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Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II impressions

May 16th, 2012 No comments

In 2009 when Sonic the Hedgehog 4 was announced dozens of fans got excited (cautiously) for what everyone hoped would be a triumphant return of the blue-blur in all his 2D glory. In 2010 the game was met to mixed reviews. Some long-time fans were hard on the game, others chose to focus on the good instead of the mediocre and bad… I can’t say I blame the negativity, Sega was pushing the title and teasing that it was the true successor to the 1996 hit Sonic & Knuckles, a bar set very high. In late 2011 a teaser for Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II was released, again stirring up high hopes. A short five months later, the game is now released on the Playstation Network for the PS3 and will be released on more consoles and devices in the coming days.

As I checked twitter this morning I realized today was the release date for Sonic 4 on the PS3. My time at the office today seemed to go by slowly just to torment me. But finally when I got home I hopped on the PS3, downloaded Sonic 4, Episode 2 and sat down for a while. I wouldn’t raise from my seat (except for a quick dinner) until I beat the main storyline of the game. I give you, my impressions:

Press Start

Sonic 4 Episode I had a lot of problems, but it wasn’t really a bad game all in all. It was a starting point and I always knew that Episode II would improve upon I greatly. Thankfully this seems to be the case. To start things off right the budget for Episode II is larger and it shows. I mean, wow, does it show! From the title screen to the first introduction and stage the graphics are sharper, crisper, and all with better fluid and fun animation. The music is good as well and compliments the game, I was humming along to some songs while others didn’t tickle my fancy as much, but I can see myself getting to like them more and more. The sounds, some familiar, some new, add a heavy dose of Sonic charm that returning fans will love.

 

A Zone is a Zone

It’s easy to see that Episode II takes a lot of cues from Sonic 2, but don’t worry it’s done in good taste. The special stage is a variation of Sonic 2′s special stage, but it mixes things up with different obstacles, multiple paths, and some new tricks. Red Star Rings (as seen in Sonic Generations) also make a return in this game. Think of these as extra bonus items that are challenging to get, almost like the 8 Red Coins in Super Mario 64. This adds a nice layer of replay value that was missing in Episode I.

As with the first installment in the series we have 5 main stages. Unlike the first episode where stages seemed to be almost too-closely copied from the previous Genesis games we have some interesting new lands to explore. I always felt that Episode I played it too safe. Most of the stages, obstacles, and enemies were too similar. It was more of a rehash of previous material than new levels. Thankfully Episode II changes this, to a pretty big degree. Yes we’ll have familiar areas, names and obstacles. Yes some familiar badniks will try to stop you whenever they can, but I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of new material. It looks like Sega decided to go all out and explore this time around, and in my opinion it works. There will be times where you’ll recognize an area or stage style from a previous game, but the experience is different overall. Which is a huge plus.

 

Tails saves the day

Sega obviously has a hard time deciding how far to push Sonic games lately, either they don’t push enough and we get a weak rehash of a game (Episode I) or they push too hard and we get an unplayable mess (Sonic Unleashed), but it seems they found a pretty good mixture this time around. There were several “Wow” moments for me during my first run through which left me with a smile on my face. The addition of Tails really makes all the difference. He’s playable in co-op mode (either online or local) as well, so that adds a lot to the replay value of this Episode. Tails gives you two special moves. The first is his signature flying technique. Like in Sonic 3 you can call upon Tails to lift you out of harms way or to reach new areas, something you’ll be required to do during the game. The second special move, which you will rely on far less, is a kind of double summersault. You combine into a big orange and blue blur and destroy the majority of obstacles in your way. It’s usually pretty obvious when you need to perform these actions, but I was caught off guard once or twice.

How you summon Tails is different from Sonic 3 however, which required a 2nd player helping you out. In the PS3 version you press the Square key to perform the special move at anytime in single player mode. The trick is to fly you need to be in mid-air, and to do the summersault you need to be standing on the ground. I won’t lie, I’ve died a few times when Tails decided to do the opposite of what I was trying to do. But it just takes a bit of practice and most of the time it works fine. The instant ability to call on Tails to fly you out of harms way saved my skin over a dozen times. If you run too fast off a bottomless pit, or realize you missed a critical platform, just be quick to tap the Square button and use your thrusts carefully and you’ll save yourself a life.

