Sony Betacam: Not the Beta you're thinking of (it's way better)
The video you’ve clicked on and are about to watch is objectively pointless. The videotape format war between VHS and Beta happened some 40 years ago, and nobody has any legitimate reason to be sticking up for either format because, news flash, we’re kinda done with analog videotape. And yet, a persnickety group of people just can’t seem to stop themselves from popping out of the woodwork whenever they get the chance to lament that “the worse format won” and this annoys me. Those people will cite all sorts of reasons for which Beta was Better, but after a decades-long game of telephone made even worse by the internet, those supposed reasons are either missing a heckuva lotta context, misleading, or outright incorrect. And for the perfect example of such shenanigans, we need look no further [WHUMP] than this. This is a Sony UVW-1800, a Betacam SP professional videocassette recorder from 1993.
You can tell it’s professional because of all the beige. And the fact that it has a bajillion ports on the back, none of which work with your average TV! I mean, the audio goes through XLR for crying out loud! Betalovers ‘round the world just love pointing to machines like this one as concrete proof that VHS was inferior to Beta. See, VHS just couldn’t cut it in the professional space, but Beta did ipso facto it was the superior format and consumers are just terrible at decision making. And they’re correct when they say that Beta enjoyed a long and successful life in the television industry.
It lived on well into the new millennium, in fact there was even a digital, high-definition version of the format before all was said and done! There’s just one teeeeensy little problem with that whole argument. This much groovier piece of kit [THOMP] is a Sony SL-5400, a Betamax videocassette recorder from 1979. Did you catch that? It was subtle. Don’t worry if you didn’t, I’ll be hammering it in repeatedly. This is a consumer-grade Beta machine, and an early one at that.
It’s got the simulated woodgrain cabinet, it’s got the piano-key controls, and best of all it’s got the pop-up cassette drawer. Now, both of these are Beta machines so it shouldn’t surprise you that the same tapes used by the SL-5400 will go right into the… well that’s all kinds of weird. I mean, it took the tape alright, but why is the loading door on this machine so freaking wide? Oh don’t worry, we’ll get there! But first, let’s try and play it. [extremely squeaky audio running at, like, six times normal speed] Uh… that is not right.
And the screen is blank. I think we should take a closer look at these two machines. Let’s see here, they’re both from Sony. They’re both videocassette recorders. They both have model numbers divisible by 1800. And they’re both Beta! See, this one says Betamax right up here, couldn’t be any clearer, and this one… well hold on just a minute here.
This one says Betacam. That’s a different set of three letters tacked onto the end there. Could it be… I wonder… Does this mean that these two machines are actually entirely different formats? YES! That’s precisely what this means! Betamax and Betacam are in fact not the same format at all.
You can tell by how their names are different! Even their logos are different, with the Beta-compatibility mark seen on every consumer Beta VCR and tape suspiciously missing from this machine. Except, it’s not suspicious at all because that compatibility mark is for the Betamax system which is not the same format as Betacam. Sony did go ahead and use the same basic cassette design and decided to just lean-in to the whole “beta” moniker for this new format, so it’s understandable that there’s a lot of confusion here.
But this Beta and that Beta aren’t the same Beta and never ever were. So, there you go, job done. Betacam isn’t Betamax, and anyone who points to "Beta’s" use in the professional world after the format war ended as some sort of proof that Beta was Better is either being very disingenuous or simply isn’t aware of the difference.
And for those good folks in that second category (as well as the generally curious who would like to know the difference), I have great news! You’re already watching the video that’ll answer your questions. But first, we’ll need to go back in time for some important context. Now, I discussed the videotape format war at length several years ago, so if you want a deeper dive, click on that thing or check the description. While I’m staying pretty surface level with this recap, it’s still over 10 minutes long so if you would like to skip it go ahead and jump to seventeen minutes forty-one seconds. Betamax, released at the end of 1975, was Sony’s first full-color, cassette-based consumer videotape offering. And yes, U-matic came out a few years earlier, but that didn’t find any success in the consumer market and was co-developed with several other manufacturers so it doesn’t count.
