Video to DVD, Sans PC

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In the 25th week of my wife's pregnancy, she had an ultrasound taken at a facility where you can get a videotape of the event. If ever there was a visual that I wanted to last, this was it. But instead I had a tape. Videotape degrades with time. It wears down with each playback. So I needed to get this little keepsake onto DVD, preferably before the kid was ready to enter high school.

Because doing the job is easier than ever, now's the time to preserve VHS memories like this one--and everyday home movies of beach weekends, recitals, and parties--by converting them to DVD. Compared with tape, a DVD captures better picture and sound and does not degenerate in quality from repeated play. Plus, with a DVD, you can insert chapter marks to access a part of the story quickly. VHS-to-DVD conversion has been possible via the PC for a few years, but the latest DVD recorders offer a quick and convenient route to digital video.

I tried several options for transferring VHS tape to DVD without PC: a GoVideo all-in-one combination unit consisting of a DVD recorder and a VCR; a Sharp DVD recorder with a built-in hard drive; and YesVideo, a mail-in service that handles the conversion for you. My conclusion: In general, you can't beat DVD recorders for hassle-free dubbing, but some units lack certain advanced video editing tools that PC products offer.

Copy That

A combination DVD recorder/VCR, such as GoVideo's VR4940, works great for straight copies. But this model's software shows only text, not images, to mark DVD chapters.
A combination DVD recorder/VCR, such as GoVideo's VR4940, works great for straight copies. But this model's software shows only text, not images, to mark DVD chapters.
A combination DVD recorder/VCR, such as GoVideo's VR4940, works great for straight copies. But this model's software shows only text, not images, to mark DVD chapters.
A combination DVD recorder/VCR, such as GoVideo's VR4940, works great for straight copies. But this model's software shows only text, not images, to mark DVD chapters.
Now that prices have fallen to between $250 and $800, DVD recorders seem poised to replace VCRs. The basic method for transferring video from VHS to DVD using standard equipment isn't complicated. You connect an RCA cable from the VCR's video and audio outputs to the DVD recorder's inputs, press Play on the VCR, and press Record on the DVD recorder.

You don't need any additional gear such as a PC video capture card, because the DVD recorder has all the necessary capture and conversion features. Unfortunately there's no way to speed up this process: Every minute of tape takes a minute to record. And I had a hard time syncing the recording as closely as I wanted to, using the basic method. The devices I tried took from 2 to 10 seconds to start after I pressed the Record button, so timing required some finesse. Inevitably I cut off the beginning or got snow at the end.

A combo DVD recorder/VCR, such as GoVideo's $399 VR4940, solves that problem. Because both devices are integrated into a single box, dubbing becomes a simple two-click process: Press Copy on the remote control, and then confirm that you want to do it. This particular model will even stop recording when the videotape ends, if you haven't already pressed Stop. And you can copy video from DVD to VHS just as easily.

In addition to home movies, you may have a large library of commercially produced films sitting on the shelf. So why not turn your Star Wars VHS tape into a DVD, too? The copy-protection features on most VHS tapes prevent this. When you try to record a protected tape, you'll receive an error message and get a disc full of blue screen.

How easy is it to improve your movie? If you use a DVD-RW or DVD+RW disc, you'll be able to edit the material on the disc by using Video Recording mode; if you format a DVD-RW disc in VR mode, however, the disc will work only in a player that supports DVD-RW.

VR mode permits editing only in the most liberal sense of the word. Working with the GoVideo recorder's on-screen display and remote control, I was lucky to edit material within a second of what I wanted. By comparison, when you edit video on a PC, software allows you to trim scenes by a fraction of a second if you wish.

You may also want to break your disc into chapters, like those that you see on a rented DVD movie. With most units, you have the option to do this manually or to insert a chapter automatically every so often--say, every 10 minutes. You can change the order of scenes in VR mode by making a chapter playlist; this kind of editing function is far easier to do on a PC, though, because you drag and drop instead of fiddling with a display and a remote.

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