August 26th, 2009
I have a problem that I’m sure is pretty common. My parents used to rent a VHS camcorder from time to time. Not only that, but various school plays, musicals, etc. are on VHS tapes. As a result, they and I have a library of family memories on VHS. And it appears those tapes go as far back as 1987.
You might imagine there are several problems here. One is that VHS tapes degrade over time. Those that were recorded in EP mode (6 hours on a T-120 tape) are especially prone to this. I’ve been worried about how well those 22-year-old tapes will perform even now.
Another problem is that VHS tapes are getting hard to watch these days. We own a VCR, but it’s probably been 7 years since it was hooked up to anything on a regular basis.
So I have meant for some time to convert these old VHS recordings to DVD format. My initial plan was to use the PVR-250 hardware MPEG-2 encoder card that is used with MythTV to do that. But it’s in the basement, used with MythTV, and would generally be a hassle. As a result, I’ve been “meaning to do” this project for about 5 years, and haven’t.
Last night, I found that tape from 1987. It has a few priceless seconds of my grandpa Klassen on it — he passed away in 1990.
The Panasonic DMR-EZ38VK
I initially set out looking for a dedicated DVD recorder with an S-video input, but wound up buying one with an integrated VHS deck as well: the Panasonic DMR-EZ38VK.
I started with a DVD recorder review on CNet. I was primarily interested in video quality. Surprisingly, it seems there is significant difference in video quality among DVD recorders, which was what led me to the Panasonic line.
I was initially planning on a DMR-EA18K or DMR-EZ18K (the difference is whether or not they include a TV tuner). I was having trouble finding them in stock at the vendors I normally use, and wound up with the DMR-EZ38VK instead. B&H had a open-box demo unit at a special discount, so I snapped it up.
I’ve been recording most items to DVD in “SP” mode, which stores 2h per single-layer DVD. I’d concur with CNet: this produces spectacular results. I don’t think I’ve noticed any MPEG compression artifacts at all in this mode.
Some items, such as TV programs or home recordings with little motion, I’ve recorded in “LP” mode. This mode stores 4 hours on a single-layer DVD. It’s also surprisingly good, considering the amount of compression needed. I have noticed MPEG artifacts in that mode, though not to an extremely annoying degree.
The copying process
I start by popping an empty disc in the drive. Then I’ll put in the VHS tape and position it to the place where I want it to start copying. Then I hit Functions -> Copy -> VHS to DVD -> without finalizing, and away it goes. It automatically detects end-of-tape and helpfully won’t copy 6 hours of static.
When a tape is done copying, you can copy from more tapes to the disc, eject it and finalize it later, or work with it.
When I’m ready to finish a disc, I’ll go and change the “disc name”, which is what shows up at the top of the disc menu that the unit generates. If I feel ambitious, I might change the titles of individual titles as well. But all of this has to be done with an on-screen keyboard, and thus takes awhile, so I usually don’t. Finalizing commits the menu to disc and fixates it, and takes about a minute.
This feature is both a blessing and a curse.
The Panasonic recorder can often detect the break between a recording on a VHS. Newer VCRs would explicitly mark these, but it can detect it even with older camcorders with reasonable accuracy.
When it detects this, it creates a new title on the DVD. This takes a few seconds, so it also rewinds the VHS tape a few seconds, then starts copying again.
Unfortunately, if you’re just wanting to watch one long recording all the way through, this results in a few seconds being duplicated right before each scene transition, which is rather jarring. There is no way to disable this feature, either. The only workaround is to read from an external VCR. But if you do that, you lose the end-of-tape detection.
Generally I’ve decided to just live with it for now. It’s a cheap price to pay for an otherwise pretty good workflow.
While copying, you can’t access the position indicators for either the VHS deck or the DVD recorder. So you don’t know how far along on the tape you are, or how much space is left on the DVD, until copying stops.
Also, it would be very nice to be able to tell it “copy 23 minutes and 15 seconds from VHS to DVD” when you know you don’t want to copy the whole tape.
The unit also has SD and USB ports for reading digital video. Frustratingly, a USB keyboard can’t be used to edit disc or track titles. That seems like an obvious and cheap feature to have.
Overall I am happy with the unit. It produces very good quality results, and is pretty easy to use overall. I don’t think I’d pick a different one if I had to do it again. But it could be made better for people that are copying large numbers of VHS tapes to DVD.
Generally, though, I can just start the copy and let it sit for a couple of hours, trusting it to do the reasonable thing with a tape. That’s convenient enough that I can get other things done while it’s copying, and takes little enough of my time that I’m actually working through stacks of tapes now.
Update 8/27 I have now tried some discs from this playing back on my PS3 connected to a 1080p HDTV. On that setup, compression artifacts are noticeable at the 2hr setting, and more are noticeable at the 4hr setting. I don’t think that they are any necessarily any more noticeable than any other home-produced DVD, though, especially on the SP setting. They had not been very visible on SD equipment.