Tech Talk: How to save your digital recordings

It's hard to keep digital TV recordings
It's hard to keep digital TV recordings
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NO MATTER how big the hard disk inside your digital set-top box, it’s going to fill up with TV programmes eventually – but saving them for posterity is surprisingly more difficult than in the days of the humble video cassette.

Nearly all TV recorders these days are hard disk-based, and they’re ideal for taping and indexing entire series and then retrieving them instantly for viewing. But they work on the principle that once you’ve watched a programme you’ll want to delete and re-use the disk space. On many models, archiving isn’t an option.

Worse yet, some boxes will forcibly erase your recordings when they need to upgrade their software. You get a few weeks’ warning when this is about to happen, but if you have a stack of programmes still to watch, that’s not nearly enough. A reader sent me a recent note telling him his BT Vision box would soon be wiped clean to allow for “exciting new features”, and wondered if files could be transferred to a laptop for onward storage.

Sadly, that’s not usually possible. Every make of set-top box uses a different proprietary format for digitising and compressing the pictures on to disk, and you’d spend the rest of your life trying to convert them to a universal standard PCs can read. Besides, files are often encrypted to protect the broadcasters’ copyright.

What you can do, provided you also have either a DVD or old VHS recorder, is transfer programmes to tape or disk in real time. This is done the old-fashioned way, by running either a Scart or aerial lead from the digital box to the recorder and then hitting the play button on one and the record button on the other. It’s a tedious and time-consuming business, and if you record to cassette you’ll notice a steep deterioration in quality. Even DVDs are incapable of recording in high definition.

A video capture card inside your PC is another option. Not many computers have these, but if yours does, you can use it to digitise to another hard disk. Again, it’s a slow process that takes place in real time – and it’s far less reliable than using a dedicated recorder.

It’s also worth remembering that if your kit includes a DVD recorder you can use it to convert your old video cassettes in exactly the same way. Dubbing on to DVD won’t improve the picture quality but will at least mean you can carry on viewing long after your old tape player has bitten the dust. You won’t want to go to this much trouble with all your tapes, but it’s a good way to preserve home movies and other recordings.