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Let's Talk Numbers, Shall We?

Having been in the media transfer business for nearly two decades, we have experience with a variety of pre-digital audio, video, and photos formats as well as the current technology. For the average person, it can all be a bit much to keep track of. One thing we've noticed as a trend among many of our customers is the misconception about exactly how much a specific media type holds.

We've had customers come in with a dozen video tapes, all probably being one to two hours in length, and ask about having them all combined onto a single disc (mmmm, sorry, can't be done). Conversely, we've had customers drop off handfuls of 50 foot 8mm film reels, and they are surprised to find that we can put more than one on a disc. Most recently a family member asked me to put a dozen tapes onto a dozen thumb drives, again not realizing they'd all fit onto one. So it's as if the expectation is almost the opposite of reality.

First off, let's review the actual amount of time you get on some examples of old, analog media:

As we can see, even in the "good old days" the amount of storage you get was based on a variety of factors, most of all the physical size of the media. The larger a film or tape reel is, the more information it can hold. Likewise, running speed also dictates how much "time" a certain format has. However there is a trade-off: time and quality are inversely proportional, in that the slower you run a tape, the longer it can record or play back, but the lower the overall quality becomes. Modern storage is a bit different. In the current digital age, this essentially breaks down into one of two types: discs or USB flash drives.

First thing's first: to be clear, the typical audio or video disc - whether it is a CD, DVD, or Blu-ray - is really nothing more than a data storage medium. It's no different than a hard drive or USB flash drive, in that it simply stores digital data. The main difference is how those files are structured to be compatible with set-top disc players (see our previous blog post about this topic) The other difference with discs is that they are a fixed size based on their type. Let's take a quick look:

Of course there are even newer types, such as the UHD 4K Blu-ray discs, which come in both dual and triple layer configurations. These are typically reserved for mass produced media such as the 4K release of your nest favorite movie.

blank DVDs
CDs, DVDs, and Blu-ray discs have a fixed amount of data that can be stored.

With all of the above disc formats except for the standard Audio CD, the amount of time can vary, this time not due to speed, but to the amount of compression applied. Digital compression finds ways to shrink large files into smaller ones. Remember the first Laserdiscs that came out in the 80s? They held about an hour's worth of video on each side and were larger than a 33 1/3 record album. They stored standard definition video in an uncompressed format, so all of that space was needed for all of those bits. Fast forward to the late 90s when the DVD format was released. By now computer chip processing power had advanced to the point that digital audio and video data could be compressed and decompressed on the fly to take up less space. But compression comes at a price: the more bits you throw away, the lower the quality of the resulting sound or picture at the other end.

DVDs were designed to mimic the usefulness VHS video tapes as much as possible but at a higher quality. When set-top DVD recorders became commonplace in the mid 2000s, you'd typically see recording options of one hour (best quality, lowest compression) to six hours (worst quality, most compression). But, just like the 6 hour EP setting on VHS recorders, it's something you really don't use unless you don't care about the resulting quality. This is why we tell our customers that a DVD at best quality holds up to two hours of video. yes we can squeeze more on there if necessary, but a lot of that depends on the nature of the original media. A VHS tape recorded at the 4 hour LP speed is going to suffer no great loss by being put onto a DVD also set for 4 hours. But the bulk of tapes we get in come from camcorders that only recorded at the high (SP) speed, so a 2 hour VHS is going to look best on a 2 hour single layer DVD.

Now let's talk about the next advance in media: no media at all. yes, that's right, actual physical media is becoming a thing of the past. Since all we are dealing with now it digital data, that data can be stored in a variety of ways: on a disc, on an external hard drive, or on a USB flash drive.

USB flash drives come in a variety of sizes and can meet varying data storage needs

While not intended for permanent storage (we ALWAYS recommend to our customers backing up anything we give to them on USB thumb drives) these tiny marvels of technology are now extremely cheap and widely available. And, more importantly, for our purposes - scalable. That means that we can choose the right sized drive for the customer's needs.

For a final example, we just finished transferring over 100 video tapes for a single customer. This was a mix of VHS and 8mm Video formats, all with varying run times, averaging about 75 hours worth. These were all digitized to the now commonplace MP4 video format which uses a very efficient and high quality form of compression. At the end of the day we were able to take a large bin full of videos and store them all onto a single 128GB USB thumb drive the size of, well, the size of your thumb.

Isn't technology wonderful?


Marc Vadeboncoeur is the owner of Goodheart Media Services, a professional video production company which also specializes in video, audio, film and photo transfers as well as disc and USB duplication. He can be reached via the company web site at

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