When Sony released Betamax, the pitch was to use these things to record and save broadcast television programs so you could watch them later. You might set up a timer to record a program while you were away [ANNOUNCER] Thanks to Sony’s revolutionary Betamax deck which hooks up to any TV set, now you can automatically videotape your favorite show even when you’re not home and watch it anytime you want! Or you could record one program while watching a second program. [ANNOUNCER] Because with Sony's Betamax video recorder you can actually watch a show on one channel while you’re videotaping a show on another channel! That way you get to see both of them! The idea of buying or renting something like a movie on a pre-recorded tape just wasn’t in the cards at this point, and that’s very important context for understanding the earliest phases of the soon-to-happen format war. Through an apparent obsession with an entirely subjective portability standard, Sony engineers landed on a rather diminutive cassette design. While admittedly pleasant to interact with, its small size meant small tape spools inside of it which of course meant not a whole lot of tape could fit on those spools.
The format launched with a maximum recording time of 60 minutes (that’s one hour for those of you who speak Metric). Sony didn’t think this would be an issue as most television programs of the time happened to be an hour long or less. But Sony was wrong. Very wrong. Catastrophically wrong. See, one of their competitors, JVC, was working on their own consumer videotape format which they called VHS.
It came to market about a year after Betamax was released. Coming out second and being a bit rougher around the edges, it was easy to smear as some sort of cheap knockoff product. But its slightly chunkier cassettes had much larger tape spools inside which - get this - meant they could hold more tape. Significantly more, in fact. Sony’s K-60 cassette held 500 feet or 152 meters of tape, but the T-120 VHS cassette held 812 feet, or 248 meters.
With 62% more tape in the shell and recorders that ran at a slightly slower tape speed, VHS tapes held a full two hours of video. In these early days, VHS was generally regarded as having a slightly worse image quality than Sony’s product, but double the recording time was quite the tempting consolation. Not only because more time is more better, but videocassettes were brand new technology and very expensive to manufacture. Thus, they cost a lot to buy as a consumer, and the literal two-for-one deal offered by VHS was hard to pass up.
And it turned out nobody cared at all that the cassettes were a bit bigger. I was gonna go on a rant here about how much more space-efficient the VHS cassette design is but here - just look at it. Much larger tape spools in an only marginally larger package. Sony knew right away they had a problem on their hands, so they set to work. By making the tape much thinner, they would soon stretch Beta’s recording capacity to 90 minutes with the introduction of the new L-750 cassette - right, you’d think they’d call it the "K90" but Sony decided to denote this new cassette by the literal length of tape inside in feet, and then went ahead and renamed the K60 to the L-500 which I’m sure had nothing to do with 60 and 90 being smaller numbers than 120.
Anyway, despite Sony’s bump in recording time VHS still had it beat by a full half-hour. And then came RCA’s idea. See, RCA was looking to sell a line of videocassette recorders in the United States, and they knew that consumers here would probably like to be able to record football games (which tend to be longer than two hours). So they partnered with Matsushita, who had licensed the VHS technology from JVC, to develop a long-play recording mode which would double the already much longer two-hour recording time of VHS cassettes to four hours at the expense of reduced video and audio quality. Their first Selectavision VCR was released in 1977, and suddenly VHS had a huge ace-in-the-hole.
Sony, of course, had no choice but to respond with the new Beta-II recording speed. Which was literally the same exact idea as VHS-Long Play, cutting the linear tape speed in half and doubling the recording time. Just like VHS-LP, it reduced video and audio quality, but at least it was now a closer three hours on Beta and four hours on VHS.
But of course, the same tape-thinning trick employed by Sony was used to make the T-160 VHS cassette, bumping the longest recording time of VHS up to 5 hours and 20 minutes. And in case that wasn’t enough, JVC would develop the extended-play recording mode which tripled the amount of time you could squeeze onto a VHS tape - making 8 hours possible with a T-160 tape. It would look and sound pretty terrible but you could do it. Sony, of course, once again had to respond by once again just copying that idea and introducing the Beta-III recording speed.
But that was still just 4 and a half hours recording time on an L-750 cassette, and only three hours with the at-the-time more common L-500. VHS just walked all over Beta in the recording time department, and the original Beta-I recording speed was so utterly useless in the face of VHS that Sony just up and killed it! This machine from 1979, made only four years into the format’s existence, cannot record at the original Beta speed. Your choice is now between II and III, thus Beta-II became the new default speed for Beta, and Beta-III would net you a measly 50% bonus. And this brings us to the whole picture quality debacle. Beta-II was better-executed compared with VHS-Long Play (in fact JVC was apparently annoyed with Matsushita for creating it as they pretty much just hacked it together for RCA without even asking). So Beta-II produced an unquestionably better picture than a VHS machine recording in long-play mode.
