Compared to modern disc and solid state players, VCRs were painfully slow to search. The makers competed to make them respond more quickly.
VHS VCRs became faster when they borrowed a trick from the Betamax system. Like Beta they laced the tape round the head drum when the cassette is first loaded, and did not unlace it until the eject button was pressed.
On the face of things ‘Instant Start’ should have meant premature head wear, because the abrasive tape is moving fast over the delicate heads while the tape is winding. So separate Tape Rewinders should be a must. The reality is rather different, but the manufacturers did a rotten job of telling consumers.
Mitsubishi and Akai were the first to make a VHS deck behave like Beta. In 1989 they added guide rollers that continually sensed the tape tension and adjusted their position to reduce pressure by 60 percent. This let the tape stay fully laced round the drum, and reduced start-up time to 0.7 seconds. It also let the VCR counter read time code from the tape.
JVC, inventors of the VHS system, then cooked up a simpler system called Half Load. Although the tape appears to remain tightly laced round the head drum during rewind, it is in fact backed off slightly to avoid head/tape contact. Sony’s Betamax VCRs played the same trick. But the company’s UK engineers had to check to find out.
Toshiba’s VCRs used the similar V3 system for instant start. Says a Toshiba technical engineer: “In ten years of the V3 we have had no consumer or trade complaints about premature head wear. In fact Toshiba’s VCRs were cited as most reliable by a recent Which? report. The issue of head wear is now purely academic”.