PSA: Your Old VHS Tapes Are Degrading Right Now

published Jun 13, 2017
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(Image credit: Vladimir Sukhachev)

While the nostalgic look of vintage videotapes is turning up on everything from Instagram filters to entire digital video apps providing clips with the “camcorder treatment,” experts warn the reel deal is disintegrating forever in basements and attics everywhere, and right now.

Because my dad was always a bleeding-edge adopter of technology, we were one of the first families on our block to own a VCR and camcorder back in the early 1980s. So, for Christmas two years ago, my siblings and I banded together and pooled our holiday funds to give my mom something she (and most sentimentalists over the age of 35) desperately needed: a gift card to Legacybox, a service that digitizes all those rapidly degrading photo and video memories — of dance recitals and skating competitions, karate matches and student TV class projects — all captured prior to digital recordings.

Turns out, we were on to something (other than that stereotypical GenX and Millennial aversion to clutter): experts in archiving and preservation warn that all those VHS and Betamax videotapes from our childhood are becoming more and more unwatchable as time marches on. In fact, NPR reports new research suggests videotapes don’t survive past 15 to 20 years — something experts and librarians are now calling the “magnetic media crisis,” since an estimated billions of videotapes still in storage and circulation were recorded in the early 1980s through the 1990s.

Or, as Good Housekeeping put it: “Time is literally running out to save your memories.”

Instead of making like Kimmy Schmidt and Titus Andromedon with their tape tower, waiting until those cassettes are officially obsolete for anything other than home decor, here’s how to save your precious home movies now:

Legacy Box
Sort of like ThredUP for your memories, just fill the prepaid box with film reels, slides, photo prints, negatives, VHS tapes and/or cassettes and mail it in, then the service returns your files to you along with digital versions preserved on your choice of archival DVDs or thumb drives. One of the first entrants into the digitizing services market, this online company regularly offers deals and deep discounts via Groupon.

Specializing in less-popular formats (Betamax and MiniDV, to name a few), Fotobridge works very similarly but is seemingly made for volume, with premium pricing packages up to 100 tapes and return options on single hard drives instead of multiple DVDs or thumb drives — plus enterprise services for creative businesses, academic institutions, and smaller media outlets.

Legacy Republic
The ingenue among the service group and media darling (favorited by Refinery29 and Good Housekeeping), Legacy Republic offers a “Memory Makeover Kit” when you send in your old film or tapes and turn them into DVDs, plus secure online sharing and the ability to create keepsakes right on site, like ordering prints and wall decor.

Analog Video-to-Digital Adapters
The best option for those who are already video-editing inclined, these widely-available adapter cords allow you to connect your existing VCR or Betamax player and transfer the videos directly onto your Mac or PC — readymade for splicing and uploading to YouTube.

VHS to DVD Recorders
Lifewire has this handy list of the 10 best models on the market, so you can transfer videos at your own pace — while watching them as a family.

Costco, Walgreens, CVS, Wal-Mart + more
Pretty much every photo department at every major retailer is now getting into the transfer game, with varying degrees of quality and value. Our advice is to test out the service at your regular photo-printing favorite with a single VHS tape and see how you like the resulting quality before batching. Stick to the photo counters with the prints you’ve liked the best in the past should be a decent quality gauge.