VCR vs VHS: Whats The Difference? (with Pictures)

Most people throw around the terms VCR and VHS interchangeably, but they actually mean different things which can confuse some people.

So what do VCR and VHS mean? And what is the difference?

VHS is a type of videotape format, meaning the cassette that holds the videotape. VCR stands for Video Cassette Recorder, which is the machine or device that plays and records onto the tape. They are using interchangeably as VHS is the most popular videotape format, so the vast majority of VCRs play VHS tapes.

VCR vs VHS: The Difference Explained With Pictures

VCR and VHS are not the same things, they work together but are completely different.

What Does VHS Mean?

VHS stands for “Video Home System”, and is a videotape format that was developed by JVC in the late 70s and became extremely popular into the 80s and 90s.

There are many different types of videotape formats similar to VHS like 8mm. Hi8, Mini DV, and Betamax are based on the size of the cassette that holds the tape, the videotape width, and the type of data the tape is designed to play and record.

VHS Video Tape Format
This is a VHS Video Tape

If you ever went to a Blockbuster or video rental store back in the 80s or 90s you were renting VHS tapes.

In fact, anyone that lived through that period probably has dozens of VHS tapes still in their attic or basement that are either store-bought movies or blank tapes that were used to record TV shows and other events long before the DVR was invented.

What Does VCR Mean?

Now that we understand what VHS means, let’s explain what a VCR is:

A VCR is a machine that plays and records videotapes, the most popular type of VCR without a doubt plays and records VHS tapes. There are also VCRs that play other types of tapes like Betamax, 8mm, MiniDV, and other tape formats.

thrift store vcr
This is a VCR that plays VHS tapes

Most households back in the 70s, 80s, and 90s had a VHS VCR, meaning they played VHS tapes. You can even see on the front of the VCR that states “VHS” for the tape format.


Why VHS VCRs Are The Most Popular

The VHS VCR became dominant back in the 1980s, having “won” the format war with Sony Betamax for several reasons, one of them being the lower cost that allowed just about every household to have a VCR.

The power of the VHS VCR was not just that it could play back feature films rented from the video store, but that it allowed people to record live television and watch it later.

No longer did you miss a TV show and never see it again (remember there was no YouTube, no internet back then). Anyone that was skilled enough to set a clock on a VCR could even set a schedule and record their favorite shows.

In fact, my mother’s biggest fear was that the settings on her VCR would get screwed up if someone touched her TV and would break her recording schedule of the Oprah show every day.

Other Types of VCRs

Like I said previously there are other types of video tape VCRs. For example, I’ve owned 2 different 8mm video tape VCRs, one that played 8mm and one that played Hi8.

In fact, most airlines in the 80s had 8mm VCRs on them to play in-flight movies. The small size of the 8mm tapes vs the much larger VHS tapes allowed for more tapes to get easily stored on an airplane where storage is limited.

8mm to VHS Adapter
Hi8/8mm vs VHS tape size

Most other types of VCRs were not very popular, and were generally only purchased by more serious videographers looking to reduce wear and tear on their camcorders but using other playback devices.

Why VCR and VHS Are Often Confused

The terms VCR and VHS are often confused simply because VHS was the most popular videotape format that emerged out of the “format wars” back in the 70s when Betamax developed by Sony was vying against JVC and its VHS format.

Eventually, VHS won, not because it was the superior format, but in fact far from it. Books have been written about the format wars of the 70s and why Betamax being a far superior format lost the war.

Because VHS became so wildly popular it became synonymous with the device that played it, the VHS VCR.

Eventually, a smaller VHS tape format came out that was used in camcorders called VHS-C, C for compact, that allowed for the camcorder size to be reduced yet could be played in a regular VHS VCR with an adapter.

VCR vs VHS Summary

  • VHS is a videotape format, the cassette that holds the videotape
  • VCR is a machine that plays a videotape, the most popular version played VHS tapes
  • For more info on the history of VHS as well as the format wars with Sony’s Betamax see Wikipedia