Menu

VHS or Beta? A look back at Betamax, and how Sony lost the VCR format war to VHS recorders

Note: This article may feature affiliate links to Amazon.com or other companies. Qualifying purchases made via these links may earn us a small commission at no additional cost to you. Find out more here.

Vintage tech - 1984 Sony Betamax VCR
Anybody who lived through the great videotape format war of the late 1970s to early 1980s will never forget that signature question: VHS or Beta? (In fact, that question was so firmly lodged in the collective consciousness of the US, there was even a band by that name.)

Sony rolled out Betamax — commonly abbreviated as Beta — in 1975, and JVC followed very shortly after with its Video Home System (VHS) format.

With Sony being first to the market, they demonstrated their technology to other manufacturers and hoped that other companies would back a single format for the greater good, even going so far as to appeal to Japan’s Ministry of Trade and Industry to enforce Beta as the standard video format. JVC, however, had ideas of their own, and went ahead with the release of VHS anyway.

In the US, the battle came down to three factors — cost, recording time, and picture quality. While Beta offered a slightly higher resolution, lower noise, and better overall picture quality, VHS trumped it in the other categories.

VHS machines were cheaper by far, but the short 60-minute recording time offered by Beta proved to be its downfall — VHS was capable of 120 minutes right out of the box. Sony was unwilling to extend the recording time of Beta devices, which they said would have compromised picture quality too much.

1976 Introducing Sony Betamax

With the ability to record two hours plus, VHS was the choice of the American consumer who wanted to record things like baseball games, movies, or multiple TV programs on a single tape. Additionally, due to its longer recording capabilities, VHS launched the video rental business — allowing people to see Hollywood movies that had been out of circulation in the theaters for years.

As a result, by 1980 VHS dominated 70% of the US home video market. Sony finally admitted defeat in 1988 and began producing their own VHS recorders.

Sony’s mistake? They didn’t understand what consumers really wanted, believing picture quality trumped all other factors — when in fact most people just wanted an affordable VCR (video cassette recorder) with a large capacity.

Interestingly enough, Beta received a second life of sorts in its Betacam format, derived from Betamax, became the standard of choice for television news and studio recording. In fact, Betacam’s digital version — aka DigiBeta — went on to become the most successful professional videotape format in history. -AJW

Introducing Sony’s new Betamax: Now you can see what you missed (1976)

You’re looking at Betamax, a revolutionary new product from Sony that plugs into any TV and enables you to see programs you would have otherwise missed.

We’ll explain. First off, let’s take a situation where there are two shows on opposite each other and you’d like to watch both of them. Well, believe it or not, now you can. Because Sony’s Betamax deck can actually videotape something off one channel while you’re watching another channel. Then, when you’re finished watching one show, all you do is push some buttons and you can play back a tape of the show that you would have missed.

Pretty incredible, huh? Well, listen to something else Betamax does that’s equally incredible. Let’s say you have to go somewhere, or do something, at a time when there’s something on TV you want to see. Well, Sony’s Betamax is equipped with a timer that can be set to automatically videotape that program while you’re not there. Then, whenever you want, you just play back the tape — and again you see what you would have missed. (Our one-hour tapes, by the way, are reusable — just record over them and use them over and over again.)

Imagine. With Sony’s Betamax, you’ll never again miss a program you want to see. Betamax plugs into any TV, even if it’s not a Sony (though you’ll be missing a lot if it’s not).

© 1976 Sony Corporation of America – SONY and Betamax are trademarks of Sony Corporation / Shown: Model SL-7200 Videotape Player/Recorder

Jun 14, 1976 Introducing Sony Betamax

MORE  Retro stereos, tech & '80s electronics from the 1981 Sears catalog

Sony presents the next thing (1976)

You’re looking at Betamax, a revolutionary new product from Sony that plugs into any TV and enables you to see programs you would have otherwise missed.

We’ll explain. First off, let’s take a situation where there are two shows on opposite each other and you’d like to watch both of them. Well, believe it or not, now you can. Because Sony’s Betamax deck can actually videotape something off one channel while you’re watching another channel. Then, when you’re finished watching one show, all you do is push some buttons and you can play back a tape of the show that you would have missed.

Pretty incredible, huh? Well, listen to something else Betamax does that’s equally incredible. Let’s say you have to go somewhere, or do something, at a time when there’s something on TV you want to see.

Well, Sony’s Betamax is equipped with a timer that can be set to automatically videotape that program while you’re not there. Then, whenever you want, you just play back the tape — and again you see what you would have missed. (Our one-hour tapes, by the way, are reusable—just record over them and use them over and over again.)

Imagine. With Sony’s Betamax, you’ll never again miss a program you want to see. Betamax plugs into any TV, even if it’s not a Sony.

Nov 22, 1976 Sony Betamax video recorder


Rest assured with Sony’s Betamax (1977)

Thanks to Sony’s Betamax, he’s not missing the last half hour of the late show.

And the killer is… zzzzzz. We’ve all been through it. You just can’t keep your eyes open anymore. No matter what.

