Good-bye, VHS; Hello, DVD

SAN FRANCISCO (09/22/2003) - Blah blah blah. Technology favors the new, the powerful, and the fast. So where does that leave that pile of old VHS videocassettes you have up in the attic? Fortunately, converting your old tapes to digital form allows you to edit them, add music or narration, and output them to DVD, preserving them for the future. You will have your movies in a more compact and easily stored form than VHS--and you'll be able to watch them again and again without worrying that each replay might damage your tape. And digitizing your old videos is easy.

We looked at five video capture devices that make getting your old tapes onto your PC (and then onto a DVD) simple and quick. Using software and a capture device, each of these products, which range in price from US$90 to $450, imports video from your analog camcorder and copies it to your hard drive and then onto a CD or DVD. We evaluated them on all the phases of transferring video from tape to DVD: installing the device, importing the video, selecting a format, editing the video, and saving it to DVD or other media. We also provide some advice on the best way to proceed with these steps.

The dedicated capture devices are great if you have a lot of tape to convert, but there is another option. Many current digital video cameras have analog-in ports that can be used to digitize your old analog videos: Just plug your old camcorder into your DV camera's video-in port, and you can transfer your videos to digital videotape and then onto your PC.

Our hands-on tests of the dedicated capture products revealed one standout: The AVerMedia Inc. DVD EZMaker USB2.0 is the cheapest and simplest product, but it does the job of capturing video well and without fuss, so it's our Best Buy. It works only with fairly new, fast systems, though. The other product that caught our eye was the ATI Technologies Inc. All-In-Wonder 9800 Pro AGP video card, which combines video capture features with a slew of others, including the ability to turn your PC into a personal video recorder. It is expensive, but it's also a state-of-the art 3D graphics card that can deliver high frame rates in 3D games.

One interesting product that wasn't available in time for testing in this roundup was the Hewlett-Packard Co. DVD Movie Writer, which combines an analog capture device and a rewritable DVD drive into one unit; see our review of a preproduction unit.

We used an MPC Computers LLC Millennia 910i desktop with a 3.06-GHz Pentium 4 and 1GB of RAM to see how each device handled our stack of tapes. Our system had two ATA hard drives, which is an ideal configuration for video editing, as we could dedicate one drive to storing the captured video. The size of your hard disks is also important: The more free disk space you have, the more video you can capture. We'd recommend having two drives with at least 40GB each to give you enough room to store and edit your video. Our test system also had USB 2.0 ports that can transfer data much faster than the older USB 1.1 ones. All of the USB products we tried can work with USB 1.1 ports, but the quality of the video suffers, as it has to be more heavily compressed to fit into the smaller bandwidth of USB 1.1.

Alfred Hitchcock once said a good movie is worth the price of admission, the tab for the dinner, and the cost of the babysitter. Good home movies, then, should be worth the expense and effort it takes to digitize them. And you won't even need a babysitter. See, you're saving right there....

Our five video editing devices vary in their interfaces, their capabilities, and their software packages. Four of them are external devices that connect to your PC via USB 2.0 ports: the $90 AVerMedia DVD EZMaker; the $150 Adaptec Inc. VideOh DVD; the $160 ADS Instant DVD; and the sleek, Porsche-designed, $165 Pinnacle Systems Inc. Studio MovieBox USB.

We also tried the high-end $449 ATI All-In-Wonder 9800 Pro, which is the most expensive of the group. Since it is a graphics board that plugs into the AGP slot on your motherboard, the All-In-Wonder 9800 also requires a more involved installation than the other products here. You'll have to hook up this powerhouse to one of your system's power leads (a splitter is included).

Importing Video

The ADS Instant DVD, Adaptec VideOh DVD, and Pinnacle Studio MovieBox USB devices include external breakout boxes that connect to your PC via a USB cable, making it convenient to hook up your camcorder to your PC when you want to capture video. These devices also contain chips that do the hard work of converting analog video to digital, taking some of the strain off the computer. If you're not using a very recent PC, you'll likely want to consider one of these products because video kits with hardware encoding require much less computing horsepower than their software-encoding counterparts. The AVerMedia DVD EZMaker (which relies on the PC to do the encoding) requires a 2-GHz processor or better, and Pinnacle recommends a 500-MHz processor at a minimum for its MovieBox USB.

