Tech Talk with David Pogue

Digital Life for Analog Keepsakes

Millions of baby boomers today live in fear of a diagnosis of AFLS.

AFLS — Analog Format Loss Syndrome — is the depressing realization that all your old photo prints, cassette tapes and vinyl records risk being lost to the dustbin of obsolete analog equipment. But with just a few changes, you can avoid becoming another AFLS statistic.

(O.K., spare me the indignant e-mail — I realize that record players aren’t yet obsolete. But there’s still value in digitizing your records; otherwise, you can’t listen to them in the car, while you jog or anyplace else you don’t have a turntable handy.)

The Ion LP Dock converter.

Where there’s a problem, there’s an entrepreneur to exploit it. Three new AFLS remedies have just hit the market: a photo converter from Hammacher Schlemmer, a cassette-tape converter from Ion and an LP-converting turntable, also from Ion.

All three purport to simplify turning the relics of your analog life into shiny new digital files. But not all of them improve on existing conversion technology.

Take the Hammacher Schlemmer Photograph-to-Digital-Picture Converter ($150), for example. It wins the award for the Longest Product Name Ever Reviewed in This Column. It’s also in the running for Most Pointless.

The idea is clever: it’s basically a digital camera inside a light box. You insert a photo print into a frame, slip that into the end of the plastic box (about 7 by 10 by 9 inches), press the button, and poof! The box takes a five-megapixel picture of your photo and deposits a JPEG file on your PC. The capture takes one second — much faster than using a scanner.

Your Digital Life

The box comes with three trays, each engineered to hold a common photograph size: 3.5 by 5 inches, 4 by 6 inches or 5 by 7 inches. Unfortunately, if your photos are any other size or shape, the box is totally useless.

In preparing an 80th birthday slide show for my father, I discovered that few of his old photos fit the trays; a couple fell out of the tray and had to be fished out with tweezers. That’s because, as I confirmed with Kodak, those standard photo sizes were not always standard. For example, 3.5 by 5 and 5 by 7 prints didn’t become standard sizes until the 1940s, and 4 by 6 didn’t catch on until the 1970s.

Worse, this box is a typical Windows-product hodgepodge: the hardware comes with unrelated, jury-rigged software from a totally different company. Installation is a headache, made worse by an incoherent and inaccurate user guide. (The company says that it intends to redo the manual.)

Once you’re running ArcSoft, the photo-editing program, you open a confusing plug-in dialog box to begin importing photos. The software’s menus refer to things like CRS Photo Scanner and TWAIN Compliant Devices — the P-to-D-P C’s actual name never even appears. And this thing is for technophobes?

The final insult is the horrible picture quality: Any hue lighter than, say, sky blue gets bleached into pure white, making your “scans” look like color Xeroxes with the settings wrong. (Hammacher Schlemmer says it hasn’t received similar complaints and I must have gotten a defective unit.)

The bottom line: just get a scanner. For the same money or less, you get a machine that accommodates photos of any shape or size, is easier to figure out and doesn’t take any more time than inserting and extracting each photo from the Hammacher’s tray.

Ion’s new LP Dock ($212 online) is far more successful. It’s a full-blown turntable that converts record albums into MP3 files that play on, for example, an iPod.

In fact, the iPod is the key to distinguishing the LP Dock from its predecessor, the iTTUSB turntable (which costs $100 less): the LP Dock can pump the vinyl records directly into your iPod. You can slip a recent-model, full-size iPod right into a socket at the corner, where it gets recharged when it’s not actually recording from the turntable.

Once the songs are on the iPod, they sit in a weird little menu called Voice Memos, named by date and time rather than song. Now you’re supposed to sync the iPod with your Mac or PC. Only then can you name the songs, put them into playlists and so on.

The advantage of the iPod feature is that the LP Dock can spend most of its time as a regular record player, connected to your stereo system downstairs, rather than tethered to your computer upstairs.

The secret to avoiding AFLS depression

However, the process is fussy, requires a lot of steps and is mightily time-consuming. The iPod doesn’t know when one song has ended and the next has begun, so after each track, you’re supposed to pause the turntable, choose a command called Stop and Save on the iPod and then restart the turntable for the next song. It’s a lot of baby-sitting.

It’s easier if you connect the LP Dock directly to your Mac or PC with its U.S.B. cable (as you do with the less expensive iTTUSB turntable). In this case, you run a supersimple importing program called EZ Vinyl Converter; at every track break, you just click a New Track button. Actually, the Windows version of the software detects track breaks automatically, and even tries to fill in the song names by consulting the Gracenote online database of recordings. The whole imported album is conveniently deposited in iTunes, ready for its new digital life.

But what about tapes? Meet the Tape2PC, a full-fledged dual-cassette player and recorder, also from Ion, with a U.S.B. jack in the back. It works exactly as described in the preceding paragraph: You connect the deck to your Mac or PC with a U.S.B. cable, run the simple software (now called EZ Tape Converter), click New Track at the end of each song and marvel as a tidy set of MP3 files appears in iTunes.

Over all, it works. There are three obstacles between you and digitizing nirvana, however. First, although you can dub one tape to another at double speed, converting tape to a digital file on your computer must be done in real time.

Second, the only way to adjust the recording level is to use a tiny knob on the back of the tape deck, which seems scientifically engineered to be as awkward a location as possible.

Finally — and this is a big one — why do you need a special tape deck at all? Why not just run the audio output from a regular tape deck into your computer’s line input, and use some free or shareware recording program to record the signal? (You could make this argument for Ion’s U.S.B. turntables, too, although recording from them to a computer generally requires buying another component — a preamp.)

Ion argues that for the nongeek, finding the proper audio cable and audio software is too complicated. And sure enough, the EZ Converter software is the high point of Ion’s tape deck and turntables. It doesn’t get much easier than clicking Record, then clicking New Track after each song.

Both Ion products, however, also come with a far more complicated program called Audacity, which lets you do things like hand-splitting an album into separate tracks, manually excising audio pops and so on.

Both the tape deck and the turntable feel cheaply made, although they’re fine for the price and the technophobic target audience. The audio quality is very good, right down to the faithful reproduction of those vinyl pops and tape hisses.

No matter how you decide to proceed, converting old photos and music is a big investment, either of time (baby-sitting the transfer using equipment like Ion’s) or of money (sending your stuff to a commercial transfer house).

To avoid full-blown AFLS depression, try not to contemplate the likelihood that the hard drive that holds all your newly rescued music and photos — or any hard drives at all — will still be around 50 years from now.

David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: