How to Go Digital and Get Your Old Physical Media Onto Your PC

physical media clutter

Why manage a collection of audio CDs, DVDs, some videos on VHS tapes, photos, and other documents in physical form? Go digital to get all your stuff on your PC — and on your other devices.

You don’t have to get rid of the originals, but this will let you access them more easily. It’s also a good way to create a backup copy of all your important stuff, which will come in handy if you ever lose it.

Audio CDs

Audio CDs are easy to “rip” into digital music files. You can turn those music files into a local music collection or upload them to a service like Spotify, Google Play Music, Amazon Music, or iTunes Match so you can listen to all that music from wherever you are. You could also just stuff it into Dropbox, OneDrive, Google Drive, or a similar service — or just back it up to your own local storage. That’s up to you.

On Windows, you can use Windows Media Player to rip audio CDs. It’s a dated application Microsoft hasn’t been working on too much, but it’ll certainly work. if you have iTunes installed, as many people do, iTunes will also let you rip those audio CDs.

There are other applications, of course. Many audiophiles love Exact Audio Copy — it’s a good swiss army knife for ripping CDs and will serve you well.

Choosing which format to rip to is also important. MP3 is the most well-known, but MP4 has now become common as well — the iTunes AAC format uses MP4. It’s highly compatible with various different services and devices. Some people prefer ripping to the lossless FLAC format for archival purposes, but this will produce very large files that aren’t supported in many applications and on many devices.

Video DVDs

For DVD-ripping and other video-related tasks — for example, “transcoding” a video file from one codec to another codec — we recommend the open-source HandBrake application.

You can use this tool to rip your own homemade DVDs to video files. But, if you want to rip commercial DVDs you purchased with your own money, you’ll need to do something extra. These DVDs have weak encryption that serves as copy-protection.

To bypass this, tyou’ll need software like the libdvdcss library offered by VideoLAN. It’s also included along with VLC, which is why VLC is an excellent solution for watching DVDs on Windows 8. Download the DLL file and copy it to your Handbrake directory — that’s at “C:\Program Files\Handbrake” by default. You should then be able to rip those commercial DVDs to video files.

Scanning Blu-Ray discs isn’t as easy. As far as we know, you’ll need specialized commercial applications you’ll have to pay for to do this.

VHS Tapes

Yes, you can turn those old VHS tapes into digital files. It probably doesn’t make any sense to convert an old movie or TV show on VHS into a digital format, but you may want to convert any irreplacable home videos to digital formats.

You’ll need special hardware for this. Along with a VHS player, you’ll need a gadget that will let you convert that analog video signal to a digital signal your computer can interpret. In other words, you need a way to plug that DVD player into your computer. A gadget like this one from Amazon should allow you to connect that VCR’s old S-Video or RCA cables directly to your computer. Play the video on the VCR and use recording software on your computer to record it and convert it to a digital file.

This shouldn’t be too hard, although it’ll take some time — you have to let each VHS tape play in real time so the computer can capture it. Assuming you have a VHS tape player, all you need is an adapter device to get started.

VCR

Photos and Other Paper Documents

Obviously, paper documents are easy to capture. You just need a scanner and you can turn those old photos into digital images and any important documents into digital copies you’ll have a backup of.

There are many ways to scan documents. The old standard flatbed scanner will let you scan documents. You can also purchase smaller portable scanners that you can feed documents and photos through to do this without needing a larger scanner.

There’s a lot more to scanning a photograph, so be sure to read our instructions for properly scanning a photo. Scanning old paperwork isn’t as big a deal — as long as it’s legible enough, you should be happy.

In a pinch, you can also use an iPhone or Android phone to scan a document or photo — but this isn’t a good solution for long-term archival of important memories and documents.


Be sure to back up those files once you have them, whether it’s using an online backup solution or local copies of your files — or, better yet, both. You wouldn’t want to put in all the time just to lose them if your computer or hard drive fails on you.

Image Credit: hobvias sudoneighm on Flickr

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.