 

Some people may see these special moves this as a negative aspect. We never had special moves before, why add them now? Well I’ll tell you why, because it spices up the gameplay. Sonic needs to evolve a bit, if not it gets old too quick. These moves add some new tricks to the game and gives you a great way to explore new paths and areas. Afterall Episode II is quite challenging. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t cursing at the TV screen or grinding me teeth a few times through the game. A similar reaction to some of the tougher parts toward the end of Sonic & Knuckles. So like it or not, Tails comes in handy.

 

Metal Sonic is back and he means business!

I’ve always been a fan of Metal Sonic since my Sonic CD days. He was teased at the end of Episode I if you collected all the emeralds. I was hoping they wouldn’t mess up his return like they did in Sonic Heroes, to my surprise, they didn’t screw this up. You battle Sonic’s Metallic copy in a few stages and he’s involved in a good amount of boss battles later on in the game. I won’t spoil anything, but there are some great throwbacks to Sonic CD that gave me a big smile. And if you bought Episode I you get a special ‘Metal Episode’ to play which gives you the background on how he was revived. In this you play levels from the previous Episode as well. The Episode I stages look even better then they did in their original release, and it was a pleasure to play as Metal Sonic. He isn’t just tacked on either, he has his own set of moves, some great special sound effects and animations.

 

Has the Sonic Cycle been broken?

So a few hours after clicking ‘Buy’ on the Playstation Store I completed the main storyline to the game and collected a handful of emeralds. Overall Episode II was pretty difficult actually. I’m a veteran of the Sonic the Hedgehog Genesis series and I found this to be just as tough as Sonic 3 or Sonic & Knuckles. The boss battles especially, some of the latter ones are pretty unforgiving, clearing out my cache of extra lives pretty quickly. You’ll definitely be giving the TV screen some dirty looks here and there, but like the classic Genesis games the levels become easier with the more practice you have.

In my opinion the Sonic Cycle is broken for this round. Episode II easily surpasses Episode I in both quality and creativity. The new badniks, zones and graphics really make this game shine. It’s easy to see all the love that went into this game, especially with fine touches like the ‘Cool!’ thumbs up banner that returns in the Special Stages. Episode II may not be perfect, but it comes pretty close. It feels much more like a classic Sonic game than Episode I and it left me eager to play Episode III.

Categories: General Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Looking Back: Old Multimedia on the Web

December 6th, 2011 No comments

If you grew up in the early 90′s and you had a computer chances are that you were connected to the world wide web. The internet was very popular, with services like AOL and EarthLink you’d be signed online and you could explore the web – you were only limited by your modem’s speed (and your phone bill). You had a 56k modem if you were lucky and even then things weren’t too ‘quick’.

Web Multimedia was at it’s infancy and it took ages to download anything worth watching. You would need special plug-ins and codecs and unlike today not everything was usually compatible with each other. Especially having a Mac there were a lot of videos and other items that just wouldn’t work. Growing up in this internet age my parents had a Power Macintosh 7500 desktop. It was pretty quick in my eyes and it was the main computer of the house. I vividly remember logging onto AOL 2.7, going to the Games section and looking for downloads. I’d usually choose the downloads where the download time was less than 1 minute. This would included video game midis, south park audio clips, and other small audio files that managed to be uploaded by other users.

I remember once finding a Star Wars site online and downloading a ton of audio clips from the movies. I was devastated when my Dad needed to delete them to make space on our computer. This was before we had our Zip 100 drive which would let us save up to 100MB on each of our own disks. I remember getting one for my birthday, that must have been the geekiest gift ever!

Videos were a whole other story. I remember putting in one of Apple’s Mac OS 8 install discs (either 8.5 or 8.6), it had a Bare Naked Ladies music video on it and I was amazed how the quality could look so good. I remember knowing little about what a DVD was, but later on I tried to install the DVD Player software on our older Non-DVD equipped Mac. Of course that never worked, and I later found out why.

