Water or feather, foam or futon - what kind of bed offers the soundest sleep? Our panel considers five types
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IT IS OFTEN said that we spend more than a third of our lives in bed, for the most part asleep. Recent research shows, however, that bedroom usage has broadened. It now encompasses many other activities, such as watching television, eating, reading, even working. Some bed manufacturers, like the Dutch makers of the all-singing, all-dancing Komfortabel Royal, are keen to adapt their products to these changing needs. Others are rightly concerned with ergonomics and in particular the back problems that affect 60 per cent of adults.

What is good for the back remains a controversial issue among medical experts, so you can't buy on ergonomics alone. Choosing a new bed, therefore, depends largely on personal taste. Some simple points are crucial, however. Size is important, says Jessica Alexander of the Sleep Council, which represents bed manufacturers and retailers in the UK: "Too many couples restrict themselves to a 4ft 6in double bed, which gives each person 2ft 3in to sleep on - the same width as a baby's cot."


Because beds need to be tested consistently over a long period, we departed from our usual method. We spoke to long-term users of specific types of bed, as well as design experts and sales staff. They commented on five widely different types of product, and offered general tips on bed purchase.

Go shopping for your new bed early in the morning, they advised, when you are feeling relaxed; after a hard day at work, anything feels comfortable. Take off your outer clothes and turn over so you can feel all the contours of the mattress. Finally, don't skimp on the base; the quality and firmness of the divan makes the mattress feel completely different.

Prices given here are for regular double beds, but they are approximate; many versions are available from different manufacturers.


London Waterbed Company, pounds 450

The idea that gave rise to the first waterbeds remains sound: with a free flow mattress - literally a bag of water - the user is guaranteed total body support that doesn't restrict circulation or cause pressure points. Lying on a water mattress (which must be contained within a solid base) is akin to being immersed in a flotation tank, a sensation that appeals greatly to a minority. The London Waterbed Company has a board displaying dozens of letters from delighted customers praising this nightly form of hydrotherapy. The essential thermostatically controlled heating of the mattress (otherwise you would be lying on several hundredweight of freezing liquid) provides relief for rheumatism sufferers and its vinyl surface cannot be penetrated by dust mites. The myth of "seasickness" is never realised because once you settle down, the lack of pressure points means you turn much less in the night.

The public at large, however, remains sceptical. "Naff," was the word most often used by interviewees who had tried them - a response due in part to the unaesthetic bed surrounds, and in part to the supposed titillation factor. "It's hopeless trying to make love on them," said a former user who wished to remain nameless. "Your rhythm quickly gets out of synch with the waves in the bed and you have to move on to the floor."


Dunlopillo, Royal Sovereign model, pounds 1,750

Dunlopillo specialises in mattresses made from natural latex, which contains nothing that creates dust and, since tiny pores were introduced as an airing system, is not quite as warm as its detractors once claimed. It's no cheaper than some spring mattresses, but the major advantage is that you don't have to turn it to preserve its shape. We chose the Royal Sovereign as an example of a "zip-and-link" bed joined from separate mattresses and bases - an important dividing line for undisturbed sleep for couples, or a practical feature that allows you to split the bed for different guests. The headboards can be co-ordinated with your bedlinen, but they look cheap and nasty and destroy the point of having a really good bed.


The Natural Furniture Company, with adjustable metal frame, pounds 400

Inexpensive, space-saving and with minimalist appeal, futons are a traditional Japanese sleeping arrangement that adapt well to small flats. The Natural Furniture Company has improved on the original three-layer cotton filling, recommending a confection of two parts recycled wool to four parts cotton. The metal, "click-clack" action frame is more expensive than the folding pine ones, but it does furnish you with a good-looking sofa as well as a bed. Complaints about futons becoming compacted and lumpy with use are attributed to cheaper versions, but it is hard to be convinced that a mattress that is folded daily into a Z shape will not eventually sag at the folds. Donald Hudd, who used to live in Tokyo, said futons were only comfortable when they were used in conjunction with a tatami (crushed straw) mat, while a former owner, Jeremy Spooner, confessed that the "street cred" of these mattresses no longer impressed him. "It's like that sketch by Jack Dee, where he talks about jeans. When you're young you want the authentic sort that have been worn in the Wild West and are encrusted with real sweat and dirt. But when you're in your thirties, you just want to go down to Millett's and buy a nice comfy pair with elastic in the sides."


The Feather Bed Company, custom-made, pounds 375

Though it looks like a bargain, this feather bed comes without a base or a bedstead; for that you will pay extra (the model in our photograph, with a wrought-iron bedstead by Adrian Reynolds, costs pounds l,600). Notwithstanding the fairy tale about the Princess and the Pea, most of us have no idea what a feather bed is. Basically it is a large mattress densely filled with naturally curled duck feathers and down. The Devon-based Feather Bed Company is one of only two companies in Britain who make them. Fantastically soft and comforting in a child-like way, and similar to a waterbed in the all-enveloping support they give, feather beds should be turned each week. They are heavy to manoeuvre, according to Mrs Meheta, a recent purchaser, but easy to tweak at each corner in the mornings. They don't have any channels, as a duvet does, so the feathers are always evenly distributed. "It keeps my husband's feet cool, and mine warm," she adds, "though I don't really know why." Another deeply satisfied customer said, "The only problem is that it has turned my husband into a dormouse."


Royal Auping, Komfortabel Royal model, pounds 5,700

Surely the king of all modern beds, the multi-versatile Komfortabel Royal, which is made in Holland, knocks spots off all the British adjustable beds and removes the genre from the geriatric realm to that of the super- cool exec. Not only does it allow you to sit up, lie down, have your knees bent or raise your feet above your head, each bed is custom-made to fit not only the weight and height but also relative hip-to-knee measurements of the individuals sharing a double bed. The mattress (firm or soft, according to body weight) sits on a mesh base for maximum aeration and has internal, "intelligent" heating. That's to say, you can set the temperature with your hand-control panel so that, say, your feet only are warm. Ninety minutes after you get up, the heating comes on to air the bed automatically, killing all dust mites.

On quality and sheer opulence, this bed was our winner, but we had to mark it down on price. However, if you can raise the money, you may feel like proud new owner Christopher Biggins."I absolutely love it," he said. "It's changed my life." The only drawback for some is its starkly modern appearance; you can buy antique-style surrounds but that adds even more to the cost.


The London Waterbed Company (0171-935 1111); The Feather Bed Company (01884 821331); The Natural Furniture Company (0171-226 4477); Royal Auping (0171-935 37740). For stockists of Dunlopillo beds, phone 01423 872411; for Relyon beds, 01823 667501.