Your guide to high-def entertainment PART I

Looking to get some new kit in the January sales? There are new formats of DVD (which do you need, Blu-ray or HD?) and new TV specs (LCD, plasma, argh!) to watch it all on. Why does it have to be so hard? All you wanna do is watch some sci-fi! In case you're finding it all a little baffling, our chums over on sister mag DVD Review have provided an in-depth guide to the latest technologies.

PART I – HIGH-DEF TELLY [you’re reading it!]
PART II – DVDs (BLU-RAY AND HD) [next week]

HD FLATSCREEN TV

Let’s get one thing straight: in the world of high-definition, big is better. And to start with, the TV that’s most likely sitting in your lounge right now, your trusty old Cathode Ray Tube, is big in all the wrong ways. Decent pictures? Maybe, but the old chap just isn’t designed for the expansive vistas of hi-def. It has to be seen to be believed: once you add luxuriant, full-fat, high-definition visuals to the mix, your movies and television programmes are simply better. In fact, with four times – that’s right, four times – the resolution of regular telly, you’ll think you’re in the actual Serengeti or that Jack Bauer really is pointing that gun at you.

The extra detail that the jump in resolution gives you blows standard definition telly out of its oversized casing. And once you get a taste for it, you’ll never look back. But it’s not just about how many pixels you’re packing. Hi-def also means richer colours and deeper, darker blacks that add another dimension to your old favourites. Just spin the HD Batman Begins disc to see the world of the Dark Knight expand in richness, with the shadows themselves somehow adding to the story. And that’s before we’ve even mentioned the HD goodies being beamed at your receiver by the likes of Sky and Virgin Media, with sport, movies and your favourite TV in mind-blowing HD. Don’t let the anally-retentive types counting lines of horizontal resolution put you off – if you’re serious about your setup and ruthless in your quest for superior viewing quality, the time to upgrade your screen to hi-def is now. Big is back in style, and it’s looking better than ever.

FIVE REASONS WHY YOU NEED HD TV...

1/ Lean screens - flat means greater screen area without filling up your front room with a big black box. It also means you simply hook a 42-inch bad boy up to a rumbling sound system and you’ve got instant Odeon in your lounge.

2/ Stay neutral - invest in an HD TV and you are future-proofed for hi-def, no matter who wins the DVD format punch-up.

3/ Picture power - it really only takes a few seconds in front of Pirates of the Caribbean on Blu-ray to get the message: with rich colours and more screen thrills than Captain Jack’s buckle and swash, HD makes regular TV walk the plank.

4/ Top TV - the US started off with just a handful of HD channels, and now there are well over 200. It won’t be long before the UK catches up, with some great broadcast content on offer. Soon, the best content will all be HD, and you don't want to miss out.

5/ DVD 2.0 - don’t worry: with the right kit there’s no need to dump your old discs. With an upscaling DVD player you can output a signal to an HD TV that will make your current discs look the business. More on this stuff later.

SO WHAT DO I DO?

You want in on the hi-def party. Follow these easy steps and you’re ready to ascend to HD heaven...

a/ Cash is your first and most important consideration. HD can be a serious investment, so check your budget and work out just what you can get your filthy mitts on. And don’t forget to shop around. The cost of flat screen TVs is plummeting, and the online tech supermarket is a bargain-hunter’s paradise.

b/ Don’t even think about buying a TV without the HD Ready badge. There’s a rigorous testing procedure before it makes the grade, and only certified screens will serve up the different HD standards (720p, 1080i and the daddy, 1080p) for your hi-def viewing pleasure.

c/ The uninitiated will find the differing HD standards a minefield. If the wallet will allow it go for 1080p, also known as Full HD, which turns in stunning detail and a flicker-free performance.

d/ Obviously, the bigger the better, but a lot depends on your finances, your front room and in some cases, who else lives in your house. A 37-inch screen is a good compromise, offering a cinematic experience without turning your living space into a small but well-stocked electronics retailer. However, some mentalists still insist on the totally immersive 60-inch-plus set-ups.

