Category Archives: TV

Resurrecting Old VHS Videos (and Panasonic DMR-EZ38VK Review)

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.

Video Quality

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.

Track Detection

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.

Other annoyances

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.

Jon Stewart gets Crossfire Canceled

Back in October, Jon Stewart (host of Comedy Central’s Daily Show) appeared on CNN’s Crossfire, and called for the show’s cancelation. To quote a comment on Slashdot:

I did watch the show yesterday thought and it was awe inspiring, especially because it was live and they kept coming back from the commercial breaks for another beating. I especially liked it when they were in Rapidfire and Stewart ignored the gong until they gave up on it.

So anyway, Stewart’s main point was that merely repeating talking points and analyzing how things “play” — rather than statements themselves — is actually a disservice to the public. I would add that obsessive coverage of the trail du jour — OJ, Peterson, whatever — is just as silly.

It seems that the new head of CNN US listened. Phil Rosenthal has this little quote in the Chicago Sun-Times:

On Wednesday, CNN’s Klein told the AP, “I guess I come down more firmly in the Jon Stewart camp” and would prefer a more substantive discussion of current events and controversies.

“I doubt that when the president sits down with his advisers they scream at him to bring him up to date on all of the issues,” Klein said. “I don’t know why we don’t treat the audience with the same respect.”

You really don’t think the president’s Cabinet meetings come with an audience ready to cheer, boo, applaud or hoot when prodded?

Apparently Klein wants to re-brand CNN as the hard-news, in-depth alternative to Fox and MSNBC.

I hope he does, because America really needs one of those. It’s sad to have to resort to BBC for in-depth coverage.

Rather: \”Folksy\” or \”Weird\”?

Slate has an article about last night’s coverage of the race. Among others, they made this observation:

7:52 p.m., CBS: I can’t wait till Dan Rather starts to get tired. As I remember from 2000, fatigue makes him folksy. I still remember him at around 1 a.m. that night, when the vote flipped back to Gore again, saying something like, “Well, I’ll be a coon on a red-hot skillet!” He’s nowhere near that point yet, but he did just tell Bob Schieffer, “Don’t taunt the alligator until after you cross the creek.”

The first time or two I hear one of these little Ratherisms, I chuckle a little. After that, I want to say “Shut Up, Dan!”. About the fourth time, the channel gets changed, or the TV gets shut off and I go back to the BBC. Because half of his “folksy sayings” make absolutely no sense whatsoever. Especially when he’s tired.

Sweet Digital Goodness

Now that we have a HDTV unit and MythTV, it occured to me that there had to be a better way to get video to the HDTV than the standard S-Video cable I’d been using. And sure enough, there is.

Our TV has a HDMI input, which is pin-compatible with a digital DVI output on standard PC video cards. Slick. So, with the aid of a Gefen DVI to HDMI cable and a Radeon 9600 card stolen from my main PC, I got a pure digital picture on the TV. Wow. It’s nice. Beats S-Video cables handily.

Moreover, the TV supports EDID, the technology that lets PC monitors tell the PC what video modes they support. My TV reported 1920×540, 720×480, and 640×480 modes. Again, nice. And the ATI fglrx driver reports all the information you need to generate the appropriate ModeLine for it. Even slicker.

I’m going to buy a Radeon 9200 card for the MythTV unit so I can get the 9600 back for my desktop.

The only problem: the display is now so sharp that MPEG compression artifacts are more noticable and annoying than before. Guess I’ll have to bump up my bitrates in MythTV. Sigh.

Here are some links I found useful:

We\’ve gone HDTV

I’ve been talking a lot about MythTV lately, and here’s a tangential topic: we bought our first HDTV unit last weekend. It’s a widescreen 30″ CRT Philips 30PW8402 unit. We don’t yet have hi-def video sources (save for DVD), but I’ve still gotta say: wow. The picture is so much better than our Sony TV (and not just because that Sony’s picture tube was dying, either!). There’s some stuff in 16:9 even in standard def, and that can be zoomed in upon. Very slick.

And DVDs are stunning on this thing. We’re very happy with it all and are glad we opted for a HDTV instead of a standard def one.

One of my concerns was about traditional stuff — would it all be “squashed” by the wide screen? Turns out no — the remote has a picture size button, that alternates between 4:3, zoomed 14:9, zoomed 16:9, widescreen, and superwidescreen modes. The zoomed modes are used when the black letterboxing at the top and bottom of a standard screen are part of the signal (such as widescreen movies broadcast in standard definition). The widescreen modes are used with true widescreen signals, such as from a DVD player.

Our DVD player already had component video out, so a few cables, and a quick check of the setup menu to tell it we had a 16:9 unit, and wow — stunning results. We’re really enjoying it.

My next project is to get a DVI to HDMI cable so I can hook it up to the MythTV unit digitally. This will get us the best possible quality, and I can use a Linux-based DVD player to send a pure digital signal to the TV.

A Lesson on Influencing Adults

When the news broke yesterday that Fred Rogers had died, it was amazing to see how many adults still remembered the Mr. Rogers show and even were personally moved by the show in later life. I think it goes to show that what children watch on TV and at the movies really does matter to their character development.

A number of stories about Mr. Rogers appeared yesterday in addition to those liked above. We saw appreciations, lists of Fred Rogers quotes, links to an old interview with Mr. Speedy Delivery, and even how to talk to children about his death.

NPR has a webpage about Fred Rogers.