Blu-ray vs HD-DVD and MiniDisc vs MP3 remain fresh in the memory, but for the biggest format battle of them all you need to go back to the late 1970s.
Having had little competition for its professional U-Matic video cassette player, Sony had high hopes of pushing the VCR out to the masses in 1975 with its more living room-friendly Betamax player. The £800 Sony SL-8000UB was the first machine on sale in the UK, although we had to wait until 1978.
As the format took off, Toshiba, Sanyo, NEC, Aiwa and Pioneer promptly jumped onboard and a home-entertainment revolution looked on the cards. Crucially, however, JVC chose instead to develop its own system: VHS.
Within months of Betamax’s launch, JVC’s £800 HR-3300 followed. Sharp, Panasonic, Hitachi, Mitsubishi and Akai backed VHS, and the battle lines were drawn.
- The original VHS player, JVC’s HR-3300. With its piano keys and inability to cue or review, navigating tapes was a finger-numbing affair. The red LED display allowed owners to timer-record one event within 24 hours.
VHS was deemed technically inferior to its rival, but, significantly, cassettes were two hours long – twice the length of Betamax – so recording a movie or sporting event was far less arduous.
Sony quickly realised this and sacrificed some quality for extra quantity, but already it was too late. VHS movies had become far easier to rent, and by the turn of the decade so had the machines.
In the UK, Radio Rentals handled VHS players only, and they flew off the shelves: of the 100,000 UK homes with a VCR in 1980, 70 per cent were rented.
Again, Sony saw the error of its ways and made its players easier to hire, but the damage had been done. Betamax sales slumped throughout the 1980s, and although the format lasted until 2002 in Japan, it ceased production elsewhere in 1993.
More after the break
- ‘Aiwa’s gone cheese-shaped!’ we declared in our May issue. Resembling a 4.65kg wedge of cheddar, the company’s AD1250 audio tape deck wins our Competitive Test, as featured on the cover.
- Ten years before the start of the rave scene, Wharfedale invited us to ‘Blow up your amplifier with remarkable E’s’. The promo continues: 'If you’d like to hear them, we’ll send you the list of E dealers... it’s as high as music can take you.’ For the record, the ad was for its E series speakers.