Well, thanks to Sony’s Betamax videotape deck, you won’t have to struggle to stay awake. Because Betamax, which plugs into any TV, can automatically videotape the conclusion of that show so that you can play it back the next day. The fact is, the SL-8200 Betamax can automatically videotape any show you like, up to two hours, whils you’re doing something else. Even when you’re out of the house, by setting our optional automatic timer.

Betamax can also, believe it or not, actually videotape something off one channel while you’re watching another channel. And our videotape cassettes are reusable — you just re-record right over them. With Sony’s Betamax, you’ll never again miss anything you want to see. Rest assured.

Sony Betamax video recorders - 1977

MORE  See 20 Walkmans & other portable tape players that made headphones the ultimate fashion accessory

Thanks to Sony’s Betamax, now you can circle two (1977)

How many times have you wanted to watch two shows that are on at the same time? Well, now you can. Because Sony’s remarkable Betamax — available in console (shown) or desk which hooks up to any TV set — can actually videotape something off one channel while you’re watching another channel. Then, when you’re finished watching one show, all you do is push some buttons and you see a tape of the show you would have missed.

Another question: How many times have you had to go somewhere or something at a time when there was something on TV you wanted to see? Well, Sony’s Betamax handles that one also. By setting an automatic timer, you can actually videotape something when you’re not there. Then, when you are there once again, you can playback a tape of the show you would have missed.

Our one-hour tapes are reusable — just record over them and use them over and over again. Sony’s Betamax. Who said you couldn’t have it both ways?

Thanks to Sony's Betamax, now you can circle two (1977)


VHS or Beta? Here’s the basic Betamax (1979)

Feb 1979 Basic Betamax

MORE  Getting real with vintage reel-to-reel tape recorders

Betamax TV commercial from 1977, during the VHS or Beta format wars


Sony Betamax video recorders – Sharper pictures (1984)

There’s only one feature missing from all VHS recorders that’s standard with a Betamax: A sharper picture.

It’s not easy to choose among all the videocassette recorders. Until you look at the most important feature of all: The picture. And in recent tests throughout the country, more people saw a sharper picture on the SONY Betamax videocassette recorder than on VHS. That’s because Betamax was designed to record more video detail and a wider range of darks and lights for more contrast.

So if you’re ready to buy a VCR, and you’re confused by all the choices and all the features, this should make your choice simple. Betamax. It’s easy to find the right VCR when you know what to focus on.

1984 Sony Betamax video recorders - Sharper pictures

MORE  Vintage fax machines: When this new tech was poised to conquer all in its path (1989)

If you can afford a television, now you can afford a Betamax (1984)

For years, ever since you first heard about home videocassette recorders, you’ve known which one you’ve wanted. The one VCR that set the standard since the beginning — the Sony Betamax. With Sony reliability… Sony engineering… Sony picture quality.

You’ve heard all the wonders of the Sony Betamax…and you’ve been wondering when you could afford one.

Well, now you can. For less than the cost of a color television you can own a Sony Betamax SL-2300 videocassette recorder — the lowest-priced Sony Betamax ever.

Not only is it an affordable VCR. it’s an affordable Sony. So you get Sony quality and superb Sony features like BetaScan high-speed picture search, a low-profile, front-loading design, with convenient remote control and three-day programmability.

Like all Betamax VCRs, your SL-2300 lets you record one program while watching another Or record your favorite shows when you’re not at home. Or watch your favorite movies and concerts by buying or renting any of the thousands of prerecorded tapes available in the Beta format. Or take advantage of our special toll-free number… for up-to-the-second information about new releases and availabilities.

Most important, your SL-2300 will let you use the miraculous new Betamovie™ — the world’s first one-piece home video camera/recorder. Betamovie lets you tape up to 3 hours and 20 minutes on a standard L-830 Beta cassette without having to carry your SL-2300 along. So you can create your own movies… capture family memories…practice your business presentation…open up a world of possibilities no other format can give you.

All that’s available to you if you say, “I want the Sony Betamax SL-2300.” And it’s available in your choice of Mandarin Red. Sapphire Blue or High Tech Silver finishes. Chances are, if you can afford a television, you can atford a Sony Betamax. And the only question is, why wait any longer?

Apr 1984 Sony Betamax VCR


Watch whatever, whenever. (1978)

With Sony’s Betamax SL-8600 video- recorder, you can see any TV show you want to see anytime you want to see it.

Because Betamax, which plugs into any TV set and is easy to operate, can videotape a show up to three-hours long (with the L-750 videocassette) while you’re doing something else — even while you’re out of the house, by setting the electronic timer. It can also videotape something off one channel while you’re watching another channel.

And remember, Sony has more experience in video recorders than anyone (over 20 years!). In fact, we’ve sold more video recorders to broadcasters and industry than any other consumer manufacturer. We even make our own tape.

Dec 4, 1978 Sony Betamax video info


Beta Hi-Fi: The Sony of high-fidelity VCRs (1983)

Nov 14, 1983 Sony Betamax - Theater


Sony Betamax SL-8200 demo/show reel (1978)


The death knell of the VHS/Beta VCR format war

From Notes from the electronic wars: A bleak future for Beta VCRs – San Francisco Examiner (California) January 18, 1988

The impending death of Beta proves once again that only the good die young. With Sony’s announcement last week that it would soon begin making the once-hated VHS-format videocassette recorders, Betamax has no champions left, other than the people who use it.

