Q: I’ve got this amazing collection of ’80s kitsch on VHS—the entire runs of Manimal and Riptide, plus lots of hard-to-find movies. Now I’m getting worried that the tapes are decaying and I’ll lose my treasures. Is there any way I can convert them into DVDs before it’s too late? You’re smart to fear the ravages of time. Even the most pampered videocassettes start to crumble after 15 years, while digital discs can last a century barring scratches and exposure to heat. The hardware for converting tapes to DVDs, however, is still pretty pricey. If the budget for your salvage operation is a few hundred bucks or less, there are some alternative formats that should do the trick. But you’ll have to settle for picture and sound quality that border on atrocious.
The easiest way to make the switch, of course, is to hire a pro. Most video-duplication outfits now offer VHS-to-DVD transfers, though some have qualms about working with copyrighted material. The most reasonable services will run you upward of $40 per two-hour tape, which means transferring Riptide‘s glorious first year alone would set you back at least $480.
Amateurs with a whit of technical savvy can bypass these costly middlemen by investing in a do-it-yourself kit. The fanciest of the lot, ADS Technologies’ USB Instant DVD ($250), includes all the requisite cables plus some snazzy editing software, should you get the urge to deep-six the commercials or splice in scenes from your nephew’s christening. A relatively bare-bones option is Dazzle’s Digital Video Creator 80 ($70), a frill-free package that still gets the job done. Be wary of the countless rigs going for $40 or less—many lack the proper cables, and tech support is nonexistent.
The typical VHS conversion kit lets you hook up a VCR or camcorder to your computer through a USB port (a one-inch slot on the back, marked by an icon akin to a trident). Simply press play and the software sends the video to your hard drive, recoding it as a digital media file.
Now you just have to burn this new file onto a disc. DVD burners, alas, are rarely bundled with computers, and stand-alones run between $500 and $700—a big discount from the cool $80,000 of a few years back, but still steep. Fortunately, there are two digital formats that can be created with ordinary CD burners: Video CD (VCD) and Divx.
VCDs will be familiar to anyone who’s ever bought a bootleg movie on Canal Street. These discs hold about 80 minutes of entertainment apiece and work in any DVD player. The quality really bites, though; VCDs depend on a rather antiquated brand of compressed data called MPEG-1, which produces fuzzy pictures and muted audio.
The current rage among film geeks is the Divx disc, which uses the MPEG-4 standard and thus offers sharper images and sound. They don’t work on DVD players, but you can get around that by jacking a TV into your CD-ROM drive; just look for the “TV Out” port on your computer. Most VHS conversion kits lack software or instructions for Divx burning, so you’ll have to scour the Web—Divx-Digest.com and Doom9.org are Mr. Roboto’s choice picks.
No matter which format you choose, expect the worst. As generations of mix tapers can attest, analog data doesn’t copy well. The discs you burn will likely be even blurrier than the master tapes, especially if you opt for VCDs. But you can take heart in knowing that you’ve preserved Manimal for future generations. And in the end, it’s all about the children, right?
News reports abound about hackers busting Sony Music’s new anti-piracy technology with Magic Markers and Post-Its. That hasn’t been the only recent case of low-tech outdoing fancy engineering. Tsutomu Matsumoto, a grad student at Yokohama National University, has developed a means of thwarting fingerprint scanners using little more than a pack of Jell-O. At a mid-May security workshop in Seoul, South Korea, Matsumoto demonstrated how a print can be lifted from a drinking glass, etched into a circuit board, and finally transferred to a gelatin “gummy finger.” That fake digit can then trick virtually any fingerprint sensor. The cost of fabricating his deceptive gummy? About $10.
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