As a kid growing up in the 1970’s it was always a special treat when my father brought out the portable movie screen, set up the Bell and Howell film projector and told the family to dim the light… it was movie night! My dad would sometimes rent (or just outright buy) old cartoons and films from the local library and then show them right along side our own home movies from past vacations.
Now that I’m a father myself I want to be able to share our own home movies my my kids just as easily as my father was able to with his kids. Camcorders are cheap and digital, smartphones take better video than cameras and we’re all obsessed with documenting everything around us. So why aren’t we all watching home movies these days?
Because even though it’s easier than ever to record digital video, it’s still nearly impossible to easily view them on a TV.
Though I’ve gone through several cameras and bounced through different video formats over the years I’m still no closer to being able to easily show my home movies than I was 15 years ago.
8MM Digital Tape Problems
Though the quality of the video was pretty good it was a major hassle to actually watch anything. We had to plug in the camcorder, hook it up to the TV and then find the correct 8MM tape and put it into the camcorder. The remote control for the camcorder didn’t work very well so one of us would inevitably have to hold the camcorder in our hand, sitting just a foot or two away from the TV and fast forward or rewind the video as we watched it. It wasn’t the most relaxing way to do things.
The 8MM tapes were not much better than the old 8MM home movie films my dad would make when we were growing up in the 1970’s. He’d record a few minutes of film, send it off to be developed and then get it back a few weeks later. To watch the movies you’d have to set up an expensive movie projector and screen, turn off the lights and load each little film one at a time. Everyone would sit and laugh and smile, amazed by the film showing on the wall. And a few minutes later the lights would go back up and we’d all sit around and talk while my dad unloaded one two minute reel and loaded up another.
Just as my father had shoe boxes filled with 2 minute 8mm film reels I had shoe boxes filled with 2 hour digital tapes.
Digital Transfer to DVD Difficulties
Eventually I bought some gadgets that allowed me to transfer my 8MM digital video to my computer’s hard drive. From there I could burn separate DVDs of video, label and the DVDs and put them away for safe keeping. Once again, though, watching home movies was a major hassle. You first had to figure out which DVD had the footage you wanted. Each DVD only held about 2 hours of video so if you recorded a lot you’d end up with 10 or more DVDs per year.
You also had to worry about whether or not the DVD player you were using could actually play your home made DVDs. Some could, some couldn’t. I’d burn five DVDs in a row only to find that three played fine, one didn’t play at all and one had errors on it.
Now I had most of my home video on a computer hard drive, but there was no easy way to browse through it or play it on the TV in my living room.
I never really believed my DVDs would last 100 years, so even though I had shoe boxes filled with DVDs now I still kept the original footage on my hard drive. This meant buying a new hard drive every year or so to constantly keep up with the digital video files I was constantly creating.
Digital AVCHD Camcorders Confusion
It was an upcoming family vacation which pushed me into buying a fancy new fully digital AVCHD camera that stored amazing high definition video on teeny magical plastic chip that was no bigger than a postage stamp. My digital camcorder was smaller and lighter than a lot of still cameras, it cost less than $500 and it could create video that would make Thomas Edison’s eyes pop right out of his head.
If you could play the video files, that is. My camcorder created huge video files with an .MTS extension (similar to .MKV and .M2TS file types) that my PC could barely load, much less play for more than a few seconds. The AVCHD standard was created by several big high tech companies but easy video playback was apparently never considered a priority. After some research I found that I could play them on my PS3, but only if I copied them over to the internal hard drive first.
Media Server Madness
Copy files back and forth to a hard drive in the living room wasn’t ideal, so I briefly spent some time trying to get a digital media server up and running in my home. You essentially install some software on your computer which allows your media player (in this case, a PS3) to stream and play files over your network. No copying of files required.
This solution worked great when I had the various pieces of my network all wired together but when I moved to a newer house I had to rely on WiFi for all my network connections and my high definition video files proved to be too large to make streaming a possibility any longer.
The Golden Age of Home Movies
There was a brief time, in the late 80’s and early 90’s when home movies were easy: The VHS Years. VHS camcorders were bulky machines that recorded video right to the VHS tape that you could immediately pop out of your camera and play on your VHS VCR. The cameras were huge, the tapes were huge, but it all worked with a lot less effort.
A summary of my problem: I have too many high definition video files for any media player to index properly and the video files themselves are too large to play over WiFi or even through a USB connection.
A quick search of various AV web forums confirms that I’m not the only one with this problem.
I’ve tried converting my videos to another file type but this is time consuming and I inevitably lose some of the quality. I even tied using a WD Media player but it also had a difficult time playing my HD home movies over wifi or even through a local hard drive hookup. I returned it a few days later. Other tiny media players apparently have the same problem.
This is where I am today: I’m stuck with 15 years worth of home movies that take up 600GB of hard drive space and I have no easy way to view them on the TV with my family. I can barely play them on any of my home computers.
There are a few possible solutions I’ve come up with, but they are all cost prohibitive. I could run Ethernet from the upstairs office (where my router and PC are located) to the living room. This would allow me to run the media server over a faster connection and it would probably work well. I could also purchase a media PC with a remote for the living room. This would probably give my wife a nervous breakdown because we already have several remotes, three different inputs and dozens of entertainment options.
If you’re a father and you have the same problem or if you’ve figures out how to easily watch your high definition digital home movies with your family, please leave a comment and let me know!
Maybe one day I’ll be able to sit down with my family and browse through our old family movies… just like my father was able to do 35 years ago.