Disc wars

High-definition TV will be brilliant. But you'll need lots of new kit - and a format battle looms that will make VHS vs Betamax look like a mild spat. David Phelan checks out the contenders
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The Independent Online

So, you spent a fortune replacing your vinyl and tapes with CDs. Then you splashed out to upgrade from video to DVD. Then, when DVD became recordable, another format war broke out, reminding you of how you lost out when your Betamax machine was declared redundant in favour of VHS.

Well, it's all about to happen again, as electronics companies want you to replace your TV, disc player and recorder.

Next year, high-definition (HD) television arrives. Sky has said that, in 2006, it will start HD broadcasts, offering digital pictures and sound of much higher quality than conventional transmissions. Initially it's expected to be focused on sport broadcasts, but slowly, more programmes and movies will be transmitted in HD. To watch them, you'll need a TV that can do them justice.

The third part of the equation is how you store HD programmes. The capacity and resolution of VHS and DVD aren't up to the mark, and you'll need a high-definition disc. And as there are two types on offer, a format war is looming.

First, there's Blu-Ray, a system that uses a blue laser instead of red to allow five times as much data (25Gb) to be recorded on to a disc the same size as a DVD. Then there's HD-DVD, which also uses a blue laser but only crams 15Gb of data on to a standard disc. Both camps are working on higher capacities, with 50Gb Blu-Ray and 45Gb HD-DVD discs promised.

Both formats offer massively improved image and sound, so you just can't go back to DVD after watching an HD disc.

Format wars are worrying for everyone. When DVD-recordable discs were available on three incompatible platforms, consumers held back for fear of "buying the Betamax". The electronics firms found a way round this by building machines that would record and play on more than one format. With HD discs, the warring formats will need to sue for peace, or face a long battle for for market share.

Ben Feingold, the president of Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment (owned by Sony) believes that peace will come. "I think cooler heads will prevail. There are benefits to both formats if they get together."

Blu-Ray, on the face of it, looks the probable winner. One reason VHS defeated Betamax was that more companies backed it, even though the Sony-developed Betamax was more advanced. The group backing HD-DVD includes Toshiba and Sanyo, while Blu-Ray is endorsed by Panasonic, Sony, Hitachi, Philips, LG, Samsung, Thomson and more - not to mention the computer manufacturers Dell and HP.

But that's not what the Blu-Ray camp hopes is its killer blow. That came a couple of months ago, when Sony announced the specifications for its PlayStation 3 console. It included Blu-Ray compatibility, offering enormous capacity for games developers and allowing users to play Blu-Ray discs. The inclusion of DVD playback on the PlayStation 2 was a factor in the uptake of DVD, so perhaps the PS3, which will sell in very large numbers, very quickly, will do the same for Blu-Ray.

Until HD broadcasts are plentiful, a Blu-Ray player may be the best way to watch HD films, say. And, as Sony owns both Columbia Tristar and MGM, a substantial number of movies available on Blu-Ray may not be released on HD-DVD. Feingold, for one, believes that packaged media rather than HD broadcasts will lead the way.

Sony has reason to be confident about Blu-Ray in the UK. On 1 September, it launched the desirable PlayStation Portable, a hand-held games console with a big screen, which also plays movies on another new format, UMD.

UMD is proving successful in America. When the console launched there in April, some film studios were sceptical about releasing films for the platform. Now, every studio apart from Warner Bros has signed up.

Before Sony and company are given the prize, though, it should be noted that HD-DVD has advantages. First, the discs are a direct evolution of DVD rather than a new technology, so it is claimed that HD-DVDs will be much cheaper to produce, with disc manufacturers switching machinery to the new format with little difficulty.

Second, a hybrid disc is on the way, capable of holding 30Gb of HD data on one side and a regular DVD capacity on the other. So you can play the DVD content now, and when you do buy a new machine, you've already got the film in HD.

That's not an entirely convincing argument. The chance that this disc will be the same price as a regular DVD is low, so you'll be paying more just for DVD content. And when you do have the new HD player, you will probably never want to watch standard definition again.

The HD-DVD slogan that it's "evolution, not revolution" makes it sound like an interim technology, and the fact that HD-DVD isn't available as a recordable format from the start may not help.

Either way, next year you are going to be asked to upgrade most of your home audio-visual equipment in return for truly amazing picture and sound quality that will look realistic, rich and detailed and sound as impressive as if you are in the cinema. Start saving now.

HD - and why it matters

What makes high definition so great?

Just as DVD looks better than VHS because it has twice the resolution, so HD broadcasts and discs push the resolution further, with sharper, more realistic images full of detail and colour. The shimmering reds of video and jagged diagonal lines of regular TV are gone.

Suppose I'm happy with things as they are?

Fair enough, although it's only a matter of time before you'll be missing out. I mean, how long did you stick with black and white?

Will I need a new TV?

Yes.

I knew it! It's a conspiracy.

But flatscreens are plummeting in price, and many have digital Freeview boxes built in. They take up much less space, and HD will make them look better than conventional TV sets.

What will be broadcast in HD?

Sky has announced that next year the channels it will have in high definition at launch will be: a Sky Sports channel, Sky One, Artsworld, a Sky Box Office channel and two Sky Movies screens. Customers can register for Sky HD in Comet stores from now.

But if I buy all this stuff, won't there be another thing just around the corner?

Not for a bit. There are new kinds of TV on the horizon, such as SED, which will offer the brightness and detail of conventional TV but in large-screen flat monitors. Other than that, your new flatscreen, Blu-Ray or HD-DVD machine and HD hard-disk recorder, such as Sky+, should last you a long time.

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