How to identify VHS tape types

If you suspect you don’t have a standard VHS, then this blog post will help put you on the path to figuring out which VHS tapes you own and how to go about playing them successfully – or better yet, how to go about digitising them.

Do I have a Standard VHS?

So what is the standard VHS format? Well, there's no easy answer to this question because the “standard VHS” for one country might not be the same for another. And what might look like a standard VHS could be an S-VHS or D-VHS hiding in plain sight.

There are 2 key questions that must be answered when identifying any VHS:

  1. What region is it from? (Is it PAL or NTSC?)
  2. What format is it built in? (e.g. S-VHS, VHS-C)

For UK viewers, the most common VHS was the VHS PAL and is compatible with the garden variety VCRs produced in the UK during the 80s and 90s. The standard for UK video tapes or VHS tapes, were encoded with the PAL system. PAL system was normal for UK broadcasting at the time and was designed for the domestic electric current output of UK households, as compared with the NTSC system that was used in other parts of the world. You can read more about the difference between PAL and NTSC further down. UK VCRs are generally only capable of playing tapes encoded in PAL.

As for the format, the standard VHS is more easily denoted by its differences to the variations that came about after its introduction. Characteristics of the standard VHS include:

  1. Resolution: 240 scan lines – Each line represents a string of image data. Higher resolution VHS tapes have more scan lines. VHS tapes have fewer scan lines than PAL TVs (625 scan lines) so had lower image quality than what people watched on broadcast television.
  2. Run Time: ~2 hours – Although longer and shorter run times were possible, most standard video tapes had about 120-160 minutes recording time.
  3. Dimensions: 18.7 x 10.2 cm x 2.5 cm – The standard VHS is bigger than its contemporary competitor, Betamax. VHS-C tapes are about a third of the size of standard VHS tapes.

Beyond Standard VHS

VHS-C

  1. Resolution: 240 scan lines – same as standard VHS
  2. Run Time: 30-60 minutes – significantly less than standard VHS
  3. Dimensions: 9.2 × 5.8 × 2 cm – about a third in size compared to standard VHS

The key identifier of a VHS-C is its small size. VHS stands for Video Home System. The “C” on the end stands for Compact. The VHS-C is smaller, about a third of the size of a VHS tape.

The compact version was invented with the intention of making home recording equipment smaller and cheaper for the average consumer. They were also designed to be compatible with a standard VCR with the aid of a simple adapter. However, the costs of buying a new purpose-built camcorder and adapter were discouraging for some consumers, limiting their commercial success.

Stack of 3 VHS-C tapes on a wooden surface.

VHS-C cassette tapes were primarily used for commercially sold camcorders and its main competitor on the market was Video8 tapes. Video8 tapes were even smaller than VHS-C tapes so great for portability but were not compatible with standard home VCRs. It was the compatibility with VCRs that made VHS-C tapes a better alternative to Video8 – but only for a short time. 

Like many tapes and cassettes being produced in the 80s and 90s, VHS-C tapes were overtaken by formats with longer run times, better quality images and versatility. VHS-C tapes could only record 30-60 minutes of footage, while Video8 and Hi8 tapes could do more than 2 hours. The audio for VHS-C and VHS tapes continued to be recorded with analogue methods, unlike Hi8 and Video8 which used digital audio recording. So audio quality was less but some still favoured the VHS-C over Hi8 and Video8 for the sake of ease of playback with home VCR.

S-VHS

  1. Resolution: 400 scan lines – Lots more scan lines than standard VHS (240), so higher resolution.
  2. Run Time: up to 3 hours – Slightly longer than standard VHS.
  3. Dimensions: 18.7 x 10.2 cm x 2.5 cm – Same measurements as standard VHS.

The key identifier of S-VHS is an additional hole on the bottom of the tape. Other than this they are almost identical to standard VHS. Go to the D-VHS section to see a helpful image that tells S-VHS, D-VHS and standard VHS apart.

S-VHS stands for Super-VHS. What makes it super? Standard VHS colour was lower in quality than standard broadcast TV of the era, while Super-VHS was superior to both. This better image quality is thanks to 2 main differences:

1. The standard VHS used 240 scan lines on the tape while the S-VHS used 400 lines which gave the tape improved capacity and therefore image quality.

2. S-VHS recorded the luminance (light levels) and chrominance (colour) separately. Standard VHS mixed these signals together so the clarity of the output image suffers.

S-VHS tapes will not play on the majority of standard tape decks, as an additional output is required for the split colour and luminance signals. On the other hand, you can play a standard VCR on an S-VHS tape player; but it won’t improve the quality of the standard VHS.

Identifying an S-VHS tape is difficult. Just to make it even more confusing, further variations on the S-VHS format were introduced including the compact form known as S-VHS-C and S-VHS-ET, standing for expansion technology. As with the VHS-C, the Super-VHS-C aimed to be more portable and offer greater resolution than than other popular camcorder tapes like Video8 and Hi8. The S-VHS-ET was an attempt to create greater compatibility with standard VHS players and tapes.

