High-definition television (HDTV) is pitched as the biggest revolution in TV since the change from black and white to colour in the late 1960s. As far as the industry is concerned, HDTV is poised to become a fixture in all homes, and is the future for TV and movies. A grand claim. But witness a demonstration in a high-street electronics store and you're very likely to be impressed - even taken aback - by the sheer clarity of the picture, which is more than four times more detailed than standard televisions.
And 2006 is set to be the year HDTV takes off. But what do you need to get up and running? And what about programme availability? Read on to find out...
HDTV vs STANDARD TV: WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE?
The difference between standard- and high-definition TV is in the pixels. HDTVs use either 720 or 1,080 visible rows of pixels (depending on the model), compared with the 576 used in traditional models. Besides improved clarity and definition, HDTVs offer more vivid colours and greater depth of field, bringing background scenes that would normally be blurred into focus. Improved picture quality is due to a number of elements: the way the footage is filmed, broadcast and shown on HDTV sets.
HD-READY TVs - A WISE INVESTMENT?
For James Atkins, marketing manager at consumer electronics maker LG, purchasing an HD-ready TV is a sensible move. "If you're planning to buy a new television, getting an HD-ready model will be kinder on the wallet in the long run because you will be future-proofing your purchase. You stand to get 10 years' use out of an HDTV, without having to worry about upgrading," he says. But he does admit that the HDTV market is a minefield.
"Some less reputable manufacturers are marketing sets as 'HD-compatible'. These will certainly play high-definition programmes, but they aren't real HDTV. The term consumers need to look out for is 'HD-ready', which denotes a genuine high-definition television."
Presuming you succeed in buying a bone fide HDTV, will it be a cinch to set up? "Absolutely," confirms Atkins. "HDTVs are very 'plug and play'. Everything is done for you. Plug in a DVD or set-top box and the devices will talk to each other and make the necessary configurations automatically."
ARE THERE ANY HIGH-DEFINITION PROGRAMMES TO WATCH?
Retailers report that a rush for televisions with the certified "HD-ready" sticker has begun (700,000 high-definition sets are estimated to be in use in the UK). Yet up until this month, when the cable giant Telewest became the first in Britain to roll out an HDTV service, there weren't any high-definition programmes to watch (unless you happened to be part of a pilot scheme). Even now, the only HD shows available from Telewest come from BBC Worldwide and include Blue Planet, Super Volcano and the docu-drama Pride.
But this shortage of HD content is not likely to last long. The BBC is planning to invest £700m in digital and HD broadcasting, and aims to produce all its programmes in HD format by 2010 - although it denies that this would make standard televisions obsolete. A Telewest added: "[We're] in talks with everyone you could think of to get more content. The pay-per-view film line-up will be announced in the next few weeks and we're hoping to have a channel of live HD by the end of the year."
WHO ARE THE HDTV SERVICE PROVIDERS?
Available now. Telewest's HDTV service is delivered via Teleport, its TV-on-demand service. You'll need a subscription to Telewest's TVDrive set-top box, which lets you pause live television. It also has hard-drive storage for 80 hours of standard-definition TV and three tuners to let you record from two channels while you watch a third. Cost: £10 per month if you take Telewest's top digital-TV package, £15 otherwise. See www.telewest.co.uk
Smarting after being pipped to the post by Telewest, Sky plans to launch its HDTV service in Britain and Ireland in late spring. Programming will include movies, arts and documentaries. Sports in HD will include live Barclays Premiership football and Guinness Premiership rugby union - plus exclusive coverage of domestic cricket. But the biggest draw is likely to be the BBC's coverage of the World Cup in June, which is due to be broadcast via the (soon-to-be-available) Sky HD set-top box.
To get up and running you'll need a Sky HD box and the relevant Sky HD, Sky Digital and Sky+ subscriptions. Prices and further details will be announced soon. For a preview of the picture quality you can expect from HDTV, go to www.sky.com/hd
IS IT EXPENSIVE?
Despite its programme packages costing more than £40 a month, Sky now has 8.1 million customers in the UK and is confident its HDTV offering will catch on. Sky's chief executive, James Murdoch, says: "Going out to the cinema is expensive, going out to a restaurant is expensive. We expect household spending on TV to grow."
HDTV FROM AN ACTOR'S PERSPECTIVE
While HDTV might soup-up the viewing experience, film stars are worried it will be an unforgiving medium that will highlight blemishes and (God forbid) wrinkles. According to a recent survey by Telewest and the National Association of Screen Makeup Artists and Hairdressers (Nasmah), one in three stars lie about their age - and due to HDTV are now in danger of being exposed. Of those petitioned, 75 per cent were most worried about the signs of ageing showing up, including wrinkles, crow's feet and liver spots. The second biggest concern (15 per cent) was skin blemishes such as spots, boils and blotches. Additional HDTV worries were thinning hair (7 per cent) and scars from surgery or accidents (3 per cent).
According to the association, the most likely to suffer would be ageing stars such as Joan Collins and Michael Douglas. But it also named Cameron Diaz, Brad Pitt and rock singer Bryan Adams as having less than perfect complexions, which could well prove a handicap on HDTV.
Keira Knightley is also expected to come off badly owing to her occasional outbreaks of pimples. Those who will come out looking good, however, include Johnny Depp (a veritable Dorian Gray at 42), Orlando Bloom, Kate Winslet and Scarlett Johansson - all of whom have close to immaculate skin complexions.
Sandra Exelby, chair of Nasmah and head of a new make-up school at Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire, which is developing techniques to shield stars from the more merciless effects of the new technology, says: "High-definition TV is so vivid it is like being there in person. Every flaw visible to the naked eye could be seen on the new [HDTV] services, unless make-up artists retrain in new techniques."
Crystal clear: the best sets
Philips 26" widescreen LCD flat TV, £690
Good budget model. Has a built-in tuner that lets you watch or record digital terrestrial TV (Freeview). Model: 26PF5520D; www.amazon.co.uk
LG 42" plasma TV, £1,350
This set features "image noise" removal that makes standard broadcasts sharper, but no built-in tuner. 42PX5D; www.johnlewis.com
Sony 32" flat-panel TV, £1,250
This compact, black HD-ready television offers vivid colour and sharp detail, and has a built-in digital tuner. KDLV32; http://froogle.google.co.uk
JVC 32" LCD widescreen TV, £919
This HD-ready TV offers sharp picture quality that will enhance standard broadcasts. It also pumps out a deep, 20-watt cinematic sound. LT-32DS6BJ; froogle.google.co.uk