What is Betamax?

Sony introduced the Betamax home video system in 1975 with the LV-1901 Trinitron/Betamax console. It was the most popular video format in 1983, gaining almost a third of the UK video recorder market, while Sanyo's VTC5000 was the top selling UK video recorder. By 1985, however, the market had turned sharply towards VHS. Betamax machines were always ahead of their rivals by being the first to offer innovative and useful features into their machines. Here we show some of the ground breaking and remarkable features which can be found on some models. It shows some of the reasons why this system should but did not win the battle of the formats.

Automatic Program Search (APS)
Tracking normal & Tracking slow
Go to zero
Tape remaining
Beta Hifi

Betamax offered a slightly higher horizontal resolution (250 lines vs. 240 lines in PAL & NTSC), lower video noise and less luma-chroma crosstalk than VHS, and was marketed as providing pictures superior to VHS. Unlike the rival format, Betamax records an additional pilot colour burst onto tape which results in more accurate colour reproduction.

In the mid-to-late 80s, both formats were extended to Super Betamax and Super VHS. Super Betamax could record up to 290 lines (approximately 380 pixels horizontal) which could make near-identical copies of broadcast or cable television. Super VHS offered up to 420 lines (560 horizontal) that matched the quality of analogue laserdiscs.

Ironically though, both of these formats were largely ignored by consumers who seemed content with the fuzzy lo-res pictures provided by standard VHS (~320 pixels horizontal), and the "super" standards remained expensive niche products for a small minority of enthusiasts.

In this battleground of the formats, one of the first battles was fought over recording time – not quality!. For PAL versions, Betamax could record for 3 hours and 15 minutes, compared to VHS's 3 hours. With Long Play (LP) technology available by the mid-80s, a PAL VHS cassette could run up to 8 or 10 hours, at the expense of picture quality and inter-machine compatibility. The longest PAL Betamax tape was marketed is the L-830, running for 3 hours and 35 minutes.

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