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Fun Facts about Betamax Tapes

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By Christian Roemer

Media has changed so much over the past few decades that it’s easy to forget the landscape before Netflix, streaming, and the internet in general. Heck, some kids these days won’t even know what a DVD is because of the cloud and high speed internet.

They definitely don’t know about Betamax.

A short History:

Way back when home media was still in its infancy, there was a weird format that Sony made called Betamax. It actually predates VHS by a few years. Betamax was awesome at the time, because it made home video recording way better than before. The quality was better than previous film formats, the Betamax tapes were easier to use, and you could get cameras and accessories that all worked together seamlessly.


Since Betamax was a Sony invention and product, they controlled the products with an iron fist. If any other brand wanted to make Betamax stuff, they had to buy a license from Sony. That made the products really pricey.


Ultimately, Sony’s control led to its ultimate demise in the format war with VHS, even though many folks consider it a superior technology. VHS’s open license meant lower prices, and as in most things home economics, the almighty dollar always wins.


But that doesn’t mean that Betamax doesn’t have its own weird facts that are interesting to know. Here are my favorites:

 

Betamax didn’t go out of production until...2002?

Yes, you read that right. Even though VHS whooped up on Betamax way back in the 70s, Sony still manufactured Betamax cameras into the 21st century. Wild.

 

Betamax tapes were made until...2016?!

Again, this is mind blowing to me. Even though Betamax got crushed almost 3 decades earlier, Sony kept the dream alive until 2016. Everyone needs a dream, I guess.

 

Betamax had better picture quality than VHS.

Yep, you read that right. Betamax actually had better definition than VHS. The difference was minor--less than 5%--but it’s not nothing.

 

Betamax was more compact than VHS.

Betamax tapes were a little bigger than half the size of VHS tapes. So, not only did Betamax have better picture quality, it was more convenient and space efficient too.

 

Betamax cameras could only record inside of the camera.

With VHS camcorders, you could capture a video and watch it right back on a little screen on the camera. Betamax couldn’t do that.

 

Betamax kept Sony out of the VHS game until 1988.

Sony held onto its Betamax dream so long that it probably lost billions of dollars of potential revenue in VHS sales. Since it was putting all of its eggs in the Betamax basket, Sony didn’t start manufacturing VHS tapes until almost 1990. That’s a steep opportunity cost.

 

Betamax could only record for 60 minutes.

It would have taken 4 tapes to watch Titanic. Yikes.


I think Betamax is cool, but ultimately, Sony messed up. They could have owned home media for almost half of a century. Between Betamax and Blu Ray, their technology would have been the single greatest influence in people’s homes. Instead, Betamax turned out to be a disaster.

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