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Home /History / What Is the Difference Between Betamax and VHS?

What Is the Difference Between Betamax and VHS?

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By Christian Roemer

Throughout the history of technology, different formats of basically the same thing have vied for supremacy. Back in the day it was bronze versus steel. A few stabs later, steel won.  A little less back in the day, it was guns versus arrows. A couple pow pows and arrows went the way of bronze.

Much less violently, in the days of video tape players, it was the same thing: Betamax and VHS.

So what’s the difference between these two very similar technologies? Why did one of them change home video forever, while the other perished with just a cool name and obsolescence on its resume? We’re glad you asked. This blog is the tale of Betamax versus VHS and the sordid, almost unbelievable history in the battle of the tapes.

 

But first, let’s look at the technical specs.


Betamax

VHS

Resolution

333 x 486

320 x 486

Tape Size

6.2 x 3.75 x 1 inches

7.3 x 4 x 1 inches

Capacity

Up to 5 hours

Up to 2.66 hours

Manufacturer

Sony

Many

Date of Invention

1975

1977


 

So how do things look at first glance? Well, basically, Betamax was better than VHS at basically everything. It had higher resolution, the tapes were smaller, they had higher recording capacity, and Betamax even predates VHS by about two years. Most importantly, if Betamax would have won the format war, we never would have had to switch tapes in the middle of Titanic on VHS. That’s right, we wouldn’t have had to painfully put a pause on the ship snapping in two and sinking to the bottom of the ocean.


With Betamax, Titanic on home video would have been smooth sailing all the way through Jack turning into a popsicle.


As we all know, it wasn’t to be. VHS was the big winner of the format war, and we DID have to put Titanic on pause to switch tapes in the middle of the movie’s climax. What gives?


Turns out, there’s a little thing called the mighty dollar that de facto won the format war between Betamax and VHS. If you look at the table above, Sony invented Betamax, which would prove to be its downfall. It’s not that Sony doesn’t make great products. Quite the opposite. I’m wearing Sony headphones as I type this. The real problem is that Sony is stingy with its technologies. Betamax was no exception. Sony likes to control everything with all of its products, meaning you can only buy Sony stuff from Sony to go with other Sony stuff.


That means folks had to pay the Sony premium anytime they wanted a new Betamax tape.


By contrast, VHS was developed and shared as a sort of open-source technology. JVC, the inventor, didn’t push patents. Doing so allowed the technology to flourish. All sorts of manufacturers hopped on the VHS bandwagon, leading to lower prices all around. VCRs were cheaper, the tapes themselves were cheaper, and everything was way more accessible.


Imagine the smartest, most talented kid in class who could have been anything she wanted. However, instead of reaching her potential, her overprotective parents forced her to work at their sandwich shop after school every day instead of practicing soccer. Now, she’s filling orders for Reubens instead of being the professional soccer player she could have been. That’s basically what happened with Betamax and VHS. Betamax’s parents wouldn’t let it play with other kids and now it’s making sandwiches at an obscure deli in New York.


Ultimately, the biggest difference between Betamax and VHS is the price. Betamax, owned by Sony, controlled everything about the technology which made it prohibitively expensive. VHS on the other hand belonged to the people. Its prices were dramatically lower than Betamax, and even though it was a worse technology, it won the format war.

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