They are the fossils of family entertainment.
Inside millions of homes across the country, dusty boxes hold invaluable archives of household media treasures. Among them: 8-mm. films and VHS tapes, LP music albums, and glossy (if often fading) photos.
As recently as 20 years ago, these keepsakes were generated according to the highest standards of cutting-edge technology. Today, they are fast becoming quaint reminders of a simpler time. And they may soon be as obsolete as a hand-cranked phonograph.
Digital technology has prompted the evolution. New video, music, and photo devices now store pictures and sound in the form of ones and zeros, rather than as impressions made on vinyl or as information stored in the metal oxides of tape.
The digital format has in many cases improved quality. It has certainly given users more options, experts say, leading millions of consumers to upgrade to new devices such as digital cameras and DVD players, both of which smashed their own sales records last year.
The problem: Digital machines don't play old media. And unlike digital information, which doesn't wear out from extended use, film, records, photos, and tapes tend to break down.
Today, many families are concerned with the fate of their audio/video relics, and they're scrambling to find the most cost-effective ways to preserve them.
As a result, a number of products and services are being rolled out. They promise to convert the old entertainment into a form better suited for long-term enjoyment and safekeeping.
"People are beginning to understand that if they want to preserve something forever, they need to save it in a medium that will last," says Matt Swanston, a spokesman for the Consumer Electronics Association in Arlington, Va.
Most do-it-yourself options are expensive and technically complex. Experts say outside services might be the better option for those out to convert just a few records or VHS tapes, for example.
Consider the following products and services:
Families' home-movie collections often include 8-mm. film reels and VHS and Betamax tapes, among other formats.
But the future of video is clearly DVD. Americans are expected to buy 16 million DVD players this year, while sales of VCRs will likely drop to about 14 million, according to the CEA.
Do-it-yourself. Consumers can use their personal computers to make DVDs from old videotapes. The process requires three steps: transferring the video to a computer, editing it, and "burning" it onto a blank DVD.
The transfer requires a kit that includes a tiny, box-like converter and normally sells for about $300. The device, with cables, serves as a conduit between a Camcorder or VCR and a computer.
While the video plays, the box collects the transmission and converts it into a digital package. The video is then saved on the computer hard drive as an MPEG file.
Examples include Hewlett-Packard's Dazzle Digital Video Creator II for PCs and Formac's Studio DV/TV for Apple computers. The Hollywood DV-Bridge from Dazzle is compatible with both PCs and Apple.
Most digital video cameras can provide the same function.
Many converters come with editing software that allows the user to break up the video into separate parts for archiving or to craft a more finished product for viewing. Apple's iDVD2 for the Macintosh is a user-friendly software that comes with the company's new $1,800 iMac.
Once the video is edited, it can be burned onto a blank DVD. The iMac is equipped with a DVD drive, but most PC owners will need to buy one separately. They typically cost less than $800.
HP's dvd100i drive costs $600. A package of 5 blank DVDs costs about $30.
Services. Those wishing to outsource the task can choose from among a number of national services that charge about $40 for a basic video-to-DVD conversion.
YesVideo in San Jose, Calif., for example, maintains drop boxes in Walgreens and Target stores across the US. Consumers can leave their tapes and pick up a DVD copy at the store two weeks later.
The Acton, Mass.-based LifeClips will mail a DVD Conversion Kit to customers who place an order on its website. The kit includes a prepaid UPS shipping box. The company returns the DVD and tapes in three weeks.
Most services offer additional options at some extra cost. HomeMovie of Everett, Wash., lets customers with high-speed Internet access edit their own Beta or VHS tapes or 8-mm. reels online. This "Director's DVD" feature costs $115 per disc.
Consumers having difficulty finding firms to convert 8-mm. film to DVD might want to first transfer the film to VHS.
Music aficionados argue vigorously about variations in sound quality among formats. But most agree that vinyl does not hold up over time compared with digital alternatives - primarily the CD.
Do-it-yourself. A few consumer devices are able to transfer music from a record or cassette to a CD. One computer-based option: Sony's EZ Audio package. It comes with a cable that connects a turntable or cassette player to a Windows-based PC or laptop.
The process is similar to transferring a DVD. The EZ Audio software captures the music and converts it to a digital file. According to Sony, the $50 software can also be used to clean up hisses and bumps.
The digital files can then easily be recorded onto a CD. The computer just requires a CD drive capable of burning new discs. These drives are commonly labeled CD-R (recordable) or CD-RW (rewritable). The first drive can record onto blank CDs, while the second can burn discs that can later be recorded over.
It is important to note that rewritable discs are more expensive and will not play on most CD players made before 1999.
There are some home-based alternatives to the computer. Many two-tray CD burners, which record CD-based music onto blank CDs, also contain inputs that allow users to record from turntables and cassette decks.
One example: the Koss Dual-Deck Recorder, which retails for $250. A package of 5 blank CDs costs about $7.
Services. Local and Internet-based companies will convert LPs to CDs. An Internet search yields a number of options.
Hamilton Audio/Video in Rohnert Park, Calif., is an example of a format-updating firm. For $15, the company transfers records (even old 78s) and cassettes onto CDs. The company claims to be able to remove most clicks, pops, and other "surface noise" for an additional $10.
Digital-camera users - a fast-growing group - need only upload images to their computers and save them onto a CD to protect them from deterioration.
Glossy photo prints fade over time. But they can easily be put into digital form with a relatively small investment.
Do-it-yourself. Quality flatbed scanners, which copy a photo's image and convert it to a digital file, cost about $120. Scanners that do the same for slides and 35-mm. film cost $200 and up.
Services. For those who don't want to bring another clunky machine into their home, Ritz Camera stores, with branches nationwide, can scan film negatives and download the images onto a disc. Normally, 70 to 80 images fit onto a CD.
But the procedure is pricy. It costs $2 to scan one negative and $10 for the CD.