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Customer Review

on April 2, 2012
My apologies for this long review. Hopefully, though, it will be useful to someone.

I've spent some time the past 2 weeks comparing competing products for transferring home videos into digital format on my Windows 7 PC for long-term preservation and so that I can edit the videos on my PC. I tried or considered three different products including this Elgato Video Capture, and one high-end video transfer company, all on the same Hi8 analog video cassette with a family video that is 15 years old. Along the way, I have gotten some familiarity with the various technologies available today for transferring magnetic tapes into digital form. I found out some interesting things, and thought I would share them, in the hope that it might help others.

First, and you probably already know this, if you have any video memories on magnetic video tape, you want to get them transferred into digital form onto your PC or DVD or Blu-ray as soon as possible, before the video badly deteriorates. This especially includes regular VHS tapes, Video8 tapes, and normal Hi8 tapes, all of which are analog formats and are particularly susceptible to deterioration starting after about 10 years. Somewhat less susceptible to deterioration are Digital8 (which is also recorded on Hi8 tapes) and MiniDV tapes, because those are digital formats. But even for digital tapes, it is still magnetic tape which deteriorates over time, and you need to get those videos off of there. Seriously, at the risk of sounding like a doomsayer, if you have precious memories on magnetic video tape, you need to transfer that video off of those tapes and into digital form as soon as possible, or risk losing them forever. It's not hard to do, and you'll sleep better at night when you get it done!

In my case, I have a bunch of precious Hi8 family video tapes recorded on a high-end Sony consumer camcorder between 10 and 19 years ago, and I am rescuing these Hi8 videos a little on the late side. I wish I had started this project 5 years ago instead. These tapes are still watchable, but they have developed some lines and drop-outs and "hiccups" and digital artifacts. With multiple playback retries, I can fortunately still coax out fairly high quality from these tapes.

A quick note: Digital8 and MiniDV video tape camcorders have USB ports on them for digitally transferring your videos to your PC or Mac. If this is your situation, there is NO need to purchase one of these video transfer products (like Elgato Video Capture). You will get the best quality, by far, by using a USB cable to connect your camcorder to your PC or Mac, playing back your video in the camcorder, and using any of a whole bunch of different inexpensive software products on the market that will allow you to capture video from the USB port on your computer. This way, you are getting the digital video in its original form, which is great. You will get worse quality if you use a video transfer product that captures the video off of the video ports on the camcorder, because the camcorder is converting the digital video into analog, then the video transfer product converts the analog back to digital (not ideal, for sure).

So, for the rest of this review, I will assume you have analog magnetic video tape (like VHS, Video8, or normal Hi8), in which case you need a video transfer product like this Elgato Video Capture or something similar.

A note about video resolution: The analog video tape formats (VHS, Video8, and normal Hi8) all have native video resolutions less than 640x480. All of the video transfer products on the market record the video from these formats at either 640x480 or 720x480. It doesn't really matter which of these two resolutions the product records at. The point is, all of the video transfer products record at higher resolution than the original video, so you are capturing all of the resolution of the original video when you do the video transfer, which is good.

A note about overscan lines at the bottom of captured video: As documented all over the Internet, when capturing digital video from an analog video source like an analog magnetic video tape, you will end up with some additional fuzzy lines at the bottom of the captured video. This is totally normal. When played back on a regular TV, these overscan lines are usually chopped off because they appear "below the bottom of the screen," but the digital capture grabs them. To get rid of those lines, you can crop or zoom in slightly when you do your video editing. Interestingly, this Elgato Video Capture device automatically does a minor zoom on all captured video to remove those fuzzy lines.

A remark about video editing: Two of the products below (Elgato and Hauppauge) produce video files that use H.264 compression. This is an excellent video compression standard for viewing, and is supported by just about all video editing software. However, if you are going to do significant video editing, you may want to use some video conversion software to convert these video files to uncompressed or MJPEG-compressed AVI or MOV files for editing. (There are many inexpensive or perhaps even free software packages that will do this conversion.) The problem with editing H.264 compressed video files directly is that the extreme compression, which crosses video frame boundaries, can cause problems for video editing software, resulting sometimes in digital artifacts or out-of-sync audio in the final edited video output. An uncompressed or MJPEG-compressed AVI or MOV video source file avoids these problems.

A word about using an outside company to make a high-quality transfer of your analog video tape: A search of the Internet reveals many companies that will transfer your video tape into digital form, and send the digital files back to you on a fairly inexpensive USB hard drive that you can supply yourself or that they will sell you. Some of these companies are better than others. A few of these companies are very high-end, using expensive video transfer equipment. I used one of these very high-end video transfer companies, using their most expensive Premium service, to transfer the very same 15-year-old Hi8 tape that I also tried at home with the video transfer products below. I discovered that the transfer done by the outside company was significantly WORSE (lots of lines through the video and tracking problems) than what I was able to do at home with the products below. I don't necessarily think this is the fault of the video transfer company. At home, I was able to use the very same Sony Hi8 camcorder to do the transfer that I originally used to shoot the original video tape. My suspicion is that, especially for older analog video tapes, it helps to use the same camcorder for transfer as you used to shoot the video originally, so that any idiosyncracies in tracking or video head alignment won't be as much of an issue. Just food for thought.

