Do you have a pile of videotapes taking up space in your home? Or, do you want to archive your VHS/Beta videos for posterity or easier viewing on a computer or tablet? There are many reasons why you might want to convert your videotapes to a digital format. Here’s how to do it.
Using a Service
Since I first wrote this article, many services have cropped up that will convert old media (i.e., VHS tapes) to new (i.e., digital files). Even Costco and Walmart offer these services now.
If you’re just converting one VHS tape, these are a good deal. But if you have many, it can get expensive really quick, at around $20 or more per tape.
If you prefer to do it yourself, and you still have your VCR, read on!
What You’ll Need To Do It Yourself
First of all, you’ll need a VCR (VHS or Beta, either will work). You’ll also need a computer. I used a Windows PC, but you can get a video capture device that works on a Mac. You’ll also need some RCA cables, usually colored white, red, and yellow. Often, these cables come with your VCR or TV.
The one thing that you’ll have to buy is a USB capture device.
One caveat before we go any further: computer video capture products are notoriously finicky. I had to try a bunch before I found this one, which worked for me. If you do decide to purchase one of these, please make sure to get it from somewhere with a good return policy, like Amazon.
USB Video Capture
A USB video capture device converts a composite video (or S-video) signal to a digital file on your computer. There usually isn’t a tuner, so no watching broadcast TV or recording off the air.
The one I used is the Play X Store Chip USB2.0 Audio Video Capture Adapter for Windows. This one does not work on Mac, but there are similar ones that do.
These USB video capture devices are pretty cheap these days (because they are cheap Chinese knockoffs of each other). Here are some others, which probably use the same chipset as the one I used:
The method I’ll show here involves using a USB video capture “stick” with a Windows 10 machine. I chose to use a USB video capture stick, the Play X Store USB 2.0 Audio Video Capture Adapter from Amazon.
This is not a name-brand and seems super sketchy, I know, but it had good reviews, so I gave it a try.
It includes the actual USB converter stick, a short USB cable, driver CD, and instructions. The instructions were written in broken English, which did not inspire confidence, but I moved forward!
The instructions tell you to plug the device in, then load the drivers off the CD. But, I wanted to make sure the CD’s drivers were loaded, not Window’s drivers, so I installed the drivers from the CD first, BEFORE ever inserting the USB stick. That insured that the proper drivers would be loaded.
Note, the Amazon description says the product includes video editing software. It does not! But for this price, I wouldn’t really expect it to.
After the drivers are installed, the connections are pretty easy. Connect the RCA cables to the dangling female cables on the USB stick.
Connect the other end to the audio and video OUTs on your VCR.
Alternatively, you can use a single S-Video cable if your VCR supports it. Then plug the USB stick into your computer.
Launch the “honestech TVR” app (I know, sounds super sketchy!!). You’ll see a window showing what is coming out of the VCR. Press “Play” on your VCR, then hit the record button on the software to start recording! Pretty simple!
The actual picture quality is better than what is shown here, because I had to take a photo of my screen (a screen capture wouldn’t work on the player).
Before you hit the red Record button, take a moment to think about what recording file format you want to use.
The software is preset to record at VHS-quality (320 x 240 pixels). You can change the recording quality up to 720 x 480px (DVD quality), but if you’re recording VHS tapes, there’s no point in doing that.
The file format is preset to MPEG-2 (.mpg file). Note that Windows 10 does not come with an .mpg video player but you can get one here.
You can change the setting to record to an MPEG-4 (.avi) file, which is playable on more software but you’re locked into 352 x 240 resolution at that setting, but is fine for VHS.
Whatever file format your choose, I recommend doing a short test recording to make sure you can play back the resulting video file on your computer before ripping a six-hour VHS tape!!
Doing the Recording
You’ll have to let it run for the entire time that you want to record, so it could be a lengthy process! Make sure your computer’s hard drive has plenty of space. If you’re recording hours of video, you could need many GB of free space.
Cue up your videotape to the point you want to start recording and hit Play on your VCR, then hit the red Record button in the software player. If your tape is long, set a timer and do something else while it’s recording.
When your recording is done, hit Stop and check out the file it created (usually in a sub-folder of your Documents folder).
An alternative method of recording is to simply play the recording on your computer and use screen recording software, like ScreenRec to record it. Thanks to reader Shella for this option.
What If You Don’t Have a Computer?
If you don’t have a computer, or if the solution above just doesn’t work for you, check out the Ion Video 2 product which records straight to micro SD card. No computer needed during the conversion process, other than to view the file on the SD card when it’s done (so you will need a micro SD card reader on your computer):
So, although converting videotapes is somewhat of a lengthy process, you actually don’t have to be around for most of it. After you’re done, you can get rid of your video tapes, and you’ll have digital files which won’t degrade over time (unlike magnetic tapes), and which you can share on YouTube and play on any device!
How did it work for you? What conversion device did you use? Let me know below! – Brian