Here's bad news if you have treasured home videos of your kids taking their first steps:
After 10 years, and sometimes sooner, the magnetic tape used in camcorders and VCRs loses substantial portions of the data it contained because of aging.
Scientists have been debating the survivability period since a 1995 article in Scientific American predicted less than 10 years. Other experts claim that tapes can survive up to 30 years.
A closet full of my once-precious family memories can tell you to believe the worst. It's terrible to pop a tape into the VCR and see your friends and family appearing as pale blobs in a fog.
Now, too late for much of my collection, I have three answers:
Deep-six your tape-based VCRs and camcorders and move on to digital camcorders and DVD recorders, like the new $500 Phillips DVDR75.
Seek a less complicated solution by getting a video-capture device for your PC or Mac that converts analog data from videotape into digital form that can be stored on computers, CDs or DVDs using burners.
Hire an outfit such as Yes- Video.com to transfer mailed videotapes and 8 mm movie film onto DVDs. The current take is that, burned onto discs, data could last up to 300 years.
The new DVD-Rs are designed to replace VCRs, sit alongside television sets and record either broadcast video or home movies on 4.7-gigabyte DVDs like those used by Hollywood. No computer is involved.
The Phillips DVDR75 comes with a conventional VHS slot as well as a tray for recording and playing DVDs, CD music, MP3 audio files and such.
It worked well. After connecting it to my TV exactly as one does a VCR or DVD player, I popped one of my remaining readable VHS tapes into the slot, placed a $1.50 blank DVD+RW in its place, and hit Play for VHS and Record for DVD. The VHS movies played on the television as they were recorded on the DVD blanks.
When you stop a recording, the hardware creates a DVD chapter on the disc. You can edit the layout by deleting chapters, name them with the remote, and change the index frame that will be displayed with each chapter's icon. Also, the recorder automatically creates icons and index frames that are easy to understand.
Set at the highest quality, the recorder can hold only an hour's worth of material, but this is a waste when recording tapes of far lesser quality. It does make startling HDTV-quality DVDs when you connect a digital camcorder to the box using a built-in FireWire link along with A/V ports for analog camcorders.
For recording VHS tapes, you can get up to 6 hours per DVD. Other settings allow 2 hours, 2 1/2 hours and 4 hours at varying quality. But with blank DVD+Rs selling for well under $2, why skimp? The old recordings appear brighter when played on a television set from a DVD player than from a VCR.
If you hate to mess with gadgets, YesVideo.com will convert tapes to digital format for about $35 for two hours of videotape or $50 for 250 feet of movie film.
Do it yourself or take it to the drugstore to avoid the gut wrench of seeing videotaped memories turned to white.
The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.