Online videos were mostly streaming, I remember RealPlayer was unfortunately used a lot. It was always hard to track down the free version of RealPlayer too. Especially the Mac version, they always wanted you to download the Gold version. Since I was young I was afraid of anything I had to pay for, I didn’t know how it worked but I assumed money was taken instantly from my Dad’s wallet via magic. I never understood why everyone liked RealPlayer, I hated it, I could never save a movie, we’d have to be online to see it. I remember whenever something was a QuickTime file I’d try and save it with mixed success. I remember my Dad bringing home QuickTime 4 on a CD, that was cool since it had some live “TV” like stations you could watch. Not a lot of them worked, but when they did you felt like you had your own little TV on your computer. There was a TechTV channel and a Weather channel. They were usually either pre-recorded clips or a few minutes of a show that repeated.

Speaking of your own personal TV our Mac 7500 had AV and S-Video input on the back. We had an old VCR hooked up to the machine so we could watch VHS tapes or even watch basic cable. I remember taking screenshots and small video recordings of The Simpsons. I also remember watching Star Wars: Return of the Jedi on our Mac and playing with the figures while doing so. I was fascinated by that, later I would understand how it worked, but back then it was magic.

Today you can download a whole movie or steam a movie from Netflix in a matter of minutes. Video compression is worlds better, and RealPlayer is unheard of. MP3 files have taken over the portable MIDI sound files, and with CD burners built-in to nearly every machine today it’s easy to share multimedia to friends and family. But you can even blast the content over to another machine online, you don’t have to wait to mail a disc to show your relatives who live elsewhere your photos. Just upload them to Flickr to send them an email.

Digital audio and video technology has sure come a long way since I was a kid. And I’m sure glad it has, without their advancements it would be cumbersome and frustrating to share audio and video on the web. Let alone show somebody how to access this file!

Categories: General Tags: ,

iDVD is still broken in iLife ’11

October 21st, 2010 No comments

Apple recently announced their new version of their iLife suite. Now I love this series of programs. I use iMovie, iDVD and iPhoto very often. Recently I’ve been converting a bunch of home video VHS tapes from my family and my girlfriend’s family. They love being able to have their VHS home videos on DVD with chapters and nice menus.

The problem is that iDVD version 7.0.4 (the latest version from iLife ’09) is riddled with bugs. Things just don’t work. One frustrating example is that if you choose an older theme, such as the ‘Watercolor’ theme (which is nice for family DVDs) it is impossible to edit the text in the chapters menu! Or other places as well. You can select the button, you can right-click on it, but no matter what you do, you can not change the text. So after you’ve arranged the chapters, changed the frames, moved the boxes where you want them – you can’t edit the text. The only way for you to edit the text is to temporarily switch themes, edit the text, and switch back. Losing all of your custom placement, frames, and editing. This is beyond frustrating. The only thing you can edit is the name of the menu itself.

I hoped that since iLife ’11 included iDVD they would have updated it. This didn’t seem the case, however the Apple Store site mentions that iDVD is now version 7.1, instead of the current 7.0.4. I hoped they would have fixed these issues. Sadly they remain in version 7.1 – it seems 7.1 was just made to possibly be compatible with the new version of iMovie.

Yes the themes are older and Apple probably isn’t going to fix them, but why include them if they’re broken? It’s very frustrating, especially when working with a load of similar projects. I would also love the ability to use a previous project and replace just the main video. I would like a template of the chapter titles and visual button placement/theme to stay the same, and just edit the content. That is impossible as well.

Yes Apple may be running toward the notion of digital download videos, but making DVDs is still one of the easiest ways to share videos with your family. Especially for Grandma which doesn’t have a computer and already knows how to use a DVD player. Apple needs to fix iDVD, or create a whole new version like they did with iMovie.

LaserDiscs – The Blu-Ray of the VHS Era

July 22nd, 2010 No comments

Looking back, in my geeky opinion, LaserDiscs are kind of the Blu-Ray of the VHS era. VHS video tapes were one of the first mainstream consumer video recordings. Sure before these there were old Super 8mm films and even BetaMax, but VHS was the most common and after winning the format war it would go onto dominate the market for years until finally being defeated by the digital DVD.

Above is a LaserDisc copy of Toy Story, which looks like a giant compared to it’s modern DVD version.