The ADS USB Instant DVD is bundled with a program called CaptureWiz that gets high marks for smartly combining screen shots of the hardware connections and their corresponding software choices to illustrate the steps to connect your camcorder. The menus show you where to plug in an S-Video cable on the Instant DVD, for example, and which buttons to click in the software to begin capture.

All of the devices with breakout boxes capture audio as well as video through their USB connections, but the AVerMedia and ATI products send the audio signal from the camcorder to the line-in port of your PC's sound card with a provided cable. The All-In-Wonder board has proprietary cables that combine its S-Video connectors with audio into one small, round plug. One connector from the video/audio-out port must be plugged into the line-in port on your sound card.

In our subjective image quality tests, we saw very little difference between the products when capturing MPEG-2 video using the highest possible settings. The cheapest product, the AVerMedia, actually outscored all the others, but it beat out the next best, the Pinnacle, by only a hair. All the products captured good-quality video with accurate colors and smooth movement.

Captured video from your camcorder often has the tendency to be dark and oversaturated, but all of these products allow you to reduce the saturation and increase brightness while capturing. Such tweaking is much quicker during capture than afterwards, although the programs let you do this on previously captured video.

Picking a Format

Video eats amazing amounts of hard drive space, so you may be tempted to try to conserve disk space by capturing at less than the best quality setting. Think twice, though, because once you drop those bits, you can't get them back. You should import your video at a high enough bit rate that you won't have low resolution and blocky, choppy video when you create a DVD.

We encoded a video clip at the three quality settings offered by the Pinnacle Studio 8 application. For a snapshot of the results, see the table "Video: The Eyeball Test" below. The bottom line is that the lower quality settings let you fit more on your drive, but the video looks awful.

All five of these products offer preset quality options, which are typically classified by the end product you plan to create: DVD, Video CD (VCD), or Super Video CD (SVCD). If you know that your video is going straight to DVD, you'll want to stick with the quality setting for DVD, which uses MPEG-2 compression. If you capture your video in MPEG-2, you won't later have to convert it before burning a disc, a process that can take hours.

How We Test: We captured a video recorded on a Sony DCR-TRV318 Hi8 analog camcorder using the ATI Radeon 9800 All-In-Wonder Pro graphics card, using the three different quality settings of Pinnacle Studio 8. The videos were played back on two calibrated 21-inch NEC monitors.

If all you want is an exact copy of your tape without any edits, opt for a product that includes direct-to-disc capturing. This means the software captures the video, converts the file to DVD format, and burns it to a DVD, all automatically. Some programs (such as Sonic's MyDVD, included with Adaptec's VideOh DVD) record the video to your hard drive and then burn to a DVD-R or DVD+R disc. Others (such as Ulead's DVD MovieFactory 2, included with ADS's USB Instant DVD) can also record directly to rewritable DVDs, bypassing the hard drive. Either method handles the job without any intervention from you, so you can start the capture process and go have dinner--a definite bonus if you are planning to capture a lot of video.

The process worked surprisingly well for recording our home movies, automatically adding DVD menus and chapter points (you can choose how often to set an automatic chapter point). Ulead DVD MovieFactory 2's direct-to-disc wizard was the easiest to use, and the program can detect scenes and automatically add chapter points. Direct-to-disc encoding was, in fact, the easiest way to go from video to DVD in our testing, if you don't mind giving up creative control. You can't create sophisticated-looking DVD menus or trim the boring parts if you go direct to disc (although you can import the video into a video editing program, edit it, and then burn the edited result to DVD disc at a later date). It took about 10 minutes to capture, encode, and burn a 5-minute video clip to a DVD-R disc in MovieFactory, while the same process took 19 minutes in NeoDVD, which comes with the AVerMedia device. However, you do need a pretty powerful PC to capture the video, convert it, and then write it out to DVD in one pass. Our test system had no problem, but slower machines may not be capable of keeping up and may crash.

Making the Cut

Editing video, even on our fast test system with a gigabyte of memory, often involved waiting some time to see the final result. And during our editing runs--mostly with MPEG-2 video--we saw all of the video editing packages crash on occasion, so it makes sense to save often, or you could lose hours of work.

