Before the days of online streaming platforms and even before DVDs and Blu-Ray, a videotape format war raged for more than a decade between Sony’s Betamax and JVC’s VHS tape.
The origins of Betamax vs VHS
In September 1971, the first video tape recorder (VCR), the U-matic system, was released. At first, the system was used for commercial and professional television production use and not affordable or usable for the general public. Then in 1972, Phillips released the first consumer-grade VCR with the N1500 and coined the phrase VCR. This is where the concept of the video tape recorder started to take off, eventually causing an industry boom throughout the 80s and into the 90s, with 85% of households owning a VCR by 1995.
Sony released their own version in 1975, named Betamax, which was named after the Japanese word to describe how signals are recorded on the tape and the way the tape moved through the machine which resembled the Greek letter B. At the same time, JVC was looking at trying a different format and caused enough of a stir that Sony appealed to the Japanese Ministry of Trade and Industry, and thus inadvertently starting the Betamax vs VHS war.
The Betamax machines used tapes that were 0.5 inches wide and were hand-held size for easier use. Despite this, Sony and Betamax encountered an initial problem of the length of their tape, which was only an hour. While this seemed to be an acceptable length to begin with, it would ultimately hurt their side as the videotape format war got into full swing.
JVC’s VHS Tape
As mentioned previously, at the same time as Sony, JVC had also been experimenting with new VCR technology and format during the 1970s. In 1977, they introduced the Video Home System (VHS). The system used the VHS tape, which was a bigger videotape compared to the compact Betamax; however, it had one key advantage – it had a longer recording time. A VHS tape could record for up to 2 hours, which not only covered recording TV shows but also movies.
Another big difference of JVC’s approach was that they wanted their standard to be used by other manufacturers, whereas Sony was more controlling with Betamax. JVC persuaded Hitachi, Mitsubishi and Sharp to all get on board with the VHS tape, forming some important allies in the war.
JVC also then began to make advancements in their VHS tape VCR. They developed different recording settings and you could also slow down the speed of the tape as it recorded. While this would reduce the quality of the tape, it also meant you could increase the storage capacity, meaning that the VHS tape could hold 6 hours of recording, which for Betamax proved impossible to compete with.
Which was better?
In terms of quality, the Betamax tape won out over its counterpart with a higher resolution of 250 lines compared to 240 lines. The SuperBeta tape increased this to around 290 lines, but its release was well into the 80s and at that point Sony was already on the losing side of the videotape war.
Sony’s machine was much heavier than the JVC VCR, which also meant that they were on sale at a higher price point. JVC’s VHS tape deck was simpler and less expensive to produce, so they were able to undercut Sony. Additionally, as a result of JVC forming allies with other manufacturers, they could all compete against each other and collectively lower price points. Despite the lower price points for the VHS tape VCR, there were ultimately more sales overall, hinting at the demise of Betamax.
Betamax vs VHS – The Outcome
The main pitfalls of the Betamax tape, the recording time and the higher price point, meant that it was VHS who ended up winning the war. A big early complaint about Betamax was that a user was unable to record a football game because they averaged around 3 hours. Therefore, despite its superior picture quality, the VHS tape was the customer’s first choice and therefore became synonymous with the VCR.
Sony and Betamax saw declining sales as the 80s progressed. In 1981, Betamax controlled 40% of the market, sales dropped to 25% by 1981 and by 1986 it was just 7.5%. As consumer sales dropped, movie studios and video rental shops also moved away from Betamax, which meant that less and less titles were available in the format. All of this combined allowed the VHS tape to remain the dominant format in the market.
VHS then finally emerged as the clear winner in the Betamax vs VHS war in 1988, when Sony raised their white flag and began manufacturing VHS machines.
Ultimately it was Sony’s failure to listen to the consumer and their misconception that people wanted higher quality video that led to the failure of Betamax. VHS tapes went on to dominate the market for around 40 years, until the emergence of DVD. No matter what side of the Betamax vs VHS war you were on, here at Transfermagic we remain impartial! Our video to digital services can transfer both Betamax and VHS tapes into digital or DVD formats, plus a range of other video tape formats. So, get in touch with us today!
Photo credit: Jeremy Bezanger