Oh, how they mock you. They took over your family room, then your garage. Now, the bulky things are eating up every spare inch of bookshelf, collecting dust and crowding out everything else you own. Face it: Your old VHS tapes are too analog for their own good.
You need, somehow, to turn those ancient videos into DVDs. Lucky for you, it's never been easier to digitize. You can cart your tapes to a shop that will convert them for you, or, if you're feeling ambitious, invest in computer hardware and software that enables you to transfer your media at home. Here's how to do it:
HAND 'EM OVER. If you have only a few tapes worth saving, taking them to a conversion shop is probably the most economical option. Dozens of stores in the D.C. area transfer VHS tapes to DVD, including Penn Camera, with locations in the District, Maryland and Virginia (www.penncamera.com); Saah Video in Rockville (www.saahvideo.com); Stage 2 A/V Productions in Bethesda (www.stage2.com); and Spectra PhotoVideo in Vienna (www.spectraphotovideo.com). Prices start around $30 per disc (less for duplicates), and turnaround time can be as short as a couple of days (or even the same day), depending how many tapes you want to transfer.
DO IT YOURSELF. If you've got a whole library of tapes -- and aren't too tech-phobic -- you may want to invest in your own conversion hardware and software. Yes, this requires bigger bucks up front, but in the long run, the goods more than pay for themselves.
To get started, you'll need a converter to connect a VCR to your computer, as well as video-editing software. One relatively cheap package for PC owners is Pinnacle Studio MovieBox DV, which sells for $250 and comes with both software and a converter. (For computers without an IEEE-1394 connector, or FireWire port, use MovieBox USB, $200).
MovieBox's converter also works with Macs, but its software doesn't (don't ask). So for Macintosh users, things are a bit more complicated. The cheapest Mac video-editing software (such as iMovie, included in the $49 iLife software collection) can't handle VHS-to-DVD conversions. Apple Computer spokesman Jerry Hsu therefore suggests buying a Mac-compatible converter (such as the Datavideo DAC-100, which costs just under $200) and hooking it up to a Mac loaded with Final Cut Express software (about $300).
GET FANCY. After your VCR is hooked up to your converter, all you have to do is start importing -- a process that digitizes your footage and stores it in your computer. Then, once your data is in digital form, it's time to have fun: With "DVD authoring" software, you can completely geek out by creating your own "special features," including scene selections and subtitles. If you've already got the hardware and just need basic software, you can find what you need for less than $100. For about $80, try Roxio's Easy Media Creator 7 for PCs or its Toast 6 Titanium software for Macs. Another Mac option: Apple's basic iDVD software, which comes with iLife (included with new Macs).
BURN, BABY, BURN. Finally, to get your digitized content into DVD form, you need to "burn" it to a recordable disc. Don't worry about all the DVD formats (DVD-R, DVD+R, etc.) -- they're part of a big tech-industry war you don't want to know about. To keep it simple, just be sure you have a burner that supports the most common formats.
Many new computers come with DVD burners, but if yours doesn't have one, you can buy an external unit. A good choice for PC users is Pioneer's DVR-107, which usually goes for less than $150. For a model that's compatible with both Macs and PCs, try the LaCie D2 Dual 8X DVD+/-RW, which costs about $200 and includes DVD authoring software.
Oh, and don't forget to buy blank discs that are compatible with your unit (ask a salesperson if you're not sure). Botch that step and it's almost as embarrassing as not being able to program a VCR.
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