High-definition TV may be famed for its eye-popping clarity, but many consumers aren't receiving a clear picture on costs and what they'll get for their money.
For the uninitiated, HDTV is a high-quality broadcasting format in which a number of television programmes are now being made. When these are watched on an HD-ready television, viewers enjoy extra clarity and vivid colours. The effect is often compared with being a spectator at a live show.
An estimated 2.6 million households are expected to buy an HD-enabled TV set in the next 12 months, according to research from the consumer website uSwitch.com, but less than a quarter realise the true cost, which could be up to £1,900 in the first year.
"Until now, consumers have only been hearing about the benefits of HDTV from broadcasters, and much was made of the ability to watch the World Cup in high definition," says Chris Williams, digital TV product manager at uSwitch.
"However, as with all new technologies, there is a significant financial commitment involved [to get started] - and many people don't seem to be aware of it."
Adding to the inflated cost of an HD-ready television set, you will need to shell out for a set-top box to receive HD signals, have the equipment installed and then pay a monthly subscription charge.
On top of this, confusion still persists among consumers about what constitutes HDTV. In fact, programme packages are limited: an HD-ready set won't turn a normal episode of EastEnders into a superbly lifelike one.
Although you can barely move in high-street electronics stores for HDTV promotions, viewing figures for HD programmes remain low. Industry estimates suggest that only "tens of thousands" of users in the UK have actually signed up to the packages, compared with the two million sets so far purchased.
Prices for HD-enabled televisions vary from £400 to upwards of £3,500 for either a flat-screen liquid crystal display or plasma screen. (When buying a new set, check that it has the "HD ready" logo.)
The broader your screen, the more noticeable HD's extra quality is. The consumer organisation Which? recommends a diagonal screen size of at least 26 inches for maximum effect.
As far as set-top boxes and subscriptions are concerned, viewers currently have only two options: Sky or Telewest. As with their respective digital TV services, Sky operates via a satellite signal and Telewest via its cable network.
Sky's HD box has a one-off £299 fee plus £60 for installation. Viewers pay a £10 monthly subscription charge for 11 HD channels, including Sky Sports 1 and 2, Sky Box Office 1 and 2 (Sky's film offerings), National Geographic and the BBC's trial HD channel.
But the channels you end up receiving depend on your choice of Sky digital package, with prices ranging from £15 to £43.50 a month. If you've opted for a cheap package, you might be able to view only a few of the HD channels.
For example, if you had one of Sky's Entertainment digital packages, you would not qualify for the sports HD channels.
At Telewest, the set-top box is called the TVDrive - a personal video recorder and HD receiver in one. Unlike Sky, Telewest has no upfront charge. Customers pay an extra £15 per month on top of their normal TV package if they want to access HDTV channels.
"The cheapest way to get the set-top box from us would be to take a phone line [for £11 a month] and then pay £15 per month for TVDrive - a total of £26 per month including the phone call package service," says John Moorwood, spokesman for Telewest.
But content-wise, the company has fewer HD channels than Sky and doesn't offer the satellite broadcaster's popular sports channels. For films, it offers HD "video-on-demand", which includes a small selection of pay-per-view movies (costing £4 for 24 hours' "watching time") and popular series such as Lost. Its service is available only to Telewest homes (around five million in the UK). Despite the company's recent merger with ntl, HDTV from Telewest won't be rolled out to ntl areas until early next year.
"The way Telewest and Sky price their products is confusing and they could probably make it easier to compare packages," says Michael Briggs of Which?.
But for now, these two providers are the only options if you want HDTV.
"The HDTV signal takes up a lot of space on the broadcasting spectrum," adds Mr Briggs, "and until the analogue signal is turned off between 2008 and 2012, there is not enough space to run it on top of the services already provided by Sky and Telewest."
After the changeover, all viewers will get their TV via a digital signal, and there will be spare capacity on the spectrum. Many interested parties, including the BBC, would like HDTV broadcasting to be given much of this. But the spare airwaves could go instead to local digital television or be used to provide broadband wireless access.
The decision on how to allocate the spectrum after the analogue signal is turned off will be made by the communications regulator Ofcom; it is currently at consultation stage.Reuse content