Posted on February 15th, 2014 9 comments
About 10 years ago I helped to develop a product that converted videotapes to DVDs. It was called the HP DVD Movie Writer. It was sold for several years under the HP model numbers dc3000, dc4000, and dc5000. Those products are obsolete now, and the software drivers and application software haven’t been updated to work on the more modern operating systems like Windows 7 and 8. I still maintain the FAQ webpage for it and so I periodically get questions about what to use these days to convert analog video tapes to digital formats when customers find their Movie Writers are no longer supported. I’ll attempt to answer that question in this article. The HP DVD Movie Writer was introduced at a time when few computers had a DVD writer included, so it made sense to bundle a DVD writer with a video capture device along with the necessary software and offer it as a solution.
Converting videos from tape to DVD can be very laborious, and most people are primarily interested in preserving the video in a format that is likely to outlast video tape and be playable on devices that people are still using years from now. The VCR player has been relegated to the closet in many homes years ago and videotapes are gradually degrading, so it’s important to get them copied to a digital format if you want to preserve these videos for your children and grandchildren. You may also want to convert them so that you can upload them to a video sharing service like YouTube.
Most video capture products available today come with software that will help you edit the videos, and that can be fun and produce amazing results, but it requires some effort and a bit of learning to edit a video. The way most home videos are shot make them hard to watch because they have no story line along with little or no narration and so they tend to sit on a shelf forever after being watched once or twice. After watching a few home videos, it really gives one an appreciation for all that goes into making up a video that is entertaining to watch. But it’s still nice to know your old videos are still there ‘just in case’ one day you get ambitious and want to create a nice video for your family to have and share with their children. As time goes by, it will get harder to find a player you can connect up to a TV to play them. Capturing analog video tapes to digital files is essential if you ever want to watch the videos again at some point in the future.
Now that many computers include DVD writers, when people ask me what I recommend for converting video, I generally tell them to use a USB video capture device from a reputable company. Very inexpensive video capture devices are available now, some for less than $10 from no-name Chinese companies that you can buy on Amazon.com or Ebay. I’d stay away from them as they usually come with very poor documentation, no support, and minimal software included. I’d stick with a device from a well-known company that has been in the business for a while like Diamond Multimedia. The Diamond VC500 is one of their more popular products that has been around for a while and in general gets good reviews.
The VC500 costs around $35 and has software included with it that lets you capture and edit the video as well as produce the DVD. Capturing simply converts the video on your analog tapes into digital files, known as MPEG files, which typically end with the extension MPG. For preservation purposes, this is the most important step, that is, getting the videos into a digital format. Editing involves cutting up the mpg files and add things like title blocks, transitions between segments, dubbing in music or narration, and in general, making your videos more watchable. It’s what we take for granted when we watch a commercially produced video. A well-edited video is a joy to watch.
DVD authoring is what allows you to set up a navigation menu and chapters so that when you put the DVD in the player, you can more easily select which part of it you want to watch. You don’t have to split up the video on the DVD in chapters, of course, it just makes it more convenient to watch, especially if you have multiple events stored on the same DVD or if you want to be able to watch it in segments.
The software included with the Diamond VC500 is compatible with all modern version of Windows from XP to Windows 8. One of the programs the VC500 includes is Showbiz from Arcsoft, and that’s the same software HP shipped with the HP DVD Movie Writer. I found it easy to learn and use and it can do everything you will need from capturing and editing the video to authoring the DVD. Showbiz has been around for a long time and has all the features you’d need if you want to edit the video as well.
The items included with the VC500 include the software installation CD, the video capture device which attaches to a USB port, an AV cable that connects to your VCR or analog video source, and a Quick Start Guide. When you insert the installation CD into your computer, you will be prompted to install up to 3 programs. I first installed the driver, then the software called EZ-Grabber, and then Showbiz. There was also a program called Dyyno Broadcaster that was installed, but I don’t think that I will use it. It appears to be an on-line video sharing site like YouTube, but with a program to make it easier to share your videos with others on the Dyyno website. You need to set up a login on that site if you want to use it. In reality, I believe you could get by with just installing the driver and Showbiz, since Showbiz has the ability to capture video like EZ-Grabber as well as editing and DVD authoring. But EZ-Grabber may be easier to use if all you want to do is get the files in digital format for playback on a computer.
