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An early competitor to the VHS format for home videocassettes. The VHS-Betamax wars were much like the DVD-DivX wars of today, and just as DivX lives on in the form of a useful video file compression scheme, Betamax lives on through the Betamax decision of 1984, which ruled that it is legal for home users to time shift television programming; that is, to preserve TV shows for the purpose of watching them later. Paved the way for TiVo and its ilk, which allow time-shifting with much less loss of quality; a recent article in Forbes magazine inveighed against TiVo-type systems, calling them illegal, despite the Betamax decision.

NB: Yes, yes, the discs and the codec are similar in name only. It was a comparison. Now leave me alone.

Introduction

Betamax was the name given by Sony to its home videotape format, first introduced in 1975 and sold in one form or other until 2002, when the last Betamax VCRs were discontinued in Japan (where the format had continued in a niche for significantly longer than the rest of the world, despite the near-total dominance of the rival VHS format). Originally derived from their successful U-matic 0.75-inch professional video format, Betamax saw early success in one of the most famous format wars, before losing out to a mass of cheaper licensed VHS format video recorders. Today, Betamax lives on only through die-hard enthusiasts, but its sister format Betacam remains a key part of professional video production, having managed to defeat its VHS counterpart in that market.

The Beta cassette

Being derived from U-matic (and not, as mentioned in above writeups, the other way around), Beta is physically and mechanically similar, albeit in a smaller package. A Betamax cassette measures 6 x 3.75 x 0.93 inches, and uses a half-inch tape to store the audio and video signal - the same tape, in fact, as VHS, although the recording method is different and mutually incompatible. The format takes its name from the tape transport: when inserted into a VCR, the tape threads in such a way as to resemble the Greek letter beta. Thanks to the method tapes loaded in the machine, users could easily fast-forward and rewind while viewing the contents of the tape, a feature known as 'Betascan'; this would later be copied by VHS some years afterwards.

Tape lengths were initially described by the length of time one could record onto them, using a designation such as "K-60" for a one-hour tape (the length being specified in minutes). In the USA, due to the NTSC video signal in use, and Sony's insistence on a tape speed of 40 mm/sec, an hour was the most early Betamax recorders were capable of. Later, Betamax recorders were able to choose the speed and quality of recording (more below), necessitating a different approach. Blank tapes were therefore labelled according to the length of tape stored within, in feet; common lengths included L-500, L-750, and L-830.

Recorders and Formats

The first Betamax recorders were bulky, as with all early VCRs; the very first Beta was, in fact, built into a combined unit with a Trinitron television (the LV-1901). Early models were large, with 'piano key' controls, and loaded from the top, inserting the cassette into the transport then pushing this down into the machine. It was not until 1982 that the first front-loading Betamax recorder arrived, the C6. Although internally still top-loading, it was a significant improvement.

The poor recording time in NTSC countries necessitated slower tape speeds, with Sony eventually relenting and allowing three options: B-I, B-II and B-III. With slower speed, quality would suffer, but would allow for up to five hours of recording on an L-830 tape. Betamax would suffer, however, from the stigma of offering a low length of time. This stigma was restricted only to countries where NTSC was in use; in PAL and SECAM territories, there was only one speed, offering a respectable 3 1/4 hours on an L-750 - actually beating a VHS E-180 cassette's 3 hours.

Mono audio was the norm at introduction, and later Stereo-capable VCRs were introduced, but sound quality was not on-par with dedicated formats such as the long-playing record. Sony attempted to correct this with Beta hi-fi, utilising different mechanisms for PAL and NTSC recorders to offer dramatically better sound. Although Sony believed this would be impossible on the competing format, JVC soon turned around a hi-fi VHS recorder a year later.

The battleground shifted next to picture quality. Beta already carried a reputation as having a better quality, which Sony were glad to exploit with the 1985 introduction of SuperBeta. Using the same cassettes, and mostly backwards compatible with regular Betamax VCRs, Sony boosted the bandwidth available to obtain a superior picture. JVC retorted with VHS HQ, and later Super VHS, which required different tape to regular VHS. Sony decided to offer their own high-grade VCR, upping the stakes with "Extended Definition" (sound familiar?) Beta, using a metallic tape inherited from Betacam.

Then there were the camcorders - a term Sony invented to describe its Beta format hand-held video cameras, marketed under the name Betamovie. While the units did not support playback within the device, they captured a crucial early share of the market, one Sony continues to maintain a respectable placing in.

Betadeath

Struggling to maintain its placing in the market, Sony opted to defect from its own format in 1988, and despite continuing to manufacture players and tapes for years afterwards (releasing a special-edition 15th Anniversary Betamax in 1991 with a unique buttonless, touch-sensitive remote control), the market belonged to VHS. A combination of factors lead to its downfall, from a lack of licensees (Sony generally was reluctant to licence the Beta format, and took R&D upon itself), lack of software (the rental market boom favoured VHS), and the infamous length issue, among others. Sony continued to produce Betamax recorders in Japan until 1992, and blank tapes can still be bought, but for home users the format remains a now fading memory. Its soul lives on in the Betacam format, and will no doubt continue for some time yet to come.


Researched and compiled using a handful of my own resources including a venerable SL-C6 VCR and blank tapes, Wikipedia:Videotape format war and Betamax, and http://www.betainfoguide.com.

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