But before DVDs came along there was an analog video format, with an analog or digital audio track called Laserdisc. A Laserdisc is about the size of a vinyl record, with a cover just as big. Allowing for a great piece of cover art, and a book-like jacket with notes, descriptions, stories, and photos from the film. Laserdisc players and movies were expensive, and they were very slowly being adopted. Most users didn’t know the difference of the media and decided not to bother with it. LaserDiscs also couldn’t store the entire movie on one disc, even though each one was double-sided. Many movies over an hour were split across multiple discs. For Example the 1993 LaserDisc release of Star Wars has 5-sides just for the movie, that’s 3 discs with 2 sides per disc, with the 6th side remaining for supplemental features such as trailers and interviews. Early players could only play one side of the disc at a time, requiring the viewer to get up and flip over the disc manually. It wasn’t until later on where more advanced players could read the other side of the disc on their own. So if you wanted to watch “The Empire Strikes Back” from start to finish you would need to get up from your cozy sofa at least 5 times to switch discs and sides. 6 times if you wanted some bonus material.

Above is a LaserDisc compared to a DVD. The DVD is almost the size of the middle of the LaserDisc!

But the picture quality was a bit better then VHS and instead of needing to rewind a tape, you could navigate to a chapter in the film instantly. No rewinding was ever required and you could easily skip to your favorite part in no time. This quality would also not degrade overtime and was consistent. Unlike VHS cassette tapes there is no wear and tear. A laser reads the information off of the disc without ever touching it, unlike a VHS cassette where the tape comes into contact with a series of wheels and servos. The Laserdisc image and audio will remain the same for years to come… unless the disc succumbs to laser-rot, where the physical layers of the disc separate and deteriorate. This usually happens to discs stored improperly or if the disc was poorly manufactured.

The makeup of a laserdisc is an analog composite video track and various audio tracks. Some audio tracks were actually digital and some were analog. In the case of the Star Wars Trilogy – The Definitive Collection LaserDiscs, the analog audio track was actually used as a commentary track. While the commentary track is not for the whole length of the feature, and there is a lot of silence between tacks, it would pave the way for DVD feature-length commentaries in the future. Players usually had composite audio and video output with maybe a digital audio connection if you were lucky. If your LaserDisc player has an S-Video port you may still be better off using the Composite video connection unless your player is really high end. But even then your TV’s comb filter is likely far better and will work with the Composite signal better.

Not only could the LaserDisc pause and freeze-frame, but with more advanced discs you could usually scan through a scene with a frame-by-frame control. Allowing you to study the frame of the film as detailed as you’d like. Also some discs included pre-set chapter stops, where a screen would inform you of an artwork gallery ahead. You would then use the skim or frame buttons to navigate through the gallery of images.

While DVDs have made VHS cassettes and LaserDiscs a thing of the past, DVDs would never have came to be if it wasn’t for the advancements of the first big experiment in the consumer home video market – the LaserDisc. It was the Blu-Ray of it’s time, but unlike Blu-Rays they died out before their popularity could peak and before the format got a true chance to shine. Well, more like HD-DVD… but there was no popular competing disc format to get in the way.

I started collecting LaserDiscs for their cover art, and I mainly still do. They have beautiful pieces of artwork, usually a more grand version of their cramped VHS counterparts – and sometimes a surprising styled cover adapted from an alternate poster. I have my LaserDisc player setup today and even though it’s kind of silly to have it plugged into an HDTV it’s sometimes fun to take a disc out and see what it was like to be on the cutting edge of home entertainment many years ago.

Categories: General Tags: , , , ,

Fading Memories: Problems of Aging VHS tapes

February 22nd, 2010 No comments

So as many of you have known, or guessed, I have been converting some VHS home videos taken by my parents onto DVDs. Despite the various specs of why VHS tapes are better than DVDs some people still wonder why you should do this? They don’t expect their VHS tapes to die one day – and they think they’ll just keep on working.

But they indeed can die. VHS tapes age also, they can fade, become more fragile, loose their video and  sound, or be eaten up by fussy VCRs. The only way to prevent this is to copy your tapes and keep them safe. You can’t risk losing your only copy of your home videos. In the past while transferring a VHS tape from 1982 there were a few drop-outs of video, where only the sound remained. The lifetime of the tape will be directly effected by the brand/quality of the tape. The times the tape has been watched and the quality mode that was set when recording the tape. One tape almost bit the dust during my transfer process, below is what happened to me and how I was able to avoid losing the tape.