If you have a lot of videos, make sure to have plenty of hard drive space available since capturing video consumes about 3 to 4 GB per hour of video. You can capture in lower resolution to save space, of course, but for the best quality capture, I’d recommend MPEG2 720×480 quality since that is the native format of DVDs. There’s not much point in trying to capture analog sources at HD quality since they are not high resolution sources and so it won’t help make the image look any better. And I wouldn’t worry so much about editing the videos or making DVDs right away, just get them all captured to MPG files, rename them to something that will let you know what’s in the file possibly with the year they were shot such as “1992-hawaii-vacation.mpg” and that will help you to organize them into easy-to-find files for when you do want to create your DVD masterpieces. And I’d recommend you keep the original mpg files even after you’ve made DVDs, since that way you can always cut and splice segments of video together to create new DVDs should the need arise.
When you burn a DVD, make sure to use the write-once media, not the re-writable media, even though re-writable media sounds like it’s more flexible. The name for write-once media is DVD+R or DVD-R. Rewritable media is called DVD+RW or DVD-RW and it’s really better for storing computer data like a backup that you may need to overwrite in the future than it is for making playable DVDs. The rewritable DVDs are not as compatible with DVD players as are the write-once DVDs because their reflectivity is lower. Also, make sure to get a known brand of media like Verbatim, Maxell, or Sony because name brand media is supported by most DVD writers. Store and no-name media brands of media may be cheaper but do not always record or play back reliably.
I wrote up this entry because I got a lot of questions over the past few months about video preservation so I wanted to give people a link I could point them to so that I’d have an up-to-date recommendations for a product that I know works and provides an economical solution for analog-to-digital video conversion. Some people use a service for converting video tapes to DVD, but you’ll probably spend as much per tape you have converted as you will for the VC500. So if you get a capture device you may learn a valuable skill and have some fun in the process. Who knows, that next viral video may be on your shelf, just waiting for you to capture it and upload it to YouTube for audience to appreciate it. 😉
Posted on December 20th, 2012 3 comments
I’ve found myself answering questions about the FlipPal for some of my friends who are interested in buying a portable scanner and so I thought I’d write up a review of it. I’ve owned a FlipPal for over a year have been advertising it on my website. The reason I promote it is because I think it’s a great product, but without an explanation, people don’t know how it would benefit them over owning a conventional scanner which you can get built into a printer these days.
The Flip-Pal is a mobile scanner whose scan window is 5″ x 7″ which makes it great for scanning printed photos that were taken by film cameras. The resolution of the scans will allow you to produce images that are indistinguishable from the original and I find the image quality and color accuracy to be better than other digital scanners I’ve used. The images I have of my childhood are all on prints and if I want to share these photos I need to put them in digital format. And scanning a photo to a digital format is a good idea anyway for the sake of preservation, since printed photos will continue to degrade over time whereas digital files do not.
If you already have a scanner and you are comfortable using it to scan your photos, then there’s not as much incentive to getting a Flip-pal unless you need one or more of its unique features. The thing that differentiates this scanner is that it is battery powered and doesn’t need to be connected to a computer to work and that makes it very portable. It’s slightly smaller and lighter than an iPad so it’s easy to take with you. There are no other portable flat bed scanners like it that scan without having to be connected to a computer. It allows you to take the scanner to the photo, as opposed to bringing the photo to the scanner. That might be important if you have photos you want to scan, but the owner of the photos doesn’t want to part with them or risk sending them in the mail.
Could you use a digital camera to make a digital copy of a print photo? Sure, you could do that but the result would likely be a disappointment because it would look like a picture of a picture and you’d have to deal with focus, glare, distortion, and lighting issues. The Flip-Pal allows you to make high quality digital images of existing photos whereas a digital camera is very clumsy to use for that purpose and would produce a rather poor result.