It's definitely worth spending some time tuning up your system before you start editing videos. Defragment your disks and make sure you have the latest drivers for your video capture device and the latest version of the capture software. You may also want to check your system and graphics board vendors' Web sites for the latest BIOS version and drivers.

Both the ATI and Pinnacle products include a version of Pinnacle's Studio 8 software, which is equally capable when capturing video, editing, adding transitions, or burning to DVD. The program's simple interface belies its deeper capabilities, such as the ability to adjust audio throughout a clip in real time, a great help for boosting dialogue or adding a background music track.

ADS's USB Instant DVD comes with Ulead's VideoStudio 7 SE, which offers both timeline and storyboard views for quickly arranging video clips and transitions into linear slots on the screen. The program offers more than 100 video transitions for moving gracefully between your video clips, and it provides 35 useful filters for improving picture quality--letting you, for example, adjust brightness or saturation using a simple slider.

Adaptec bundles ArcSoft ShowBiz with its VideOh DVD. ShowBiz is simple and user-friendly. The AVerMedia DVD EZMaker comes with the NeoDVD package, which includes Broderbund's MovieShop Select 6.5; it's a video editor that's cut from the same cloth as Ulead VideoStudio.

Getting it Write

Some of these products also allow you to write your videos to videotape. This requires a video-out port, which all but the AverMedia DVD EZMaker and the Adaptec VideOh DVD have.

All the devices we looked at can write to DVD discs and support a wide range of drives. For more information on DVD burning, see "Put It on DVD."

The units here can also compress the video you capture into small files for showing on the Web or e-mailing, but ULead VideoStudio has an especially slick Share command that can in a single step generate a Web page with your video embedded as an MPEG-1 file, or attach the file directly to an e-mail message.

While the range of video editing possibilities can make your creative heart leap, you'll save rendering time and general headaches by keeping your projects no more complicated than they have to be. Just because a program comes with loads of fancy transitions and snazzy filters doesn't mean you should always use them. Filmmakers worldwide know that simple, straight cuts and less flashy effects are often the most effective and let you finish faster.

A good director begins with the end in mind. The decisions you make when you capture will greatly affect your video quality when it's time to put your production on tape or DVD. Capture at the highest quality, and any one of these products will do your VHS and 8mm tapes justice for this and future generations.

Video Capture Products: Just The Facts

All of these products can take video from your old analog camcorder and convert it into a digital format ready for putting onto a DVD, but their features and prices differ greatly.

Got a pile of 8mm home movies lying in your closet? Moving them to a digital format will make them easier to edit and share. You can either do it yourself or pay someone else to do it for you. The former is definitely the cheaper way to go, especially if you have more than a reel or two to convert. You may already have the equipment you need: a film projector, a video camera, a white wall, and not much else to do for several evenings. Just project the film onto a white wall in a dark room and videotape the projected image.

Should you decide to pay someone to do it, you'll want to do some research: Specialty photo shops, video companies, and some copy shops offer film-to-video transfer services, but most of these are small, independent operations whose costs and quality vary widely.

Before you commit to a service, ask questions: How much does it charge per foot of film? Typical costs range from 10 cents to 20 cents a foot (16 feet of super-8mm film is about 1 minute). Most services can migrate your movies to DVD, VHS, or MiniDV, but watch out for hidden costs that can add up quickly. One service I tried charged me nearly $30 for a MiniDV tape--about four times what you would pay in a retail store.

Ask how the service actually does the transfer: If it simply projects the film onto a wall, you might as well do that yourself. Others use a video camera and a projection box, while some use a special projector that has an electronic sensor instead of a lens--probably the method that produces the best quality. Regardless of the method, the safe bet is to give the service one reel and check out the results. If you're happy, send off the rest of your movies.

--Tracey Capen

If you currently use an analog camcorder, you're probably thinking that upgrading to digital will save you from this conversion hassle in the future. It will--and not only that, you'll have better image and sound quality, too. Here are our reviews of five of the hottest digital camcorders, including one from Hitachi that records directly to DVD.

