The 3 video formats: Video8 (or 8mm), Hi8 and Digital8, are very similar physically. In all three cases, a length of 8 mm-wide magnetic tape is wound between two spools and held within a hard-shelled cassette measuring 95 x 62.5 x 15 mm. The main advantage of going small (these were the days of VHS and Betamax), is that the video camcorder itself could be shrunk. No more moms and dads lugging a brick in their travel suitcase. The new camcorders using Video8, Hi8 and Digital8 tapes could fit in the palm of your hands.
Video8 or 8mm tapes
Video8 was the first of the three formats, and is entirely analog. Sony introduced the 8 mm tape width to compete with the small form factor VHS-C compact camcorders introduced by the competition. It was followed by a version with improved resolution, Hi8. Although this was still analog, some professional Hi8 equipment could store additional digital-stereo PCM sound on a special reserved track.
Video quality comparison: Video8 and VHS/VHS-C offered similar performance in their “standard play” modes; all were rated at approximately 240 horizontal lines (depending on speed, quality of tape, and other factors).
Audio Quality Comparison: Video8 generally outperformed its older rivals. Standard VHS and Beta audio was recorded along a narrow linear track at the edge of the tape, where it was vulnerable to damage. Coupled with the slow horizontal tape speed, the sound was comparable with that of a low-quality audio cassette. By contrast, all Video8 machines used “audio frequency modulation” (AFM) to record sound along the same path as that of the video signal, which resulted in a far higher sound quality.
However, remember that the limitations of camcorder microphones at the time meant that there was little practical difference between the two AFM systems for camcorder usage. In general, Video8 comfortably outperformed non-HiFi VHS/Beta.
Hi8 Video Cassettes
To counter the introduction of the Super-VHS format, Sony introduced Video Hi8. Like SVHS, Hi8 used improved recorder electronics and media-formulation to increase picture detail. Hi8 equipment supported recording and playback of the older 8mm and Hi8 tapes but not the other way around.
Digital8 was introduced in 1999 and is the first to record in digital format. Digital8 uses the same cassettes as Video8, but otherwise bears no resemblance to the Video8 analog video system. Some Digital8 equipment can play (but not record) Hi8/Video8 recordings, but this is not a standard feature of Digital8 technology. To store the digitally-encoded audio/video on a standard Video8 cassette, the tape must be run at double the Hi8 speed. Thus a 120 minute Hi8 tape can only record 60 minutes of Digital8 video. The recorded format is entirely digital DV format (and thus very different from the analog Video8 and Hi8).
Lifespan of 8 mm Tapes
8 mm tapes should be stored vertically out of direct sunlight, in a dry, cool dust-free environment. As with any media, they will eventually deteriorate and lose their recorded contents over time, resulting in a build up of image noise and dropouts. Tapes older than 15 years may start to show signs of degradation. Amongst other problems, they can become sticky and jam playback units or become brittle and snap. Such problems will normally require professional attention.
However, the 8 mm format is no more prone to this than any other format. In fact, the metal particle technology (that’s what the MP on the tapes stand for) used with the Video8 formats is more durable than the metal evaporated (ME) type used with MiniDV.
Because 8 mm tapes use a metal formulation, they are harder to erase than the oxide tapes used with VHS, SVHS and Betamax tapes. As such, carefully stored, they are less susceptible to magnetic fields than the older formats.
All the same, the best time to convert your 8mm tapes, whether they are 8mm, Video8, Hi8 or Digital8 is… yesterday.