But ya see, VHS still had very usable recording times at its original standard-play quality. And, at least to my eyes, standard-play VHS looks just about identical to Beta-II. Here, look. [snaps fingers] You are now looking at the output from this Toshiba Betamax VCR running at the Beta-II speed. Unfortunately my vintage Sony tank really doesn’t like to record, so this is the best I’ve got. And now, let’s take a look at what a basic Toshiba VHS machine can muster.
[snaps fingers] Doesn’t really look any different, does it? Now, in fairness, the VHS machine is newer than the Beta machine, but it’s nothing special. It’s part of a DVD-player/VCR combo and doesn’t even appear to support the VHS-HQ enhancement features. Anyway, let’s go side-by-side.
Now, I promise, I’ve not done anything to alter the video you’re seeing. Both recordings were made from the same source, and they were captured using the same capture device. If the colors look slightly different, that’s entirely down to how the VCRs encoded and decoded them.
We might disagree, but to me the quality between these two images is virtually identical. There are some subtle differences to be found if you look hard enough, but the difference is way too negligible for the average person to care. The fact is, once Beta-II became the default speed, the picture quality advantage of Beta had more or less evaporated. Also, fun fact, the linear tape speed of Beta-II is slower than VHS-Standard Play, so the linear-track audio quality of VHS is actually a little better. I would love to show you what Beta-I looked like but I can't! Only ancient Beta machines record at that speed, and since they are so ancient, they’re probably not able to match even a mediocre VHS machine from the ‘80s. Bottom-line, the difference in picture quality is slight at best, and anyone who thinks VHS was bad enough to be “the worse format” is either an ardent videophile and/or has no idea what actually matters to the average consumer.
But anyway, let’s get back to 2023. [snaps fingers] We’re almost done with this recap, I promise. Sony would keep on trying to create features to make going with Beta worth its obvious tradeoffs, but pretty much every single one they made was swiftly copied by VHS.
And even if they couldn’t quite match it, VHS still enjoyed a much longer recording time. VHS machines quickly dominated the market, and as time went on it would only get more and more market share thanks to the other mistake Sony made and never let up from. RCA was able to partner with Matsushita for their Selectavision VCRs because JVC was quite happy to license VHS technology for a relatively small fee.
Meanwhile, Sony kept Betamax technology very close to the chest, and only licensed it to a small number of third-party OEMs who were willing to pay them quite a bit. The result was a sea of inexpensive VHS VCRs from many manufacturers on the market compared with only a few more-expensive yet less-capable Beta machines. So, quite naturally, more VHS machines were sold. And now, as the fledgling home-video market began to expand with the installed-base of VCRs, well if you were a content distributor you could sell your content to more people on VHS cassettes because there were more people with VHS VCRs. Supporting Beta machines was simply less profitable. And this probably is the genesis of the very irritating-to-me myth that Beta failed because you couldn’t get pornography on it.
First of all... you could. This idea that Sony “wouldn’t allow it” is pervasive yet disproven with a simple eBay search. Again, Sony was not in the business of selling content.
That’s not what they were trying to do when they invented Betamax. I think this myth came about in part because people quite simply forgot as years passed that the VCR was initially sold to record TV (the R stands for recorder) and video rental sprung up only after enough people had already bought these machines to support that business model. Eventually the ability to rent movies and play them at home was a reason to buy a VCR, but not in the beginning.
There almost certainly was less porn available on Beta, but there was also less everything on Beta! There were fewer of these machines out there in people’s homes, meaning it was a smaller market to sell stuff to. Add to that, Beta equipment and thus duplication was more expensive, so the per-unit cost of making the tapes was, too. For any sort of content distributor, VHS was way more lucrative and supporting Beta was basically a nice gesture. The lack of whatever kind of content you were looking for was a result of Beta’s poor market share, and not a cause.
But of course, it wasn’t helping Sony dig themselves out of their hole. Anyway, with the vast majority of consumers making the very rational and entirely-correct decision to go with VHS (that’s right, you heard me), Betamax was left to live out the rest of its days as the format of wealthy tech-forward videophiles that cared more about a quite-possibly imagined marginal increase in image quality than they did access to a wider ecosystem which was also cheaper. And there just aren’t enough of those people to sustain any format, so Beta was doomed.
