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VHS Logo

Top view VHS cassette with US Quarter for scale
Top view VHS cassette with US Quarter for scale
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Bottom view of VHS cassette with magnetic tape exposed

The Video Home System, better known by its acronym VHS, is a recording and playing standard for video cassette recorders (VCRs), developed by JVC (with some of its critical technology under lucrative licensing agreements with Sony) and launched in 1976. VHS officially stands for Video Home System, but it initially stood for Vertical Helical Scan, after the relative head/tape scan technique. Some early reports claim the name originally stood for Victor Helical Scan system.

VHS became a standard format for consumer recording and viewing in the 1980s after competing in a fierce format war with Sony's Betamax and, to a lesser extent, Philips' Video 2000. VHS initially offered a longer playing time than the Betamax system, and it also had the advantage of a far less complex tape transport mechanism. Early VHS machines could rewind and fast forward the tape considerably faster than a Betamax VCR since they unthreaded the tape from the playback heads before commencing any high-speed winding (most newer VHS machines don't do this any more, as improved engineering has stopped head-tape contact from being an impediment for fast winding).


Technical Aspects

A VHS cassette contains a 12.70 mm (½-inch) wide magnetic tape wound between two spools, allowing it to be slowly passed over the various playback and recording heads of the video cassette recorder. The tape speed is 3.335 cm/s for NTSC, 2.339 cm/s for PAL. A cassette holds a maximum of about 430 m of tape at the lowest acceptable tape thickness, giving a maximum playing time of about 3.5 hours for NTSC and 5 hours for PAL at "standard" (SP) quality. Most cassettes have lower recording times because they use thicker tape, which helps avoiding jams; careful users generally avoid the thinnest tapes. More recent machines usually allow the selection of longer recording times by lowering the tape speed even further: LP mode (for PAL) halves the tape speed and doubles the recording time, while EP mode (for NTSC, aka SLP mode) drops the tape speed to one-third, for triple the recording time. Of course these speed reductions cause corresponding reductions in video quality, also tapes recorded at the lower speed often don't play well on another recorder than the one they were produced on. Because of this, commercial prerecorded tapes were almost always recorded in SP mode. An unofficial LP mode with one of half the standard speed exists on some NTSC machines but is not part of the VHS standard.

VHS tapes have approximately 3 MHz of video bandwidth, and a horizontal resolution of about 240 discernible lines per scanline [1] (http://www.hometheaterhifi.com/volume_6_3/essay-video-resolution-july-99.html). The frequency modulation of the luminance signal makes higher resolutions impossible within the VHS standard, no matter how advanced the recorder's technology. The vertical resolution of VHS (and all other analog recording methods) is determined by the TV standard — a maximum of 486 lines are visible in NTSC and a maximum of 576 lines in PAL.

The video bandwidth is achieved with a relatively low tape speed by the use of helical scan recording of a frequency modulated luminance (black and white) signal, to which a frequency-reduced "color under" chroma (hue and saturation) signal is added. In the original VHS format, audio was recorded unmodulated in a single (monaural) linear track at the upper edge of the tape, which was limited in frequency response by the tape speed. More recent hi-fi VCRs add higher-quality stereo audio tracks which are read and written by heads located on the same spinning drum that carries the video heads, frequency modulated to the unused frequency range in between the chroma and luma signals. These audio tracks take advantage of depth multiplexing: since they use lower frequencies than the video, their magnetization signals penetrate deeper into the tape. When the video signal is written by the following video head, it erases and overwrites the audio signal at the surface of the tape, but leaves the deeper portion of the signal undisturbed. The excellent sound quality of hi-fi VHS has gained it some popularity as an audio format in certain applications; in particular, ordinary home hi-fi VCRs are sometimes used by home recording enthusiasts as a handy and inexpensive medium for making high-quality stereo mixdowns and master recordings from multitrack audio tape.

Of course, for backward compatibility, hi-fi VCRs still write the linear audio track during recording, and can automatically read it during playback if the hi-fi audio is not present.

Another linear control track, at the tape's lower edge, holds pulses that mark the beginning of every frame of video; these are used to fine-tune the tape speed during playback and to get the rotating heads exactly on their helical tracks rather than having them end up somewhere between two adjacent tracks (a feature called tracking). Since good tracking depends on the exact distance between the rotating drum and the fixed control/audio head reading the linear tracks, which usually varies by a couple of micrometers between machines due to manufacturing tolerances, most VCRs offer tracking adjustment, either manual or automatic, to correct such mismatches.

The control track can additionally hold index marks. These are normally written at the beginning of each recording session, and can be found using the VCR's index search function: this will fast-wind forward or backward to the nth specified index mark, and resume playback from there. There was a time when higher-end VCRs provided functions for manually removing and adding these index marks--so that, for example, they coincide with the actual start of the program--but this feature has become hard to find. A sign, perhaps, of the obsolescence of the VHS format.


Several improved versions of VHS exist, most notably S-VHS, an improved analog standard, and D-VHS, which records digital video onto a VHS form factor tape. Devices have also been invented which directly connect a personal computer to VHS tape recorders for use as a data backup device. W-VHS caters for high definition video.

Another variant is VHS-C (C for compact), used in some camcorders. Since VHS-C tapes are based on the same magnetic tape as full size tapes, they can be played back in standard VHS players using a mechanical adapter, without the need of any kind of signal conversion. The magnetic tape on VHS-C cassettes is wound on one main spool and used a sort of a gear wheel which moves the tape forward. It can also be moved by hand and so is the spool. This development hampered the sales of the Betamax system somewhat, because the Betamax cassette geometry prevented a similar development.

VHS vs. Betamax

As mentioned, VHS was the winner of a protracted and somewhat bitter format war during the early 80s against Sony's Betamax format. Since Betamax's technical specifications are better on paper, it is often stated that VHS' eventual victory was a victory of marketing over technical excellence. In fact, however, the root causes of VHS' victory are somewhat more complex. Betamax held an early lead in the format war, but by 1980 VHS was gaining due to its longer tape time (2 hours at SP) and JVC's less strict licensing program. Ultimately Betamax did manage to make up the difference on recording time, but this was too little too late for Sony, and Sony ultimately conceded the fight in the late 80s, bringing out a line of VHS VCRs. Beta survived as a professional format, and VHS had no serious competitors in the home video market until the arrival of DVD and digital video recorders. (Other formats such as 8mm and MiniDV have arisen, but have been mainly used for production purposes; neither has ever mounted a serious challenge to VHS's dominance as the set-top format of choice, being relegated to secondary roles.)

Bottom and top view of VHS-C, compact video cassette
Bottom and top view of VHS-C, compact video cassette
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Example of a VHS-C adapter

External links

da:Video Home System de:Video Home System fi:VHS fr:Video Home System nl:VHS ja:VHS no:VHS pl:VHS pt:VHS sv:VHS


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