How the VHS-Beta “Format Wars” Had a Clear Winner (and Why It Matters Today)

While we did not get a Beta VCR until 1986 (and bought a VHS unit just a week into 1991, according to its invoice), Beta (also called Betamax) was almost on its deathbed when we obtained our unit.  I was born two years after the purchase of the Beta unit.  We had many old tapes, which contained items mostly from 1986 to 1990.

Believe it or not, VCRs of either format weren’t originally meant to pile up programs on tape and lay them aside for years and years.  They were simply intended to record in order to watch them later.  Once you watch them, they could be nixed by an overriding recording.

So what killed the Beta format?  In a nutshell, it was Sony’s preoccupation with perfection.  Sony invented Betamax in 1975, and was focused on getting the best picture and sound possible.  When VHS came out in 1976, it appeared to be a thriftier and more efficient option.  Beta had three speeds Beta-I (1 1/2 hr), Beta-II (3 hr), and Beta-III (4 1/2 hr).   But this was based on a later tape length.  These time periods were all shorter with the original form of Beta tape.  Beta-I was so brief that Sony decided to remove it in 1979.  Yet many units had a rear-end switch in which one could change it, but with little regard (as it was meant to be!  Now that’s a gimmick!) VHS, at its typical tape length, could be 2, 4, or 6 hours, marked as SP, LP, and SLP (aka EP).

Perhaps the biggest issue wasn’t the time that elapsed, but quality of either format.  Many people thought Beta was the leader among the two, but honestly, neither were perfect.  Head to head comparisons of the two formats.  VHS was grainier, whereas Beta had shakier colors and borders.  Beta might have had a better sound, but it could have been a draw for all I care.

Generally, people want less of a bad thing rather than more of a good thing.  Beta did the latter, as they just kept daring to defy.  VHS had a very no-nonsense approach to be good enough to satisfy the needs of customers then, and for long after (i.e., the 90’s).  Beta manufacturers just wanted more frills.

The narrator of this video, like you, may feel it was quite strange to name such an ambitious platform “beta.”   Usually, beta means “second-best.”  So could a name like “Alpha” fit the bill better?  In the late 80s Sony surrendered to VHS, so may Beta really deserved a name as such.  Also, Sony’s DVD players now also play Blu-Rays.  So was it really worth it to be the leader of a long-running rival (Beta, which in fact a few other companies made as well.)

For more on this, check the videos above.  Now that both the formats have had their demise, treat it as a little tech time travel.

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