Many households contain a stack of increasingly dusty VHS tapes, containing a world of memories and family history. Over just a few years those tapes will slowly deteriorate and become unusable, if they're left in their original format. Transferring them to a DVD is the most straightforward way to preserve the tapes from your VCR. You can have that done professionally, or do it at home easily with a combination VHS/DVD designed for dubbing.
What You Can Copy
Before you start, it's important to understand what you can and can't copy. Your home movies, for example, are fair game. You can copy them freely from their original tape to DVD format. If you've purchased copyrighted material in VHS format, it's generally accepted that you have a right to back up that tape to a different format to protect your investment. However, the Digital Millenium Copyright Act makes one important exception. If the tape is copy-protected in any way, it's illegal to circumvent that copy protection.
The easiest way to transfer your old tapes to DVD is with a combination VHS/DVD recorder, available from most major manufacturers. Insert your original videotape into the VHS side and a blank DVD into the DVD side. Most models will begin recording at a single click of the remote. If your tape hasn't been played for a while, it's best to wind it all the way to the end and then rewind it to the beginning before you start. That's called "retensioning," and it ensures that your tape will wind easily from one spool to the other. This process reduces the risk of distortion as the tape plays back.
Beyond the Basics
High-quality recorders have extra features to provide better-quality DVDs. Many automatically compensate for flaws in your original tape, restoring some of the lost video quality. Others have easy, menu-driven options for starting and stopping your tapes to bypass unwanted footage. The best way is to digitize your tape to a hard drive first and then burn to the DVD as a separate step. That gives you the opportunity to connect the recorder to your computer and edit the video before it's finalized. This extra step requires some software and video-editing skills, but it's not the professional-level job that it used to be.
Things are a bit more complicated if your original tapes aren't all in the common VHS format. If you have home movies on compact VHS-C tapes, those just need an adapter to fit into the VHS/DVD recorder. Other formats such as Beta, 8 mm cassettes, Hi-8 and Mini-DV are completely unrelated to VHS, so you'll need a working camcorder or VCR capable of playing back that format. Your VHS/DVD recorder can accept audio-video or digital inputs from most other devices, and once they're connected, the recording process is very similar. A few leading manufacturers incorporate a memory-card slot, so you can use the same device to transfer video from your current cameras and phones as well.
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