My equipment came in really fast, so I’ve been testing everything out this week. I made a new board in Trello to track my progress, using the colored labels to represent the different pieces of equipment.
The orange label stands for the Honestech VHS to DVD 7.0 Delux A-D converter I purchased in Week 8, and as you can see from the screen shot, it’s had a lot of problems.
I wanted to try using a consumer-level A-D converter for the lab because they’re affordable (I could buy one for every deck and there would be no need to plug or unplug wires) and the software is very user friendly. I figured that a solid professional VHS player and TBC would help mitigate loss of quality in the converter (so wrong!). So, I looked at compatibility, time on the market, and reviews, and it came down to either the Elgato or Honestech. In the end, I chose Honestech because it can also burn video to Blu-ray, and had a simpler interface than the Elgato’s Cyberlink software.
I’m using two different laptops for testing- an Alienware laptop running Windows 8 with a fantastic graphics card, and a regular government-issued Dell running Windows 7- and two Honestech converter kits. Although Honestech is compatible with 7 and 8, the viewing screen for capture dropped out to black after about an hour on the Alienware computer. It’s still capturing video, but a user would have no idea what they were playing. To troubleshoot, I uninstalled the software and reinstalled the second kit, but the problem persisted. Then, I read online that consumers who had similar problems just downloaded a newer driver patch from the Honestech website. I did that, upgrading from 4.0 to 4.1, but it didn’t fix anything. By day 3 of testing, frequent freezing and a disturbing clicking sound have also developed on both computers.
Another problem is the length of time it takes to encode the files. Consistently on both, the ratio is about 10 minutes for every 1 minute of video – a formidable obstacle for a workstation that has reservation time limits.
The biggest clincher is that somehow I failed to notice the highest quality video this thing can capture is MPEG-2, and it can only capture audio as a Windows Media Audio File. Building this lab is a constant negotiation of archival quality and usability for the public, and I don’t expect users will be saving hours of uncompressed video files – but the MPEG-2 is just too lossy to be worth the conversion in the first place. As an example, here’s what a VHS-C played on a Panasonic 1980P looks like when captured and encoded as MPEG-2 with Honestech.
Is this even access-worthy? Even with plenty of light, it’s difficult to make out facial details that I can see clearly when played on a television set.
A Little Help From my Friends
Feeling discouraged and facing a tight deadline to get in orders for the current fiscal year, I sought help from Walter Forsberg, Media Archivist for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture. He said I needed to get a converter that at least could encode up to an H.264 file format, and recommended I get the Blackmagic Design UltraStudio Express (and if you remember back to my site visit to the University of Maryland’s lab, Eric also recommended Blackmagic software). It’s an expensive piece of equipment and is only Mac compliant, but when I found out we could afford it and it would allow our Special Collections staff to do one-off in-house digitization, it seemed like a sound investment.
For those of you who can’t afford the price tag, the other consumer-level converter I was looking at, the Elgato, encodes in H.264 and goes for around $80. Live and learn.