Gadget Guy Time Warp: The VCR

Thirty years ago, the world of television changed forever. With the 1976 release by JVC of the world?s first commercial VCR, people were freed from the broadcasters’ timetable. The VCR (videocassette recorder) enabled people to do what they had previously been unable to do – to watch what they wanted, whenever they wanted. It enabled people to record television for viewing at a later time, as well as to watch pre-recorded movies. The VCR was the precursor to today’s sophisticated hard drive-based ‘time shifting’ machines and, with surround sound encoded on most pre-recorded movies, it also helped spawn the home theatre phenomenon and today’s huge market for pre-recorded entertainment.

The concept of recording video at home is not new. Domestic reel-to-reel videotape recorders (VTRs) first appeared in the 1950s, but it was only with the development of the rectangular-shaped videocassette that videotape recording caught the imagination of the mass market. Videocassette recorders were more technically advanced, had more accurate electronic timers and, importantly, the cassettes allowed longer playback and recording times.

There were three different, physically incompatible videocassette formats to begin with: the Philips V200 disappeared almost immediately, while Sony’s Betamax and JVC’s VHS (Video Home System) battled for market dominance over several years in what is now accepted as the first and definitive format war.

Beta was generally accepted as providing better picture quality, but JVC?s decision to license its technology to a large number of other manufacturers saw VHS machines quickly become more widespread than Beta recorders. This fuelled the release of a greater number of films on VHS, and it was this wider choice of viewing material that largely sealed the deal in favour of VHS. To date, more than 900 million VHS recorders have been manufactured worldwide, according to JVC.

Although most VCRs are now front loading, the first VHS recorders were all top-loaders and allowed a maximum of two hours of recording. The addition of standard and long play (SP/LP) modes in the late ’80s saw recording times increase significantly, effectively doubling the recording time from a three-hour tape. Eventually, VHS evolved to provide up to nine hours of recording times from a 180-minute videocassette. Machines appeared with the ability to record stereo audio soundtracks, and with the Super-VHS (S-VHS) variant, the potential playback quality from pre- and home-recorded videocassettes received a boost.

As good as these improvements were, they couldn’t compete with DVD when it arrived in the mid-1990s. It was digital; video and audio quality was far superior; access to different parts of a film was direct and immediate, with no need for time consuming rewinding and fast forwarding; there were additional features to watch; a choice of languages to watch them in, and the discs were small and easy to stow. It just didn’t matter to buyers that the machines couldn’t record, and now – just ten years after its introduction – DVD is a component of just about every personal computer, and around 75 percent of Australian households have at least one DVD player.

The penetration of the VCR is higher of course, and many households will continue to make good use of them for either recording television or playing back legacy videcasssete collections. When these machines pack it in, though, they will be hard to replace. While some DVD players conveniently combine a VCR, standalone decks are a difficult to come by as many brands have either stopped marketing them in Australia or ceased making them entirely. And if you do find an example of this 30-year old technology on the shelf, check out the price. It will, typically, cost more than a budget DVD player.