Short for Videocassette Recorder, now old technology used to supply video for personal use, allowing people to watch television programs they have recorded, and pre-recorded movies, most prominently in the VHS (Video Home System) format.
Videotape has been around since the 1950s, and the first cassette-based systems came out in the early 1970s (Sony's U-matic in 1971, Avco's Cartrivision and Philips' VCR in 1972), but it wasn't until 1975 that the first format to achieve any popularity, Betamax (a downsized, simplified version of U-matic), was introduced by Sony. JVC came out with VHS in 1976 in Japan, and RCA and Panasonic brought it to the US a year later; VHS became much more popular due to the 2 hour recording time (twice that of the first Betamax, courtesy of the considerably larger tapes) and lower price. Sony would retaliate with x2 (later named βII) and x3 (βIII), but Panasonic and RCA had created a 4-hour speed on their machine, and JVC introduced a 6-hour speed (EP/SLP), stopping there due to issues with quality and tracking. JVC also licensed the technology to many other companies (Magnavox, Sharp, Panasonic, RCA, GE, Emerson, etc.), which allowed for many more machines to be produced. Despite Beta's higher audio/video quality (250 lines vs. 240 lines) and the introduction of "Beta hi-fi" (copied by VHS with linear stereo, and then with "VHS hi-fi" which worked similarly to the Beta version, but recorded the signal onto the tape differently), their high price and shorter run time made Beta obsolete by the 90s. Rumor has it that Sony's refusal to allow porn films on their format is the main factor for Beta's failure in the 80s (as would be the case two decades later for Blu-Ray's victory over HD DVD).
While Betamax itself has been dead for years (Sony kept it on life support in Japan until 2002, but popular support for it elsewhere had evaporated a good decade before that), the professional Betacam variants of the format have remained in use well into the HD era, and are only now starting to be replaced with more modern Flash Memory and hard disk formats. As for VHS, its high-end formats (Super VHS, W-VHS and D-VHS (an HD VHS format)) never caught on the way Betacam did, and when the broadcast industry started switching to digital in the mid-1990s, they generally chose DV instead. U-matic, Beta's parent format, was never popular for home use, but saw a lot of usage in professional circles and in places like school libraries; it was eventually replaced in those roles by VHS (for educational and low-end commercial use) and Betacam.
For pre-recorded material such as films from Hollywood, it has all but been supplanted by the DVD player, but for people recording their own programs such as for time shifting (recording a show and viewing it later), the VCR was king through the 1980's to the 2000's. It was slowly supplanted by DVRs (such as TiVo and ReplayTV) and DVD recorders, many of which use special services which spoon out TV Guide-type schedule listings for the machines to automatically record programs with. It is still useful as a means for recording and keeping television programs however, whereas DVR and the like are far less permanent. Blank VHS tapes are an increasingly rare find these days but certain retail stores still carry them, more than likely produced by Maxell. The primary remaining stronghold of the VCR is the camcorder, in which hard disks and optical discs have proven too sensitive to rough handling and solid state storage costs far too much at videotape's 25GB+ capacities (though ever-dropping SDCard prices and dual-mode still picture/motion video digital cameras are threatening to make camcorders obsolete).
Another good reason to keep an old VCR around is old movies that you find at the thrift store for $1 or less. Sure you could probably download them if you wanted to, but if you're already going to a thrift store anyway, the impulse-buy convenience of it all is worth the dollar. (Not to mention that some of these are older titles, may have been controversially altered in later releases like the Star Wars original trilogy, and/or are so rare that they will never be made available on DVD.) That, and some movie companies have released special VHS editions of their films in the 2010s, particularly Retraux movies or those centering around VHS itself, like the 2009 Gorgon Video release of The House of the Devil, a limited-edition issue of Rewind This!, and special copies of...well, V/H/S. Alternatively, if you just want to play the tapes, there are devices available for only about $5 or so that are capable of playing cassette tapes, but don't have any recording capability. These are called VCPs, and some video-rental stores in the US, at least, used to rent them out alongside the tapes if you needed one.
Because VCRs were the first really popular video format, the first big video rental stores carried them. It was a minor Rite of Passage for teens and young adults in the 1980's and 1990's to spend a certain amount of time standing around the the video store with your friends trying to decide which movie you would rent and whose house it would be watched at. A common sticker on the tapes was "Be kind, rewind" in hopes that users would rewind the tapes so the next user could watch them straight from the beginning without having to rewind the tape first.