Although Sony denied its switch to VHS means the end of Beta, which Sony invented, experts in the video field said it’s definitely bedtime for Beta.

David Lachenbruch, who writes the techie column for TV Guide, opined bluntly: “Beta is dead. This is the end. It’s over.”

In San Francisco, Captain Video co-owner Steven Rosenblatt said, “I see Beta falling by the wayside, like eight-track tapes.”

Certainly, there’s no arguing with the taste of American consumers. Of the 55 million VCRs in the United States, only about 7 million are Beta. As the owner of two of those 7 million, however, I’d like to praise Beta before the video philistines come to bury it.

First of all, anyone who’s used both Beta and VHS knows that the final triumph of VHS is nothing like Rosenblatt’s analogy of audio cassettes creaming eight-track tapes. Quite the reverse. In the video wars, the eight-tracks have won.

1988 - VHS cassette and Beta cassette - VCR format wars

It’s a plain fact that Beta delivers better picture quality on smaller cassettes with much greater user convenience than VHS.

In the 13-year battle of the formats, Sony’s Beta has always been there first with innovations ranging from hi-fi stereo to visible fast-forward and reverse to quick-response remote control, followed much later by VHS’s pale imitations.

For someone accustomed to the silkiness and high video quality of Beta, using a VHS machine is like driving a poorly-tuned, underpowered truck equipped with poor brakes, no power steering and ancient shock absorbers. So why is Beta on its way to joining quadraphonic sound and the maxiskirt?

Beta’s ultimate failure was not one of quality but of marketing. Sony kept Beta machines expensive, whereas Japan Victor Corp., which developed VHS, licensed it to companies making much cheaper VCRs. When videocassette recorders first hit the market in the mid-’70s, most people naturally went for the bargain and that was that.

The end of Beta has been coming for years. First in outlying areas and then in cities, videocassette rental stores stopped carrying Beta titles because there wasn’t much demand. This forced people to buy VHS machines even if they preferred Beta just to assure themselves of movie rentals. This cut further into Beta sales. The cvle was unstoppable.

As a longtime partisan of Beta over VHS, I decided about 18 months ago to deal with the coming video winter by purchasing a top-of-the-line Super Beta Hi-Fi machine for off-the-air taping and a decent VHS for rentals and tape exchanges with friends.

This worked out great, because stores are frantically slashing prices on even the best Beta VCRs. Without much searching, I got a $1,500 machine with more features than I could ever use for less than $700. Now all I’ve got to do is stock up on Beta blank tapes, which will reportedly become scarce later this year.

The whole Beta-VHS tussle may be moot anyway, since Sony is now pushing its 8-millimeter format while the VHS people are promoting the compact VHS-C. Both cassettes are used in home video cameras. Analysts think Sony may have another Beta-style loser on its hands with 8-millimeter.

Ever the wise consumer-affairs opportunist or moron (kindly keep your conclusion to yourself), I was recently able to buy a 25-inch Sony XBR television with an & millimeter VCR built-in for much less than the original cost of the XBR alone simply because the 8-millimeter format has not caught on. Even with a friendless VCR slumbering inside it, the XBR delivers an amazing picture.

(Sony, which used to be infallible, discontinued the XBR line of televisions because they were simply too expensive for the mass market. The picture on Sony’s best post-XBR TV for home use is now beaten badly by Mitsubishi’s Diamond Vision sets.)

Meanwhile, Korean electronics companies are trying to leapfrog their Japanese elders in the video game by obviating the 8- millimeter vs. VHS-C battle with a high-quality 4-millimeter VCR format.

The 4-millimeter videocassette, incidentally, is the same one used for digital audio taping, the home-recording technology that may revolutionize the American music business by making it possible to record generation after generation from the same original source with no loss of audio quality. In other words, a compact disc that will record as well as play.

With new technological tricks always on the horizon, it’s dispiriting to notice that most new machines, with all their bells and whistles, simply aren’t as well made as the old machines. My whizbang Super Beta Hi-Fi, for example, can do plenty of tricks my heavy old Betamax could never do, but the Betamax has a stronger motor and a much more solid feel.

The same thing happened recently when I had to replace my cordless telephone. I bought one of those feature-packed Panasonic Star Trek flip-top jobs for $200, only to find that its sound quality, physical toughness and range were far inferior to the old, ugly white-plastic Uniden that did nothing but work properly and cost less than $100.

The scary part is that these “old” machines I’m praising in contrast to today’s schlock aren’t classics of workmanship from the height of the Industrial Age, but were made in the 1970s or early ’80s, when people were already complaining about poor manufacturing.

If this trend continues, tomorrow’s electronic gadgets will have more features and capabilities than most of us can understand, but it won’t matter much. They probably won’t work.

MORE  After arcade video games like Pac Man & Space Invaders hit the scene in the '80s, weekends were never the same again

More stories you might like

See our books

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Pin It on Pinterest