Saturday evening I was about to start the transfer of another VHS tape to a DVD. This one was a Scotch Camcorder Pro (full-size) VHS tape. Labeled Disney World 1992 I have no doubt that the tape would be great to watch. So I insert the cassette into my VCR and press rewind to put the tape back into the begging. Unfortunately something was about to go very wrong. The VCR whirled up and rewound the tape to the beginning. I pressed play to see if there was any video on the screen – there was, but I had overshot the beginning. I rewound the tape less than a second to start it over as I held the DVD recorder remote in my hand, ready to press record.

But nothing appeared on the screen… just a blue screen. Curiously I paused and played the tape again, even rewinding it. Noticing the VCR was not making it’s normal noises I thought something was wrong – this was confirmed when the VCR refused to do anything with the tape and started ejecting it. Now I was concerned, is the tape damaged? Will I be able to recover this tape?? I took the tape out to examine it. The tape’s film-like track wasn’t crumbled or bent, the VCR didn’t eat the tape, so what’s the problem? Uh-oh, then I noticed it. The reel to the right side of the tape was missing – gone, it had snapped off the internal reel of the VHS cassette! I panicked and thought the tape was destroyed. Being home video tapes these are the only copies that exist, excluding some rare chances where we made another VHS copy for relatives, which were few and far between.

“So  what do I do now?” I thought – well I did what I always do when I need help, I use Google! One of the first results was a How-To article on the helpful site eHow.com. The article is titled “How to Repair a Broken VHS Video Tape” written by the user Jennifer Claerr. Skimming through the article I notice photos of a VHS tape that is taken apart. As I read the article I start to calm down, it doesn’t seem too difficult. I recall my father fixing an audio cassette for my brother when we were younger. So I got down to business – I placed the tape on the kitchen tablet and unscrewed five or six screws holding the tape together. I almost had the tape opened, but the side label was causing it to keep together, carefully cutting the label down the middle the tape was opened.
The problem was more clear then it had seemed before. The tape on the reel was no longer attached, meaning all the tape was on one side, it could not transfer to the other side, or be read by the VCR. I followed the instructions and took notice on exactly how the tape fed through the cassette. Each one can be a bit different, so take notice, I realized this the hard way. I carefully unwound the edge of the tape that had snapped off. Boy was I lucky – no tape was ripped off or damaged, it was just a clear plastic tab connected to the reel. But in the process of unwinding the spool the tape almost fell off the table – the plastic scratched against the fragile magnetic tape, skimming a hair or two off from either side of the tape. I was worried, but the damage didn’t seem too bad.
Now to repair it. I read about using tape, but I was concerned about having this break again, so I decided to use some packaging tape, which would be stronger then regular tape. I placed some tape on each side to where the clear plastic tape had separated from each end. Screwing the tape back together I hoped that no footage would be lost by this repair, I setup the VCR and DVD recorder to be ready to record things on the first try, I did not want to have to rewind the tape the beginning and risk damaging the tape again. The VCR whirled, the tape settled into position – and the video played! I didn’t notice any problems, the little damage I did to the tape was probably on the first few seconds of the “blue” screen and nothing seemed out of the ordinary. The tape played fine until the end and the whole tape is now safely on a DVD disc that can easily be viewed and duplicated.

Categories: General Tags: , , , , , , ,

Analog to Digital Conversion: Resucing VHS Home Movies

February 3rd, 2010 No comments

Chances are when you were younger your Mom, Dad, or relative was often asking you to look into the video camera to smile and wave. Cheaper camcorders and the popularity of VHS tapes helped a lot of people from the late 80′s and on to start taking their own videos. There wasn’t any film to develop and you could easily watch what you have recorded after wards without messing with a projector. But who would think VHS tapes would go out of style? I fondly remember popping in my favorite movie into a VCR to watch a film. But, today you hardly see a VCR in someone’s home theater setup, you can thank DVDs for that. Mostly because the resolution and quality of DVDs are vastly superior to that of the old analog VHS tapes. DVDs are digital discs, so they do not degrade after each viewing as VHS tapes tend to do. They offer nice add-ons like chapters, slideshows and pretty menus. But anyone born in the last 20 years already knows that.

