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TUAW Review: iGrabber, a cheap way to digitize old videos

The other day while I was attempting to clean up my office, I came across a bunch of old MiniDV tapes from various vacations that my wife and I had taken over the years. That got me thinking about the 8mm videotapes from the pre-MiniDV age, and the even older VHS vacation tapes from the Pleistocene Era. Since I have done a pretty good job of going to a paperless office, I figured it was about time to make my other media go digital as well.

I don't necessarily want to edit the movies right now -- at this point, all I want to do is get the raw video transferred to my iMac, and then at some future date, when I have the time (like 20 years from now), I'll transform them into mini-documentaries. The big concern I had was getting the video into my Mac, and since I no longer shoot video with tapes, I needed something that would just get the job done with a minimum of fuss and cost.

A quick Amazon search brought up a device from MyGica (yeah, I've never heard of them, either) called the Geniatech iGrabber (US$34.99 at Amazon). It had surprisingly good reviews compared to more expensive devices like the Elgato Video Capture Device ($74.99 at Amazon). I found several other adapters that were even cheaper, but they either had poor reviews or weren't listed as being Mac-compatible. Here's a quick review of the iGrabber, a fairly inexpensive and easy way to digitize old videos.
Figuring that $35 wasn't going to break me, I ordered the iGrabber, and it showed up a few days ago. To give the iGrabber a try, I decided to try capturing some video from one of those MiniDV tapes. Opening the box, I found the iGrabber, a set of cable extensions to go between the iGrabber and a video device, and a CD containing the software for Mac and Windows. Unfortunately, the installation of the software from the CD failed with a cryptic "Couldn't open iGrabber OS X 1.4.6.pkg" error, so it was off to the Web to see if I could download the software.

The Mygica.com site was easily navigable, and the software was downloaded and installed on my iMac within about two minutes. The installation required a restart of my iMac, so I decided to mix the installation with the latest security update from Apple. Upon restart, I found a folder in Applications with an iGrabber Capture app, iGrabber Exporter app, a ReadMe file containing surprisingly detailed instructions, and another iGrabber Tools folder containing an Uninstaller. When I say surprisingly detailed, I mean that they even included information on such Mac-specific items as AppleScript support and using the device with Final Cut Pro.

There were three different devices I wanted to try with the iGrabber -- a Canon MiniDV camcorder, a Sony 8mm Handycam, and a standard VCR. For the Canon camcorder, I have a special AV cable that has a earphone-type jack on one end and three male RCA plugs (one for video, two for audio) on the other, so I plugged it in between the camcorder and the iGrabber. After attaching the cable, things got pretty simple -- I fired up the camcorder, popped a tape in, and started playback.

The iGrabber Capture application is quite simple to use, displaying a pale green window in which the video being digitized appears. To start capturing video once the app is running, you just push a large button on the iGrabber. Another push stops the digitization. During digitization, the playback on your Mac screen is quite jumpy (it seems to be only displaying key frames) although the video being recorded is being grabbed smoothly. There are a number of preferences that you can set for both video and audio digitization, as well as a variety of different compression schemes.

The interesting thing about the iGrabber Capture application is that it says that it will support up to eight digitizers, each of which get their own window on the screen. Theoretically, you could hook up a bunch of the devices to a Mac and capture video from eight sources at once -- pretty handy if you're trying to convert an analog library to a digital world. From what I could see on my quad-core i7 iMac, the app didn't tax the processor too badly, although eight video feeds at once might cause the machine to crawl.

How did the digitized video look? Not too shabby; see a sample below, and be sure to set the video quality to 480p. The video was shot at the original iPhone launch on June 29th, 2007. I had set the video compression in iGrabber to H.264 and saved the movies as standard QuickTime .mov files, with the thought in mind that I'll eventually bring them into iMovie, do some editing, and then burn them to DVD with iDVD. The digitization was being done at 30 frames per second in a 640 x 480 window, so it's not HD quality, but then again, my source material wasn't HD quality either. The sound quality was quite good; there are a number of different sound compression modes that you can choose, but I decided to bring the audio in uncompressed.

Unfortunately, I've found that the 8mm camcorder appears to be hosed; any tape I played on it was full of noise. At least I'm hoping it's the camcorder that's at fault -- many sources are saying that the lifetime of videotape is only about 15 years, so I may have no hope of recovering the memories on those tapes. In order to test whether or not it's my camcorder that is at fault, I sent four of the oldest tapes off to iMemories for digitization -- I'm hoping that they're able to grab the videos from 1986 and save them to DVD for me.

The clock is ticking on many of the old videotapes out there, so if you're considering digitizing those videos and burning them to DVD, do it soon. The iGrabber might be the inexpensive and easy way to do it yourself using any recent Mac.

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Accessories Video Mac

The other day while I was attempting to clean up my office, I came across a bunch of old MiniDV tapes from various vacations that my wife...