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What is Betamax?

Occasionally, people will sell Betamax machines at yard sales.
VHS won the battle of the videocassette against the smaller Betamax.
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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 29 September 2014
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Betamax refers to the videotapes developed by Sony&reg: that are now essentially unused except by a few hobbyists. Initially released in 1975, they entered into a fierce competition with JVC, which released the VHS system the following year. For years VHS and Beta fought a competitive battle to see which system would be used more by consumers. VHS eventually won the war of the videocassette, though now, both systems are in far less use because DVD players, and DVD recorders (DVR) and services like TiVo® produce a much higher quality picture.

A Betamax tape was smaller than a VHS tape by a few inches. Like VHS players and recorders, Beta players used azimuth recording, a slight angling of the recording heads to keep sounds, images and the like from bleeding together. This is also called cross talk. The ability for folks at home to record a TV program or watch a movie made Beta popular at first. Other electronics companies soon began to release Betamax players, and brands like Aiwa, NEC, Pioneer and Zenith made their own recorders.

Unfortunately for Betamax, the VHS system offered something Beta tapes couldn’t immediately duplicate: longer recording time. VHS could initially record two hours, useful if you wanted to record a couple of hours of TV, or film something in the VHS format. Beta could only record one hour of television. Though both systems later offered greater recording times, VHS was considered an early preference.

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There was also much dispute over picture quality versus price. Beta was viewed as a high end product, while VHS recorders were more widely available and less expensive. Reflecting back on that time, it’s interesting to evaluate just how expensive both recorders were. The first VCRs using VHS format were over $500-700 USD. Price for Betamax recorders was greater. Nevertheless, people really interested in picture quality might choose the higher priced Betamax because initial picture quality was considered better than in the VHS systems, even though picture quality results were actually about equal. In fact, though both formats continued to improve and produce “super” versions, most consumers preferred to stick with standard machines and were used to picture quality that wasn’t excellent.

The true techies, with money to spare in the 1980s moved over to using laser disc devices instead. These could not record, however. This is a problem that also existed with DVDs for most people, until DVD camcorders and DVRs were created.

Both systems lost their eventual battle to DVDs, with the last VHS system alone produced in 2007. You can still purchase VHS/DVD combo machines. Not everyone is ready to make the price jump to DVRs, and they want to be able to play their own videotapes. The last Betamax machines were produced in 2002, and some people still collect these machines and the tapes. You’ll frequently find them at flea markets and garage sales, and you might be able to pick up one on eBay. For some they hold a collector’s interest, much as eight-track tape machines do.

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