So what do you do with all your home videos recorded onto VHS tapes? You probably still have a VCR and all of your old tapes – but if you want to preserve them you have to do something more then let them collect dust. Remember, these tapes can, and will degrade over time. I have come across an old tape from 1982 that had a few issues, the sound cut out at some points and the precious images on the screen were often interrupted by a dull gray screen. Your mileage will vary depending on the age and quality of the tapes, but either way you want to keep these memories safe. So how do we do that? Well we digitize them! Digitizing is the process of transferring an analog source to a digital medium. For example we can transfer or convert the content on a VHS tape onto a DVD disc. Once these tapes are converted they will no longer be degraded with each playback and can easily be duplicated and shared.

If you did not have a VHS camcorder but a C-VHS (Compact VHS) or other recording media the principal is still the same. You just want to copy the content to a DVD disc or other digital format or preserve it and keep it from degrading.

VHS vs DVDs.

There really is no contest, DVDs are the better way to go obviously, I just wanted to point out the facts of each format.

VHS tapes are an analog medium. Low resolution picture quality. They can degrade after each viewing and require rewinding and fast forwarding to reach a certain point on a tape. In order to copy a VHS tape to another tape you must watch the whole length of the tape in real time. The quality of the video will degrade from transfer to transfer. Can be re-recorded over if desired.

DVD discs are a digital medium. High resolution picture quality (More dots on the screen provide a sharper picture). They do not degrade after each viewing. Chapters are created to enable quick access to any part of the video. They can be duplicated and shared easily, and most importantly quickly. You do not need to wait 2 hours to copy a 2 hour DVD. The quality of the video stays the same, even if copied 1,000 times! Only DVD-RW discs can be erase and re-used, standard DVD-R and DVD+R discs can only be used once.

Okay I’m sold. So how do I do this?

Well it’s actually simpler then you think! But there are basically two ways to go about this depending on your equipment. You can either A) Use a set-top DVD recorder to record your VHS tapes directly to DVD discs, or B) Import the video into your computer, edit the footage, and then burn your own DVD disc. This option should mostly be reserved for folks who are a bit more tech savvy, as a lot of issues may come up that you may not realize before starting the project. But in this post we’ll be talking about method A) using DVD recorders.

The only downside to both of these options is that since VHS tapes are analog, this means you have to watch the entire contents of the tape to transfer it. So if the tape is 2 hours, you have to wait 2 hours for the video to play and it be recorded on your DVD recorder or computer. There is no real way of getting around this unfortunately, but once these are on DVDs you can copy the entire disc in as little as 15 minutes.

To get started first you need to purchase a DVD Recorder, these are just like VCRs ,but instead of using analog VHS tapes to record video and audio to, they use blank DVD discs. This offers many advantages, firstly blank DVD discs are very inexpensive, you can pickup a 100-pack for about $30. Considering each disc holds at least 1-2 hrs of video that is an amazing value.  Second, DVDs take up a lot less physical space then a VHS tape. You can store about 3 DVD cases in the space of a VHS box, even more if you use slim DVD or CD cases. Making it easy to store an entire library of home videos without having to buy another cabinet.

Using a DVD recorder.

There are many types of DVD recorders you can purchase, most of them go for under $100. Most include one DVD drive that can play and burn/create DVDs, but some models in fact have a built-in VCR to make transferring videos very, very easy. These are called combination units, they combine a VCR with a DVD recorder. With these models usually you just have to put in a blank DVD disc, rewind the tape to the beginning and press a button to automatically transfer everything. In fact as of writing this, there is a refurbished Magnavox DVD-R/VCR combo set for $89 at Best Buy’s web site. That’s a pretty good deal. I would suggest going for one of these combo units, they offer a simple way to transfer tapes with no extra cables to hook up, and no worrying about if your old VCR still works.  Just read some reviews before you buy, not all DVD recorders are created equal. With most DVD recorders chapters and menus are automatically setup, while the menu presentation usually leaves something to be desired, the most important factor is that your precious home videos have been duplicated and are now on a digital DVD. Be sure to read the manual to learn about all of it’s features and capabilities.

