Compared to DVD, let alone Blu-ray, VHS tapes are poor quality. If you haven’t viewed one for a while, therefore, it would be a good idea to play one to see if you’re still happy with them after becoming spoiled by the much improved quality of more modern video formats. After all, digitising your old tapes won’t improve the resolution one bit.
If you decide that you do want to preserve some VHS tapes for posterity, you’ll need a VHS video player, so if you’ve already got rid of your old one you’re going to have to borrow or buy one.
Despite being obsolete you can still pick them up, both new and second hand. The latter will cost next to nothing but do bear in mind that, like most equipment with mechanical parts, there’s no guarantee that a second-hand recorder will offer acceptable performance. It's well worth asking for an unwanted player for free on sites such as Freegle and Freecycle.
How can I convert VHS to DVD?
Do take a good look at your old tapes before starting.If they’ve been gathering dust – literally, that is – try to clean as much as you can from the part of the cassette where the tape is exposed to prevent it being drawn inside once you play it. Also, make sure the spindles haven’t seized up. If they have, try to get them moving by hand before trying to play the offending tape.
If you don’t want to buy any gear or can’t afford the time to digitise all your VHS tapes, there are companies providing a commercial service but prices will soon add up if you have lots of tapes.
Most people will want to go down the cheaper route. One option is a VHS/DVD combo player (again widely available new and second hand, even though they're largely obsolete) since most of these will let you record from VHS directly to a DVD (which can then be 'ripped' to a digital file on your laptop if that's what you want).
A similar solution is to connect the video output on a VHS player to the video input of a DVD recorder. For this you'll need an A/V cable - either Scart, or a cable with composite video and RCA (phono) audio connectors.
If you don’t have a DVD recorder then your PC will provide the means of digitising your VHS tapes and, optionally, burning it to a DVD. However, you will need some additional video capture hardware and its associated software.
Since image quality really isn’t an issue with VHS tapes (i.e. it's inherently poor) issues such as price, ease-of-use, reliability and quality of the support will be the main issues you should consider when choosing software. Since these aspects aren’t immediately obvious, try to look at some reviews first. Converters cost around £20 for something like this USB capture dongle from Amazon.
How do I convert VHS to digital?
Step 1. Connect your VHS video player to your PC using the cable or cables supplied with your chosen software. It should look something like the photo above. You may need a special Scart cable which has the red, white and yellow cables, or your video player may already have these outputs. (You won't be able to use front-mounted white, red and yellow connectors are these are almost always inputs - not ouputs.)
Step 2. The process of digitising your VHS tapes should be straightforward enough. Start the recording software (which comes with the USB capture dongle) on your computer and play your VHS tape from the point where you want the recording to start.
Step 3. Stop the recording software at the end of the video, and stop the video VHS cassette..
Step 4. If you're burning the captured video to DVD, your software should provide an option for this, but if not, you can use something like Freemake. This will take the digital video captured from your VHS tape and record it to the DVD.
Insert a blank DVD into your computer's DVD writer (if it doesn't have one, you can buy an inexpensive USB DVD writer for £15 from Amazon).
There's little point in burning the file to Blu-ray as the poor quality of VHS makes it a waste of money. DVDs are cheaper and offer better quality than VHS anyway.
How can I watch the captured video on my phone or tablet?
Freemake supports most video formats, so do read our detailed guide to converting videos to different formats if you want to convert the captured video to MP4 which is supported by phones and tablets. To watch the video on your phone or tablet, it's as simple as connecting the device to your computer using its USB cable.
Then, if you have an Android device, look for a notification for USB options as - by default - it will only charge and not allow file transfers. The options will vary between Android devices, but once you've set the USB mode for file transfers, you should see it appear as a new drive in Windows File Explorer.
Copy the MP4 video file you saved earlier to the Videos or Movies folder on your Android device. It should then be visible in your default video app.
If you have an iPhone, simply import the MP4 video into your iTunes library, then connect your phone (or iPad) to your computer and drag and drop the file from your library to the device when it appears in iTunes.