VHS Tapes Were Awesome, But Were They Bad? An Investigation

I have to take issue with the title of this video, VHS tapes were not “bad.” They were great. They were incredible little movie-playing contraptions that snapped, rolled and clunked, and they smelled weird. But yes, it is worth putting their image quality to the test, so let this video walk you through it in the hi-def era.

Advertisement

YouTube user The 8-Bit Guy decided to check out if the most resilient home video format to date was “as bad as we remember.” His dedication to the truth should be applauded.

First of all, it’s so nice to watch him crack open an old VCR and clean up the dusty components. Ah to be young again, popping the hood on the trusty Panasonic and trying to untangle the busted copy of Die Hard from the tape heads.

Advertisement

Sure enough, his cleaned up VCR works and you know it’s a VHS because the first bit of video we get is a trailer for The Mask of Zorro. Fast forward.

Based on his first test with a used copy of Men In Black, The 8-Bit Guy is actually impressed with the quality he sees on the CRT monitor but he demonstrates just how poorly that transfers to a computer screen. But this still didn’t definitively answer what the image quality of VHS was like because that MIB is so worn out.

So, he decides to kick the test up-a-notch with a never-viewed copy of Back To The Future just to have a prime control subject. We can be sure that this never-been-opened tape is legit because it still contains an insert that offers $2.50 back via mail-in-rebate if you buy Jurassic Park on VHS.

Advertisement

With this fresh specimen, he proceeds to hook up his VCR to a laptop using a Western Digital Live TV that accepts composite video. That allows him to plug into his video capture device and get a more authentic signal.

He also throws in an extra layer for testing by using an older, professional quality tape to transfer a remastered, 1080p Blu-ray of BTTF. This really helps give us a better idea of what the format is capable of, if mastering and other factors were on par with today’s technology. So now we have a digital copy from Blu-ray using composite video, a new VHS transfer from that pristine source and an original, old VHS copy.

Advertisement

The Blu-ray running through composite video gives you a good idea of the effect that technology has on the picture. The most noticeable issue comes in around the edges of characters and objects where you can see a clear checkerboard pattern and rainbow color fringing.

Predictably, the older copy looks pretty bad compared to the Blu-ray transferred to VHS. But, honestly, the newer transfer looks pretty darn good.

Advertisement

As far as the old, but previously unopened copy goes, there’s a tremendous loss of detail and man, it’s hard to look at movies outside of their original aspect ratio these days. That was one thing that VHS truly screwed up.

Here are some screengrabs:

Illustration for article titled VHS Tapes Were Awesome, But Were They Bad? An Investigation
Advertisement
Illustration for article titled VHS Tapes Were Awesome, But Were They Bad? An Investigation
Stills
Stills
Advertisement

The full video contains some more examples with darker scenes.

What did the experiment teach us? For one, the composite video is capable of carrying more information than was being transferred back in the day. Also, you can make a halfway decent copy of a Blu-ray onto a VHS cassette. Above all, we learned that VHS looked bad. It wasn’t bad in general, but yeah, it looked bad.

Advertisement

[The 8-Bit Guy]

Share This Story

Get our newsletter

DISCUSSION

whohauser
Giant Salamander

Sorry 8-bit Guy, you are sadly ignorant of many things from our analog days of video, but I don’t hold that against you. No, I shall explain:

NTSC standard definition video was a total of 525 lines horizontal transmitted at 30 frames per second. Of this 480 was used for picture information, the rest was used for synchronizing signals and other information like close captioning. To reduce the bandwidth for broadcast, a single frame of video info was reduced to two frames of 240 lines of alternating lines transmitted at 60 frames per second, hence the term interlacing. So the master tape of Back To The Future that made your store bought VHS was at 480 lines of resolution (probably on 1" videotape stock) so of course the 1080 HD BluRay is better just on those specs alone disregarding digital mastering that is now used. Also back then films were transferred to video using specialized film projectors not high resolution film scanners we have now.

Now let’s discuss VHS itself. The format was devised as a compromise between cost and quality (Betamax was slightly better). The format could only record around 280 lines of resolution which was less than your higher quality consumer color television set that could show about 350 lines but it was considered acceptable. Many cheaper color sets could only display about the same as a VHS deck. A true 480 TV was considered pro equipment and cost a ton. SuperVHS could record a full 480 of luminance but not so much red and blue color information. In fact our HD television systems still use this technique to reduce bandwidth needs. The green channel is used for luminance information and has a higher bandwidth than the red or blue channels. VHS can playback in S-Video and it looks slightly better but you need a working SVHS deck to do it. Nobody made a VHS deck with S-Video connectors that I remember even though they could have easily. The circuit that combined the luminance and color information is called a comb filter and a savvy technician could have hacked around it in their VHS deck if they wanted to. NTSC is a hack in itself, it was a black and white standard with color information forced into the signal years after it was devised.

I know this because I lived thru it as a video producer and engineer.