The Writers Workbench: Life Before DVD

06/19/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

So, how many of you out there have old VHS tape just sitting on a shelf gathering dust? Movies you once taped off television. Favorite episodes of series - perhaps even a full collection when you taped them every night or when a cable network ran a marathon. Or family videos of important occasions in your life.

Hands? Most of you? I thought so. Well, turn that frown upside down and let a smile be your umbrella on a rainy day. There's actually hope. It may not be perfect, it may not be for everyone, but... hope lives. Several products have begun to crop up that let you transfer your old videocassettes to digital. And that means not only to make DVDs out of them, but to convert them for playing on your iPod or media player. Here's one that handled the job nicely.

"The Writers Workbench" appears monthly on the website for the Writers Guild of America. To see this entire column, complete with product graphics and additional "TWW Notes," please click here


Honestech offers an interesting product for converting VHS tape to digital, not only letting you burn converted films to DVD, but also convert them to iPod and PSP formats. You can also create DVD movies from material on your camcorder. At the heart of the product, Honestech tech tries to keep things very simple, while adding a lot of options for the more adventurous.

For the most part, they succeed. On one level, "VHS to DVD" generally works terrifically. On another, I had some minor problems when you move away from the Easy mode.

To start with, though, the good side - how "VHS to DVD" works, and what it does well.

The product is a small device, about the size of a pack of cigarettes that you connect to your VCR and to your computer (with the enclosed USB cable). That's the entire set-up.

When you run the software, a screen comes up that lets you choose between Easy Wizard Mode and Advanced Mode. (There's a third option for converting audio, in case you want to connect to a turntable or cassette recorder and capture LPs and tapes.)

The Easy Wizard is, indeed easy, with clear options presented to you along the way, including what kind of connecting cables you're using, and with extremely descriptive graphics.

You're a bit limited here in your recording choices, but then, the point is just to be easy. For instance, in Easy Wizard Mode the longest you can capture for is two hours. Anything more, and you'd have to split it between multi-discs. The video you want to capture plays through a TV-like window in the screen, so you can make sure everything is playing properly and can set the tape to wherever you want to start. You click "record" and play the video - and then, according to whatever time option you chose during set-up, the recording will stop. The video is now "captured," and you click "Burn" to transfer it all to a DVD.

Up to that point, everything was smooth and easy as could be. I had a problem here which was user error, since I had a bad burner that had to be replaced. However, during another test, the program also crashed, so I'm not quite sure where the crash came from. After many tests, including after replacing the burner, there were no further crashes.

To be clear, although the bad burner was my problem, I still did some checking around, and Honestech's own website support notes that burning can be an issue for some. One thing they suggest is installing the program with your anti-virus program temporarily disabled. And one should be sure to install the latest patch, available to download from their website. But I want to reiterate - it only crashed that one time, and the reality of computers is that programs do occasionally crash.

Beginners aside, there will be many people who want to do more with their videos than just capture and burn in Easy Wizard Mode. For instance, you might want to edit out sections of the video (like commercials), or capture several short tapes to a DVD, or put in "chapters" for jumping through the video quicker, or add graphically-interesting transitions, for starters. Also, most people would likely prefer to burn a movie on a single DVD (Easy Wizard Mode records only at a higher resolution which means you'll need two DVDs to burn a feature-length movie). To do any of these different features than the default simplicity of Easy Wizard Mode, you'd need to select Advanced Mode.

One additional thing to note: when using Advance Mode, it requires the resolution of your system to be at 1024x768. For many people using larger LCD monitors, this might be your normal setting. But for others, the default is often 800x600, so you'll have to switch when you want to use the program. It's easy to do, usually not much more than right-clicking your mouse on your Windows Desktop - though that means the rest of your system fonts will appear much smaller when "VHS to DVD" is running.

On some levels, Advance Mode is quite easy (particularly the "capture video" phase, since the default options are likely what most people will select. But still, this mode is not for beginners, because some choices are required, and the more bells-and-whistles you want to use, the more work is required.

Along the way, the manual is provides helpful guidance, though there are lapses along the way. It's all clear on what to do - but occasionally when options are presented, it only describes those options, not why you should chose one over another. For example: you're given the option whether to capture video in DVD (MPEG) format, Long DVD format or AVI, though there's no explanation why you might want to chose one over another. And if you chose AVI, while it says you need to select a "codec" and provides all the options for doing so, it doesn't given any assistance about the differences between those codecs - or explain what a codec is. (It's software that encrypts or compresses a data stream, like digital video.)

A quick lesson, being as simplistic as possible - DVD (MPEG) is the recommended format for "VHS to DVD" and allows for better quality than Long DVD (which is also an MPEG format) -- however the latter lets you burn more material onto a disc. Also, they both are the formats that let you convert to iPod or PSP format. On the other hand, capturing with the AVI format is likely best to use if you burn your material using a third-party system (like Nero), though it's a bit more complicated, since it uses the aforementioned "codecs". End of lesson.

One thing to keep in mind is that when you capture video material, the better the quality the larger size of the file, and even a movie as short as 90 minutes would likely require two discs to burn it to. ("VHS to DVD" gives you the option to select lower-quality capturing, and the drop-off shouldn't be too bad, while allowing you to put everything on one disc.)

If your movie is split into files - or if you're simply capturing separate files that you want to put on a single disc - the program does a very good job to let you edit them, under the Edit tab. You put the files you want to edit into the "Storyboard" at the bottom of the screen, and from there you can do such things as add transitions and merge the files before saving them. It's fairly simple to drag a control knob and get to the location in your movie you want to edit. What would be nice, though, is if there was a way you could move the footage a "frame" at a time, providing you greater control. But alas, there isn't, so you limited to a sort of trial-and-error effort.

One small quibble with the program here. Though you can change what folder you want to save your captured and edited material in - you can't set this as the default. It always reverts back to the factory setting. That means you have to remember to change the folder each time. Hardly a problem, but an annoying and unnecessary bother.

Once you have your files edited the way you want it, converting them for your iPod is a breeze. It's as simple as clicking the iPod icon. After importing these movies into iTunes, they ran wonderfully and looked terrific. No movie will look perfect, there's a slight herky-jerky appearance, in part due to the conversion, but also but that's a video player matter.

Burning the captured file was quite easy, as well. The program authors the file first - so that the video will run on a DVD player, as well as on a computer. The options are limited, compared to a full-featured program, though it handles some basics fine, like adding background images and themes.

Again, though, there are several options to choose, and the manual gives limited assistance (for example, what "UDI files" are and whether you should select the UDI files option). But when I selected all options, things worked fine.

All in all, "VHS to DVD" did very well. It's incredibly simple to use in Easy Wizard Mode, though there are more limitations than many people would likely want. Advanced Mode, though, is quite good and where the program is most robust. While there are several aspects to the program that could bear improving, my biggest complaint is that the manual wasn't as clear as throughout as it should be.

The program will do a good job transferring old videotapes to DVD, and it's a special pleasure to be able to convert them to MP4 format for importing into an iPod. (And again, it can also be used to convert LPs and audiotapes to digital.) The Honestech VHS to DVD 3.0 Deluxe retails at the time of writing for $80, though it's available on for about $60.

(Note: Subsequent to the writing of this, the company has released version 4.0, which includes Blu-Ray support.)

To see this column complete with product graphics and additional "TWW Notes," visit the WGA website.