And now, at last, back to this beige beauty. By the late ‘70s, Sony started work to create a new professional videocassette format to supplant the venerable U-matic. U-matic was great and all, but its rather large cassettes and ¾-inch tape made it a not-so-portable format, and its picture quality was still just a little sub-par for post-production work. “But hey,” somebody at Sony thought, “we just spent all this R&D money coming out with Betamax… maybe we can reuse parts of its design for this new format.”
So they did. And in 1982, Betacam would hit the professional market and was, to the delight and relief of Sony, a smash-hit. What makes Betacam the professional format that it is are the signals it records on the tape. Despite initially sharing identical cassettes, a Betacam VCR records true component video onto the tape. Now, to explain the difference we need to get a little bit into the weeds, but to show you the upshot [snaps fingers] here’s the quality we get out of Betamax and here’s how Betacam fares.
[snaps fingers] Much better! This is true broadcast-quality video. And you’re not even seeing it at its best as I don’t have a good way to capture component video - this is just composite. By the way, a huge thanks goes out to friend of the channel James Colvard for lending this machine and a couple of tapes to me.
I’ve been wanting to make this video for ages just to set the record straight on what Betacam was and with this we have a fantastic example. This machine barely got any use as you can see from its hours meter. Yeah, that’s right, it has an hours meter - this is proper professional stuff! And in case the beige and all those ports didn’t give it away, when you open up you’ll find that good lord it’s chock full of circuit boards! This isn’t just big and heavy for the lolz, there’s a lot of stuff jammed into this case. That alone is fascinating! These boards are all swappable and they plug into some sort of backplane down at the bottom. And they have a plethora of potentiometers all along their edges so technicians can conveniently make adjustments. I don’t want to know how much I can mess up by adjusting those so I will not be touching them! But wow.
When we look at the tape transport, though, what we find is, well, Beta. Compare this to what’s inside the Toshiba machine and it’s very familiar. The tape is threaded around the drum in pretty much exactly the same way, and it takes a very discerning eye to notice any differences between the two. The technology of Betamax was very clearly adapted for this new format, so again when people confuse this with Betamax, it’s understandable.
But a close look at the head drum reveals what gives Betacam its special sauce. A standard Betamax VCR, just like VHS, only has two heads in the drum located directly across from one another. This spinning head arrangement is needed because analog video is a very high-frequency signal, and to record such signals onto magnetic tape you need the tape to move very fast past the recording heads. Making the actual tape move that fast is impractical for lots of reasons, so instead the heads move around the tape.
As the drum spins and the tape moves sideways, the heads record diagonal stripes across the tape’s width, with each pass taking only one sixtieth of a second and recording (or playing back) one field of analog video. Circuitry inside the VCR repeatedly switches which of the two heads are active, and the result is a seemingly continuous signal. But when we look at the head drum in the Betacam machine, we find that there are six heads. Two of them are flying erase heads and don’t have anything to do with the video signals (other than, well, destroying them when necessary), but the other four work in pairs to record two distinct signals onto the tape at the same time.
There are actually two heads right next to each other in this little slot and they work together when recording onto or reading back the tape. Why might we want to do that? Well, it has to do with the bandwidth limitations of magnetic tape and the way analog color television works. The reason why Betamax and VHS look so, well, mediocre is that the tape can’t actually store a video signal with the same bandwidth of a television signal. It can store something that a television can put back together into an image all right, but every line drawn on the screen won’t display as much detail. That makes the image appear somewhat soft, but what’s even worse is the way the formats encode color.
I have a video planned specifically on this so I’m not gonna get too deep here, but one of the truly groundbreaking things both Betamax and VHS accomplished was get color video working at all with such limited recording bandwidth and a single video head. See, both NTSC and PAL, the analog color television standards that used to dominate North America and Europe respectively, were a bit of a hack. We wanted color television signals to be compatible with existing black and white televisions, which was a pretty huge ask.
