New life for old video

Pinnacle Video Transfer easily converts video tapes to digital format

CONVERTER: The small Pinnacle Video Transfer device can convert data on VCR tape or other old media into pure digital signals.

When I was a civilian agencies reporter for Government Computer News about 10 years ago, the world was awash in videotape. Whenever I visited an agency to do a story on a new program, it seemed I was either taken to a room to watch or simply handed a VCR tape describing the agency's efforts. Once I was even given a videotape of a speech the Agriculture Department's chief information officer had given at an event I was unable to attend. Another time, I was given a tape of a cyberspace speech made by then-Vice President Al Gore.

Recently, I was talking to a contact of mine in government who mentioned that they still have a huge library of those types of videotapes, sitting idle and unused in storage bins or at the bottom of cabinets. Everything these days is digital, and although at least some of the old information could still be useful, it remains trapped in an unusable format. It's getting harder to find a working VCR.

So I thought I would help my contact out and look for a way to convert all that locked data into a modern format. And I did find several odd, large and expensive options that could perform this transfer, but every solution seemed a bit more trouble than it was worth. Then I ran across the little $129 Pinnacle Video Transfer device.

The device is extremely small, at just over 4 inches long. At one end is a set of inputs for either composite video ' those three cables colored yellow, red and white that come out of almost any analog recording device such as a VCR ' or an S-Video port. At the other end of the device are a power port and a USB port. There is also a large USB port for connecting the device directly to a computer, but that port does not work and the product documentation says it's there for future use only.

To begin transferring data, you simply plug in the old VCR cables to one end and attach some type of storage media to the other. For our testing we used a plain vanilla USB thumb drive. The device recognized our drive after a few seconds and indicated that it was ready by changing the color of an LED light sitting over the port. You can use an iPod Video, Nano or Classic by plugging directly into the USB port, or supposedly any USB 2.0 hard drive.

However, we found that not every hard drive was compatible with Pinnacle Video Transfer. Any hard drive that has some type of top-level management function seemed to not be able to connect properly. Only drives that were just dummy storage devices would work. Powered USB drives did not pose a problem because they could simply draw power from the transfer device, which needs to be plugged in and powered up to work.

The first step is to set the quality of the recording to one of three levels, from good to best. Higher-quality video looks better, of course, but it eats up your storage space more quickly.

Once everything was set up, recording was easy. We simply hit the record button on the device and pushed play on the VCR.

That's a pretty simple way to do it, but you don't have any way of seeing how far along you are. We tried to record an instructional video from the first GCN Lab TV show, which was filmed about eight years ago, but we no longer knew how long the video was. We let the device record from the VCR for about eight minutes and then stopped it. What it captured looked great, but there was still more than half of the video to go. The Pinnacle Video Transfer device would be a lot easier to use if it had some type of output port so you could hook up a monitor or a TV and see what the device is transferring. Otherwise, you are in the dark about what is happening.

The advantage of the device is that you don't need a computer to transfer video from old sources. You could simply hook up the device to a VCR and record everything from it ' a good option if time or space is limited. However, it would be helpful to have the second USB port so you could plug the device directly into a laptop PC and watch the recording process as it happens.

All of the data is saved in MPEG-4 format, so files are small and high in quality. And you can watch the videos with the free Apple QuickTime player after you have created them or use them with any popular editing software.

Given that the Pinnacle Video Transfer device is small in size and price and fairly easy to operate, we can overlook some of its minor flaws. It's a great tool for getting rid of those mounds of old VHS tapes or taking video directly from a nondigital camera or other source so that it can be more easily edited and shared.

Pinnacle Systems, 650-526-1600, www.pinnaclesys.com

About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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