People usually fast-forwarded through the FBI Warning Screen, and the Coming Attractions, which is why often on DVDs you cannot skip, fast forward, or use the menu button during them. When Bonus Material was included (rare, but did happen), they usually followed after the main feature on the cassette. Because the magnetic recording and the physical tape wore with use (and rental videos had a lot of wear and tear), sometimes movies which had a sex scene or fanservice would get a little flaky there from people repeatedly rewinding the scene or having it paused there for a long time.
VCRs included a digital clock, which in many people's homes simply blinked "12:00" because no one could be bothered to figure out (or wanted to figure out) how to program it after hooking it up or after a power failure, because the clock wasn't necessary to watch movies - only to program when to record things. This became a common Stock Shtick for someone who was Hopeless with Tech.
Because of the large data storage capacity of VHS tapes, they were also occasionally used as the basis for computer data backup systems and one or two rare consoles. They were also instrumental in the development of the Compact Disc, which used a specially-modified U-matic recorder for master tapes because no one made a hard drive big enough at the time.
The VHS format is more remembered for its shortcomings rather than its merits, often portrayed as having terrible picture quality and easily becoming warped or being eaten up by the VCR. Early advertisements for DVD probably helped spread this perception (continued by ads for VHS-to-DVD transfer services who would have you believe your VHS tapes are rapidly withering away on the shelves), but it is in most cases unfair, as picture quality often depended on how clean the VCR was and on how well the cassette itself was stored and cared for. Many VHS tapes have survived from the 1980's to modern times relatively unscathed and with fairly decent picture quality, as uploads of old television programming to YouTube prove. Another thing to consider is that on pre-2000's square-shaped CRT televisions, VHS picture quality was much more passable than on a modern HD flatscreen TV; this was also the case for old video game systems. When first introduced, VHS tapes were given a conservative lifespan of 10-25 years, but depending on how a video cassette is stored and taken care of, it may exceed that estimate by a long shot. VHS tapes still haven't been around long enough to give a definitive life expectancy to. Interestingly, cassettes made in the 1980's were made from sturdier materials, and may ultimately exceed the lifespan of the cheaply-made ones that flooded the market in the late 1990's.
There were several higher quality versions of VHS (Beta also had a short-lived format in the mid-to-late 80s called Super Beta), S-VHS came about in the 80s and while it had better picture quality then a standard VHS, it never came close to VHS's success in rentals or player sales (though S-VHS players hung on until 2007), W-VHS was released in the mid-90s but it too failed to catch on, and its lack of success led to W-VHS players becoming notoriously hard to find today. D-VHS was a high-definition format introduced in 1998 supported by four major movie studios (Fox, Artisan, Universal, and DreamWorks) and it had far superior picture quality to DVDs at the time (some DVDs picture quality was barely better then VHS in the early years of its format), most films with D-VHS had a D-Theater label on the box, which meant those tapes could only be played on a VHS player with a D-Theater logo, some of those tapes also had DTS enhanced audio (though some D-VHS films with DTS bizarrely did not have the identifying DTS logo on the box), the format lasted until 2004, two years before a suitable replacement (Blu-ray) came out.
Also, the terms "VHS Player" and "VHS tape" are retronyms which came into use since the advent of DVD, as after the demise of Betamax they were more likely to be referred to in the common vernacular as a VCR, and video cassettes (or just tapes or videos) respectively. So remember that if writing a Period Piece set in The '80s or The '90s.
And finally, a bit of trivia:
- The first title on VHS and Betamax to be Copy Protected by Macrovision was the film, The Cotton Club in 1983.
- The first title to see release on VHS was the South Korean film The Young Teacher in 1976.
- The first major motion picture released on VHS in the US was Magnetic Video's release of Hello, Dolly! in 1977.
- The last major motion picture released on VHS in the US was Cars, which was exclusive to Disney Movie Club members. A History of Violence was the last to be sold commercially in the United States. In Japan, Ponyo was the last movie issued on VHS in 2009.
- However, in South Korea, the format continued to be used for movies until late 2010, with Inception being the final movie released on VHS over there, thus making Inception the final movie released on VHS.
- The final American VHS release that wasn't part of a marketing promotion was Go, Diego, Go!: Diego Saves Christmas!, released in October of 2006.
- The last VCR manufacturer, Funai of Japan, finally ceased production of VCR's in July 2016, citing a lack of sales and difficulty in finding parts. This marked the end of the 40 year lifespan of the VCR (barring any vinyl-like comeback of course).