Walt Mossberg

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Converting Home Videos to DVDs

There’s no other major item most of us own that is as confusing, unpredictable and unreliable as our personal computers. Everybody has questions about them, and we aim to help.

Here are a few questions about computers I’ve received recently from people like you, and my answers. I have edited and restated the questions a bit, for readability. This week my mailbox contained questions about service to convert home videos to DVDs, portable music players and cellphones with PDA features.

If you have a question, send it to me at mossberg@wsj.com, and I may select it to be answered here in Mossberg’s Mailbox.

Are there services that will take home video and burn it to a DVD that can be played anywhere? I know I can do this on my PC, but it takes too much time and I keep running into problems when I try it.

There are such services. One that I have tested and found to be good is called YesVideo (yesvideo.com). You bring your videos into a store that works with YesVideo — including CVS, Walgreen, Best Buy and Target — and they send the tapes to YesVideo, which converts them to a very nice DVD. You also can get the same service online, at Sony’s ImageStation site (www.imagestation.com). Sony calls its service Video2DVD, but it really is just the YesVideo service. My full review of the service is at: ptech.wsj.com/archive/solution-20040128.html.

Because YesVideo works through retailers, prices vary, but are usually around $25-$35 for a two-hour video. Each DVD is divided into chapters based on a YesVideo process that tries to detect scene changes in your videos. At the end, there are three 60-second music videos made from scenes on your videos. The company also will put your prints, slides and even old film onto DVD, but this costs more and is handled by fewer retailers. Details are at the YesVideo Web site.

I’ve been looking at the portable digital music players, but I’m not sure if any players would work with the media I would download, mainly free recordings of radio programs. Most of the files that interest me are in the Windows Media or Real audio formats, but I usually just see “MP3” as the type of file the digital music players employ. Are there portable players that handle these formats?

Yes, indeed. All but one of the major portable digital music players on the market can play Windows Media audio files (known as WMA), as well as MP3 files. The exception, unfortunately, is the best and most popular line of players, Apple’s iPod. But you can choose from numerous players made by Creative, iRiver, Rio, Samsung, Dell and many others that play WMA files natively. There are far fewer portable devices that play back the Real audio format natively. Most are personal digital assistants and phones that use the Palm, PocketPC or Nokia operating systems.

Even if you prefer the iPod, you still can use WMA files, with one extra step. Apple’s iTunes software, which manages and transfers music to the iPod, can convert WMA files automatically into MP3 files, a format the iPod can handle — as long as the WMA files aren’t encrypted or copy-protected.

Is there an instrument in the market that is just a phone/PDA, without email and Internet access (which I don’t need)?

Most cellphones have some PDA features, such as a calendar and address book. The more robust “smart” phones, such as Palm’s Treo, the BlackBerry phone models and the phones powered by Microsoft operating systems include a raft of sophisticated PDA features, including the ability to synchronize calendar, contacts and other data with a PC.

However, all of these phones that I have tested also have Internet and email access, which is only natural, because they are communication devices. You certainly don’t need to use the Internet and email features, or pay for a plan that allows you to access them. You can buy a phone with the PDA features you want, and just ignore the email and Internet capabilities.

* * *

Because of the volume of e-mail I receive, I can’t routinely answer individual questions by e-mail, or consult on individual problems or purchasing decisions. I read all questions I receive and select three each week to answer in the column.

Write to Walter S. Mossberg at mossberg@wsj.com

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