Monday, May 05, 2008

Don't Throw Away That VCR!

Several people have asked me about how they might be able to use their VCRs and DVD players and recorders once we transition to the all digital TV system early in 2009. Many people have built up large libraries of tapes and DVDs and want to make sure that they will still be able to enjoy them for years to come. Well, like so many other questions relating to the digital conversion, there is no simple answer. I will try to address some of the issues one at a time.

The good news is that you will be able to play back any tape or DVD that you have in your collection. If you have the VCR or DVD player connected to your analog TV, you will continue using it as you do now. If you purchase a new digital TV, standard definition or high definition, you will be able watch your tapes and DVDs. In many cases the DVDs will look better than ever. Unfortunately, some of your VHS tapes may look a bit worse, since the new digital TV may emphasize flaws in the tapes. The tapes and DVDs will continue to play back as long as they remain in good shape.

You should remember that tapes of all sizes and formats do degrade over time. As the tapes dry out, the iron oxide begins to separate from the plastic tape. Once that happens your priceless video of little Johnny’s T-Ball championship will fade into oblivion. While there is nothing you can do to prevent this from happening, keeping the tapes in a cool, dry environment will slow the degradation process. No matter how careful you are storing them, they will however cease to play back someday.

If you really want to keep some videos for a very long time, i.e. decades or more, copy the tape to a DVD or other digital medium. We don’t know how long DVDs will hold up, but for sure it will be longer than magnetic video tape. This holds true for any professionally copied VHS tapes such as movies or TV documentaries that you may have purchased.

Recording a TV program may be somewhat of a hassle for some as we convert to digital broadcasting. If you have cable or satellite service, you will not need to do anything different from what you are doing now. If, on the other hand, you are among the 20% of the US homes that gets TV over-the-air using an antenna, you will be in for some changes.

An analog VCR can record digital programs off the air if you connect it to a DTV converter box. The good news is that the picture, while not being recorded in digital form, will look great and result in a clean clear tape. The bad news is that if you connect the VCR to the DTV converter box, you will no longer be able to use many of the programming features on your VCR. For example, many set their VCR to record different programs from different channels at different times. You will no longer be able to program your VCR to change from one channel to another since you are no longer using the TV tuner in your VCR once you connect it to the DTV converter. So if you want to record Nova from CET on Tuesdays at 8 PM, you will need to set your VCR to record at 8 PM on Tuesday. That will work fine. You will not be able to program the VCR to change channels. For your Nova program, the VCR will need to be connected to the DTV converter and the converter set to CET. If you also want to record a program off another channel later on, you will need to manually change the channel on the DTV converter to the proper channel. If this sounds a bit confusing just remember that the tuner in your VCR, DVD recorder or analog TV set will no longer function after February 2009. The DTV converter will serve as the “tuner” and since it is not part of the VCR the VCR can’t control it.

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