How to transfer video from a MiniDV camcorder to a computer via USB
DV video, launched in 1995, democratized digital video recording and editing. It came bundled with a transfer protocol that allowed to copy one tape to another or to upload it on a computer without loss.
This communication protocol is officially called IEEE-1394, but is better known as Firewire or i.Link or simply as DV transfer protocol.
Firewire had been designed from the ground-up for high-speed real-time data transfer. It does not strain the host CPU, so even a 1990s laptop computer can be used to ingest digital video without dropouts.
Firewire is a standard data exchange interface for DV camcorders and tape decks. It was later re-purposed for HDV camcorders and decks, and it was used on D-VHS machines as well.
Apple spearheaded Firewire development in 1986 and by the end of 1990s Firewire was offered on most of Apple’s hardware including iPod.
The future of Firewire looked bright, but Apple, seeking a $1 per port royalty for devices that used its technology, pushed away hardware manufacturers. At the same time, the nascent USB 2.0 promised to be as fast and royalty-free. Firewire market started to shrink.
In 2011 Apple introduced Thunderbolt for its computers, and in 2012 it launched Lightning for its mobile devices, effectively killing Firewire.
Presently all computers are equipped with USB ports, and practically none come with Firewire. How do you upload a 20-year old DV video from tape on a computer that has no Firewire port?
USB 2.0, released in 2000, increased data rate from measly 12 Mbit/s of USB 1.x to 480 Mbit/s. DV video has overall data rate of about 29 Mbit/s, so in theory USB 2.0 should have been more than enough for transferring DV video.
Firewire was designed as isochronous interface, that is, it works well for sending data at steady rate, like video. USB was better suited for file-based data transfer. But in 2003 USB standard was enhanced with USB video device class. These are devices capable of streaming video like webcams, digital camcorders, transcoders and analog video converters.
Below are shown 2005 Panasonic consumer DV camcorders that are capable of sending DV video over USB. 2006 Panasonic camcorders can do it as well.
I have tried three software packages using Windows 7 and Windows 10, and I was able to successfully transfer full-resolution video from tape played in a Panasonic GS500 camcorder to a computer.
The first software I’ve tried was Windows Movie Maker, it is included in Windows Essentials 2012 package. This package is not available for download from Microsoft anymore, but can be found elsewhere.
Another Windows program that I’ve tried was the capture module from Vegas Pro. I have older versions 13 and 14, and both worked just fine.
I have also tried Corel Video Studio Pro X8. In addition to capturing digital data from tape without modification, Corel Video Studio can convert it to DVD-video format on the fly. This option is good for authoring DVD discs.
See video for more details.
On Windows, the standard DV video storage format is DV-AVI file, the total bitrate is about 29 Mbit/s including PCM audio. Mac has its own native DV video format, Quicktime-DV. The difference is only in a container file, actual video data inside those files is identical and is the same as on tape.
Besides Panasonic, there are several JVC camcorder models that can export video over USB, but my experience with the JVC GR-D93 was not as successful as with the Panasonic, after a long dance with software, I was able to capture only 160x120 video at 15 fps, definitely not what I was looking for.