Odd coincidence that this came up today… just a couple of days ago I began a concerted effort to preserve my VHS by transferring it to digital media.
I wouldn’t use any solution that involved careful storage of VHS tape. No matter how well you preserve it, all you’re doing is slowing down the degradation… and VHS isn’t that high-quality to begin with. If you have video that’s important to you and that you want to keep in as high quality as possible, get it off of that analog medium and transfer it to digital, and the sooner the better. Digital doesn’t degrade.
My setup begins with a Sony TRV120 Digital8 camcorder, which goes for a very reasonable price (~$450 online) and is capable of doing a good analog-to-digital conversion. Dubbing VHS to high-quality digital tapes is a good way to preserve it, and the tapes are much more compact than VHS, too.
But even digital tapes are subject to the perils of magnetic media, so I’m sending my video on through the camcorder’s IEEE 1394 port (iLink to Sony, FireWire ™ to Apple) and on into my computer. If you’ve got a newer Mac or a Sony VAIO, you’ve probably got a 1394 port built-in, and if you don’t, you can pick up a decent 1394 card with a good software bundle for less than $100.
Of course, the digital video files are huge (about 12GB/hour), so compression is pretty much mandatory. But one of the silver linings of starting with a crappy format like VHS is that you can apply some pretty darned aggressive compression without making the quality worse. I can generally hammer my ex-VHS video down to less 100MB/hour with no noticeable loss of quality.
Once you’ve got the video to your hard drive, the next step is to burn it out to optical media. There’s no need to wait for DVD-R to reach a sane price… VideoCD (VCD) offers an effective solution today, and uses plain ol’ compact discs. Most popular CD burning packages can make VCDs, and most DVD players can play them. VCDs use MPEG-1 compression, which has vastly inferior quality to the MPEG-2 used by DVD, but a good compressor can make MPEG-1 video at least as good as VHS.
Videos that are of great sentimental value to me I keep on digital tape and in uncompressed video where feasible. But stuff I just taped off the TV goes great on a VCD. I’m in the process of transferring dozens of old Simpsons episodes, and once I do, I’m going to throw out those bulky videotapes and keep my whole collection in a fraction of the space.
Be warned that some DVD players can’t handle CD-R, and others are very picky about what types of CD-Rs they can read. The definitive site for information about making and playing VCDs is http://www.vcdhelp.com.