Anyway, as noted above, I have done an experiment over the past 2 weeks, transferring the exact same 15-year-old Hi8 tape to my PC using the high-end video transfer company (above), plus two different video transfer products at home (Elgato and Hauppauge, below), and I also considered a third video transfer product (Blackmagic, below), to compare the pros and cons of each of each approach. Here's what I found out:

Elgato Video Capture (this product): Gets the best reviews on Amazon for a relatively inexpensive product for video transfer on both Windows and Mac. It captures video at 640x480 resolution, which means it grabs the full resolution and more of VHS, Video8, and normal Hi8 tapes. This worked great on my 64-bit Windows 7 computer. I just downloaded the latest driver and software from the Elgato web site, installed them both, and I was ready to go. It's incredibly easy to use. It connects to any USB 2.0 port on your computer. There are really no settings; the software guides you through the very simple process, and it transfers your video to your computer as an MP4 file. In case you are curious, the MP4 file it writes uses H.264 compression at 640x480 resolution and (basically) 29.97 frames/sec (standard NTSC) and a video data rate of between about 1100 kbps and 1500 kbps, depending on the complexity of the particular video you transferred. The audio in the MP4 file is AAC format at 48 kHz 16-bit stereo with an audio data rate of 128 kbps. When capturing a 2-hour video, I ended up with an MP4 file that was 1.5 GB in size. This Elgato product scores big points for ease-of-use. However, the video quality, while quite good, is not as high as the Hauppauge HD PVR (see below), because of the heavy video compression the Elgato uses to make a relatively small MP4 file with fairly low data rates. If you look closely at the captured video from the Elgato product, you will notice some minor squares of slightly distorted color at times, where the video has been over-compressed. Also, as noted above, the Elgato Video Capture automatically does a minor zoom on all captured video to avoid the fuzzy lines at the bottom of the captured video. On the plus side, this saves you the step of doing that zoom yourself in video editing. On the minus side, it is cropping all 4 sides of the video slightly, which might not be what you want.

Hauppauge HD PVR: This product exists in two very similar versions, the Model 1212 and the Model 1445 Gaming Edition, but the functionality of the two models is identical when capturing video from analog video magnetic tape. Although designed for high-def video capture, it's by far the best product I tried for standard-def video capture as well. This product gets excellent reviews on Amazon, and rightfully so. It works out of the box on Windows (including 64-bit Windows 7, which I use), and also supports the Mac with separately downloadable software. The Hauppauge product captures video at 720x480 resolution, which means it grabs the full resolution and more of VHS, Video8, and normal Hi8 tapes. Like the Elgato product, the Hauppague is very easy to use, though the software give you a few recording options, unlike the Elgato. The Hauppauge connects to any USB 2.0 port on your computer. It gives you a choice of recording video in three different formats: .TS, .M2TS, or .MP4. It doesn't matter much, choose whatever format is most convenient for you; most digital video editing applications can handle any of these formats with no problem. In all three cases, the output file uses H.264 compression, is 720x480 resolution, 29.97 frames/sec (standard NTSC) and a user-selectable video rate between 1 Mbit/sec and 13.5 Mbit/sec. I chose 5 Mbit/sec, and ended up with a crystal-clear video capture with a variable video data rate of 20 kbps (MUCH higher data rate and much lower compression than the Elgato, which means a clearer picture). The audio is AC-3 format at 48 kHz and a data rate of 384 kbps (again, much less compression than the Elgato, which means the Hauppauge perhaps yields slightly higher audio quality). If these technical details sound confusing, it's not important. The point is, the video capture from the Hauppauge product is significantly higher quality than from the Elgato, at the expense of significantly larger output files, and like the Elgato, can be edited with most video editing software. (A 2-hour video capture on the Hauppauge gave me a 5 GB file, as opposed to the 1.5 GB file from the Elgato for the same video tape.) Note that, like most video capture devices, the Hauppauge gives you the full captured video frame, which means you end up with some fuzzy lines at the bottom, as explained above. You can eliminate those fuzzy lines during editing with a crop or minor zoom.

Blackmagic Design Intensity Shuttle: This is the cream-of-the-crop for video capture. It comes in either a USB 3.0 model for Windows or a Thunderbolt model for the Mac. It captures both high-def and standard-def video in full, uncompressed format, so there is no loss of video quality for compression. For true archival quality of your video memories, this is the Rolls Royce option. However, there are two trade-offs to obtain this quality. The first is that your uncompressed video takes a LOT of disk space. The second, and more important, consideration is that you need a computer that can handle the extremely high data rate coming from the Blackmagic device (since the video is uncompressed). If you run Windows, you need a high-speed computer using an Intel x58 based motherboard, a true USB 3.0 port, and the latest USB 3.0 drivers. Most computers don't meet this requirement, even when they have a USB 3.0 port. There is a list of officially tested motherboards on the Blackmagic web site. My 1st-generation Dell XPS 17 laptop (which has two USB 3.0 ports) does not meet this requirement, so I can't use the Intensity Shuttle, and thus I haven't tried it. Though not officially listed as a supported system, there is a YouTube video called "Intensity Shuttle and Dell XPS Laptop From Scratch - Tutorial" that explains how use a SECOND-generation Dell XPS 17 laptop with the Intensity Shuttle if you re-install Windows 7 and strip down the software running in the background to the bare minimum. Many people who want to use the Intensity Shuttle will buy or build a computer specifically for this purpose. If you don't already have a computer that is compatible with the Blackmagic Intensity Shuttle, and you aren't willing to invest to purchase or build one, or you don't need the full uncompressed archival quality video that is captured by the Intensity Shuttle, go with the Hauppauge or Elgato products, above.

I hope this comparative review is helpful to someone. Good luck, and good for you for transferring your precious older analog video tapes!
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