The Legacy of Betamax

The Legacy of Betamax

Sony’s Betamax was one of the first successful consumer videotape formats. Betamax was introduced in 1975, and experienced modest success until JVC introduced VHS a year later, sparking one of the first video format wars (future format wars included CED vs. LaserDisc in the early 80s and the current war between DVD-R/RW vs. DVD+R/RW.)

Technically, Beta was considered superior to VHS, with a higher head-to-tape writing speed (which results in better quality), simpler tape loading and a more compact tape. However, Beta could only record up to five hours on a tape, compared to the potential eight hour capacity of VHS at the time (although this capacity has recently increased to ten hours with the advent of T-200 VHS videocassettes). At the format’s height, Beta VCRs were manufactured or marketed by Aiwa, Marantz, NEC, Pioneer, Radio Shack, Sanyo, Sears, Sony, Toshiba and Zenith. Today, almost all of these companies manufacture or market only VHS machines (NEC and Pioneer no longer market VCRs, and Sears no longer carries a house brand of VCR). Sony admitted Beta’s defeat in 1988 when they introduced their first VHS VCR.

Sony pulled the plug on consumer Beta in mid-2002, but its professional brother, Betacam, lives on in several forms. The original Betacam format (now known as "oxide Betacam") used videocassettes that were very similar to those used with consumer Beta, but Betacam recorders operated at a speed approximately six times faster than typical consumer machines. Betacam also records separated component video.

Hundreds of television stations still use Betacam SP (a version using metal-particle tape) in their day-to-day operations. There is also Digital Betacam, an ITU 601-quality DCT-based version (which is a compressed digital format) and Betacam SX (an MPEG-2-based format).

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“Television enables you to be entertained in your home by people you wouldn’t have in your home.”

– David Frost

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