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Home /History / The Inner Workings of A Betamax Tape

The Inner Workings of A Betamax Tape

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By Christian Roemer

Most people these days don’t know what a Betamax tape is. Heck, most people don’t know what a video tape is at all. With all the new technology these days, storage is invisible. You hop on Google Drive and everything’s saved to the cloud. You don’t even see where your data’s saved, because it’s sitting on some server in a giant warehouse somewhere in the middle of the Arizona desert. Not so with Betamax.

When you had a Betamax tape, your video was saved on an actual giant box that you put into a big receiver.


Betamax was an O.G. video format back before Netflix was even a gleam in any of our eyes. When you wanted to watch or film a home movie, you had to have a tape first. Either the tape went inside a Betamax receiver, or you lugged around a big Betamax camera. When you recorded, the film would be written in real time.


A quick history lesson: if you’ve heard of VHS tapes but not Betamax, they’re basically the same thing. They both work in similar ways, and they even look nearly identical. The reason you’ve heard of VHS and not Betamax, however, is because Betamax lost the format war when it was vying with VHS for market supremacy in the 70s. VHS won the battle because it was cheaper. Betamax died much sooner than VHS, leaving behind a little known legacy. Betamax tapes do look cool though.


So what goes on inside those strange Sony Betamax tapes? It’s surprisingly simple! Each tape has:


  1. Film
  2. A Visible Spool
  3. An invisible Spool
  4. Some weird little gears and turny thingies

VHS tapes and Betamax tapes are basically the same. Each has two spools, even though only one is visible from the outside on Betamax. The tapes work by feeding film from one spool to the other. As the film snakes its way through the spinny support turners, a receiver or camera reads or writes on the film. Once all the film is used up, you rewind the tape back to the beginning. Easy peasy.


That’s really all there is to it! Betamax isn't an incredibly complex technology. It’s interesting that, according to media gurus, Betamax is actually a better video format than VHS. It has a slightly better resolution – also called picture quality – than VHS, despite having a smaller casing. Ultimately, since VHS was an open source format while Betamax was a Sony exclusive, VHS tapes were a much more affordable option than the not-better-enough-to-warranty-the-price-discrepancy Betamax.


That’s why you never saw Betamax at Blockbuster’s if you’re a 90s kid like me. It was just too dang expensive with no clear benefit. Because of that, you’ve at least heard of VHS, while Betamax is just a phantom from the past.

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