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Future-Proof Your Media

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Who among us wasn't burned when CDs usurped cassette tape as THE audio format? Then felt the sting in the wallet as our huge VHS libraries were, overnight, obsoleted by the upstart DVD format? I still cry at night about all the money I wasted. And, as I spend my weekly "couch session" with my psychiatrist, trying to get over the heartache, I often wonder: Is there a way to future-proof my media, whether it be music, movies, or photos?

The answer, in a word, is NO.

I mean, who knows what the electronics wizards will come up with next? Everything we know about content distribution and file formats might just be turned on it's head by a new codec, format, or system. However, there are a few "best bets" that can extend the life of your media. Below, I address some common formats and clue you in on things you can do to future-proof them.

MUSIC
Getting everything into MP3 format is probably your best bet for long-term enjoyment of your tunes. Why? Because people like it — and it's EVERYWHERE. There are WAY better music codecs out there, yes, but none with as wide an adoption. It's going to stick around. In fact, any digital music player that comes out, whether it be iPod, Zune, or Zen, would be signing its own death-sentence if it didn't support this format. (Remember Sony's ATRAC? EXACTLY!)

Without entering into a long, drawn-out debate on the matter, MP3s encoded at 256kbps are going to sound just fine. And they'll continue to sound just fine for years to come. The best news: Most computer applications that can play MP3 can encode at exactly this bit rate. (Even iTunes, though they hide it a bit.)

Think you need better quality than 256kbps? Think you really can hear those missing frequencies? Then you're a lying snob. (OR you didn't spend the first 30 years of your life, like I did, thumbing your nose at your mother and doctors as they repeatedly told you "Loud music'll ruin your hearing!")

If you're adamant and you simply MUST have a perfect copy you could always rip your music to FLAC or Apple Lossless. But good luck finding a device that plays the former and more good luck storing a huge music collection with the latter.

Your CDs can be easily ripped to MP3 and stored on your hard drive using iTunes, Zune software, etc., but what about older, non-digital music formats? How do you get those into future-friendly MP3s?

Assuming you still have a player for your old 8-Tracks, cassettes, and records ... er ... I mean LPs ... (forgive me) ... then the Xitel INport Deluxe (from $69 on PriceGrabber) might just be the thing you need. Connect its RCA jacks to your turntable, or cassette player, or whatever, and its USB cable into your computer, and you're all set. It'll record your obsolete-format music to your computer's hard drive with the click of a button. The included software even breaks down the music into individual song tracks and can remove tape-hiss, or vinyl-pops, if you want.

The downside? It records in WAV format first, then trans-codes it to MP3 later. Just one extra step standing between your old 45s and your iPod.

There are other devices in this category, but each is a "uni-tasker" — performing encoding of only one format. The ION USB Turntable / Vinyl Archiver (from $110 on PriceGrabber), for instance, only encodes — you guessed it — LPs. And, it costs more. Though, if you've not been listening to your old wax because your player broke, this is probably the way to kill two birds with one stone.

Same goes for the DIGI DECK Tape-RW PC Cassette Deck ($86 at Meritline). For this one, you'll also need a free 5.25" drive bay in your computer.

MOVIES
If you want to future-proof a DVD that you made yourself — something you own the copyright to — then HandBrake is your best bet. It can take any DVD source and spit out MPEG-4, MKV, AVI, or OGM video. Yes, there are "better" DVD back-up applications — where you can tweak every last little encoding / muxing / demuxing process — out there but none are as easy to use as Handbrake. And none are as free. Oh, yeah, didn't I mention it's free?

Handbrake can also of course make archives of DVD movies, although that apparently is a violation of copyright law. It's up to you to decide on the ethics of "stealing" a DVD you already bought.

For your encoding method, I'd suggest MPEG-4 or AVI, for the best future-proofing. Why? Because you have to look at the ways that are available to play back which formats. MPEG-4 is, like MP3, quite a stable format. As for AVI, most playback applications have readily-available codecs / plugins to handle these formats. (DivX and Xvid files - the darlings of the torrent-set - are AVI files, by the way.)

Now, here is where it gets confusing: AVI files can be compressed more than an MPEG-4 file and retain better quality. On the other hand, iPods, Apple TVs don't support .avi formats. On the other-other hand, many stand-alone DVD players are beginning to support avi playback, but not MPEG-4.

For my money, I'd go with .avi. But that's because I have a DVD player that plays those files, the correct codecs installed to play them on my computer, and I don't own an iPod. For you, you may be much happier with .mp4 files. But, no matter what, just having the video encoded as a digital file and off the disc will do wonders for you to continue to watch the content in the future.

PHOTOS
My thoughts about forgetting my teenage, bad-style, bad-clothes, bad-hair days aside, most of us have a big stack of hard-copy photos somewhere. And mom and dad have even more than you do (and they are the REALLY incriminating, embarrassing photos, too.)

But, if you don't want to solve the problem of those old photos with a can of gas and a match, as I would like to, you're going to need to get those things into the digital realm before all the colors fade and they disintegrate into dust.

The correct answer, here, is, of course, to scan those suckers into a computer. But, honestly, who REALLY wants to scan mom's 100,000 photos, one at a time? I don't think there is a devoted enough child willing to do that.

Now, many companies used to offer "batch" scanners that you could load a stack of photos into and let it run. However, the market for these things must have collapsed as ALL the major manufacturers have discontinued their offering in this field. Canon, Epson, HP, and Polaroid's own websites show their machines that can handle this kind of task as "discontinued". You COULD, however, check out eBay and see if anyone out there is selling a used one.

For most of us, a better solution would be to check out your local big-chain pharmacy (CVS, Walgreens, Rite Aid, Wal-Mart) and see if they will scan your photos and drop them onto a CD for you. Many of the outlets will do this, but it is not available in every store in every city. (So, I'd make some calls, ahead, before carrying your shoe boxes full of photos to the store.)

If THAT solution is not available to you, you can always check craigslist.com. This "online classifieds" list just MIGHT have a post from someone (probably a kid, looking to earn some pocket money) who is offering to spend the time scanning your pics. If there is no one offering this, then you could always post a request for someone to do it for you. A word of caution, though, you might just get a lot of responses from creeps, hoping to get a peek at your photos.

So, really, what's the answer?

Unfortunately, the only way you can be sure to get a quality archival copy of your snaps is to scan them yourself. Which means you better start looking forward to spending a good many hours of quality time in front of your computer.

For simple archiving purposes, your best bet is to scan them in at 300dpi to the JPEG file format. This will give you the best size-to-quality ratio. 300dpi will be good enough that you'll be able to, later, print them back out with no noticeable degradation in the image. And JPEGs are also a very stable format. It's pretty universal and, though there are new and better photo-compression formats coming out every couple of days, JPEG will continue to stick around for the same reasons that MP3s do. Because people use them.

Now, if you are going to edit your images or blow them up to make huge prints, you'll want to increase the scanning dpi and think about using the TIFF or PNG file format. These formats preserve more of the raw information from the original picture, but they also yield much, much bigger files. Also, not all devices can play these files back.

So, really, it all comes down to time. If you're wiling to invest the hours of your life it'll take to get all your media into a future-friendly format, you could be enjoying those photos / movies / songs for many years to come, without worry that you'll be obsoleted.

But ... how much is your time worth?

Jeff Somogyi is dealnews' Media Editor. He's spent countless hours encoding his media collection. He obviously does not value his time.

Please note that, although prices sometimes fluctuate or expire unexpectedly, all products and deals mentioned in this feature were available at the lowest total price we could find at the time of publication (unless otherwise specified).
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