Somehow we needed to take a signal that represented image brightness alone and magic that into three separate brightness values for the three color channels in an RGB image. We managed to do this, in fact I made videos on that whole saga *ding* and the way we did it was really quite elegant and involved separating a color image into a luminance signal for brightness and a chrominance signal for color, then combining those signals together in such a way that the color carrier signal was suppressed. A black and white television would only see the luminance signal, but a color television, using a circuit that latched onto a brief pulse of the color carrier transmitted before each line of video known as the colorburst, could recover the color signal from the luminance signal which would change the ratio between red, green, and blue as it drew lines across the face of a cathode ray tube and yes it’s all very complicated and I’m sorry. What does this have to do with videotape? Well, you need to have at least as much bandwidth as a true television signal for that scheme (known as composite color) to work. And neither Betamax nor VHS has that bandwidth available on the tape.
Those formats had to come up with an entirely new scheme for encoding color video, and translate between NTSC or PAL and this new scheme when recording (and of course translate it back when playing a tape so a color television could display it). The so-called "color-under" encoding used by both Betamax and VHS could only encode about 30 to 40 different colors across the width of the television screen. Editor’s note: what I just said is correct but only when considering an individual scan line. Every next line can display its own unique set of 40 or so different colors, so I don’t want to mislead you into thinking that an entire image can only contain a few dozen colors. The whole image could theoretically contain about 20 thousand unique colors (that’s 480 visible lines multiplied by 40 colors per line) but when considering the width of the screen alone, the color resolution of consumer videotape is quite awful.
And this is why the colors on ordinary videotape look so smeary - they literally are! You particularly notice this with animation - there’s a very good chance the change between two colors happens outside the lines. This is perfectly fine for a cheap home video format, but it ain’t gonna cut it in the studio. So, not only does Betamax (or any other consumer videotape format) lack the luminance resolution necessary for broadcast image quality, but it absolutely doesn’t have the color resolution to be seen as remotely acceptable. There’s just no way to cram enough information onto magnetic tape using a single flying head. But remember. Betacam doesn’t have a single flying head.
It has two flying heads which work at the same time. If you look very closely at the two heads in the drum, you’ll notice that they’re not quite aligned. One sits a bit higher than the other so that as the heads sweep across the tape, they record two parallel tracks. One of them contains the luminance, or brightness, information (effectively a black and white image).
And the other contains the color information. Since we aren’t combining those two signals into one, we can have much more color information and we can avoid the artifacts like dot crawl that plague composite video. That’s a huge boon for the video editing process and is a big part of what separates the professional VCRs from the consumer machines.
Look at how well Betacam can reproduce titling elements. Now let’s compare with Betamax. With much more luminance bandwidth, the letters appear very crisp on Betacam, and with additional features like built-in time base correction, the image is rock-solid and stable. But what gets even more impressive is when I throw some color into the mix.
Remember that terrible color resolution of consumer formats? Well, here it is in action. But Betacam, being a true component video format, doesn’t struggle. Frankly, the video produced by this machine is extremely close to DVD quality, and that’s mighty impressive for analog video on magnetic tape. Now the few video nerds out there who know the difference between Component and S-video but didn’t know that Betacam was different from Betamax might be a bit confused right now. I said Betacam stores component video signals, which you may know as the red green and blue jacks, or YPbPr.
That’s made of three separate signals: Y for luminance, Pb for the difference between blue and luminance, and finally Pr, the difference between red and the luminance. But there are only two recording heads here, so how can I say that Betacam records the three signals of component video? Why, because Betacam uses compressed time division multiplexing, silly! Yeah, here’s where things get a little bit nuts. The head that records the color information is actually recording two color signals at the same time.
Well, actually, no, not at the same time. Time-division multiplexing is a very old technique in which you essentially just keep switching between multiple signals so they can share a single channel. In this case, we only have two signals: Pb and Pr, so that head records the Pb signal for a teeny tiny bit, then the Pr signal for a teeny tiny bit, then back to Pb, then to Pr, then to Pb, then to Pr, then to Pb, and after enough of that an ice cold PBR with a PB&J is well deserved. Now, of course, those two signals are continuously being fed to the machine when it’s recording and it can’t just stop and ignore one while recording the other or we’d be losing half of the color information.
So it’s actually time-compressing those two signals (effectively speeding them up) and alternately spitting them out as small double-speed chunks. When it’s playing a tape back, it’s gonna do the opposite, and slow each chunk down to half speed before sending them out the component jacks together. I know! It’s bonkers! But it’s a bit like taking a stereo audio track, doubling its speed, then splitting each of the two channels into half-second chunks. So long as you use some sort of reference clock so you can piece it back together correctly, you can send a half-second of the left channel followed by a half-second of the right channel over a single wire.
