In the first of a regular feature on Crave, we're going to clear up the confusion on an upcoming technology, to let you know what it is, how to get it, and what it's going to cost you.
At the moment, high definition (or hi-def/HD) is something of an urban myth -- you hear lots about it but very few people have actually seen it, and so most people don't know what the fuss is about.
Let's get the technical stuff out of the way. The TV and DVDs you watch at the moment have 576 lines of resolution. It's okay, but you lose out on fine facial detail, backgrounds can be blurry and camera pans can reduce everything to a mass of solid colours. High definition, on the other hand, is anything that has 720 or 1080 lines of resolution. While this might not seem that much of a jump over 576 lines, the real-world difference is incredible, and the jump in detail is like removing a layer of Vaseline from your screen.
So how can you get some of this high-definition loveliness? All modern computers run a 'high-definition' resolution, so you can download some clips from Microsoft and DivX and see what all the fuss is about. But these are mostly film trailers and nature shows -- what we want is HD movies, sport and TV programmes! Thankfully, America has been riding the HD bandwagon since 1998, and most of its big TV shows are filmed in HD. This gives Sky access to a massive library of content from big shows such as 24 and The Sopranos, which it will start broadcasting in HD from the end of this year or in early 2006.
Technical details are still sketchy on 'Sky HD', but strong industry rumours suggest that the box will cost around £400, offer Sky Plus-style recording, and subscription will be about £10 on top of the usual costs. But the most important feature, and the one that's really shaken up the TV world, is that you'll need to have an HDMI or DVI input on your TV -- it's the only way Sky can stop you recording its precious programming. This is why we seriously urge anyone spending £2,000 on a TV to make sure it has a HDMI or DVI input (to complicate matters, there are two types of DVI, and it has to have HDCP -- High-Definition Content Protection). The easiest way to be sure? Check the specifications on our TV reviews, and if it says 'Sky High Definition Compatible' you know you're making a future-proof investment.
But it's not just Sky who's offering high definition. Sony and Toshiba are readying two rival disc formats: Blu-ray and HD-DVD. That's right, it's VHS versus Betamax all over again. So what do the two formats have going for each other? The ace up Sony's sleeve is the PlayStation 3, which will play Blu-ray discs out of the box. Some may remember that the PlayStation 2's support for DVD-Video was a massive catalyst for the market. The problem for Blu-ray is that movie studio support is looking smaller than HD-DVD, although Sony has a massive studio itself (Columbia Tristar) and a big supporter in the form of Disney. Expect movies like Spider-Man 2 and The Incredibles to be in the launch line-up.
HD-DVD, on the other hand, is very similar to existing DVD technology, except it has a much higher capacity. This means that existing manufacturing plants can make HD-DVDs, so the costs to software manufacturers will be greatly reduced. The plan seems to be that the first discs will be 'hybrids' -- one side of the DVD will be in the regular format, and the other side will contain the high-definition version of the film. This means that the upgrade path for most consumers won't be as painful. There's also support for HD-DVD from massive movie studios such as Warner Bros and Universal. Again, franchises such as Batman and Harry Potter will make HD-DVD very interesting to movie fans.
High definition is currently a massive headache, even for the people behind it all. Nobody wants another format war, so expect some sort of middle-ground to be met between Blu-ray and HD-DVD, even if it's on the software side. If you're really into your movies, it's the most exciting thing since DVD, and while it's going to be expensive to get up to speed, Crave will be on the front lines bringing you all the important facts first. -GC