Written by Technology, Video

Capturing MiniDV Tapes

Time flies in technology, and “old” formats get left behind frighteningly quickly.

Here’s my problem. I have a box of perhaps 100 Mini DV video tapes. They were shot with a camera that still works, and I want to capture the files into a digital format for preservation (I will hang onto the tapes as well though!). The way to do this is to use a Firewire cable to a capture device.

Now the camera still works as mentioned, and my now slightly aging laptop has a Firewire connection. But capturing video takes up lots of disk space, and although I’ll offload that video onto external hard drives, I’ll be limited in disk space in the medium term using that machine. There’s also the question of time. Using my existing laptop will eat up time I could be using it for something else. So I’m looking for a solution that avoids my current laptop and is pretty cheap.

Here are my thoughts so far, and why I’ve not pursued them:

  1. Buy a new laptop to do this job specifically. On the one hand, I suspect that a relatively cheap laptop would suffice for this job, allied with a USB 3.0 HDD. But there are pretty much no laptops now being made that come with a Firewire port.
  2. Buy a USB device to capture Firewire to a new laptop. Ah, you’re talking about something like the Pinnacle Moviebox – which is no longer made. There are a variety of cheap USB devices that claim to do the job, but forums suggest that they don’t work for video capture. Why Pinnacle doesn’t still make the Moviebox, I’m not sure, since there must be a lot of people now discovering their options for video capture are limited. But they don’t. Ebay may be the answer here, although I’m concerned that any such device will compress the DV files regardless.
  3. Buy a portable hard drive that will just do the job for you, a bit like those WD My Passport machines you can get that capture from SD cards. I wish! That would be a great drive to have. Just have the standalone device swallow up video from the camera, automatically ingesting it. As far as I know, they don’t exist.
  4. Build a cheap desktop machine to do the job. This might be the best solution. While some kind of very powerful rig might be a good investment – and help with 2K/4K video editing and running programs like After Effects, that’s a fair investment. A £200 machine with a £10 Firewire card would do it. I have software for capturing already. But I wasn’t actually after another desktop…
  5. Buy a cheap small form-factor PC. There are a range of these machines, and they don’t take up much space. I suspect that they are powerful enough to do the job, but I can’t see an easy way to add a Firewire port to any of them.
  6. Buy a cheap Chromebox, install Linux and capture via that… somehow. Er, well. No. I suspect that there’s no easy way to get a Firewire connector onto such specific hardware, and then capturing Mini DV in Linux isn’t straightforward either. And Chromeboxes aren’t actually that cheap in the UK from what I can see.

I suspect that building a cheap desktop machine is the way to go. I could perhaps even pick up a used machine from Ebay or a computer fair. Pop in a Firewire card, hook it up to a monitor and keyboard and get cracking.

1 hour of DV video takes up about 13GB of space.

13GB/hour x 100 tapes = 1.3TB of video.

So a 2/3TB hard drive inside the machine would do it.

Anyone else got any thoughts? Is there a small form-factor PC I could use? Any other devices that would do the job, or something I’ve not considered?

[Update] A suggestion on Twitter was that I should simply buy a cheap old laptop with a Express Card slot and do it that way. In fact, I’d meant to consider that option. Laptops don’t come with Express Card slots any longer, so it’d be an old one. And at that point, I might well find one with a Firewire port and use that. Something with Windows 7, a modest amount of hard disk space (I can shuffle off captured videos every 100GB or so), and powerful enough to capture video. I wouldn’t even need to worry about the battery being a bit rubbish since it’d be sitting on a desk somewhere slowly ingesting in real time.

Is there anywhere aside from eBay to be looking?