Those treasured family memories and old box-office hit films stored on videotape are slowly vanishing.
Each time a videotape plays, a little more of its magnetic coating rubs off. Magnetic patterns in the coating hold the pictures and sounds. So video and audio quality fade over time.
Your favorite tapes, played most often, will be the first to go. Videotape's life span is about 15 years, and many home tapes are approaching it.
One solution involves transferring old video footage onto “optical media” that runs in personal computers and DVD players. Optical media means video compact discs (VCDs) or the familiar DVDs (digital versatile discs) so popular at movie-rental outlets.
Both have a life span of about 50 years, if used and stored properly.
The technology for copying video to optical format has gotten less expensive and less complicated. People with the right computer hardware and software now can copy movie footage themselves.
Most new computers are equipped with a CD “burner” that can be used to make a VCD. VCDs can be created on either CD-R (readable) or CD-RW (readable and rewritable) burners.
Burners for DVDs (which hold more data) sell for about $250, compared to more than $1,000 a few years ago.
Programs that run the hardware have grown more powerful and user-friendly. Editing software, for instance, allows you to enhance the video and audio, edit and delete scenes, add a musical score, and more.
Commercial firms that transfer home movies to DVDs or VCDs are another option. Basic transfer of an hour-long home video may cost less than $20. Check newspaper ads, the telephone directory, or search the Internet for “videotape transfer service.”
Remember that compatibility problems still exist with various optical-storage formats. Be sure that the VCD or DVD will run on your home DVD player or computer DVD drive.
What does it take to transfer videotape footage yourself? Relatively little, if you have a CD burner and only want to copy the videotape to a VCD.
Your camcorder or VCR may even have a IEEE 1394 cable connection (also called “FireWire” or “i.Link”) that will transfer video directly to the computer's hard drive.
If not, buy a “capture” device to move content from VCR or camcorder into your computer. Cables that connect the source to a computer's USB port cost $50-$200 in retail stores or Web outlets.
Costs increase for higher-image resolution; greater versatility in copying signals from TV and other sources; the ability to edit and enhance the content, and other professional touches.
A whole new PC or Mac may be the starting point for individuals with older computers. Configure it for serious video editing - with a super-sized hard drive, DVD burner, fast processor, more memory, and other beefed-up features.
Start by searching sites like www.pcworld.com, www.pcmagazine.com, and www.smartcomputing.com for how-to-do-it articles and product reviews.