IF YOU started shooting videos of the family before the advent of digital camcorders, chances are good that you have a lot of analog tapes on the shelf - VHS, 8-millimeter, maybe even some old Betamaxes.
With DVD players rapidly replacing VCRs, you may also have thought about transferring those old movies of birthday parties and soccer games to DVD. And why not? Magnetic tape doesn't last forever, doesn't take kindly to changes in temperature and humidity over time and every time you play one the sound and image quality degrade.
CD-based media take up less space. They make it easier to find the video clip you really want, and with reasonable care, they'll preserve the quality of the movie unchanged through hundreds of viewings.
That said, over the years, I've tried a variety of PC-based gadgets that turn analog movies into digital video for burning onto DVDs or CDs. Unfortunately, most of them assumed that I wanted to be Steven Spielberg and spend weeks turning those old shots into fancy Hollywood productions. So I usually have given them a run-through, converted a tape or two, and decided the whole thing was just too convoluted.
What I really want is my movies on disc. No fuss, no muss, no complicated programs with timelines, audio overlays, transitions and arcane video settings.
So I was intrigued by a new $300 Sony hybrid drive called DVDirect. If you want the basics, it functions as a standalone DVD recorder: Just put a blank disc into the drive, hook it to your video camera, and press the playback key. When the tape is through playing, press another button and a few minutes later, out pops a finished DVD.
But connected to a PC, DVDirect is a much more sophisticated animal -a high-speed, state-of-the art DVD burner with software that creates complex videos, audio discs and photo slide shows, as well as backup and storage data discs. It will even record on dual-layer DVDs, which store twice as much video as standard ones.
The drive itself has the feel of high-quality, precision audio hardware. The gray, 6.5-by-2.5- by-9.2-inch case is designed to stand vertically, but can also be flipped to stand horizontally. A 10-button panel with a small, back-lit liquid crystal display controls standalone recording.
The drive has standard analog video and audio ports (including both composite and S-video inputs). Although you can use a VCR (or any source of video), the setup works best with a camcorder because you can see exactly what you're recording by watching the playback in the camera's preview screen. The format of analog tape you convert (VHS, 8 mm, etc.) doesn't matter as long as the camera or VCR can output standard video and audio.
For some unfathomable reason, the drive requires DVD+R or DVD+RW discs for standalone recording, although it will also burn DVD-R standard discs when connected to a PC. Both types should work in most DVD players, but they don't always, and the competing standards are among the many glitches that make burning DVDs harder than it should be.
I connected the drive to my Panasonic VHS-C camcorder, inserted a tape and put a disc in the DVDirect drive. That done, I had a choice of synchronized or manual recording.
Synchronized mode senses a playback signal from the camera and records everything from that point until the signal stops. It's best for straight, unattended recording. In manual mode, you can stop and start recording at any point, which lets you choose which portions of the tape you want to store.
Either way, every start and stop point produces a "title" that shows up as a separate production on the DVD menu. You also can set the drive to create "chapters" at five-, 10- and 15-minute intervals that break a title into smaller chunks for quick navigation. Sophisticated video programs automatically sense scene changes and create chapters at natural breakpoints. But for quick-and-dirty DVDs, this works reasonably well.
The DVDirect drive offers a choice of three quality settings, which translate into the amount of compression its hardware-based MPEG-2 encoder applies. (At the highest quality level a standard DVD will store an hour of video.) The LCD displays the amount of time left on the disc, and you can keep popping in tapes until the disc is full.
When you've finished a DVD, you have to push a button to "finalize" it, which takes a couple of minutes. But when I completed my first recording, took the disc upstairs and popped it into our family-room DVD player, everything was there - and the same with a half-dozen more videos. Big points for that!
The image quality ranged from slightly wavy to excellent, depending on the source (some of my tapes were 12 years old). The audio recording level - which is not adjustable - was set lower than it should have been, which required increasing the volume on the television set to hear it. But that didn't produce distortion and the sound quality was acceptable.