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Capture Old Movies
by chris

"Hello, What hardware do I need to convert old VHS home movies to DVD format? Can you point to internal or external? Thank you."
- Ioni, St. Paul, MN

To convert VHS home movies or VCR tapes to DVD format will require:

  • A video capture card (or external capture adapter); note that this could include TV Tuners as well, since most have software that will allow you to capture whatever signal is tuned in.
  • Enough hard drive space to hold your captured video. Base this on the ratio of about 4 GB for each hour of high quality TV-resolution video.
  • Video capture software (generally, this is a non-issue since it should be included with any capture or tuner card you purchase)
  • Video editing software (optional, but it allows you to add interest to the final DVD with menus, scene transitions, and still images or scanned photos. This will probably be included with either your Video Capture device or with your recordable DVD drive.)
  • DVD recordable drive and burning software.
  • Optical media. Generally this can be DVD+R, DVD-R or even DVD-RW depending on the device you want to play it back on. Most, but not all, DVD players will handle any of the media types as long as they have been created with the typical Video DVD file structure.

Since you want to convert old VHS movies, this implies that the original video will be at least TV "quality." Translated, this means your video output should be at a resolution similar to a (480i) television, or somewhere around 720x480 or 640x480 at 29-30 frames per second. Any internal TV Tuner card should be capable of capturing this resolution and frame rate. You should check the specifications of any external USB or Firewire devices to see if they can keep up. Even though some external USB capture devices may list USB 1.0 or 1.1 as the minimum requirement, you will likely have an upper resolution and or frame rate limit imposed if you try. For example, the adapter may be able to capture at 320x240 at only 15 frames per second, which would be barely acceptable in a webcam, and will look really bad for TV viewing. Firewire (1394) could probably do better, but it is not as common for either the capture device or as an installed option on many computers. If you were going to open your system to install a USB 2.0 or 1394 adapter, you might as well just install a PCI capture card in the first place unless you have other high speed devices that you need to connect. Check system requirements for CPU speed, memory and hard drive space to make sure your computer can support the adapter. If there are minimum requirements and recommended ones, apply the recommended requirements to achieve the best results. While the minimum requirements should work, you may be limited in video size, frame rate, or experience dropped frames in the captured video. Available system memory will typically have the biggest impact on your capture quality, with CPU speed a close second.

Cards like the ATI All-In-Wonder series are available as stand-alone TV Tuner cards or as combined TV Tuner / Video. These cards have connections for a coax TV antenna (or cable connection) on the rear, with a dongle attachment to connect composite video and S-Video. ATI includes TV tuner and recording software as well as a player. If you connect your camcorder or VCR to the antenna connection, you would set the software TV Tuner to channel 3 or 4, just like you do with a standard television. The recording software can capture in a compressed ATI format, but this is designed for playback using their software, not burning to DVD. You can also configure the recorder to capture in several different (fair, good, best) quality settings using a standard MPEG1 or MPEG2 format. These translate easily to DVD video format, and can be edited with most video editing software beforehand. You will still need editing and burning software to prepare the final video for DVD.

There are several other brands of TV Tuner cards available, many in the $50-100 range. The capture quality is typically the same, but the software applications may not offer all the bells and whistles of the ATI Multimedia Suite. From testing several of these different cards, I found that all had the ability to manually record TV signals at a variety of resolutions and frame rates; they also had the capability of scheduling recording sessions in advance, tuning your computer into a personal video recorder "PVR," although the capability to link with a channel guide was typically poor or non existent - if you want advanced channel guide scheduling and program information, take a look at any of the current Media Center Edition PCs. For converting videos, this probably would make little difference to you.

You can go with a stand-alone capture card like the Adaptec VideOh! Series, but this means that you would always have to have some sort of external tuner connected to convert or capture TV programs, not just your video tapes. I am not sure about the current cards, but the ones from a year or two ago did not show up as a video capture card to Windows XP; the only way to record video was to use the software that was bundled with the adapter. Windows Movie Maker and other camera capture software did not think any video input was present in the sytstem.

Most external capture and TV tuner adapters I have looked at provide reasonable on-screen viewing, although I frequently noticed dropped frames during capture unless you limit yourself to lower resolutions. The only advantage to capturing at 320x240 or lower is if you plan to create video CDs (rather than DVDs) or want to convert to a format for playback on your PDA, iPod, or other small-format player.

VCR Connections

If you look at the back of a typical VCR, you should see a variety of input and output connections; On this vintage 1984 VCR, you can see composite video out, audio out; composite video in, audio in; screw-down antenna connections (in and out) and RF antenna / cable ready connections (in and out.) Up above the antenna and coax connections is a switch that changes the VCR playback between television channels 3 and 4. To record a show on the computer to burn to a DVD, you can connect the composite video output to the capture card input and the audio out to the capture card or sound card line-in connection. If you are using a TV Tuner card to capture your video, just run a coax cable connection from the "Out to TV" connection to the "antenna" connection on the TV Tuner card; set your personal video recording software to record from the same TV channel as the VCR channel switch is set to.

A quick overview of video capture sources

VideOh! PCI Video Converter Kit
AdaptecVideOh! PCI Video Converter Kit

Voyetra Turtle Beach Video Advantage PCI Capture Card
Voyetra Turtle Beach Video Advantage PCI Capture Card

Video Capture Adapters (Composite, S-Video)
Video capture cards have been around for many years now, and have a wide variety of capabilities. Early capture cards often had only a composite video input, and maybe an S-video input that might yield slightly higher-quality results. (S-Video: Separate-Video transmits an analog signal that carries video as separate brightness and color signals at 480i resolution. S-Video is a 4-pin connector found on some video cards, TVs, and other video equipment.) To capture audio that goes with the video, you also must have a sound card with the audio signal from your source connected to either the microphone or line-in connector. Current generation cards such as the Adaptec VideOh! PCI card may incorporate separate Audio-In connections, while others like the Voyetra Turtle Beach Video Advantage card has "standard" analog inputs as well as USB and Firewire connectors to allow digital video capture. The minimum system requirements for these adapters may be as little as a Pentium II CPU and a late version of Windows 98SE or Millennium Edition with as little as 128MB of memory. Onboard hardware encoding takes much of the load off of the computer processor, but to record at the highest resolution and full frame rate, you are going to need something a bit more current.

