Mark Harris
HIGH TIME FOR A CHANGE, 20 February 2006

HD is coming - are you ready for the next video revolution?
New technology promises pin-sharp images and more vivid colours, says Mark Harris

Think back nearly 40 years to 1967, to a world without mobile phones, home computers, DVD recorders, games consoles or digital cameras. In the middle of this technological Stone Age, BBC2 broadcast the very first colour TV signals from Wimbledon. Things haven’t moved on much in four decades – widescreen and stereo sound aside, we’re watching pretty much the same broadcasts as our parents did when they saw Australian John Newcombe seize the Men’s Single title that year.

Now that’s all set to change, with the arrival of High Definition (HD) television and video. HD is a completely new way of showing moving pictures, containing up to four times the information of traditional broadcasts. This means incredibly clear, sharp images, brighter colours and often surround sound, too. With HD, you can see individual blades of grass on a football pitch and even, to the dismay of some movie stars, every wrinkle in actors’ faces.

HD is more than just a new television format: everything you connect to your TV will change, too. Ultra-realistic gaming, pin-sharp video discs and computer link-ups are just around the corner, enabling you to turn your living room telly into a high resolution multimedia centre.

So what will you need to step into the bright new world of HD? A healthy bank balance for a start. Because HD is such a technical leap forward, virtually none the audio-visual equipment you’re using today is up to the job. To enjoy HD at its best, you’ll need three things to come together: a high resolution display capable of showing HD footage; a receiver or player that can decode and transfer HD content; and some HD-quality material to watch in the first place.

The first thing to think about is a HD display. Although HD-compatible cathode ray tube (old-fashioned glass) TVs are possible, by far the most popular way of watching HD shows will be on new LCD or plasma flatscreens. Dixons intends to stop selling boxy cathode ray TVs by the end of the year anyway, so shop around for a flatscreen TV carrying the ‘HD Ready’ label. This means it can show either of the two main HD formats – 720p or 1080i (see Jargon Buster for explanation) – and has the right kind of digital connectors to accept HD signals.

Next you’ll need HD-capable devices. Think of everything you currently plug into your TV: Freeview and satellite digiboxes, DVD and video recorders, camcorders and games consoles. All of these will need to be able to handle HD - and luckily some of them already can. All games on Microsoft’s new Xbox 360 console can be played in glorious HD resolution, HD camcorders are starting to appear and many DVD players can now ‘upscale’ normal films to look better on high quality HD screens.

Finally, you’ll want something to watch. Although many production companies are recording TV shows in HD, there are no national HD broadcasts at the moment. Cable and satellite companies will be the first to offer HD channels, probably by the summer, but don’t hold your breath for terrestrial transmissions to normal roof-top aerials. The main five channels will be too busy moving viewers from analogue to digital (Freeview) TV to spend much time worrying about HD, at least for the next five years.

The next generation of movie disc players aren’t quite here yet either, although you can already download HD trailers and video clips from websites. By the end of the year, advanced Blu-ray or HD-DVD players will arrive to oust DVD and you should soon even be able to watch HD movies on demand through high speed broadband internet links. And even if you don’t intend to switch to HD as soon as its arrives, choosing the right TV or DVD player now will make it much easier to upgrade later on.

Next gen gadgets

High Definition technology might be in its infancy now, but HD will soon find its way into almost every electronic gadget you own – perhaps even your mobile!

Sony boss Howard Stringer predicts: “High Definition will be at the centre of the digital living room. That’s why we’re increasing the percentage of Sony products supporting HD from a third today, up to three quarters by 2007.”

Sony’s bid for HD dominance begins with the PlayStation 3, due here in the autumn. If you’re expecting just another games console with slightly better graphics and more expensive games, think again. From the moment it was conceived, the PS3 was designed with HD in mind. It uses high capacity Blu-ray optical discs, has two HD connectors and will be able to work in resolutions up to 1080p – the highest video quality yet. It will also have wireless gaming, PC networking and Bluetooth links built-in.

Early reports suggest the graphics are even better than the Xbox 360, although what the games will be like are anyone’s guess – although it’s pretty safe to say they’ll cost more than today’s titles.

Digital photography is jumping on the HD bandwagon too, with the five megapixel Sanyo Xacti HD-1 camera-corder, expected in April. As well as high resolution stills photos, it can capture 720p HD footage through a 10x zoom lens. Because it uses the memory-efficient MPEG-4 video format, you’ll be able to squeeze about 20 minutes of video on the 1Gb memory card supplied, although films won’t be quite as sharp or colourful as broadcast HD.

Even mobile phones could muscle in on the HD action. Samsung and NEC are already trialling 4G phones that can download data 10 times faster than today’s 3G handsets – and with a theoretical maximum speed that’s more than fast enough to stream the best quality HD video straight to your phone. Then you’ll just have to find room for a 42-inch plasma screen in your commuting bag…

Major broadcasters are tuning in to HD – slowly

Filling your house with the latest High Definition kit is one thing, having something to watch on it is another. The good news is that HD programs are already available in the UK – but the bad news is that they’re currently limited to just a lucky handful of Telewest cable TV subscribers. Around 500 households are using a new TVDrive digibox to download a selection of HD shows on a pay-per-view basis. Telewest is hoping to roll out the service nationwide by the end of March, with the TVDrive (which can also pause live TV and record up to 80 hours of programmes) costing around £15 a month.

The BBC will be running its own HD trials from the summer, with some BBC channels on satellite and cable being available in both HD and normal quality. The BBC is already shooting some programmes (such as Bleak House, Hotel Babylon and Planet Earth) in HD, and aims to move all production to HD by 2010.

Unfortunately, there simply isn’t space for HD broadcasts on terrestrial television until the old analogue channels are finally switched off, between 2008 and 2012. Until then, the BBC is making a few HD programmes available to download to a PC via its online iMP (integrated media player), although this is also a limited trial for now.

The biggest HD player this year is going to be Sky. Sky has committed to launching a spread of HD programming in the spring, including two Sky Movie channels, pay-per-view Box Office flicks and HD versions of Sky One, Artsworld, Discovery and National Geographic channels.

But the jewel in Sky’s HD crown will be Sky Sports HD. Premiership football and rugby union are already being produced in HD, with 5.1 surround sound, and cricket is next in line. And with all eyes on Germany this summer for the World Cup, Sky will almost certainly broadcast at least some matches in HD, catapulting you into the action with high resolution close-ups, surround sound chanting from the crowd and advanced interactive features. Whether the England players go all the way to World Cup glory or suffer their usual difficulties with penalty shoot-offs, with HD you’ll be able to pixel-perfect pictures of every dramatic moment.

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