On the receiving end, simply slow them both back down to the full second they should be, re-synchronize them, play them together, and voila - stereo audio over a single wire. Betacam is effectively doing that with the Pb and Pr signals of component video. And that’s at least part of why there is so much freaking circuitry inside this machine. I found the patent for the process by which Betacam encodes and decodes the signals it records and reading it just hurts. Even just the block diagrams are hard to follow, but here’s where the two color signals get combined, you can see some of the delay and clock pulse elements, here’s the part that slows it back down - it’s all sorts of nuts, but hey.
They made it work. And honestly, hats off to Sony. I forgot to script this part, so I’m gonna do my best and record this off-the-cuff.
You might have noticed that the two recording heads won’t hit the tape at the same time. One follows the other. So, how does that work? Well, truthfully, I couldn’t find a solid answer to this. The time compression that this thing is doing with all that circuitry might be the explanation, but the other possible explanation is that it doesn’t matter if the color information doesn’t actually record at the same time because of the vertical blanking interval.
The beginning and end of every frame of video is black space that a TV can’t display, so if there’s no color information there it doesn't really matter. I think that’s the more likely explanation - the color information actually starts a little bit into each video frame and it just doesn’t matter, but, uh, I couldn't find a solid answer. So hopefully somebody knows. If you know, let us know. But the way the signals get put on the tape didn’t come without a cost. You might have guessed that the two parallel tracks recorded by the video heads result in a… less economical use of the tape’s running time.
But if you guessed twice as many helical tracks means half the runtime, well you’d be wrong. Thanks to the use of guard bands between adjacent tracks, it is in fact only a third the normal runtime. A third, that is, of the original Beta-I recording speed. Yeah, this cassette here is more-or-less equivalent to an L-750, a tape that would yield only 90 minutes of recording time with an OG Betamax machine and three hours on a machine like this. But with Betacam, it holds a measly half-hour.
In a Betacam machine, the tape flies by at over 10 centimeters per second. Compare the rotational speeds of the supply spools here to get a sense of the difference. The Betacam tape is moving roughly six times faster. So here, once again, Sony’s fixation on making a small cassette would become a problem. Sure, it made portable equipment more compact, and 30 minutes of recording time is all right for a news-gathering team, but if Sony wanted this format to see serious use in a television studio, they’d need to do better than that. So they had no choice but come up with this chonky boy.
That’s right, Sony was basically forced to design an entirely new and much larger cassette which could actually fit a useful amount of tape in it. Betacam L cassettes - that’s L for Long - could hold up to 90 minutes of video. These are ridiculous and I love them.
They have the same little cutout to thread the tape that the original Beta cassettes do which looks ever so silly. And, the original tape size, by the way, was now known as Betacam S - that’s S for short. And with that Sony finally admitted it - the tape is simply too short. Another editor’s note: I have seen some evidence that officially it was S for Small and L for Large, but either way… it’s not a good look for the original Beta tape. And now we know why the cassette slot is so freaking wide! This machine accepts both S and L cassettes.
And think about the design challenges there. You need the slot to keep the small cassette centered as you insert it, so ridges are built into the loading carriage right at the edges. But the L cassette, then, needs a recess so it can slip past those ridges. And there they are, with a S-cassette fitting right between them. If that weren’t enough, the cogs of the tape spools are much farther apart on the big cassette than they are on the small one, so this machine has moving spindles that quickly change position depending on which cassette you’re loading. It’s equal parts hilarious and impressive.
[various delightful mechanical noises] And I must say, using this machine is genuinely impressive in several ways. For one, the tape transport mechanism is deliciously responsive, precise, and wicked fast. Remember, the tape moves pretty quickly in normal playback, but look at this thing fly when you hit fast forward. That counter is going up astonishingly quickly, and the tape spools are moving at an almost scary pace. I also just love that when you hit fast forward or rewind when playing, it doesn’t mute the audio - [eyy - swoooopittttytytytyytytytytytytsquiuiiu.... eyuwooop.
pooowuyeuiiuiuqstytytytytytyytytytyttttupoooowsyye... eyuwooop swoooopittttytytytyytytytytytytsquiuiiu eyuwooop. ♫ choir singing ♫ silence] This definitely makes me feel like some sorta professional video editor! Wait. And as much as I love to make fun of Sony, I do have to admit they knew how to build a satisfying machine. This is actually a pretty basic machine in the lineup, in fact the UVW model lineup was meant as a lower-cost option.
