Since the late 1930s, tech-savvy people have been making—and subjecting their friends to—home movies. The first home movie cameras, variants on the 35mm and 16mm professional cameras, gave way to Super 8 and Single 8 formats in the mid-1960s, and then to Beta and VHS video recorders and camcorders in the mid-1970s. If you don't have the necessary equipment to play back these recordings, or if you simply want to store them on up-to-date devices, consider sending the originals to a local retailer or to a mail-order service that will digitize your movies for a fee.
Photo Film or Disposable Cameras
So, you found a stash of old film canisters or used disposable cameras in the back of your closet, and you have no idea what treasures might be waiting to be discovered. When it comes to photo print or slide film, you have several options for processing, developing, and printing. Your best bet is to take the film to a local photography shop, many of which still have darkrooms on site. If you don't live near a photo specialty shop, consider sending your film out to a reputable mail-order firm for processing and printing.
Reel-to-Reel and Cassette Tapes
Tape is a tricky technology because it steadily deteriorates over time. The formulations used in manufacturing audiotape varied widely over the years, and as a result the longer you wait, the less chance you have of actually being able to play and recover the material. If these recordings are truly important or dear to you, do not attempt to play or digitize them yourself. For less sensitive or valued material, try to play the tapes on a cleaned and calibrated player. If the tapes stick or “shed” material, stop immediately—that shedding material is the actual recording being destroyed by the playback. You can send your cassettes to a reputable service for conversion, but keep in mind that because your tapes may be degraded, you'll be unlikely to find a service that will offer a 100 percent guarantee of successful data recovery.
Related: 50 Great Gadgets for a Smarter Home
A relatively short-lived format introduced in the late 1970s, digital audio tapes (DAT and R-DAT) were one of the earliest digital recording formats and were widely used by radio stations and recording studios. Unfortunately, it is difficult to find the right technology to play back a DAT today, although you might have success if you have access to the same type of machine on which the tape was made. Otherwise, this is a format best left to a professional restoration company.
Flickr via Mark Ramsay
Floppy disks come in several different varieties and sizes, including the 5.25-inch and 3.5-inch diskettes that were common in the 1980s and the high-density 3.5-inch floppy disks that were prevalent in the ’90s. The easiest way to retrieve information off one of these disks is to use an old computer with the appropriate drive to read the disk, then copy the information onto a newer format, such as a flash drive. Alternatively, you can purchase special drives equipped with USB ports designed to interface with these older disks for as little as $20 to $60. For easier data collection, download readily available software that allows you to make a complete digital image of the disk and preserve as much of the original material—including deleted files—as possible. Once you have the information, though, you still have work to do. You’ll need the appropriate software to open the files—a text editor or photo editing program, for instance. As with most older technologies, using the original software is preferable and will generate the best results. Once you open the files, you can transfer the information to a current file type.
CDs and DVDs
Once hailed as “indestructible” and “the last format you’ll ever have to buy,” compact discs have proven to be fragile, vulnerable to scratches, pitting, cracking, and warping. The best way to recover data from a CD is to thoroughly clean and polish the surface using optician’s polish, good-quality whitening toothpaste, or Brasso applied with a soft, lint-free cloth. Move the cloth from the center outwards in a straight line; do not polish in a circular motion as this will exacerbate problems. Next, insert the damaged disc into your computer and see if it will play. If it does, copy the data onto a hard drive or flash drive. Before attempting to play a damaged CD, you may want to download specialized software—such as CD Recovery Toolbox, IsoPuzzle, CDCheck, IsoBuster, or Roadkil’s Unstoppable Copier—to assist your recovery efforts.
Digital Cameras and Memory Cards
There are a wide variety of digital camera memory storage formats and more are being added every few years. Most of these formats (such as Smart Media, Compact Flash, Microdrive, Memory Stick, and others) can be read by current computers, along with the help of software that can recover data from damaged media. One of the most reliable software options is the EaseUS Data Recovery Wizard, which can even recover deleted photos.
When people tell you to back up your data, listen to them! Should your hard drive fail, however, taking with it all your digital photos, music, and financial records, there are some downloadable programs that may help you recover your data, especially if you have a working familiarity with Linux systems. When all else fails, you can send your drive to a professional service such as Seagate Recovery Service, Best Buy, or a local computer repair shop.
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