Home movies' move to digital just got easier


REMEMBER those cute holiday commercials showing mom and dad sitting around the computer, making a DVD of Billy's first birthday party? Remember how easy that's supposed to be?

Well, it can be -- if you happen to own a digital camcorder and brand new multimedia PC, the total bill for which comes to somewhere over $2,000.

But what if you're among the 70 million of us who have an old-fashioned analog camcorder and a closet full of VHS or 8mm tapes -- not to mention a PC without a DVD burner?

For us, making digital movies is a more complicated proposition. So I've spent months looking for a combination of hardware and software that can digitize those old tapes and transfer them to a disk that will work in a standalone DVD player hooked up to a TV set.

Actually, these gadgets have been around for a couple of years, but the ones I've tried have been too expensive, too geeky or too buggy to recommend to anyone without a Ph.D. in computer science and a certificate from the Steven Spielberg School of Video Post-production.

Last week I found a package that comes darn close to my ideal -- cheap, quick and easy digital movie conversion. The $50 AVerDVD EZMaker Value Edition is a bare-bones product that gets the job done. After a 10-minute installation process, it slurped up a half-hour tape from my VCR and turned it into a usable DVD-compatible disc within 15 minutes. And it worked on a plain vanilla computer without a standard CD writer.

Now for some basics. To create a digital movie from an analog tape, you need a gadget that takes the video and audio output from a camera or VCR and transfers it to your computer. Along the way, it has to process each video frame (30 per second) and turn it into a matrix of dots, or pixels, that can be stored as digital ones and zeros. This requires serious processing -- the equivalent of scanning 30 photos per second and compressing them with a minimum loss of quality. It's one of the few jobs that can tax a modern PC.

Next you need a program that assembles your digital video files and writes them to a compact disk. This can be a DVD, if you have a DVD burner. But if you don't have one, you can make something called a video CD, or VCD. This is a standard compact disc with video that is formatted to be for a DVD player. Equipment makers don't like to advertise this format, largely because you can create one with any standard CD/RW drive -- no need to buy a DVD burner.

On the downside, VCD image quality isn't as good as a DVD, and it will only hold an hour of video, compared to two hours on a DVD. But this is all relative -- a VCD is fine for recording an analog home video, whose quality is far below DVD anyway.

Most newer, standalone DVD players can handle VCDs, but some older models won't. So check your player's manual to see if it's VCD compatible. If it's not, and you're thinking of transferring a lot of videotape to disk, consider a DVD burner for your computer ($250 to $400) or a VCD-compatible player for your home entertainment system. You can get a decent one for $100 or less.

While you're shopping for a DVD player, you might notice that some models are also certified for use with SVCDs (Sorry, but you'll have to digest a little alphabet soup to get started here). This is an abbreviation for Super VCD, a video format for compact discs that provides somewhat better picture quality than a standard VCD. Many recording systems can produce both VCD formats, but if you want discs compatible with as many DVD players as possible, stick to regular VCD.

Now to the AVerDVD EZMaker. It requires only one real feat of geekdom -- you have to open your PC and insert a video capture card into an empty expansion slot. It may seem frightening, but in reality it takes 10 minutes or less, most of which is spent unplugging everything from the back of your computer and removing the cover.

That done, it's time to make video and audio hookups between your VCR or camcorder and the computer. You'll have to supply your own cables, but most VCRs already come with them. If you're moving a VCR between your home entertainment system and a PC, you may want to buy an extra set of cables for convenience.

The AVerDVD package comes with an adapter that connects a VCR audio cable to the line-in port of your computer's sound card, which handles the audio end of the conversion.

Once the hardware is set up, it's time to install the bundled software (for Windows 98SE and later releases, including XP). The package includes a driver for the video capture card and copy of MedioStream's NeoDVD standard edition.

NeoDVD's endearing virtue is its utter simplicity. It offers two basic choices. You can capture video and store it on your hard drive for assembly on a DVD or VCD later. This allows you to gather clips from multiple tapes and put them on a single disc with a familiar DVD menu. Or, you can capture the video from tape and write it directly to a VCD or DVD in a single step -- no fuss, no muss.

All I can say is that everything worked as advertised with only minor intervention on my part. I had to tell the software what country I live in so that it could determine which video standard to use, whether I was making a DVD or VCD, and what level of quality I wanted to capture.

Overall, I got better final quality and fewer dropped frames by capturing video and storing it on my hard drive first and then writing it to a VCD than I did by capturing the video directly to a disc. This may have been my computer's fault. Although its Athlon 1600 chip exceeds AVerMedia's minimum requirement of a 1 GHz clock speed, it has never been a stellar performer. In any case, the two-step process only takes a few minutes more than direct capture.

Other than setting up a DVD menu structure and organizing multiple clips, NeoDVD has virtually no editing capability. If you want to cut and splice video clips or add fancy titles, wipes, dissolves and other special effects, you'll have to buy a third-party editing package. But if all you really want to do is get those tapes transferred to disc so you can play them on a DVD machine and send copies to the relatives, AVerDVD EZMaker does the job with less hassle than any other package I've tried.

Information: www.aver.com or 408-263-3828.

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