miniDV Memories - Moving your old miniDV tapes to more persistent storage

This must be familiar for many legacy home video recording enthusiasts

There are many home video enthousiasts that must be familiar with the fact that nowadays tapes are old fashioned, obsolete and impractical. Storage of video has changes significantly and has been replaced by Hard Disk Drive (HDD), Solid State Drive (SDD) or even phone recording using your favourite Android or iOS smart phone.

And then what, everyone has a home hub capable to stream video to any of your devices in the house, but then... you are still stuck with the tapes. This must be an too familiar situation where you are rarely looking back at memorable moments in life due to the legacy mini DV tapes.

But this can be changed to ensure that you can enjoy your video taped best memories.

Read mini DV tapes and make them accessible from you computer

The first thing to do is get your tapes readout, this means that the tapes need to be digitized. You can do this yourself or use a service, I decided to read them myself. I mean those videos are private and should remain as such. If you do not want to spend the time to read the videos you can find a service to digitize them for you.

Following steps are required:

  • Firewire capable (see: #FireWire) computer with dedicated or add-on firewire card. I used an add-on firewire card connected to a headless linux box running Debian Jessie.
  • A firewire cable; this allows the software to transfer the data but also to control the camera.
  • Disk space, i.e. one mini DV type converts into 13GB of data for one tape.
  • Readout program like dvgrab
  • Time for performing the activity, readout time is equal to playback time.

    Having installed, typical problems are that the camera is only connected on startup of the computer. Once started, the connection is perfect and dedicated data grabbing is working fine using dvgrab.

    I used the following setting:

    dvgrab -f raw -rewind -size 0 -showstatus filename-

    Tool output:

    Found AV/C device with GUID 0x0080458031652c3a
    Waiting for DV...
    Capture Started
    "filename-001.dv":  4346.74 MiB 31652 frames timecode 00:21:07.07 date 2012.02.03 15:37:10

    The tool output will show you the capturing status of your camera, the file, frames and timecode of the recording. My advice would be to ensure that you store the output as the timecode information gives information about the events that are recorded and therefore serve as a means to suit like an index. Just dump it in a text file to store this for later usage.

    Capabilities are to split scenes by timecode, however I did decide to capture the raw stream as the intent is to convert it into one readable playback file rather than many files. Rationale is simple as the tapes chronologically ordered by timecode already. In case of later processing I will have the original DV data stream allowing specific processing afterwards.

    Which audio/video coding to use for video playback?

    The original DV data stream is stored as approximately 13GB files. There are enormous and cannot be read by different standard codecs in place on many of the playback devices although Windows in combination with VLC Media Player has no problems playing the raw files. Still this means that conversion to separate encoded a/v streams is required for users without this specific set of tools. You can use the dvgrab tool but I decided to convert afterwards using ffmpeg. Post processing can be done easily overnight. Alternatively, what I still need to investigate is to use transcoding on a Network Attached Storage device. This allows playback conversion to many different devices.

    I standardized to generating MPEG-4 files (see: #MPEG4) and are generally readable by different operating systems like Windows, OSx, iOS, Android and many of the current browsers. Note that there is always a loss of information when encoding and there is a related trade-off between file size and quality. An MPEG4 file generate an approximately 1.5GB .mp4 file which is a substantial reduction.

    The time investment

    Now it's defined and explained how to digitize the data from tape to hard disk it's a process of being persistent and to get it done. Type in, read to disk, convert, repeat for 23 tapes and another 30 types for someone else (as a favour).

    You can do this unobserved, but it is also fun to see the preview of the recording on the small screen of your camcorder upon while playing the tape. Persistent hard work and fun all together!

    Photo: This camera shot is made during a trip from San Diego to Joshua Tree National Park in my rental car, a Mazda V6 automatic. Camera placed in front of the front window to record the impression of the many turns in the road. Highly underestimated the time required to get to the south entrance and when reaching the north entrance is was evening. Long trip back to San Diego....

    Many more memories later the tapes are all digitized to my Network Attached Storage allowing them to be playback easily.


    A lot of work and 222 GB of dv video files, however a one-time activity.

    I hope that this helps you as home video enthusiasts with miniDV tapes to digitize them in time and to enjoy the playback of them with your family.

    References and abbreviations


    Abbreviation Description
    Debian Debian is a free operating system (OS) for your computer. An operating system is the set of basic programs and utilities that make your computer run.
    Digitize To convert into a digital form that can be processed by a computer. Although miniDV is already a digital recording I used it in the context of converting from tape to peristent digital format.
    DV DV is a format for storing digital video. (see: #DV1)
    dvgrab Capture DV or MPEG-2 Transport Stream (HDV) video and audio data from FireWire


    Reference Source Reference (URL, ...)
    #DV Wikipedia DV
    #MPEG4 Wikipedia MPEG-4
    #FireWire Wikipedia IEEE 1394