D-VHS

  1. Resolution: 1080 scan lines – The digital recording meant room for lots more data and higher resolution images.
  2. Run Time: up to 4 hours – Longer than both standard VHS and S-VHS.
  3. Dimensions: 18.7 x 10.2 cm x 2.5 cm – Same measurements as standard VHS.

The key identifier of D-VHS is two additional holes on the bottom of the tape. 

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Data-VHS or Digital-VHS was the last VHS format to arrive in 1998, shortly before the extinction of the VHS format altogether. The D-VHS was recorded digitally onto the analogue tape. This digital recording meant that D-VHS tapes were wholly incompatible with analogue VCRs. The only way to playback a D-VHS is with a VCR designed specifically for the purpose.

As with every iteration of VHS, the D-VHS exceeded the quality of the formats that came before. Images were better quality and but the tapes more expensive. The biggest advantage of this digital recording was the ability to encrypt data. Sadly though, the D-VHS did not gain public traction before going into disuse and being replaced with fully digital alternatives.

VHS by Region: PAL vs. NTSC

So if you’ve got your head about VHS-C, S-VHS and D-VHS then you may be looking at VHS PAL and VHS NTSC and wondering what on earth is going on now. How many more cassette tapes are there?

VHS PAL tapes were the newer, hotter competitor to VHS NTSC. PAL tapes were the popular choice across Europe and Australia while NTSC tapes were the standard across the pond in the US and parts of South America and Asia. This geographical division meant that VCRs sold in each region were designed specifically for the prevailing technology and so are not interchangeable.

Similar to the modern use of DVDs with zoned areas, a VHS NTSC won’t play well (if at all) on a European VCR built for VHS PAL. The reverse is also true for PAL VHS being played on an American or Asian VCR designed for VHS NTSC.

Is VHS NTSC better than VHS PAL?

NTSC tapes did have a faster frame rate, meaning that video quality was smoother, but PAL tapes arrived about a decade later and had the benefit of advanced technology.

PAL tapes claim a higher resolution. PAL stands for Phase Alternating Line and as the name indicates, VHS PAL had additional scan lines that upped the image quality. The aspect ratio went from 720×480 (NTSC) to 720×576 (PAL).

PAL tapes also arrived after the advent of colour television. PAL VHS tapes were built to handle colour and could automatically colour-correct while NTSC tapes were not.

Why is there a geographical divide?

The standard AC current in America is 60Hz, while Europe usually runs at 50Hz. This difference in electrical output led to innovations that would better optimise the broadcast quality for the region. As a result, there is a difference in frame rate. VHS NTSC, invented in the US, runs at about 30 frames per second while PAL, invented by the Germans, runs at 25fps.

This regional restriction of usage continues today. Modern viewing formats and streaming services limit viewing in different areas as a way of enforcing copyright law and making video piracy more difficult.

How can you tell if your VHS is PAL or NTSC?

The majority of VHS tapes in storage across the UK will be PAL. It’s rare for us to come across NTSC VHS tapes in our digitisation lab, but it is something we get asked about regularly. We can digitise NTSC tapes just like any other VHS tape, but if you’re trying to figure out what you’ve got yourself, the best bet is with trial and error: try playing your VHS tape in different VCRs and see which one it plays back best on.

It's not a foolproof approach though and it requires lots of different VCRs. Some VHS formats will play ok on a VCR it wasn’t specifically designed for while others won’t at all. Colour and sound reproduction gets thrown off if they aren’t fully compatible. But then it could just be that the VHS tape is deteriorating anyway, so knowing the exact cause is difficult.

You could save yourself the trouble of trying to identify which flavour of VHS tape you have or trying to pin down the right VCR to play them back on by digitising them and converting to a more easily viewed DVD or USB memory stick.

Other geographically specific VHS tapes:

VHS NTSC-J – Japan

VHS NTSC-J was manufactured almost exclusively in Japan. The key difference was the black levels in the image and so may appear darker if not played on a compatible VCR.

VHS PAL-M – Brazil

VHS PAL-M tapes were the Brazilian equivalent. The PAL-M system utilised the more up-to-date colour correction technology of the PAL system combined with the frame rate expected of NTSC and has an almost identical signal to NTSC too.

VHS SECAM

SECAM was yet another variation on VHS encoding. It stands for Sequential Colour and Memory and was brought to market as an improvement on colour reproduction. SECAM was a French invention which became dominant in France and in French-speaking countries across Africa. Parts of Asia and Eastern Europe also used SECAM as well as PAL. PAL VCRs can play SECAM VHS tapes relatively well.

What type of VCR do I need to play back my VHS tape?

When you realise just how many kinds of VHS were being produced during the 80s, you can see how it became an absolute quagmire of technological obsolescence and incompatibility.

No standard VCR is capable of playing back every VHS format. Many were incredibly specific although there was some crossover with compatibility.

This table should help give you an idea of which VCR you need to playback a VHS, although it was dependent on the manufacturer so this list isn’t entirely foolproof unfortunately.

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