I have an 8.5″ x 11″ flatbed scanner that is built into my printer. When I want to use it, I have to launch the scanner software and wait for a minute or two for it to start and then put the picture under the lid, click the mouse a few times, preview the image, resize the scan area (since the software always seems to guess wrong size), scan it, save it and if I have a few items to scan I find myself standing up, walking over to the printer and back to the computer, and sitting back down for each photo and it’s an inconvenience. The Flip-Pal scans directly to the SD card so you can do a bunch of scans and then later you can unload the photos and then crop, edit and rename them on your computer when you have time. This makes work flow associated with scanning multiple photos much more convenient. You can work your way through scanning a shoe-box full of photos or a photo album during the course of watching a TV show or having a phone conversation. It also has a feature that if the photo that is in an album with a protective transparency over it and removing it from the album could risk damage to it, you can flip the scanner over and scan the image through the transparency in the album. This is possible because you can see ‘through’ a window on the bottom of the scanner to align it on the photo (hence the name, Flip-Pal). It’s a lot easier than trying to put a large photo album on to a flatbed scanner where it almost always scans at a skewed angle and is prone to falling off or shifting during the scan. The FlipPal also boots up instantly so if you’re in a hurry to do a single scan, it’s much faster than a traditional flatbed scanner.
The SD card is probably the most common of all memory cards since many laptops have SD card readers built-in. The Flip-Pal also includes an SD reader that fits in your USB port just in case you don’t have a card reader on your PC. And using this technique to move the images around gets over the issue of being Mac vs. PC compatible. Both Macs and PCs can read its SD card format and jpg files with no problem.
I find that having my old photos in digital format makes them much easier to share. An old photo shared on Facebook is much more likely to get noticed because they bring back so many wonderful memories. Anyone can upload the latest images from a smartphone, and many do, but if you want to make someone’s day, show them an image from 40 years ago of their mom when she was a child, and that will get some attention.
Does it have any disadvantages? I would say that the 5″ x 7″ size can be a limitation if you want to scan a larger image. But it comes with ‘stitching’ software and so if the image is too large to fit in a 5″ x 7″ area, you can take several scans and have them stitched together on your PC using the included software. But I find it to be enough work that I generally will use my large scanner when the need arises to scan a large image.
Some people have commented about the small size of LCD screen, but it’s important to recognize this little screen is just part of a user interface, it’s not intended to render a high resolution image of the scan so you can’t compare it to a display on a smart phone. It’s there to make the device more convenient to use. If you want to share scanned digital photos, you’re not going to use the internal display to do it, you’ll still want to move them to your PC for viewing/editing/sharing.
I like the fact that the FlipPal requires no software to be installed on a PC to work. How many times have you upgraded to the latest operating system and found that it no longer supported your old printer or scanner because the manufacturer didn’t provide drivers for it? That can’t happen with the FlipPal.
The FlipPal is a great tool for anyone involved scrapbooking, archiving, or just for sharing the old family photo albums where it has found many ardent fans. I enjoy its convenience and simplicity. There’s nothing to learn, just press one button and you’re up and making scans in no time. If that sounds appealing, head on over to the FlipPal website and get yours today.
Posted on November 14th, 2012 82 comments
I’ve been hearing an ad on the radio lately about a discovery that the power company doesn’t want you to know about from a guy named Frank Bates. He mentions that he could get in a lot of trouble for talking about it and calls the power companies and the government “incompetent, lying crooks who are counting on your ignorance and fear to keep your electric bills and heating bills criminally high.” OK, I’m intrigued, so what’s this guy selling?
He wants to show you the secret of how he beat ’em, and how you can beat ’em too. It’s described as a “weird” trick on the website. It sounds almost too good to be true. You can hear the commercial along with a video at the Power4Patriots website.
Upon looking further into what Mr. Bates is selling, I discovered it’s a CDROM and downloadable access to a series of pdf ebooks (about 300 pages total) and videos covering the topics of solar and wind energy. Much of it involves DIY information on how to build your own solar panels, wind turbines, and solar water heaters from components you can find in local hardware stores and online for less than you can buy equivalent off-the-shelf products. The value of this ‘package’ is $297, but with the 90% discount, the CD and downloads can be yours for only $27 + 2.99 S&H. After purchasing it, you’ll find that if you pay $67 more, you get a physical spiral bound book along with 3 DVDs that also cover solar and wind DIY projects which is basically the same material, just in a format that might be more convenient for you. If you turn that down, you’ll be offered the printed book for another $27. After that, you’ll be offered heirloom seeds for another $67 to help you through any upcoming societal collapse. So there’s a lot of upselling going on after the initial $27 investment. I’m also now on the email list and I suspect I’ll be hearing a lot more from the company in the future.