But that didn’t stop them from using these delightful illuminated buttons. Pressing them is so satisfying. And look at the design for the little cover over these extra buttons. It could just pop down on a simple hinge, but instead it oozes with gravitas as it slides neatly below the controls and out of the way. MMMM! Lastly, I should probably touch on the whole SP thing in Betacam SP. Upon release in 1982, Betacam used the same tape formulation as Betamax - in fact you could use a consumer Betamax tape in a Betacam machine and it would work just fine.
But in 1986, Sony would update the format with the new Superior Performance line that used special metal-oxide tapes. That yielded a slight bump in image quality, and the switch to SP also brought with it many other quality-of-life improvements. The fundamentals of the technology didn’t change, and Betacam SP tapes can generally be played back on original Betacam equipment, but the new metal oxide tapes required stronger video heads and weren’t backward compatible for recording. Remember, though, that this machine is from 1993. Betacam SP was the de-facto standard format in large swaths of the video production world for decades, and would see continued use long after Sony developed digital replacements.
As a matter of fact, the same year this machine was released saw the release of Digital Betacam, which was Betacam but Digital. That would be superseded by Betacam SX, then MPEG IMX, and finally HDCAM, which used the same basic Betacam cassettes to store 1080P digital video at a bitrate of 144 megabits per second. HDCAM received a few updates over the years, but with the advent of portable hard drives and flash memory, the need to store digital data on magnetic tape slowly diminished. And now, inside my camera there’s a piece of plastic about the size of a dime that I bought for $12 which does the job just as well and doesn’t need rewinding. Now, before we roll credits, you might be wondering where JVC might have been through all of this.
Turns out, nowhere! They didn’t care at all to compete with Betacam. But RCA wasn’t dead yet in 1982, and they worked with their old pal Matsushita to develop their own professional videocassette based on VHS. They called it M. Just M.
And it was pretty much the same exact idea as Betacam, but VHS. It ran with a much higher-than-normal tape speed, and its VHS-based cassettes held only 20 minutes of video. It flopped. Then, in 1986, M was updated by Panasonic (which is a subsidiary of Matsushita, in case you didn’t know) and became M II.
Catchy. Just like Betacam SP it was a marginal improvement, but Panasonic did figure out how to cut down on tape usage. Apparently, the large MII cassette was pretty much the same exact size as a normal VHS cassette and still managed to hold 90 minutes of component video. And they developed a baby cassette that only held 20 minutes but would make for a pretty compact camcorder.
M II fared a little bit better, with NBC deciding to go with it for a while, but it still was a drop in the bucket compared to Betacam. So, here we are. The most important thing I want you to take away from this video is, say it with me now, BETACAM IS NOT BETAMAX. Sony reused the same cassettes and the same first four letters when creating this new format which was needlessly confusing, but the two are not compatible in any way.
The next time someone pulls a “well, aktually, TV studios used Beta so it was clearly better” I want you to well actually right back and send them this video. Or, just, correct them on the spot. They don’t need to see the whole video.
Uh, but if you were sent here and made it to this point, well I’m glad we’re now on the same page! At least, we'd better be. I don’t wanna have to do this again. Thanks for watching. ♫ incompatibly smooth jazz ♫ But after a decade’s long game of telephone made even worse by the internet, mmbeh [sigh] crap! Welp! Iuhrururgrestart gonna restart that line.
I have good news! You’re watching the videooooh no. That’s…ugh …some sorta proof that Beta was better is either being very dishingenuous… I kinda said “dishingenuous” didn’t I? If you would like to skip it, go ahead and jump to heh heh hawah heh hawrh ha heh-ha Sony knew right away that they had a problem on… S… stop it! ...stretch Beta’s recording capacity to 90 minutes with the introduction of the L-seven - I think I hit it. Suspiciously absent from this machine [bonk].
Oh… At this point, you beta believe that Betacam ain't Betamax. It sure is astounding how angsty uncles could, through nonstop whining to their family and friends, change the broader understanding of how the format war happened, isn't it? Face it, Dave, you backed the wrong horse. It's OK. Mistakes happen.
Let it go.