This article is intended to provide you with the basic information to make knowledgeable choices for capturing your home videos so you can get them to your hard drive for further processing and editing prior to the purchase of any hardware. Capturing analog VHS or Hi-8 is the process of taking a analog video signal and converting it to digital format with a capable device. This first initial step is the most important, many errors or problems cannot be fixed afterwards nor do you want to create any. There's many devices on the market for capturing and many methods. There is two distinct routes you can take, MPEG capture or AVI capture. Both have their pros and cons.
MPEG Vs. AVI
First a little background on the differences between MPEG and AVI. MPEG is the format of video found on authored DVDs such as the movies you rent, most DVD players will not play video unless it's MPEG within the DVD specification. Capturing directly to MPEG saves you the step of converting it to MPEG for DVD playback and authoring. It has a relatively small file size, MPEG video on the highest quality setting within the DVD specifications comes out to about 4GB's per hour of video. MPEG is designed to be a playback format and was not intended to be used as source material for editing. That's not to say it can't be edited, using software that supports MPEG editing you can make minor changes such as trimming the edges and adding transitions however for a vast potion of the material you have locked yourself into what you have captured. Using advanced filtering techniques or even something as simple as brightening the entire clip should be left to AVI. Brightening the entire clip for example requires that the entire clip be reencoded which not only negates the benefits of MPEG capture but will give much less desirable result that using AVI. I'd only recommend going the MPEG capture route if you want to get your video to disc as fast as you can with the least amount of effort and will only be making minor edits such as trimming the clips.
Unlike MPEG, AVI is not a format. AVI is a container file that can contain many types of video. The format is determined by the codec used to encode the file. It can contain highly compressed video like Divx or lightly compressed video like DV-AVI. DV-AVI is the type of video found on digital video camcorder's like Mini-DV or Digital-8. DV-AVI or other lightly compressed AVI's are very editor friendly but do have a large file sizes and have to be converted to MPEG during either the editing or authoring stage depending on the software you are using if you wish to play them back from DVD. This conversion can take quite a while depending on the speed of the computer you are using and other factors. A estimate would be approximately 45 minutes to an hour using a 3ghz pentium 4 for 1 hour footage providing you have made only minor edits. Adding filters such as a denoising filters to the entire clip can extend this time dramatically.
Hardware vs. Software Encoding During Capture
Converting analog video requires that it be encoded on the fly, this can be done through software utilizing your systems CPU or hardware where all the processing is done by the capture device. Ideally you want to use a hardware encoder for initial capture especially if you are using MPEG capture. MPEG requires a tremendous amount of processing power to be done on the fly if you wish to get good results, at least a 2.8ghz machine or better. Note that once the video is on your computer software encoding is fine as the machine can take all week if necessary. It's when it has to be done on the fly during capture where quality can suffer.
MPEG Hardware Recommendations
For capturing video directly to MPEG on your computer drive I'd recommend the Hauppage 150 or 250 hardware encoder. This device comes highly recommended from it's many users. I have not used one myself personally but having read numerous reviews from the users of this device I feel I can recommend it. This device acts like a DVD Recorder except for your computer. You can also record TV or even watch TV with it. It captures directly to DVD compliant MPEG which can be directly imported into an authoring program with no further processing speeding up the process quite a bit.
Another alternative is to simply get a DVD recorder, be aware that DVD recorders do not all have the same quality. They can range from outstanding to absolute garbage. I don't have a recommendation for any specific models but you can find more information and reviews at VideoHelp . Research before purchasing, the recorder you buy can make a tremendous difference and in a lot of cases even improve your video as some come with filters which can slightly improve your video. Once recorded to disc you can rip the disc to your hard rive for further editing.
AVI Hardware Recommendations
Hands down winner in my opinion is the Canopus ADVC 110, it simply works and works very well. It is a bit pricey though. This device converts video to DV-AVI. It has a patented audio sync lock that will insure audio is synced over even long captures, a problem that many devices have. If your tapes are in poor condition this is a must have unit just for that reason. It's easy to use, plug and play. If you have ever transferred video using a digital video camera it works almost the same. The file size it creates is nearly 14GB's per hour but it's ideal for further editing and filtering.