Canon Elura 50

Just 2.2 inches wide by 4.4 inches deep by 3.5 inches tall and under a pound in weight, the Elura 50 is the smallest and lightest of the camcorders here. Its upright configuration packs a lot of features into a package that sits comfortably in the hand. The Record button, for instance, is right under the thumb for right-handed users, although southpaws and those with very small or very large hands may find its position awkward. The Elura 50 provides a good range of shooting modes, including two nighttime modes that use a slow shutter speed and a white LED (Canon calls it an "assist lamp") that illuminates the scene, but only for a few feet. The 10X optical zoom looks good, but the 400X digital zoom (like all digital zooms) produces grainy, blurry, and jerky-looking video at higher magnifications. A variety of special-effects modes (such as sepia, negative, and a fade between video and a still image) are also included. The camcorder can also take 0.7-megapixel still images and save them to an SD Card memory card, which can then be transferred to a PC through a USB connection.

The small size of the Elura 50 does have its downsides: The 2-inch (diagonal) LCD screen, although bright and easy to view in most lighting conditions, is smaller than the screens of the other camcorders we reviewed, so screening videos without plugging into an external TV would be awkward. The camcorder also has both composite and S-Video in and out ports. The standard battery is also smaller than most; it ran out of juice after just over an hour in our informal tests. Larger batteries are available: A $70 extended battery ran for over 2 hours, but it added significantly to the bulk of the camcorder.

Accessing the menu also leaves something to be desired, as it involves using all of the following: a menu button to get to the menu itself, a dial to move through the menu, and a set button to select an option. This approach is much less elegant than the single button-and-dial combination found on Sony's DCR-TRV70, albeit the steps are more of an inconvenience than a problem.

Upshot: The Canon Elura 50 provides a lot of camera in a small package, although some may find the unit's small screen and compact form awkward to use.

Price when reviewed: $650

--Richard Baguley

Hitachi DZMV350A

The Hitachi DZMV350A is an extremely small and portable camcorder, weighing only 1.3 pounds and measuring 3.5 by 2.2 by 5.3 inches. The camera's long battery life (over 2 hours), coupled with its slew of zoom, autofocus, and white-balance features, makes this product extremely attractive at first glance. It even shoots 1-megapixel still images and stores them on SD memory cards, and boasts an adequate 2.5-inch (diagonal) LCD and internal electronic viewfinder. But it's far from perfect.

What's unique about this camcorder is that it records onto 8-centimeter DVD discs that are much smaller than the normal recordable DVD discs. You can pop the disc right out of the camera and into your standard DVD player to view your movies in the comfort of your living room.

There are complications, however. The camera can use two types of 8cm DVD discs (both of which require a flimsy internal carrier)--DVD-R, $5 per disc; and DVD-RAM, $18. These discs are not widely available in stores, though you can buy them online. Each 8cm DVD-R disc can hold up to 60 minutes of video, while the DVD-RAM discs are double-sided and can hold up to 2 hours of video. To play the 8cm DVD-R discs on your home DVD player, you'll first need to "finish" the disk in the camera by completing a set of on-screen commands, which means you can't then record any more on it. Most home DVD players should be able to read these smaller discs, but some older models may not. The rewritable DVD-RAM discs can be reused (much like videotapes), but most home DVD players can't read them.

This format has some advantages, though: You needn't fast-forward and rewind to view clips or find a blank spot for recording because the camera can access each clip immediately. Video clips can be downloaded to your PC through the USB 2.0 connection, and the basic video editing software that is supplied can burn the edited video to DVD within the camcorder.

Upshot: This camcorder has plenty of nice features, but the mini-DVD format still needs its usability wrinkles ironed out.

Price when reviewed: $840

--Chris Manners

Samsung SCD33

At $499, the SCD33, Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd.'s MiniDV camcorder, is the lowest-priced model of the devices that we reviewed, yet it still delivers an impressive set of high-end capabilities for your household's low-budget video director.

For starters, there is a fine selection of features, including a very wide shutter speed range (from 1/10,000th of a second to 1/60th of a second); a built-in, 0.68-megapixel digital camera; and the ability to save highly compressed MPEG-4 video to a Memory Stick flash memory card (although a 16MB card can hold only a minute of video). Thanks to a combination of slow shutter speed and an infrared emitter, the camera's night vision capability lets you shoot scenes in total darkness, giving your campsite video the look and feel of a live-from-the-front-lines war report. As well, at 2.7 by 3.5 by 4.4 inches and just under a pound in weight, the SCD33 is small enough and light enough to carry around on a trip.

