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Converting video tapes into longer-lasting disks

You have two choices for that wedding video sitting in the bookcase: Convert it to DVD or kiss it goodbye.

VHS tapes can begin fading to black in less than 15 years, depending on how they are stored. Simply running the same tape 50 times through a videocassette recorder can irrevocably harm a home movie's quality. And if the picture doesn't fade, chances are the tape will gradually turn brittle and break.

In contrast, DVDs hold their picture quality for 40 to 300 years, depending on the conditions in which they are stored, experts say.

But unless you're a well-equipped geek with a powerful, expensive home computer, the task of moving videotape to more permanent DVD discs is daunting.

Even with the best equipment, moving a two-hour VHS recording onto a large computer hard drive, then burning it into a video CD or DVD will take four hours or more.

"It's kind of like changing the oil in your car," says Bob Wilson, marketing vice president for YesVideo.com. "Very few people want to take the time to do it themselves."

With that in mind, consumer services have sprung up in the past year to make it easy to preserve precious family moments for posterity. They've arrived on the scene as Americans are steadily shedding their dependence on videotape.

Sales of VCRs fell about 35 percent in 2001, while sales of DVD players rose almost 50 percent, according to industry figures. The Consumer Electronics Association projects that 14.9-million DVD players will be sold this year. In fact, by many estimates, home DVD players have become the fastest-growing consumer electronics component in history.

Many camera stores and other specialty outlets have been offering VHS-to-DVD conversion services for several years at a range of prices. But now, three large companies have entered the market with a variety of options and pricing that starts as low as $30 per two-hour tape.

And several startups have begun converting short bursts of home video to streaming formats that can be posted on the Internet for sharing with family and friends.

Here are some options and features available in this emerging consumer market:

YesVideo.com

This San Jose, Calif., company has teamed with Kodak, Walgreens and Target to bring full-featured DVD conversions to the masses at $34.99 per two-hour tape.

Consumers can drop off their tapes at participating outlets, then pick up their DVDs in two weeks. The original tape is returned along with the DVD, which is packaged in an attractive, customized case.

YesVideo's technology allows it to capture still frames from VHS whenever it detects scene changes. Thumbnail images from the tape are then printed on the DVD case cover to help consumers keep track of what's inside.

Wilson says that since his company's service moved into Walgreens and Target stores before Thanksgiving, customers have revealed some interesting demand patterns. Typically, the first tape brought in by new customers is a wedding video. Once that's converted to DVD, they often return with shoe boxes of other taped family events.

"What I'm discovering is there's a latent demand for all this," Wilson says. "People expected this kind of service to come along at some point in their lives. When people find out it's available, it's an easy sale."

For the same price, YesVideo also will convert VHS to video CDs, which can be watched on most computers. A list of participating stores is available on the YesVideo.com Web site.

LifeClips.com

Although this service is available through some retail stores, the primary access for consumers is through the company Web site. At $29.99, the service is slightly less expensive than YesVideo for a standard two-hour conversion.

After consumers sign up for a private account with LifeClips, they will be mailed a DVD Conversion Kit that includes a bar-coded tape label and prepaid UPS shipping box. Send in the tape, and LifeClips sends it back with a DVD copy in three weeks.

LifeClips also produces DVD covers that contain up to 70 thumbnails of scenes gleaned from the submitted tape.

This company touts software that can improve grainy images, smooth some of "the shakes" in home movies and improve focus problems.

Within the next year, LifeClips plans to allow customers to access their personal videos on the Web, edit out accidental or unwanted shots, type in scene titles or dates and add voice-overs or music to their productions.

HomeMovie.com

These DVD packages start at $49 for a basic conversion of up to two hours of VHS tape. Consumers start the process by submitting an order on the company Web site or calling the company's toll-free number. The company sends a mailing kit with instructions on how to prepare the tape for processing.

For fees of $100 or more, HomeMovie.com users can design menus and specify chapter points with an online editor.

HomeMovie.com can handle conversion of VHS, VHS-C, SVHS, 8mm, Hi8, Digital8, Mini DV, DVCAM, DVCPRO and BetaCamSP tapes.

It, too, is developing an online editing system for users with broadband Internet connections who want to add background music or sounds to DVD productions.

Words of warning

DVD recording standards have yet to be crystallized in all DVD-playing devices. Most of the converted products from these companies will play fine in DVD players manufactured since 1998. But consumers would be wise to check the compatibility of their DVD player before selecting a conversion service.

Also, none of the conversion services will knowingly convert copyrighted commercial productions to DVD.

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