Another alternative may be sitting right under your nose. Most digital camcorder's have a pass-through feature, you hook your VHS deck or other analog device to it and it will convert the analog signal to DV-AVI which can be recorded directly to tape, passed onto your computer via firewire or both. If you are in the market for a digital camcorder or already have one with this feature it's an excellent choice for converting your video.
The downside to either of these devices is of course the file size and the fact that it has to be re-encoded using software to MPEG if you want to make a DVD for playback on your standalone DVD player. Encoding times will vary depending on the amount of filters you have added, transitions, MPEG settings, the software encoder you are using and other factors but as an average a 3.0ghz machine will convert 1 hour of DV-AVI to high quality DVD compliant MPEG in about 45 minutes to an hour doing a straight encode with no filtering or other edits that have changed the video.
Software Encoding Capture Devices
There are other devices that utilize your Systems CPU for encoding, they will record to just about any format you want. As mentioned previously you need a very powerful machine to encode directly to MPEG and even then quality can suffer because you are forcing the software encoder to do it real time. I'd recommend not using any of these devices unless you simply want to record TV programs or in situations where quality is not an issue. Many of these devices experience sound sync problems especially over long captures or if you have poor quality tapes. I have used a the Leadtek WinFast TV2000 XP Expert with some success. It's a very versatile device and even has a FM tuner and remote. At about $40 to $50 it's fairly cheap. If you're on a budget it's ideal, I'd recommend using AVI capture for important footage using the HuffyUV codec.
Additional Hardware Recommendations
Probably the most overlooked step in getting analog video to digital is what you do before it gets to the converter. The best way to fix errors and improve analog video is to do it with analog equipment. Once converted to digital you have also recorded the error or whatever problem your tapes may have, in most cases this cannot be undone or done as well if you fix it before it's converted.
At the very least I would recommend getting a good VCR with S-Video, generally if it has S-Video it won't be cheap. They start in the $100 range. My personal recommendation is the JVC 9911, it has both a LTBC(more on this next paragraph) and noise reduction feature. The noise reduction feature on this unit can make a tremendous difference in the quality of your video if it has a lot of noise. It is not cheap and you may have trouble finding one as it appears they have stopped manufacturing them. There are other alternatives but not being familiar with any of them I won't give any recommendations. You may want to also research any of the older brand VCR's you may have, some are highly sought after machines if they were made in the heyday of VCR's.
The TBC... A Time Based Corrector can be a miracle worker. If you have tapes that skew when playing, are jittery or generally appear to have tracking errors this is usually due to timing errors. If it's a timing error a TBC should fix it. Timing errors occur because of tape stretch from heavily viewed video and other issues along those lines. Errors such as these cannot be fixed once you have converted the video to digital, they record what they see and once you convert you now have a perfectly timed video with the error included. Analog video has scan lines, these scan lines are timed. If time correctly the edges of objects will have nice clean edges, once the timing is off you get vertical skew or horizontal jitter. What a TBC does is stores each full frame of video in it's memory, strips the timing out then retimes each scanline. The LTBC mentioned above in the JVC unit is similar but it only stores a few lines and cannot do much for horizontal jitter, a LTBC is no replacement for a full frame TBC. Datavideo makes a prosumer full frame TBC which can be purchased for about $300+
Storage and Archiving
Unless you're using MPEG storage space can be an issue due to the file sizes. Personally I would recommend not using MPEG for archiving, it's a compressed format and is not suitable for future use. Having said that a lightly compressed DV-AVI is probably the most practical method.
As always it's best to have two copies. DV-AVI can be stored on a external hard rive and tape. Drives can be purchased fairly cheap and although not 100% reliable they are about the best alternative at the moment. If you have a digital cam you can can also record to tape during capture or even capture, edit then send it back to cam from your computer.