A dusty shelf of home videotapes of your child's early years sparks an idea: If you transferred them to DVD, you might actually watch them once in a while. At minimum you'd be preserving them for posterity on a more stable medium. So how hard is it -- and how expensive?
The easiest way is to have pros do the job for you. Many local retailers can send your tape to an outfit called YesVideo. About two weeks and $25 later, you get the tape back along with a DVD-R copy of it. You also get three short "music videos" that the company's software edits from your footage and synchs to mood music in three separate styles we might as well call Awestruck, Upbeat and Dreamy.
The cuts do tend to match the rhy-thm of the tunes, but on my discs the system often chose shots that I probably wouldn't have, including accidental close-ups of my Gore-Tex jacket's green sleeve and the back of a fellow whale-watcher's noggin. But you can always watch the original footage in its entirety -- up to two hours per disc. I found the quality virtually indistinguishable from the original.
If you want to do the transfer yourself, you need a DVD burner -- one that comes in or attaches to your computer, or a separate stand-alone unit that looks like a regular DVD player. Then you need to hook up the VCR to the recording device. With a stand-alone unit, that's easy; you simply run a yellow video cable and red-and-white audio cables from the VCR's "out" jacks to the DVD recorder's "in" jacks. The cable-phobic may prefer the $500 GoVideo VR4940 DVD Recorder+VCR, which puts DVD and VHS recorders in one box. Put a tape in the slot, a blank disc in the drive, press a few buttons, and off you go.
Problems with using PCs
You can do more if you use a computer, but things get trickier. A few PCs, like those based on Microsoft's Windows Media Center platform, come with standard video inputs. Most don't. In that case you may want a device like the $100 DVD Xpress from ADS Tech that can send video from your VCR up a USB cable to your PC. Many digital camcorders can also forward video from VCRs directly to the computer through a FireWire or USB 2.0 connection; others require you to produce a digital videotape as an intermediate step.
Do-it-yourself is cheap -- name-brand DVD blanks can be had for under $1 -- but it isn't exactly a thrill. No matter how fast the DVD drive claims to be, the process will take at least as long as the tape does to play. You can't fast-forward to speed things up unless you want speeded-up footage on the disc. When the transfer is done, a stand-alone DVD recorder will take a few minutes to "finalize" the disc so that you can play it on most standard DVD players. But with a computer, once you've spent a full hour capturing an hour's worth of recording, the work has just begun. After the video ends up on your hard drive, processing it and getting it to the DVD can take many minutes more, depending on the speed of the computer and drive.
But if you want good-looking menus and titles, computers beat stand-alone recorders. DVD-burning software makes it relatively easy to divide material up and create thumbnails and menus in your choice of fonts and colors; if you take considerable time to edit your video, it will look even better. Editing and titling functions on stand-alone DVD players are bare-bones; the disc menu you get typically has all the esthetics of a Communist-era Russian car.
The dirty little secret of DVD recording: The discs themselves come in five basic flavors, but none is universally compatible with all players. Each has its pluses and minuses, literally. DVD-R and DVD-RW (with a dash or a minus sign) compete with DVD+R and DVD+RW (with a plus sign) in record-once and rerecordable media. DVD-RAM is rerecordable only. While some drives can record in multiple formats, most can record in only one format (plus, dash or RAM). When it comes to playback, there is no sure way of knowing what's going to work. In my experience, the dash R and plus R discs appear to be the most widely compatible with standard players.
I tested the unique GoVideo unit alongside Gateway's budget-price AR-230 DVD recorder. The GoVideo records only dash discs, the $300 Gateway only plus. Both made decent copies of videos at compression ratios that created one- or two-hour discs; four-hour modes were inferior but watchable. Gateway's six-hour mode is too fuzzy to use.
Both units have internal TV tuners and timers, which means that in theory you can use them to record shows just as you did with your old VCR -- at significantly higher quality. But in practice you can't. Neither unit can change the channels on a cable or satellite box, which rules out timer recording unless you get your signal off the air or directly from analog cable.
Even my five-year-old VCR has something called an IR blaster that mimics the infrared codes of a set-top box's remote to change the channel for timed recordings; neither of these DVD recorders does. Too bad, because picture quality can be excellent, and it's virtually impossible to accidentally overwrite old shows. But a disc can run out of room, another reason to covet a TiVo. By the way, trying to record from prerecorded discs and tapes will generally fail.
The Gateway suffers from a perfunctory manual, an awkward remote and a design glitch that can stymie you if you happen to first connect it via its initially disabled component-video outputs, as I did, to a high-definition display. Progressive-scan playback on an HD-ready set was easily the worst I've seen; test patterns jittered on the screen, and those failings were visible in movies, too.
GoVideo's manuals err on the side of too much detail, poorly organized; I still don't understand how to get its rudimentary editing functions for DVD-RW discs to work. The instructions for the all-important "finalizing" process are buried in the middle of the manual--though still better than the nonexistent assistance in Gateway's pamphlet. And compared with my old VCR, this one's output seemed garish and jittery when playing older tapes in worn condition.
The most depressing thing about this exercise is how lousy those old VHS tapes, including commercially produced ones, look in today's DVD and hi-def world. Blotchy color, random glitches and fuzzy resolution come standard and get worse with age. It's a shame a DVD transfer can't somehow make tapes look better. At least it won't make them look worse.
Still, this may not be the best time to buy a stand-alone DVD recorder. Double-layer discs and drives that can handle them are beginning to make their way to market, potentially doubling maximum playing time per disc. Apex Digital and Philips soon will include a version of YesVideo's auto-chaptering software in new DVD recorders. High-definition recorders are already on the market in Japan at stratospheric prices that will inevitably plunge. And over the next couple of years recording is likely to become a function built into every DVD player and computer.
The good news is that we're about to quit ugly old VHS forever. There are some places where analog still beats digital, but video recording is not one of them.