HDTV - the hidden costs

The latest way for the square-eyed to spend money is on high definition television or HDTV. This is a new format which provides improved sound and picture and more widescreen broadcasts. Television signals broadcast in high definition have four to five times as much picture information than a standard television signal, resulting in sharper pictures. Think blades of grass on a football pitch and detailed faces of the crowd (yuck). They do this by packing in more horizontal lines on the screen. Existing standard definition TVs have 576 horizontal lines but HDTVs have between 720 and 1080 lines.

HDTV broadcasts can also include audio recorded in 5.1 surround sound and are also in widescreen - which is suited to films and sport broadcasts. The benefits only really start to become obvious with screens of 32 inches or more, so size really does matter.

As with many broadcast innovations, you cannot just sit back and wait for HDTV to arrive in your living room. More than 2.6 million UK households intend to sign up to HDTV within the next year, according to a study by comparison service uSwitch. But the research also revealed confusion and lack of understanding of its true cost and the equipment that was needed. More than 2 million households thought they already had HDTV and many others have been confusing digital television with HDTV.

To receive it, you will need an HDTV-ready set and a set-top box decoder to receive the HD signals. Compatible television sets range in price, size and features but start at around £500. They will no doubt come down in price as the new service takes off although many of the bigger, 1080-line, sets are not widely available in the UK yet.

HD sets will carry a black 'HD Ready' badge which indicates that they will support the signals and have the correct connector - called HDMI - making them ready for the next generation of games consoles and DVD players and recorders (HD-DVD and BluRay). They also have an in-built copy protector called HDCP.

So, you must shell-out for a new television set and probably a new DVD and PlayStation. Your existing set-top Freeview or Sky Plus box will also be redundant as these do not work with HDTV. Freeview is currently testing its replacement digital terrestrial service but due to limited bandwidth this is unlikely to be available until analogue services are switched off between 2008 and 2012.

Sky and Telewest are currently offering high-definition services and the necessary set-top kit. Prepare to pay additional costs - £10 a month extra on top of your existing Sky package plus a one-off fee of £299 for the set-top box. As an introductory offer, standard installation of Sky HD is free if you take a Sky HD subscription by the end of this month. But there has been such a huge influx of orders it has had to suspend installations for 17,000 homes which means you will get it eventually but perhaps not in time for the World Cup.

Telewest requires you to have a TV Drive set-top box, but there is no up-front fee for that. Subscribing to HD costs £10 per month extra for customers taking the company's top digital TV package, which is £17.50 a month, or £15 per month extra for other packages. The box is also a video recorder. However, Telewest does not offer Sky sports or movie channels, and will be starting with various dramas on BBC. It is also only available in certain areas.

The BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Five have teamed up to participate in the first HD broadcast trial this summer. The BBC is broadcasting its 2006 World Cup coverage and major Wimbledon matches in high definition this summer as part of the trial. The first live HD programme was the opening World Cup match between Germany and Costa Rica. Of course it's not just sports fans who will enjoy HD. Films and nature programmes will be greatly enhanced.

If you want to out-TV your neighbours then set your sights on Ultra-HDTV which is currently being developed in Japan. The resolution is stretched to a scary 4320 (instead of the 1080, currently the highest available). Of course, you will need to make room in your house for 22 surround speakers and the 400-inch television and prepare to pay for the electricity to run it - as much as the typical household uses in a month. I guess this will mean more security for your home to keep out the environmental protestors. The good news is that you will have about 20 years to save up to pay for it all.
Yes, yes. Me dear old Da bought a Betamax video. Twas technically the better system he said. He may even have been right. But everyone else bought VHS. In retrospect at least, in consequence, I spent less wasted time watching the goggle box then I might have done. Until this interweb thing came along. Shocking, shocking waste of time the interweb. Look at all the fine minds here which might be better focused on how to pour confusion on the Queen's Enemies. We are doomed...
Well, we won't have much choice in the HDTV matter soon. It's the choice between HD-DVD and Blu-Ray that's going to be the VHS/Betamax of our generation.

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