Idiot’s Guide to Video Capture

Many people want to convert their old videotapes to DVD or other digital format, but straightforward advice of the form “Buy this, do that and you get this result” are either lacking or so hard to find that many just give up in confusion.

I won’t pretend that this is the definitive guide, but it should point you in the right direction to get started.

Copy to DVDR using set-top DVD recorder I’ve done this and so could you.  A hard disc/DVD recorder makes the work easier. Typically you can copy one or two tapes onto each DVDR, depending what recording quality you select. Commercial tapes are often copy-protected, though!  If you chapter the recording and make a menu, this adds a lot of labour time to the project. Nothing to stop you copying the MPEG-2 recording from a DVD-RW into a computer and processing it further, but expect significant machine time and labour time.

Capture into computer and process into required final format: I’ve trialled this using a capture device.  You can use a TV tuner card, external PC-TV tuner, a DV camcorder, or a dedicated capture device. Once you have the capture device installed, you do have some flexibility and choice in what software you use to control it.  I suggest you use Windows Movie Maker for Windows XP (NOT the Vista version) to begin with.  The obvious target is to burn the video to DVD-Video format. So you need to capture the video without noticeable quality loss, and then reconvert the file into  the final DVD-Video format for burning. I trialled this using WMM to capture a file at 640×480, bit rate 2079KBPS (15 mb/min), and then using NeroVision Express (came bundled with my DVD-burner) to reconvert it and burn it to a DVD, with menu. It worked, and the result isn’t notably worse than the original tape. It was a 2-minute clip and the process and burn time (on a slow 1.7 Ghz Celeron PC) was far in excess of 2 mins.

Note: Some capture devices default to 720×576 which IIRC is intended for files destined for DVD-video.

Capture and convert to final compressed format in real-time: This is what I’m trying to develop, and this is what you should look at if you have hundreds of tapes to convert.  Otherwise, by the time you capture them , reprocess them beautifully, burn them to DVD, watch them through, and file them in jewel cases with individually printed labels, you’ll probably have died of old age first.

I’ve used WMM and two different USB 2.0 capture devices to convert 75-min videotapes to a single file intended to be stored on computer media.   Using Windows Movie Maker, File format: .wmv file, Video Proc Amp brightness 119, Audio = Dazzle DVC90 Audio Device, Video Input Source = Composite, Audio Input Source = Microphone (sic.), Audio Input level slider at 50%, “High Quality Video Large” 640×480 pixels, Variable Bit rate. Actual usage about 10MB/min with animated cartoon.   The result is not notably worse than the original, even with the original tape and the digital recording played side by side in sync. Update 31 May 2009 – have transferred some 140 VHS tapes using this method.

I’ve just bought a “Easycap USB 2.0 Video adapter” – a Chinese-made device available from various places for a mere £12 ($20?) or so. It has had positive reviews – except from people who clearly couldn’t figure how to make it work!
The price was too low to resist, so I got one just to check it out and compare with a Dazzle DVC90 which I borrowed.
You have to follow the installation instructions exactly, i.e. install the driver from the CD before plugging in the device, and then plug in the device to complete the software installation. It then appears in the System hardware panel like a sensible device should.
You don’t have to use the Ulead Video Studio supplied – in fact you can control the Easycap with any capture or movie-making software you like.  I tried Amcap,  VirtualDub and  Windows Movie Maker.
I’d recommend using Windows Movie Maker  if you’re a non-expert as it  offers a range  of settings in a format that the average idiot can  understand. 🙂 The Easycap spec says that it supports NTSC 720×480 @30fps and PAL 720×576 @ 25fps.
I got it to record,  in:
uncompressed, over 1GB of storage per minute (with Amcap)
640×480 PAL, 2079kbps, 15 mb/min storage (.wmv file)
640×480 PAL, 1.5mbps, 10 mb/min storage
320×240 PAL, 3.7mb/min storage
Tha last 3 with Windows Movie Maker (.wmv), with sound from the USB.
All of these gave a viewable result – I’d suggest trying them all and using the setting that suits your requirement.
I  tried a 75minute run. It didn’t crash and the sound stayed in sync. (Usually there’s no sound on preview. If you don’t get sound on playback of your digitized recording,  you need to fiddle with some settings).
I’m not sure what the hardware encoding is doing. It’s supposed to work with low-power PCs (Pentium III 800 and above), but I used a Pentium IV 2.8GHz, 500MB ram 40 GB hard-disk, and it was going flat-out in some of the tests. I don’t know what  process was soaking up all that power.

Verdict: quality is quite adequate for a basic device, with performance comparable to the Pinnacle. Most noticeable difference is that the Easycap clips the right hand side of the sceeen, whereas the Dazzle clips the left side, but to a lesser extent. Usability is good. Unbeatable value for money?