High-definition films: the battle for our screens

The big names in entertainment are battling to bring us high-definition films. As rival discs go on sale, Elisa Bray investigates why both sides could lose

What's all the fuss about?

There are two new rival formats - HD DVD and Blu-ray. Both promise to bring us an unprecedented home-cinema experience. Discs can hold far more information than regular DVDs, and the increase in on-screen detail is said to be as impressive as was the leap from VHS videotape to DVD.

So where's the catch?

Both Blu-ray and HD DVD machines will play your current collection of DVDs. But the formats are not compatible with each other, and it is likely that only one will become the dominant force. If you buy a Blu-ray machine and HD DVD wins the battle, you will have wasted a lot of money - and vice versa.

Surely the best will win?

Not necessarily. Technically, Blu-ray is stronger; its discs store five times more information than standard DVDs, while HD DVDs store three times more. More space means better picture and sound quality and more features. But we know from the 1980s battle between Sony and JVC over the video cassette formats Betamax and VHS that it's not always the best technical format that wins. Sony's Betamax was superior, with better picture and sound, but availability and price were more important. The less sophisticated option - VHS - won.

So what will be the deciding factors this time?

Samsung's Blu-ray player may be the first high-definition player on the UK market, gaining a start in the run-up to Christmas. It will get a boost when PlayStation 3 is launched; the games console will act as a Blu-ray player (though that date has slipped from November to March 2007). But it is simpler and cheaper to make HD DVD players, and the machines are less than half the price of a Samsung Blu-ray player.

One deciding factor may be the porn industry, which played a major role in deciding the videotape battle in favour of VHS. Microsoft will affect the issue when it offers its Xbox 360 games console with a built-in HD DVD player next month.

Who's backing whom?

In the Blu-ray corner are the consumer electronics giants Samsung, Sony, Panasonic, Philips, Pioneer, Sharp and JVC, plus computer manufacturers Apple and Dell. Samsung claims that more than 80 per cent of Hollywood studios are supporting Blu-ray, including Disney, Twentieth Century Fox, Sony Pictures and Buena Vista. Next month you will be able to buy Twentieth Century titles including Ice Age, Kingdom of Heaven, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, The Omen, Behind Enemy Lines and Fantastic Four.

In HD DVD's corner are Toshiba, NEC, Microsoft and Intel. Behind them are some European studios, plus Universal, which is releasing titles including King Kong, Jarhead, Doom, The Bourne Supremacy, Serenity and Apollo 13.

So far, only Warner Bros is releasing films in both formats.

Why can't they make a player that works with both formats?

Both systems use blue lasers (rather than red), which are higher frequency and extract more information, but that's where similarities end. The makers claim that dual players would be too expensive to produce. The competition may be in fact be motivated by the lure of greater profits for those who back the eventual winner.

Is there hope for a sensible solution for consumers?

Surprisingly, yes. The British company New Medium Enterprises (NME) has found a way to make cheap multilayered discs that can hold a film in both rival formats. The manufacturing cost is only 50 per cent higher than the cost of a single-layer playback DVD. NME hopes studios will put a film on one disc in both formats instead of releasing the title twice. Consumers needn't worry that they're buying the right disc, or feel restricted by the titles on offer.

So which player should I buy?

There's a simpler way to look at this; unless you have a 42in or bigger high-definition TV, you may not want to bother. Adam Vaughan, the online editor at Stuff magazine, says: "For people who have such a big TV, then yes, there's a reason for getting one of the new players. But most people have a 32in TV at most, and DVD looks fine on that."

Anyway, the next-generation players could be bypassed for an altogether different Next Big Thing. "I don't think either of these formats will win, as such," Vaughan says. "High definition looks great, but for most people it's hard to see why they should buy a new piece of hardware and movie collection. Internet video will catch on instead. People value convenience over performance. Five years ago, Super Audio CDsand DVD-Audio came along. Sound quality was better, but people went for MP3s; the sound was worse, but you can download songs easily and have thousands in your pocket. It was convenient; it boils down to that."

Rival machines

* Samsung is launching Britain's first high-definition DVD player. Samsung's Blu-ray BD-P1000 player (above) will be available from next Monday for £999 at Currys, Comet and JLP on the high street, as well as from Amazon and play.com.

* Toshiba will follow with its rival HD DVD machine, launching its HD-E1 player in November, at about £450. The more advanced HD-XE1 will follow in early December, at about £600. Comet, John Lewis, Amazon and Dixons will stock both players.

* Panasonic is bringing out its DMP-BD10 Blu-ray DiscTM player by the end of this month for £1,299, from its own stores.