Converting your old home VHS tapes into digital files may feel like a never ending project, especially if you’ve got decades of memories stored in the aging format. The process isn’t quite as straightforward as digitizing photographs or negatives and it can be difficult to track down a VCR to even play the tapes, let alone convert them. The VHS format wasn’t intended to be archival, and chances are your old home movies are already starting to degrade. However, once you convert VHS to digital, you can then use one the best free video editing software to clean up and share your videos with friends and family.
If you’ve got the time, you can convert your VHS tapes to digital at home with a few tools. If your tapes are particularly old, or you’re short on time, there are services that will do it for you. Here’s our guide for getting started.
How to digitize VHS tapes at home
If you want to digitize your VHS tapes at home you are going to need a working VCR. These aren’t impossible to find, but they can be difficult to track down. If you don’t already have one in your possession, you can usually find one for sale second-hand on Amazon or eBay—prices vary widely though so be prepared to shop around. You will need one that has video and audio composite jacks.
In addition to that VCR you will need a USB-to-composite video converter and a computer with USB ports. USB-to-composite video converters are easy to find, but like a used VCR the price point on these devices vary—anywhere from $12 for a very basic setup up to $80.
On the low end is the ABLEWE Mini RCA to HDMI converter ($14.99), which can convert an analog stream from your VCR to 720p or 1080p digital. However, you’ll need to provide your own software to capture the video.
Another low-cost option is the REDGO Video Audio VHS VCR USB Capture Card ($12.99), which can convert both NTSC and PAL video (good if you have a video from overseas), has an S-Video port, and doesn’t require external power. It’s compatible with Macs and PCs, though Mac owners will need to use QuickTime Player to capture video.
In the mid range is the DIGITNOW USB Video Capture Card Device Converter ($21.99) which, in addition to RCA connectors, also has an S-Video connector. It’s compatible with both Mac and PCs, captures video in H.264, AVI, MPEG2, MPEG4 and MP3, and comes with its own capture software.
On the higher end is the Elgato Video Capture ($87.11). The USB-to-composite converter plugs into your VCR and computer (Mac and PC) to digitize those old tapes. It comes with its own video-capture software, and outputs at 640 x 480.
Most converters come with downloadable software to process the transfer. Before you begin the process you will want to make sure that you’ve installed that on your computer. Once the software is installed in your computer you are ready to begin. Plug the USB side of the converter into your computer and the red, white and yellow cables into your VCR. Most composite plugs also have an S-Video plug. If your VCR is new enough that it has an S-Video port you can use that, as it will give you slightly better quality.
Pop the VHS that you are looking to digitize into the VCR and rewind to the spot where you’d like it to start from. Press play on your VCR and hit record from the software on your computer and the VHS will start converting. Everything will be happening in real time, and while you don’t necessarily have to sit and watch the process, doing so can help you make adjustments to the original VHS’s tracking. The software converts the files into MP4s that you can save on external harddrives or upload to the cloud. If you are doing a big digitization project, it’s worth investing in a dedicated drive to store your files.
How to digitize VHS tapes: Mail-in services
If you are short on time or want to leave it to the pros, there are a number of mail-in services that will digitize your VHS tapes for you. Prices and delivery methods will vary depending on what company you use — some companies will send you back DVDs, while others save your files to a thumb drive or as files to be downloaded from the cloud. These are some companies that we recommend for the service.
Big box stores like Walmart and Costco use this company for the digitization services that they advertise through their stores. Yes Video has been in business for 20 years; their prices for digitization start at $19.49 and come with either a DVD or USB and digital copies available through MemoryCloud for 60 days. Digital files are typically captured at 720x480. There is a two-hour limit on DVD transfer and no time limit on USB transfers. Yes Video provides customers with a prepaid UPS label for shipping their media and everything is tagged with a barcode once it arrives so customers can track their order through the digitization process.
Dig My Pics
Dig My Pics offers three different ways to digitize your old VHS tapes: tape to DVD, tape to direct download and tape to hard drive. Tape to DVD and tape to direct download both cost $11.95 for the first two hours of footage. If you are looking for MP4 files, tape to direct download will be your best bet. Tape to hard drive is $19.95 and files are delivered as editable .AVI files. Dig My Pics offers a service called Video Tape Alchemy that lets customers arrange clips, create chapters and title pages for each clip and create digital photos from video footage. Dig My Pics has no minimum order on tape digitization.
Scan My Photos
Digitization of individual tapes to DVD for $19.95, for an additional $2 per tape customers can have their files converted to MP4 and sent as a digital download or shipped back on a thumbdrive. Turnaround time on digitization is 2-4 weeks. Videos must be NTSC format to be transferred. Scan My Photos also offers a prepaid box video transfer rate for customers who are looking to digitize a large number of VHS tapes. The pre-paid box costs $245 and can hold up to 14 tapes. Tapes can be converted to MP4 and stored on a thumbdrive for an additional $83.95 or as a digital download from a Cloud service starting at $42.95.
Legacy Box uses a one-size-fits-all pricing structure when it comes to digitization. The company ships you a box, you add barcodes to your tapes you want digitized, put the tapes in the box, and ship it back to the company. Digitizing two items costs $59, while you can digitize up to 40 items for $1,009. You have the option to have media delivered as a digital download, a thumb drive or a disc set. The price depends on how much you are digitizing.
Legacy Box regularly has sales, so if you catch one at the right time you can get up to 50 percent off your order, making this one of the most cost-effective options. Tapes that have been digitized on a thumb drive or as a digital download from the cloud are saved as MPEG-4 files. Every VHS tape is digitized to an individual DVD. Legacy Box offers complimentary splicing if a tape’s film is broken.
Fotobridge offers package deals on tape to digital conversion: five tapes cost $129.95, ten cost $254.95, while 100 tapes will cost 1994.95. Every package comes with discs, Intelligent Digital Finishing and return shipping. For an extra fee you can have your files saved on a thumbdrive ($20 for five tapes) or to a harddrive as uncompressed AVI files ($259.95 for five tapes).
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Jeanette D. Moses is a New York based filmmaker and photographer known for capturing the intimacy of New York City's creative communities. She has been freelancing for Tom's Guide since 2020. She loves shooting music, tinkering with new technology, all things analog, and learning about archaic photographic processes. She’s been photographing the music scene in New York City since 2012 and began writing about photography shortly after. In addition to Tom’s Guide, her stories have been published on Pop Photo, DP Review, Digital Photo Pro and The Phoblographer. In 2021 she was selected as one of Dr. Martens Filmmakers of the Year to direct a film about New York City's DIY music scene.