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A Look Back At Betamax

by Sean P. Aune | April 25, 2010April 25, 2010 10:23 am PDT

If you thought the HD-DVD/Blu-ray was messy, you should have been around for Betamax/VHS!

Launched May 10, 1975, Sony’s Betamax was the first affordable home recording system.  VHS, which eventually won the format war despite its bulkier physical format, was introduced in Oct. 1977.

betamaxMany people still feel Beta was the superior of the two formats, but that is of course debatable.  There were a lot of reasons VHS ended up winning the format war, ranging from the fact it took forever for the tapes to get past 40 minutes of recording time, and then it maxed out at five hours due to its physical size.  There was also a massive marketing push for VHS which, in typical Sony style, Beta did not really have.

Being the only choice in the market in 1975 meant that Beta enjoyed a 100 percent market share.  By 1981, that market share had fallen like a rock to 25 percent.  The real turning point had been VHS cracking the four hour recording time as that meant people could record all the shows in a night of prime time viewing, or they record a football game with ease.  Beta had placed more emphasis on picture quality, but that just wasn’t what consumers were after at the time.  Once they saw how the convenience of a VCR changed their lives, like in the video above, they always wanted longer and longer recording times.

My first VCR was a VHS, but I borrowed a Beta machine  from an uncle a lot in 1977 and 1978.  To watch a two hour movie you had to switch tapes halfway through, and it was exceedingly annoying.  True the picture was fantastic (as the statute of limitations has run out I can tell you it was a pirated copy of the original Star Wars.  To this day I have no clue how he had a copy back then), but changing out the tape after Luke would fight the practice ball on the Millennium Falcon scarred me for life.  To this day, when I see that movie, I feel an impulse the movie will stop at that moment.

Today Beta is nothing but a distant memory, and a punchline for many a joke in popular culture, but at one time it did look like it might rule the world of home video recording.

Sean P. Aune

Sean P. Aune has been a professional technology blogger since July 2007, but his love of tech dates back to at least 1976 when his parents bought...