HOWTO: Convert VHS Tapes to DVD
Let's face it... your old VHS tapes with treasured family memories won't last forever. Even if the VCR doesn't eventually jam and eat the tape, a VHS recording uses fragile magnetic tape that degrades over time, whether you watch it or not. Don't count on those VHS tapes (or your VCR player) lasting forever -- convert your VHS tapes to DVD format today, and save those memories for posterity...
How to Convert VHS to DVD
You have several options to when converting VHS to DVD. Let's look at them one by one and then you'll be ready to choose the one that's best for you.
If you own a combination DVD and VCR player/recorder, it's almost painless to pop in the VHS tape and a blank DVD, press a few buttons and directly record the old tape to a shiny new DVD disc. A slight variation on this method is to connect your VCR to a separate DVD recorder unit.
If you don't need to modify the video (editing, adding chapters and custom menus), this method is the easiest and most direct. If you don't own a machine that can play VHS tapes, don't despair -- they still make them! You can find the Toshiba Multiformat DVD Recorder/VCR Combo (Model DVR620) at Amazon, Best Buy or Walmart for under $200, and I'm sure you can find used VHS/DVD recorders on Ebay for even less.
Using a Video Camera
Just about any digital video camera (camcorder) can serve as the tool to help you copy directly from your old VCR into a digital format. Usually it just requires hooking up a cable (may need to be purchased separately) from the VCR's Video Out port (the red, white, yellow connectors) to the Video In port on the camera and pressing a few buttons. Each camera works a bit differently, so follow the instructions in your video camera's manual for recording from an auxiliary input. This is a slow process because it is a re-recording of what is on the tape to the new DVD format, but it is fairly simple and requires no additional hardware if you already own a video camera.
Using a Black Box
Special devices like the DVD Xpress Video Converter from ADS Tech make it easy to transfer directly from VHS tape to a DVD disc. Basically, this is an external device that takes the place of the video camera in the previous scenario. You connect the VCR to the device with a standard red/white/yellow cable and then connect the device to your computer with a USB cable. These devices may be more cost effective than a video camera and a little easier to use. This unit is no longer manufactured, but you can still find them for sale online.
Another option is the VHS to DVD Deluxe from Honest Technology. This is a hardware software combo that comes with a "Vidbox" video capture device that supports VHS, camcorder, Beta, and 8mm tapes. The included software offers an "Easy mode" for one-click VHS to DVD transfer, and "Advanced mode" which allows for editing, removal of unwanted scenes, transition effects, and easy uploading to YouTube. The product is listed for $79 on the vendor's website, but I found it for $49 at Amazon.
What Hardware and Software Do I Need?
Most computers sold in the last few years will have the basic system requirements needed for dealing with the digital version of your VHS recording. You should have 1GB or more of RAM and at least 10GB of hard drive space available.
Oh, and a DVD burner of course, and a stack of blank DVD discs. Some computers have combination CD/DVD drives, which may or may not be able to burn a DVD. Don't assume that because you can burn a CD, you can also burn a DVD. Look for the "DVD-RW" logo on the drive door, or consult the documentation if you're not sure. If you need a DVD burner, external USB-connected models are easier to install than internal CD/DVD drives.
Once you capture the video on your computer, you can use movie editing programs such as Windows MovieMaker, QuickTime or iMovie (Mac OS) to manipulate the video as desired, add subtitles, chapters, etc. Make sure the DVD software and/or recorder is set to "finalize" the disc. A disc that's not finalized can be played on most computers, but not on standard DVD players.
If you run into trouble transferring a copyrighted movie, try using a "stabilizer" such as the Sima CT-200 (also sold as the Clarifier SX by Facet Video.) Check out VideoHelp.com for more video editing software and tutorials with wonderful step-by-step instructions.
Here's one thing to consider: you might not need the physical DVD at all. You can convert VHS to digital format and save the video to a hard drive. You can view the video on your computer, or store the digital version as a backup of the video tape.
The Low-Tech Solution
A final option for those who don't care to dirty their hands with wires, bits and bytes is a service bureau. Many services offer to receive your VHS tapes by mail and return them with a DVD or Blu-ray equivalent. One example is Home Movie Depot. For around $15 per VHS tape (more for damaged tapes) they can walk you through the preparation process and help you get the tapes to them for conversion. They also offer an "Easy Box" option, which lets you fill a large UPS, USPS Priority, or FedEx box with up to 25 VHS tapes and they will transfer it all to DVD for a flat rate of $299.
Another option for VHS to digital transfer is iMemories. Their regular price is $14.99 per videotape, but they're offering a "limited time special" of $9.99 per tape. The catch is that you don't get a DVD. Instead, they store your videos online, where you can view them. You can burn a DVD, but that's another $10 charge. WalMart has a similar service which charges $19.96 for 2 videotapes. You do get a DVD, plus online viewing and sharing capability.
How Long Do DVDs Last?
All that I've read indicates the expected longevity of CD/DVD discs is anywhere from 2 to 250 years. That's a pretty wide spread, and the most likely reason is that optical discs have only been in common use as archival media for a decade or so. DVD discs were invented in 1995, so there simply are no 50, 100 or 200 year-old DVDs to support the notion that they will last for decades or centuries. They might, under the right conditions, but we don't know for sure. Here's what some experts are telling us:
The U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology's 2005 report on CD/DVD Care & Handling offers information on the subject of CD/DVD life expectancy. In that report, they say: "...there is consensus that, under recommended storage conditions, CD-R and DVD-R discs should have a life expectancy of 100 to 200 years or more. CD-RW, DVD-RW (writable) discs should have a life expectancy of 25 years or more."
However, the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration has a report called Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Optical Storage Media which says "CD/DVD experiential life expectancy is 2 to 5 years even though published life expectancies are often cited as 10 years, 25 years, or longer." They discuss various factors which can impact life expectancy and recommend that you test your media every two years to make sure it's still readable.
The useful life span of CD and DVD discs is affected by temperature, humidity, exposure to light and day-to-day use. My advice is to buy quality name-brand discs, keep your DVDs in a cool, dry place, avoid direct exposure to sunlight, and hopefully they will last for a decade or more.
Should You Keep Your VHS Tapes?
There's one interesting wrinkle here. Transferring your VHS tapes to DVD is a good idea for several reasons. Aside from the fact that the tapes are fragile, you may not always have a VCR on which to play those tapes. But it's quite possible that your old VHS tapes will outlive the DVD discs to which you are transferring your family memories. Bob Greene, a contributor to this website, gave me the following information, which I think is excellent advice:
There is another, huge advantage to tape. If a portion of the recording becomes damaged or otherwise inaccessible, the rest of the tape is still readable, in most cases. Not so for digital discs -- if a byte fails in the most critical area, the entire thing can be lost.
Keep your family memories longer on VCR / audio tape, and store the tape under best archival conditions, away from heat, humidity, strong magnetic fields and sunlight UV. Maintain a tape player (for the format used) in operating condition, and protect the player with storage under best conditions possible. If you plan for the long term, look into the condition of rubber pressure wheels and belts-- these must not "dry out" and crack.
The ideal strategy is to copy the tape to optical disc, archive the tape, and use the disc as source material. Check the disc yearly for problems, and re-record a disc from the tape source, if necessary."
So YES... keep those VHS tapes around for as long as is practical. You may need them again. Have you converted your VHS tapes to DVD format? Share your experience and tips you've learned here, by posting a comment or question below...
Posted by Bob Rankin on 6 May 2013
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