The following is a Plus Edition article written by and copyright by Dick Eastman.
Now is the time to copy your old VHS tapes to digital DVD media. The upcoming holiday season makes many of us stop to consider family documents, photographs, and videos. As we gather together for holiday events, many of us take new pictures, both still photographs and video. Over a period of many years, some of us have collected boxes of pictures and videos in whatever formats were available at the time.
One problem with stored videos in boxes is signal deterioration. For the remainder of this article, I will write "VHS videotapes," but the same is true of the 8mm and Hi8 videotapes that came along later. All of these tapes are recorded in an analog format, and the information recorded on the magnetic tape will deteriorate and become "noisy" over a period of years. This noise will appear as "snow flakes" that show up momentarily within the displayed video images. Colors may also fade.
As the signal deteriorates even more with passing years, the pictures eventually will become so weak that vertical synchronization is difficult to maintain; the displayed image will flicker and roll. After a few more years pass, the data recorded on the videotape becomes so weakened that the video is no longer watchable. Your videos of long-past family events will be lost to future generations.
The life expectancy of VHS videotapes varies widely, depending on the quality of the tape used, the heat and humidity of the storage location, the amount of stray electromagnetic fields in the storage location, and also how many times the tape is replayed. Every time an analog videotape is played, a bit more signal is lost. You can expect to keep VHS videotapes for at least ten years. A high quality videotape that has been properly stored will probably last twenty-five years or more. However, very few VHS videotape will be playable fifty years after they were recorded. And, of course, this assumes that VHS players will still be available in fifty years, an unlikely event. In fact, it is becoming difficult to purchase a new VHS player today, other than a few devices that have both VHS and DVD drives in them that are designed to copy from VHS to DVD.
Of course, you can always copy the VHS videos to new VHS tapes. If you have older videos recorded on videotape of unknown quality, it would be a good idea to copy it to some sort of high quality storage media right now. That will help preserve what you already have. Still, copying to new VHS videotape creates three problems:
- The new tapes still are analog and will deteriorate still further. By copying VHS-to-VHS, you are only slowing down the deterioration, not stopping it.
- Within another decade or two, VHS players will only be found in a few museums. Even today, the amount of new VHS equipment sold is dropping rapidly. I doubt if you will be able to purchase a new VHS player five years from now. While you may be able to copy tapes today, nobody will be able to play them at family reunions of the future.
- Blank VHS tapes are in short supply. If you shop around, you can still find blank tapes but they are disappearing. Within two or three years, blank VHS tapes probably will no longer be available.
A better solution is to copy the analog VHS tapes to a modern digital format. Digital files can be played time and time again. They can even be copied multiple times with no degradation in quality. Digital signals do not have "noise" induced by the passage of time or by frequent replaying. The displayed image will remain as crisp and viewable as when it was first recorded on the digital media.
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