Using your own VCR.

If you already have a DVD recorder, but it does not have a VCR built-in there is no need to worry. If you still have your old VCR you can use that. Just plug it into the input of your DVD recorder and you’re on your way. Now there are a few things to keep in mind when using old VCRs. It’s all about picture quality. You are transferring these movies so you don’t have to do this again. You want to get it right the first time. It may be wise to go out and purchase a new VCR, these aren’t expensive and may produce a better quality picture, just make sure it’s a stereo model. Most companies try to be cheap and produce a lot of Mono-only units. You can tell if your VCR is stereo if you see a Yellow, White and Red jack on it, sometimes also on the front. If you just see Yellow and White – missing the Red – these are Mono-only which will not replay the Stereo sound your tapes may have.

If you want to stick with your old VCR that is fine, you just need to do some cleaning. Use a VCR Head Cleaning tape to help reduce the noise and lines seen on the VCR during playback. You may have to use this frequently if you transfer a lot of tapes – even on new VCRs. You just want everything to look as best as it can before you make the big move. Also use high quality cables, you don’t need to spend a lot to get a good pair of cables. Monoprice.com offers a large selection of cables very cheaply. Secondly, you want to use the best connection. If you are lucky you may have an S-VHS player, these use a connection called S-Video which provides a better picture quality over standard composite video cables (The yellow cable in the standard yellow, white, and red trio you see behind your TV set). Not all VCRs or even DVD Recorders support S-Video, but if you have it you should use it. Consult your manual to see if your player has S-Video, sometimes refereed to as S-VHS. I have a JVC S-VHS VCR that I picked up from a Goodwill thrift store for under $9, it was well worth it. The S-Video jack provides video only, you will still need to use your old audio cables for sound. I will talk about S-Video in more detail on my next post.

Recording Time.

DVD recorders, just like VCRs, have the option of different recording modes, this can extend the time each disc can hold, but will effect the quality. For example a DVD recorder may have three or more recording modes. 1 hour mode will produce the best quality, but give you less time on the disc. 2 hour mode will lower the quality, but double your recording time. 6 hour mode will significantly lower the quality of your recording, but allow you a lot of video time. Now like my old VHS home videos, yours may not be in the best condition. So why degrade them further? I would suggest sticking with the fairly high-quality mode. For my recordings I chose a 2 hour DVD mode. This gave me a good quality picture and allowed me to save 2 hours of video onto one disc. This worked great for me.

DVD Disc Formats and Basic Recording Information

Unlike VHS tapes where you can record over anything at anytime, most DVD discs can be used only once. DVD-R and DVD+R discs can only have content recorded to them once. So if you record a 30 minute video the disc, you can not go back and erase the video to start over and re-gain your space. DVD-RW or DVD+RW discs are re-writable, which is what the RW stands for. These are more expensive, but once properly erased can be used again – these are more expensive then basic DVD-R discs.

Also, DVD discs have a few different formats, DVD-R and DVD+R. Years ago the actual difference was due to compatibility of young DVD players playing back recorded content on these discs. Today the difference is less noticeable. DVD+R discs hold a tiny bit less then DVD-R discs, which is why I prefer not to use them. However read your DVD recorder manual to read which formats they support. Usually a variety of formats are supported so you can choose what suits your project best. These discs can all store around 4.7GB of information.

For increased recording time you may consider using DVD-DL discs. DL stands for Dual-Layer and is basically two DVD discs combined onto one disc – doubling your recording time. So if your maximum recording time was 2 hours on Good Quality mode you can record up to 4 hours. These can store closer to 7.8 GB of information. Most newer DVD recorders can use this format, but check your manual. Again these discs are much more expensive than standard DVD-R/+R discs.

The Final Step.

Once everything is setup and prepared it’s time to copy the tape. You will need to wait the entire playback time of your video in order to copy it. So if you want to copy a 30 minute segment it will take 30 minutes to copy, etc. Once your VHS tapes are transferred to DVDs you can now rest easily. You can now play back your home videos without worrying about degrading the tape. With the help of a computer you can duplicate your newly created DVD and mail them to family and friends. In fact I highly recommend backing up the disc you just made and duplicating it. Just in case one copy is scratched you have a backup, and it wouldn’t hurt to keep a copy on your hard drive if you have the room for it.

