguard against the deteriorating VHS tapes (although obviously burned DVD are far from permanent archives). Still, I suppose we’d actually watch our wedding tape more than once a decade if it was on DVD.
- But the DVD would also allow for easy exporting in the form of Quicktime, .mov or .mp4 files… so that you don’t need to use software to “rip” the entire DVD, convert, edit and upload. Too many steps!
Would appreciate any feedback if this device does exist. I’d love to dust off some of the videos in the basement, like these vintage Nalts clips (see “more” for details).
- My meeting Chevy Chase when he was on the set of “Fletch 2” in New Orleans. He took my camera and pointed it at his fake hairpiece and teeth, as I wave euphorically in the background.
- Tracey Ullman asking me when I would turn off the camera as I got footage of her doing an MTV segment on Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras. At this point the Simpsons was still a segment of her show.
- My first video ever — a stop-action karate thing that featured my classmates, still in their uniforms after school. Oh it’s bad. But it will give hope to aspiring viral-video geniuses.
- A highschool play (“On the Razzle”) I was in with Mo Rocca. He was a better actor than me and has subsequently done some decent projects like “The Jon Stewart Show.” But he has fewer than 500 subscribers on YouTube, so eat your heart out Mo.
- My musical number in a 1986 production of “West Side Story” (I was originally cast as the understudy to Tony, but when I stepped down and was given the pitiful role of “Mouthpiece”). Still, I did a mean “Officer Krupke,” and was probably in the best physical shape of my life. But it will become clear to viewers why I decided to not pursue acting.
- Clips of my grandfather having ice cream (okay, that’s more for me than YouTube).
- Some footage of me doing a “sites around New Orleans,” only to discover I was standing in a pile of red ants… cursing ensued with “you can turn off the camera now, a-hole.”