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Issue #694: November 8-14, 2020

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Q: I have over 100 hours of video on VHS tapes I want to convert to digital. I have a VHS player and a DVR that can records to either disk or HDD. I have been recording from the VHS tapes to the HDD, doing some minor editing and then burning to disk. I searched your archives and read Issue #298 (Geek Note: I.G.T.M. Issue #298, April 7, 2013) so I know there are easier ways to do this. I know you do not usually recommend specific products, but what features do you recommend I look for? My tapes consist of some original recordings in standard play and copies put onto anthologies/chronologies in extended play, so I may have several copies of an event to sort through. In organizing my tapes I’ve found that the composite tapes do not always have everything in chronological order. So, after I convert to digital, I will need to reorganize individual clips.

 With the ever-changing formats, I am thinking of storing the digital versions on large external hard drives. Is there a particular file format that would be better than others? While I am comfortable with tweaking my computer and using various software, I would prefer something that doesn’t require a lot of effort.  Some videos have already been converted to digital using my DVR’s HDD (Magnavox MDR515/F7). Is there a way I can copy directly from that HDD to my PC or an external HD? I’m not afraid to take the DVR apart, but I’d like an idea of what to do before I do that?

 I read your column regularly in the Northwest Florida Daily News and have enjoyed your Geek Lights on the Corner for many years. Thank you so much for the joy you bring to the community!

 – Craig B.
Niceville, Florida

A: Wow, Craig, that’s a lot of ground to cover in one issue!  Nevertheless, I’m going to use a bit of column space to say “Thanks” for the compliments on my light show.  You can rest assured that despite COVID-19, work is in progress to bring Season 13 to you this year.  Since you live so close, consider joining us for one of our upcoming Community Build Days in the next few weeks.

I’m going to divide and conquer the major points of your question.  First, the matter of the mechanism for transfer.  If you didn’t want to downmix and perform complex editing, the VHS/DVR combo that you already have would seem to be a great choice.  That’s not to say that the device is incapable of these functions – they just may not be as comprehensive as you want.  You should refer to the owner’s manual for complete instructions.  If you don’t have a copy, you can get one at TinyURL.com/IGTM-0694

There is a host of other options available that will perform the digitization for you, and give you direct access to the resultant files to edit as you see fit.  These devices usually connect via a USB port, and then provide attachment for the RCA-style cables common to most VCRs.  I have a nice little box that I bought to grab HDMI output from one PC onto a second PC, for use in production of live online media broadcasts, and it came with an adapter to connect it to a VCR.  This unit also has its own USB host port built-in, so I can plug in any USB-connected data storage device.  With the push of a button, it digitizes whatever is coming into its input, and stores it on the USB device, all without even being connected to a PC.  Couldn’t be simpler.  Search places like Amazon for “video capture card” and make sure the one you select supports analog inputs.

As far as file format goes, I wouldn’t have the slightest idea in what format your existing DVR stores its files.  For that reason alone, trying to access the data this way seems like a losing proposition to me.  Even in the unlikely event that they are in a common file format, you yourself pointed out that you’re likely to have to disassemble the machine to get at the hard drive.  I think you’re better off with a stand-alone frame grabber like I mentioned above.  Common formats like .mpg, or .mp4 are good choices.

As for long-term storage, please refer to some of my past articles on data archiving.  A storage device has yet to be invented that is 100% reliable over the long haul.  Once you’ve gone to all the time and effort to get your media library converted to digital, choose wisely how you archive it.

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