The camera's 10X optical zoom can bring you closer to the action, and it has an 800X digital zoom, although it is pretty much useless beyond 20X without a tripod, and even then produces grainy video. Shaky-handed cinematographers get a technical assist from the camera's digital image stabilization, which did a nice job of keeping the video steady.

The one weak spot in an otherwise good camcorder is its focusing. In many situations (especially in low light), the camera could not lock its autofocus consistently on the target, resulting in shots that looked like the lens was smeared with Vaseline as it attempted to focus. This effect got worse at the higher zoom settings. Switching to manual focus isn't a very satisfying solution, either, because the manual focus controls are awkward. You have to go through a menu rather than apply a physical control like a focus ring or a thumbwheel.

Upshot: Lots of nifty features wrap up a very reasonably priced, small, and light camcorder, but the sloppy autofocus--combined with the cumbersome manual focusing--is annoying.

Price when reviewed: $499

--Andrew Brandt

Sharp Viewcam VL-Z7U

The Sharp Viewcam VL-Z7U has a much different design from the other camcorders reviewed here: Both the grip and the 2.5-inch (diagonal) LCD screen can pivot to different angles, so you can comfortably film from waist level or above your head while still using the hand strap. Although not the smallest camcorder in this group, its dimensions of 3.2 by 3.1 by 4.1 inches and its 1.1-pound weight meant that it was small enough and light enough to carry for an extended time. The controls are accessible from a four-way toggle switch just above the display, and they are straightforward and easy to use. The LCD was quite readable in most lighting conditions.

Like all the camcorders we tested, the VL-Z7U can save still images to a flash memory card: As a 1.3-megapixel still camera, it produced adequate pictures, although it won't replace a dedicated digital camera. It also comes with a flash that was useful for close shots but not much else. You can also transfer video frames from tape to the flash card as stills.

This camcorder delivered well-balanced color and correctly exposed images in most lighting conditions, although it lacks an infrared emitter for taking video in total darkness. The 10X optical zoom was good, but the 500X digital zoom was pretty useless beyond 20X, producing grainy, jittery images. In our informal tests, the standard battery lasted about 2 hours--long enough for a weekend of casual shooting.

Upshot: The Sharp Viewcam VL-Z7U has an innovative design that provides easy handling and produces good-quality video.

Price when reviewed: $570

--Andrew Brandt

Sony DCR-TRV70

With one of the highest-resolution CCDs of any consumer camcorder, the Sony DCR-TRV70 takes wonderful-looking video footage. It's one of the most advanced consumer models we've seen, with an extremely effective image stabilizer and a very quick response to changing lighting conditions. The camera also offers several methods for shooting in low light, including a Super NightShot mode that lets you shoot in total darkness thanks to an infrared emitter. And the DCR-TRV70 focuses quickly, no matter what the lighting conditions.

The 2.5-inch LCD display is bright and easy on the eye, but accessing the controls is awkward: You use a stylus on the touch-sensitive LCD display, making navigation slower and much more laborious than if you were using buttons and/or dials on the body. The dial for switching among modes is set too close to the record button, so I often inadvertently started recording when I wanted to turn the camcorder off. And the zoom control is way too small: It's the size of a Tic-Tac. The moderate-sized body is heavy--just over a pound and a half with the battery--yet it fit my hand comfortably. It's also differently proportioned than the others, at 6.9 inches long but only 2.9 inches wide and 3.5 deep.

The 2-megapixel stills that the camera captures look adequate, but they're not even close to the quality of pictures taken with a digital still camera. You can e-mail stills and MPEG-1 movies from a Memory Stick and use the LCD screen as an Internet browser, but to do so you must purchase a $100 USB modem. This is also the first camcorder we've seen where you can transfer recorded video over a USB 1.1 connection, although the resulting video was jerky and pixelated.

Upshot: You'll admire the DCR-TRV70's image quality and sophisticated features but be vexed by its inane menu system.

Price when reviewed: $1299

--Alan Stafford

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