How to convert VHS? Thanks to video cameras, capturing unforgettable moments on videotape has become a worldwide phenomenon. Big and heavy, those who lugged around the titanic gadgets of the 1980s and 1990s may not have loved the equipment, but saving weddings, prom nights and sacred trips to Disney more than justified the pain in the shoulders. The only problem is that, unfortunately, these VHS relics stored in the closet tend to have an expiration date. This format was never designed to last forever, and it degrades over time. If your precious home video survives, you may want to salvage it before time takes its toll. Converting well-preserved home videos will never be flawless-the slightest hiccup can interrupt the signal-but it can be done on a modest budget with a few basic tools.
Below, we’ll show you how to save your moments digitally in several formats, including transferring to DVD, Blu-ray or digital file. If you’re just too busy, we also list a variety of VHS conversion services, including prices, to help you preserve 20-year-old home videos of you failing on your first bike. If not for yourself, then for posterity.
Disclaimer: It’s illegal to make copies of commercial movies and copyrighted material, but there are no restrictions on copying home videos. Plus, you can usually find a used copy of “Top Gun” or “The Breakfast Club” online for next to nothing.
VHS to DVD conversion services
For those who prefer to dispense with technical procedures, many major retailers offer VHS-to-DVD (and in some cases VHS-to-digital) conversion services through their photo departments. Stores such as Costco, CVS, Walmart and Sam’s Club offer video conversion services, and many of them use the same company for this purpose: YesVideo. If you go to the YesVideo website, you’ll find conversion services priced from $26 per tape for the first two hours, and then another $26 for every additional two hours of conversion. But the price you’d pay at Walmart or Target might be lower. These prices have been trending upward in recent years, so if you’ve been waiting a long time for the opportunity to transfer your tapes, you might want to look into it.
Available transfer formats include everything from VHS to Betamax, and most services will allow you to transfer up to two tapes to a single DVD at no extra charge. In addition, there are some great Web sites that offer the same service at a more affordable price if you’re comfortable transferring VHS tapes yourself.
Companies like Legacy Box offer similar services. Simply mail in your VHS tapes and they will provide you with DVDs, downloadable digital files, or a flash drive with all your memories as well as the original tapes. Prices start at $59, which includes the conversion of two tapes.
Using a VHS-DVD combo unit or a separate VCR and DVD burner
If you have a ton of video tapes that need to be converted, you may want to do it yourself to save some money. The best way to do the conversion yourself is with a VHS-DVD combo player/recorder. Today, these devices are outdated and hard to find. You can find dinosaur models online if you search hard enough – try searching for “combo deck” or “VHS DVD recorder” on sites like Amazon or eBay, or even Craigslist – but they usually cost $100 or more (and take a long time to ship), so it’s only worth it if you have a large tape collection.
You can also buy the items you need piecemeal. If you don’t already have a VCR, you can find one online for between $70 and $100, but again, it’s not the easiest task. You can try looking on Amazon (most options there will be used), but you may have to resort to eBay or even your local Craigslist, although we recommend caution on these routes – always make sure the eBay seller has high review ratings before you get started. Next, you’ll need a standalone DVD recorder, which can also be difficult to find these days. Acquiring one will likely require the same methods discussed above.
Once you have the product, you can connect the DVD player to the VCR by connecting an RCA audio/video cable from the VCR’s RCA output to the DVD player’s RCA input. Some models may require an RCA-HDMI converter to connect. It’s essentially the same process as with an old camcorder using cassettes – just connect the camera output to the DVD recorder using the RCA cable or, if necessary, the RCA-HDMI converter we just mentioned. With a combo player, of course, the process is easier.
Next comes the transfer process. Insert the cassette into the VCR and a blank DVD+R or DVD+RW disc (some devices only accept one of these formats, so double check) into the DVD player, and then start the transfer process. The method differs from model to model, but it should be relatively simple. You may have to follow the manufacturer’s instructions, but most manuals can be found with a Google search if your components don’t come with them.
Pro tip: It’s always wise to clean the equipment and tapes you’ll be transferring records to. The effectiveness of various cleaning methods is debatable, but the easiest way is to open the cassette case and gently remove visible dust or dirt with a soft cloth or cotton swab. You can also clean the VCR heads with a VHS head cleaner.
Transferring to DVD, Blu-ray or digital file on Windows and Mac
This process is more complicated and requires a few extra materials, but it has its advantages. In particular, you’ll be able to transfer the tapes directly from the VCR to digital files rather than another physical format, allowing you to save them to your hard drive or even the cloud. You can then copy and save these files anywhere you want and transfer them to DVD or Blu-ray.
If you already have a VCR, the first step is to buy a D/A converter if you don’t have one. There are many models available, but models like the UCEC USB 2.0 Video Audio Capture Card are designed specifically for VHS transfer.
Once you buy one, connect the digital-to-analog adapter to your computer and your VCR or camera. Most adapters come with software that will guide you through the entire transfer process, including importing the resulting material into a fuller video editor or burning it directly to DVD. More information about installing the software and downloading the necessary drivers can be found on the installation disc, in the user manual or on the manufacturer’s website.
As in the previous case, we recommend inspecting the cassette and VCR to make sure they are clean. Particles on the tape can cause video transfer defects, and dirty heads can ruin an entire project.
Now for the main event. Insert the cassette into the VCR and the blank DVD or Blu-ray into your computer (or external player/recorder). The exact steps for conversion depend on which device and software you are using to capture the video. Recording and digitizing will happen in real time, which means you’ll have to painstakingly review all the footage (or do something else for a while) before you can finish the project. However, when it’s done, the content will be permanently saved digitally.
At this point, if you only want a digital file, you’re all set; you can edit, move, and name the file however you like. If you plan to burn the file to a DVD or Blu-ray disc, of course, you have one more step to take. Most conversion software has an option to burn the DVD or Blu-ray after you finish transferring the footage.
If not, find the resulting file on your computer and open it in iMovie, Windows Movie Maker, VLC or a similar program that can burn the footage to DVD. (You can also use these programs to edit the length of your video.) The burning process depends on the program you choose, so refer to the instructions.
Alternatively, you can use a direct digital conversion program that copies VHS footage onto a microSD card that you can insert into any viewing device. Keep in mind though – you may need extra cables and a larger SD card (try 64GB).
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VHS to Blu-ray
To convert old VHS to Blu-ray using a PC, you’ll need a computer with a Blu-ray burner drive and the appropriate third-party software. You will need an external drive if your computer does not have a built-in one. As for software, we recommend the budget (free), though outdated ImgBurn program for windows users. If you want to pay for a better, more modern alternative, we recommend Opencloner or BurnAware. Leawo Blu-ray Creator is the best and most convenient option for Mac.
We would recommend limiting the conversion of VHS or other tapes to films of sentimental value, as it is complicated and does not improve image quality. Converting VHS to Blu-ray will not affect picture quality, so the viewing experience will still be relatively poor. Note that Blu-ray players and burners usually work for DVD as well, so separate equipment for this is usually not required.