How do I know this? I know this because I invested the $29.99 in the ebook/CDROM product. After all, what kind of blogger would review a product he didn’t own? I gotta tell you, this guy’s good. I’m surprised I got out without spending another $134 for the physical book/DVDs and heirloom seeds.
You’d have to be living under a rock if you haven’t heard all the fuss about how Chinese solar panels are coming down in price so fast that they are putting companies out of business that were trying to manufacture solar panels in the U.S. Witness what happened with Solyndra and Abound Solar.
One of the ebooks and 6 of the videos are related to making your own solar panels. I was curious to see just how cheap these homemade panels would be and the book shows a bill of materials of $175 for a 65 watt panel. That’s almost $3/watt not including your labor, and the amount of labor looks quite substantial. I’d estimate the labor at 10 hours per panel or more. That’s not cheap, especially now that you can get manufactured panels that are $1/watt that are already assembled and guaranteed. The manufactured panels are designed to last 25 years, are safety agency-approved, and can withstand all kinds of weather, including hail up to 1 inch in diameter. So trying to roll your own solar panels would be a waste of time and money. And the cost of a solar system doesn’t just depend just on the panel cost. The inverter costs about $.50/watt which is quite expensive in the grand scheme of things, or about half of what you’d be paying for the panels.
And then there’s the installation cost. Of course, you can do the installation yourself if you’re capable and comfortable working on roofs. Once you add in the other ancillary parts and equipment, you can put together a solar system for about $2/watt these days using off-the-shelf components. That’s about half of what they cost just 4 years ago, thanks primarily to the drop in panel costs.
A typical house in the U.S. uses about 730 kWh in electricity per month. To satisfy this need, you are looking at approximately a 5 kW system. That system would cost about $10,000 for materials even if you’re handy and can do the installation yourself. With U.S. electricity rates now at an average at $.12/kWh, it would take about 10 years to pay for itself. That’s not too bad, considering most things you buy for your home will just depreciate over time and not save you a dime, let alone break even or start making you money in the long run. My grid-tied solar system is 5.6 kW and I haven’t purchased any electricity since it was installed nearly 4 years ago but I do get charged about $8/month to be connected to the grid. I have accumulated a surplus (about 5000 KWh) on the meter that could run an electric car for more than 20,000 miles.
The radio commercials imply that you could slash your energy bills and live free of these greedy utility companies but you cannot do that if you install a grid-tied solar system with net metering, which is the most common kind. To disconnect from your utility company, you’d need to have a battery storage system, a charge controller, and a backup generator for those times that you may have a few cloudy days in a row. A set of batteries that would hold a day’s charge of 24 kWh would cost at least another $4K and generator would add another $1K to it. So you’re looking at a much bigger expense when you talk about completely disconnecting from the power grid, I’d say at least $5K more. And those batteries would need to be replaced every 6 years or so. That makes the whole payback period kind of a moot point because of this extra recurring expense so unless you live in an area where there is no grid power, or you believe we are on the verge of complete societal collapse, it’s hard to justify an off-grid system when you can get away with the less expensive grid-tied solar system.
There are some other books included in the package related to making and installing a wind turbine (probably good for 5-10% of the average household energy needs), and some simple solar hot water and solar hot air DIY projects. Bonus materials include ebooks on surviving disasters, storing emergency water, and building a solar cooker.
So for $27, you get 10 ebooks all of which contain some useful information, especially if you’re into renewable energy or worrying about Armageddon. I didn’t feel ripped off afterwards, although the quality of some of the graphic images in the pdf files was pretty poor. I don’t know what the printed materials might look like, but the numbers on many of the charts were unreadable like the image shown below.
I’m always intrigued when I hear an over-the-top advertisement for an energy product. Most of the time they turn out to be truly worthless and horrible investments. But this one is harmless enough, and you might even find a few good ideas for your $27. But don’t get your hopes up that you’ll take your electric and heating bills down to nothing without a significant investment in time and money even if you follow all of the DIY information in the ebooks.
