A year or so ago I noticed that the Dutch store Blokker was selling a "Digital Video Converter" which promised easy transfer of our old VHS and 8mm family videos to a digital format. You just plug your video camera or VHS player into this device, insert an SD card or USB stick, and it'll convert the analogue video signal to digital and record it directly onto the card. No computer needed.
This seemed like a great idea to make recording from video tapes easy and straightforward, but because I couldn't find any information about the device anywhere I passed at the original €70 price tag. It was later reduced to €37, but I could still find no information about the device so again I didn't buy.
In October 2012 I visited my local Blokker and noticed that there was still one of these devices on the shelf. However, it was devoid of boxes and had a price tag for something else stuck to it. I asked the staff how much it cost now. As it turned out, they didn't even know they had it and their computer had no record of the device being for sale. The staff member looked in the stock room but couldn't find the box, wires and manual. She then offered it to me for €10;, I offered €5 and that's the price I paid. It's cheap enough that I can find out if it's worthwhile.
After bringing the device home I discovered that it also goes under another name and is being sold in the USA as the Zone Analog to Digital Converter / Player and in the UK as the Vega Platinum Digital Video Converter. The US price varies enormously, with some companies charging as much as $190 for this device. The UK prices seem more in line with the Netherlands. Is it worth buying ? There's only one way to find out. Read on.
The first problem I had was finding suitable cables. It turned out that the power supply for my Nbox media player was equally capable of operating the digital video converter, but the video cables required were four way 3.5 mm plugs. I didn't have any. Luckily, I found suitable cables.
Opening the box
After removing the screws which hold the device together, the main board comes out easily. It's also obvious why the device weighs so much as it does - a piece of metal has been added to the bottom of the case for no reason other than to give it a little more weight so that it feels more valuable.
The yellow relays were a surprise. They click as the box is in use changing from one mode to another. A very odd thing to find in a modern piece of equipment.
The main IC is a SunPlus SPMP8020A. I've not found any data about this chip, the Sunplus website is completely silent on it. However, it's quite likely to be of the same family as the SPMP8000 which is used in the Dingoo and other handheld games and MP4 players. I believe it's an ARM processor. There are Linux ports running on some devices with these processors.
Apart from RAM and ROM, the other significant chip is a Texas Instruments TI5150AM1 video decoder / encoder. This is a very sophisticated chip capable of high quality decoding of NTSC, SECAM and PAL signals entirely in the digital domain and using high quality comb filters. Sadly, this performance at separating luma and chroma from a composite video signal simply wasn't available in the heyday of analogue video. The chip also supports s-video, though the product does not.
The front and back panel have 3.5 mm sockets for video in and out, a 5 V power supply socket, a switch for PAL or NTSC mode and the sockets for USB stick and SD-card.
There is no remote control with this device and it is controlled by pressing buttons and watching LEDs which are mounted on the top.
When power is applied, a blue LED lights. The power switch causes a click from relays but seemingly does nothing at all quite often. If the device gets so far as lighting the red light then it is ready to record if you push the record button. Red LEDs flash when recording and you can stop recording by pressng the record button again. A view of the files recorded on the device and the chance to play them back on a TV are achieved by pressing the play/stop button, they can be selected between by pressing the forwards button and played with play.
PAL and NTSC Testcards
I recorded both PAL and NTSC testcards from laserdisc using the converter. Resolution is really quite good, and the device records pretty much the entire frame, within safety areas, for both formats.
Note how a close-up of the SMPTE test card image shows that the device manages to resolve about as much detail as one can expect to find from an NTSC laserdisc source. This is a credit to the TI chip referenced above which really does a good job of decoding composite video.
While static test card images are recorded quite well, the device doesn't cope as well with shots which have a lot of action and or darkness. e.g. this still from "Das Boot" which shows a lot of blocking.
This still shows the severe effect of interlacing and blocking combined. It is surprising how difficult it is to notice this in when viewing the video above from which the still was taken, but this is not the highest quality of image possible from analogue video.
Note that when switching between PAL and NTSC modes it is possible to confuse the device so that in PAL mode it records 480 lines towards the top of the picture or in NTSC mode it compressed the 480 lines it should record into a 576 line field and fills the last 100 lines with distorted duplicates from elsewhere in the picture.
There is also a problem that the device can fill an SD card and then freeze, leaving various empty files on the drive. It's best to stop recording before the drive is full.
It's quite a handy device, but the firmware is poor such that the device is fifficult to use and the quality of the digital files produced isn't quite what it could be.
I'm going to try using it for digitizing old home movies but I'm not entirely convinced I will like the quality of what it produces.