Advanced note about duplication with certain DVD Recorders.

Now there is only one problem that has happened to me with this when I tried to duplicate a finished disc. This may not happen to you and will depend entirely on what brand and model DVD recorder you are using. I was using a Samsung DVDR 120 unit and recorded an entire hour and a half of video onto a DVD disc from my VCR. This turned out fine, and the DVD played perfectly. But when it came time to duplicate the DVD disc my computer threw a fit! Why? Well not all DVD recorders record video in the same way. To achieve better quality or longer recording time most use different methods of saving information. Which may not sit well with your computer. So when I tried to simply drag and drop the contents of the DVD to my Mac, an error kept repeating saying that it could not read the file. Now my disc was not scratched, and it played back entirely fine – I just could not copy it. This problem only seemed to happen when I let the whole tape play to the DVD, I did not stop the DVD at any point – which is what I believe caused the issue. So if I simply stopped the tape and the DVD recorder and started again the problem would have never popped up.

The solution? Use a DVD ripping program. DVDShrink (for Windows) or MacTheRipper (For Macs) will rip the contents of a DVD in it’s raw format to the computer. Now since we’re using these programs to copy our own home-made DVD videos there is no legal issues to think of at all, so don’t let that get to you. Programs like HandBrake I have found will not work until you have ripped the DVD to your hard drive first using the method above. The program you are using may give you errors or messages about data not being copied or “bad sectors” however most of the time this is because the DVD program is not familiar with home-made DVD records and their specialized recording schemes. As long as you can skim through the final results you’ll be okay.

Stay tuned for my next post which will involve using a computer instead of a DVD recorder. This is a more tech savvy way of doing things, it allows more control and the ability to edit the video, but things can get complicated, and I’ll explain why.

-Steve

Apple’s MacBook Pro DVI to Video adapter is Mac Only

January 14th, 2010 No comments

So my younger brother has a Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro, one of the earlier models. Anyway for a while he wanted Apple’s DVI to Composite/S-Video adapter. This year he put it on his Christmas list but, he still ended up without it. But a few weeks ago I was at MicroCenter and saw one as an open-box return. So I picked it up for him at about $5 off and he was very happy about it. It worked great with his Mac, allowing him to hook up his Mac to be displayed on the old TV in his dorm.

Now this made me wonder, can I use this on my PC? I have an Intel Quad Core PC with dual ATI 4670 graphics cards. The only thing I dislike about them is that the only port on them is DVI. There is no option for S-Video or Composite output, although I can hook the PC up to my TV via an HDMI to DVI cable I have. But I would like the option for S-Video out. Why? Besides the fact that I have a little obsession with S-Video, the main reason is that my DVD Recorder has S-Video input, therefore if I want to record what is on the screen on my PC I can do so. I do this with my Mac – it’s great for recording live streaming video events, or difficult to capture videos that are online in a pinch.

So I plugged in the adapter to the PC and ran a composite video cable to the TV set… what I got wasn’t pretty. Just a few black and gray bars. It seems that this adapter may as well be Mac-only. This was disappointing. I tried many different resolutions and video modes, but the adapter failed to display anything but some black and gray bars. So I suppose this adapter is only made for MacBook Pro machines. It may have to do with the type of DVI connector, if Apple’s MacBook Pro has a certain pins dedicated to TV-compatible video out – that would explain the issue. But, for now I’m stuck with using an old VGA to Composite/S-Video adapter I picked up at last year’s Trenton Computer Festival last year. The only bad thing is it needs a big power brick and it can be kind of bulky. No where as nice as a simple adapter. Oh well. Who knows, maybe the adapter just didn’t like my PC’s graphics card. Maybe it’s compatible with other graphics cards or adapters? I might try to see if I get any signal from my iMac. If I try a Mini-DVI to DVI adapter and then attache the Composite/S-Video adapter to that… although I doubt that’ll work. (Update: No, that does not work, it formats the screen for a TV but the output doesn’t seem to send a proper signal) Plus it’s useless considering I have a Mini-DVI to Composite/S-Video adapter. Oh well! It was worth a try. :P