Anyone who lived through the 1980s remembers the magic of VHS, or “Video Home System” tapes: Watching your favorite video rentals on the couch; easy to use video cameras that could be played back instantly; bootlegged videos passed around by friends. But the first VCR players of the early 1970s used proprietary videotape cassettes. The Sony VO-1600 only played Sony's 3/4-inch U-Matic tape, while the CartriVision played cassettes whose 1/2-inch reels were stacked on top of each other rather than laid out horizontally.

The high price of early videotape players made them primarily attractive for educational or business applications, but in 1975, Sony released a slightly smaller and more affordable player as part of its Betamax line in Japan. Sony expected Betamax to become the industry standard, but unexpectedly, in 1976, JVC launched its VHS system, specifically aimed at home users. VHS players reached the U.S. in 1977, and with the format's longer running time of two hours versus one, its cheaper price, and the wider variety of pre-recorded cassettes available, VHS quickly became the home video of choice. By the early 1980s, the boom in video rentals cemented the format's future—because the economical price of VHS cassettes and players meant less investment for rental businesses and home users, the VHS format surged in popularity over Betamax.

VHS tapes use what is known as the “M” lacing system, whereby loading fingers pull the tape outward from the cassette to wrap around the drum while playing or recording. However, when rewinding or fast-forwarding, the tape is returned to its cassette position, allowing it to rewind quickly. Despite their lower playback quality versus digital formats, VHS tapes still allow an ease of recording and re-recording not possible with DVDs, and much like vintage LPs or new Instagram photos, their scratches and blips give the tapes an aura of nostalgia.


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