Posted on October 15th, 2009 11 comments
I got a new bike earlier this summer (a Kona Dew Deluxe) and it’s a sort of cross between a mountain bike and a road bike. It uses the narrow 700 cm road tires and so I’m learning to deal with Presta valves whenever I need to inflate the tires. That requires putting an adapter on the valve stem since my air compressor is set up for much more common Schrader valves.
One of the annoyances of bicycling on the Front Range of Colorado is the abundance of thorns called ‘goat heads‘. They will easily puncture bicycle tires. I learned this many years ago when I purchased my first bike in Colorado only to get two flats tires on the same day I took it for its first spin. When I returned to the bike shop, they asked if I had put TR tubes in it yet. TR tubes? “What are those and why didn’t you let me know about this when I bought the bike?” I was new to Colorado and never heard of TR tubes. “TR” stands for thorn resistant and their outside wall is about 4 times thicker than that of standard tubes and so the goat heads generally cannot penetrate in far into the tube wall enough to puncture it. After installing these tubes, I didn’t have any more problems with flat tires from the goat heads on my mountain bike.
However, with my new bike, despite putting TR tubes in it before leaving the bike shop, I’ve had several flats from goat heads. I guess it’s because the rubber on both the tire and the tube is thinner to begin with than standard 26″ mountain bike tires. So I needed another plan. I see a lot of Slime tube sealant for sale these days in bike shops, and I was wondering if there would be a way to get it into tubes that had these newfangled Presta valves since the cores didn’t appear to be removable. I looked on the Internet and found several websites that talked about a method of using cutters to clip off the last few threads on the part that holds on the nut you need to loosen to put air in Presta valves. This causes the threaded part to fall into the tube which allows enough room to put the Slime in the tire. Then you have to push the threaded part back up into the stem and secure it with the nut, which now has no locking thread to keep you from unscrewing it all the way. I was hoping that I would not have to do that. I found that I was in luck because my tubes had Presta valves that allowed me to remove their cores. If you look at the part of the valve that has the threads to hold the valve cap on and it has flats on it, then that means the core can be unscrewed.
This Presta valve above has flats on the threaded part that holds on the cap which means the core can be unscrewed from the valve stem.
In my case, I already had some Slime but my local bike shop guy, Mark at International Bike in Greeley, is a strong proponent of True Goo. He believes that this product is easier than Slime to put in the tire due to its lower viscosity and that it seals better too.
If you search on the Internet, you’ll see a lot of people telling you these tube sealants don’t work. I think the reason for this is that it’s still possible to get a flat even with tube sealant, especially if the hole is so big that the sealant comes out so fast it can’t solidify. Also, people are much more likely to post a rant about a product that let them down rather than to take the time to post a positive review. In addition, when tire sealant works, you don’t really have hard evidence to let you know that you would have gotten a flat if you didn’t have the sealant in the tube. So it’s hard to measure tube sealant’s effectiveness.
In my case, I had the perfect experiment. My rear tire’s tube was losing nearly all its air every 2 days. It meant that each time I wanted to go for a ride, I needed to put air in the tire. I had debated on whether to patch or replace the tube, but then I realized that it would be a great experiment to see for myself whether tire sealant actually works, especially on slow leaks, which are the kind you generally get from the tiny holes that goat heads put in the tubes.
In order to put the sealant in the tire, my bicycle guy gave me some good advice. The rubber transfer tube that comes with these sealants is sized to be a press-fit on Shrader valves, which is much too large in diameter to seal on Presta valve stems. However, if you gradually cut the top of the cone-shaped nozzle until it is a press-fit for a .22 caliber cartridge, it will also be a press fit on a Presta valve which is about .235″ in diameter. You can also use the .22 bullet as a cap because the red cap that is included with it will no longer fit after you cut that much of the tip off the nozzle. You can use a spent .22 caliber casing or something else that is similar in diameter if you’re worried about using live ammunition to seal the bottle. Here’s a picture of what it looks like:
If your Presta valve has a removable core, you can even put the sealant in when the tire is on the bike. Just rotate the valve to the top, insert the nozzle on the valve stem, and rotate it back around to the bottom. Squeeze in about 3 ounces of fluid, rotate back to the top, remove the bottle. Then replace the valve core and fill it with air.
I found that my tire that leaked down every 2 days consistently has now held its pressure for several weeks, which leads me to believe that this stuff actually works as advertised.