What about including home movies or video?
Along with that shoebox filled with old photos is another, potentially even dustier box filled with old video cassettes – VHS, VHS-C, Hi8, MiniDV – or even (OMG!) film.
How do get what's on those tapes into your PC?
Really old videotape
Let's assume for the moment you still have the video camera with which you originally captured these moments, and said ancient camcorder still functions as designed (if you do, I'd play the lottery).
Check the jack pack on your ancient camcorder. If it's an older analog, low-resolution VHS, VHS-C or Hi8 model, it likely has either an S-Video jack and/or standard RCA yellow-red-white output jacks (#9 in my "10 Most Important Cables" list).
If we're good so far, get yourself a PC video converter thingy (a technical term), such as the Elgato Video Capture ($100, versions for PC and Mac) or the discontinued (but still available) Ion Video 2 PC. Both thingies will let you connect your old camcorder directly to your Windows PC or Mac. Using the included software, you'll be able to convert your video into modern digital video files for uploading or burning to a disc.
DVD and flash memory camcorders (or camcorders with both recording methods) connect to a Windows PC or Mac via USB, so should present no problems in terms of connecting easily to PC of any kind.
The MiniDV transfer dilemma
However, if you've got MiniDV cassettes – oy.
Check the jack pack on your MiniDV camcorder, if it still works, but won't have RCA jacks. It MAY include a USB jack, but you likely won't be able to use this for video transfer, just transferring still pictures.
Instead of RCA or USB jacks, your MiniDV likely has a small digital jack labeled MiniDV, HDV, 1394 or i.Link. All of these monikers indicate varying types of "FireWire," a one-time digital connecting cable competitor to USB. FireWire connectors are now found only on desktop Apple PCs.
Why are there no yellow-red-white RCA jacks on MiniDV camcorders? Because RCA jacks transfer only low-resolution analog video; FireWire transfers the original MiniDV DVD-resolution digital video and audio.
FireWire also handles digital controls that let you manipulate your camcorder functions from the movie importing and editing software.
Except, no current Windows PCs include FireWire input jacks. Some older models might, especially from Sony since it promoted camcorders with i.Link connectivity.
So how do you get this MiniDV footage from your camcorder to your PC?
With great difficulty.
For one thing: DO NOT BUY A USB-to-FIREWIRE CABLE. These won't work.
For Mac owners
Apple iMac desktop PCs include FireWire input jacks; all-in-one iMacs from the last few years include a high-speed FireWire 800 input jack. This is good news.
As a result, you can buy a FireWire 800-to-MiniDV (FireWire 400) cable, such as this one from Belkin or Apple's own cable, to connect your camcorder and transfer your footage. For older Macs with a tower CPU, use a standard 6-pin-to-4-pin FireWire cable.
If you want to connect your MiniDV camcorder to a new Apple laptop using a Thunderbolt connection, you'll also need Apple's FireWire-to-Thunderbolt adapter cable ($29) in addition to the FireWire 800-to-MiniDV cable.
Once connected (and using iMovie) simply connecting the cable to your MiniDV camcorder automatically begins the import process. You can read more from Apple about the importing-to-iMovie process here, or you can watch this Apple video tutorial.
The transfer process happens in real time and then requires a nearly equal amount of time or longer to process and create the digital file. Transferring can be done in the background – you can use your Mac for other things while the video is flowing from your camcorder to iMovie.
In other words, if you're a Mac owner, transferring MiniDV footage to your Mac is relatively easy, if a bit time consuming.
For Windows PC owners
For USB-based camcorders, you can import movies into Microsoft's Windows Live Movie Maker, which you can download here (just make sure it's not already on your PC first). Check out Microsoft's import instructions here, and Dummies.com Windows Live Movie Maker import guide here.
If you have an older PC, especially a Sony VAIO, Sony provides a variety of MiniDV-to-PC transfer options, found here.
But odds are, your PC doesn't have a FireWire or i.Link jack.
So, if you want to transfer your footage, you have to equip your desktop or laptop Windows PC, assuming it has a tower PC and is not an all-in-one model, with a FireWire jack. You need a FireWire PCI extension card, usually less than $50. This card screws into an open port on the back of your tower PC or laptop (just make sure you get the right one for either your desktop or laptop PC).
And if you have no idea what all this expansion PCI card slot stuff is all about, forget about transferring your tapes yourself. There is another way.
Video transfer services
But my guess is, the camcorder with which you originally shot this footage is, well, shot, you don't want to deal with installing FireWire expansion cards, and the whole process, even if you had a working ancient camcorder, sounds way too time-consuming.
Even if your old camcorder works, who knows what kind of condition your tapes are in. Videotape begins to deteriorate badly after 10-15 years or so, depending on the quality of the tape.
All of which means it's time to hire a professional.
There are a growing number of video transfer service companies such as iMemories, DigMyPics (which also does photo scanning, albeit at a higher price than the companies I mentioned yesterday), FilmTransfer.com and Envision Video Services.
Essentially, you send one of these companies your film or tapes (most also do photo scanning as well, so it's one-stop digital media converation shopping). After a few weeks, you get back your original media with your footage in digital form on either a DVD or a hard drive – and you want them on a hard drive with the raw files so you can import them into an editing program.
Video conversion costs run about $15-$30 for each tape converted up to two hours long, depending on the format. External hard drives your footage gets stored on are extra, but usually run around $100. Ask the conversion service company if you can send them an external hard drive you may already own to save the extra expense.
iMemories seems to offer the best overall and most comprehensive service (I haven't actually used them – yet). If you get them your tapes (and pay them – they send you quotes once they receive your tapes) by December 10, you'll be able to view your videos online by Christmas (at this date, they can't guarantee DVD delivery).
iMemories will actually send you a UPS shipping kit ($25-$55, depending on size and if you want GPS tracking) to make sure your irreplaceable videos safely arrive at the company's Scottsdale, AZ, facility. But if you want your videos by Christmas, send your videotapes to them yourself (full instructions on the site).
They not only convert your video, but they repair deteriorating footage as best they can. The iMemories people then upload the video online so you can preview it before deciding whether or not to burn it to DVD or a hard drive.
iMemories charges $10 for each up-to-two-hour-tape conversion, another $10 for each DVD. Your videos also can be stored in the cloud; iMemories is offering unlimited media storage for $5 a month. And early next year, the company will release free smartphone and tablet apps (Apple and Android) to access and view your cloud-stored video memories.
I'm definitely going to give iMemories a try even though I have done the MiniDV-to-PC transfer deed myself.
Tomorrow, the final step to creating your family history video documentary: assembling and editing your production.