Video capture adapters are available as internal PCI expansion cards or as external devices that can connect to your USB or 1394 / Firewire ports; and there are PCMCIA versions available for those of you that have notebook computers. A few of these external adapters also have video out capabilities so you could play your video to a TV, or record the modified output back to your Video Cassette Recorder. (If your capture adapter does not have video out connections, then you would need a video card with composite video out. To record your digital movies with this setup would require connecting audio and video from your computer back to your VCR; set your screen resolution to 640x480 or whatever the maximum supported by the composite out connection; maximize your video player application and run your video with the recorder running. One simple way to make your final VCR tape recording look professional is to add a fade-in transition when you edit your clip. The transition should be long enough to start playing the video on the computer, and then start the VCR to record during the transition period to eliminate any start and stop glitches.)

Because of the interface being limited to composite or s-video, capture cards or devices are typically limited to an upper resolution of around 640x480. Video Capture Adapters are just one way you could convert your old video tapes to digital, and the first step you would need to do to burn the resulting clips to a CD or DVD. As long as you have your VCR connected to the adapter, you can use the exact same setup to capture television shows, as long as the VCR is turned on, tuned in to the correct channel, and set to pass the TV signal through to the output. While it is possible to connect a DVD player to the video capture card, you may have problems with recording the output to a digital video file. The same copy protection techniques that make it difficult to record commercial tapes from one recorder to another will cause similar tracking, brightness, and saturation issues with your digital recording process.

TV Tuner Adapters (Radio Frequency (RF) Audio and Video)
If you take a video capture device and add a television tuner capable of receiving over-the air broadcast signals, then you have a TV tuner adapter. Variations on this include adapters like the ATI All-In-Wonder cards that combine a video adapter with the TV Tuner and capture features. Many of the features listed with TV Tuners have more to do with the software applications then the adapter hardware.


Digital Cameras
Digital Cameras

Digital Camcorders
Digital Camcorders

USB and 1394/Firewire Cameras
Almost every computer now comes standard with USB ports, and many have IEEE 1394 (Firewire) ports. Small cameras can be connected easily to your computer via one of these connections, giving you a way to view or capture live video. Quality will vary, but most the standard resolution of these cameras will be at least 320x240, and most can provide 640x480, although it may be at a lower frame rate.

Digital Cameras
Many digital cameras have the capability of capturing short video clips in addition to stationary pictures. How long of a clip, and at what resolution depends on the camera and how much storage is available. For example, my old Fujifilm FinePix 2800 can capture multiple 60-second clips at 320x240 resolution as long as the Smartcard storage has available space. It stores the captured video as an AVI file in the same folder as the digital images. The resulting file appears to accumulate around 150KB per second of video, so my 128MB flash memory card should be able to hold around 850 seconds of video; that works out to about 14 one-minute clips. The current generation of digital cameras should do much better, but you will still find the results to be less than ideal. For that matter, the latest fad in camera phones are ones that can take short video clips, not just play them back.

Digital Video (DV) cameras may save live video to a variety of media, including digital tape, flash memory cards, or by writing directly to small optical disks. Almost every one of these is capable of saving still images in addition to video, but unlike cell phones and stationary cameras, these devices are made to record video at a reasonable resolution and for comparable periods to the old tape-based camcorders.

Network Video Cameras
Network Video Cameras

Network Video Cameras
Network Cameras are a fairly recent addition to the Video Capture category. These are generally stand-alone devices, most often targeted at the video surveillance and webcam markets. These cameras contain a CPU and have a network connection (Wired, wireless or both) for communication and configure themselves as a video server on your network. Some even have pan and tilt controls that are accessible remotely, across the network using either web page controls or special remote-control software applications.

Direct storage media transfer
When using a Digital Video Camera, the result may be saved directly to a mini-DVD or to a flash memory card. If this is how your video is saved, then no capture card is required at all, just the appropriate storage device, such as a DVD optical drive or memory card reader. Even without these, it is very likely that your digital camera can be connected directly to the computer using a USB or 1394 cable. Once a camera is connected to the USB port, most will show up as a USB storage device, unless it came with special software that allows you to control the camera from the computer. This was often the case with older tape-based video cameras, since you had to be able to stream the video data to your computer, similar to capturing it from a VCR. Cameras that attach to the 1394 port may show up as storage or as a camera or capture device. If you considering one of the mini-cams that saves directly to mini-DVD media, you have several ways to move the captured video to the computer. If you "close" the DVD data process (finalizing the disk), you can probably just insert the Mini-DVD into your player or a computer to start manipulating the files. If there is still room on the disk, and you plan to record more clips, then you will need to connect the camera using a USB or 1394 cable connection to transfer your clips.

Video Capture Software
Of course, having the hardware necessary to capture or convert your video is only half of the solution, you will need some sort of software application to capture video streams or manipulate the media files that have been created. But that’s a whole article by itself..


Shop Online:
Adaptec VideOh! PCI Video Converter Kit
Voyetra Turtle Beach Video Advantage PCI Capture Card
Web Cameras
Digital Cameras
Digital Camcorders
Network Video Camera

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