e/ Connectivity! HDMI is where the smart money goes nowadays. It stands for High Definition Multimedia Interface, and is basically a digital SCART, transmitting both images and sound digitally from your source to screen. Bag a set with at least two sockets – one for your disc player and another for a receiver or a games console.

f/ Flat screens are kitted out with TV tuners, offering free-to-air digital TV. However, you'll want to couple your new slimline TV with a decent next-generation DVD player, HD broadcast or on-demand service to make the most of your shiny new HD window. More on this later.

g/ With such a serious TV taking pride of place in your lounge, invest in a proper stand to house all your kit. Fancy Dans may want to wall-mount for optimum cool. Be warned though, these may well take a chunk out of your budget. Not to mention your wall...

h/ High definition isn’t just about pretty pictures – a lot of time has been put into making the audio part of the equation sound better than ever before. Although built-in audio is okay, you should make sure you get nothing but the best for your new screen – couple it with a surround-sound set-up for rocking results.

LCD vs PLASMA

You’re ready to make the leap to HD! But there are two paths to choose from when it comes to HD TV – make the proper choice for your pixel pleasure...

LCD
LCD televisions tend to be lighter (in weight) than plasma screens, use less energy and have a longer lifespan, making them a more environmentally sound investment. They are also usually brighter than plasma ones, so are a lot better for watching in daylight. And as they’re easier on the eyes, they’re a good bet if you tend to sit in front of the box for hours and hours on end – which means they’re perfect for that Battlestar Galactica all-nighter.

LCDs are getting better all the time. But there are still a few quibbles. The blacks aren’t as heavy and viewing angles are more restricted than plasma, and they’re generally pricier, despite recent developments to make LCD more affordable at the larger end of the scale. But if there’s just no way you’ll sneak anything bigger than a 32-inch screen into the house, plump for the slightly more discreet LCD technology.

BUY AN LCD IF...

You like animation
The striking colours produced by LCD screens are spot on for watching the likes of Shrek and The Incredibles.

You want a small screen
You’ve really no choice here. If you want 32 inches or below, LCD is the only option. This isn’t a bad thing, because at this size some of the issues of the picture technology cease to be a problem.

You watch TV with all the lights on
If you’re in the market for a direct replacement for your old CRT workhorse then LCD has a lot to offer. The extra brightness it puts out make it much easier to watch without the curtains pulled, and the experience is a lot less tiresome on the eyes.

PLASMA

Plasma TVs actually go way back, first making an appearance in the ’60s. But the technology only really made it out of the lab and into our homes three decades later, when the screens became the preserve of overpaid footballers. Although the cost of LCD screens has come down by quite a bit in recent years, it’s still true to say that for any given screen size a plasma box will cost less than a similarly sized LCD. This means that if you’re looking for big-screen action, plasma could well be the prudent choice.

One other area where plasma beats LCD is in black reproduction. Plasma pixels can be set to emit no light at all, so offer levels of actual blackness, as opposed to a very dark grey. They also tend to be better when it comes to the high-octane stuff, delivering fast movement with few onscreen gaffes. There are downsides too, though. Flicker is a problem with plasma screens and if you are the kind of person who watches one channel continuously the effect of ‘screen burn’ can be a real problem, especially with the prevalence of those annoying channel logos in the corners of screens...

BUY A PLASMA IF...

You like dark movies
If you are fan of moody epics, plasma is the one for you. Its deep blacks allow you to enjoy the action without constantly tutting at the intrusive grey edges.

You want more for less
Who doesn’t want to get the most for their money? Plasma screens generally offer a significantly better inch-to-pound ratio than LCD.

You live in a big house
Plasma screens tend to start at 42 inches and go up to 60 and above. So you’ll need space between you and the screen to avoid blowing your mind and getting massive brain-aches all the time.

RECOMMENDATIONS

If you want big and you want best take a glance at the eye-popping flat screens that are whetting our appetite for HD...

LCD Philips Cineos 42PF9731D
£2,500
www.philips.co.uk

This 42-inch screen represents the best LCD has to offer. It boasts crystal-clear images that are some of the best we’ve ever seen when it comes to high-definition footage. Plus, there’s that wacky Ambilight technology, which reflects the colours from the screen onto the wall behind the set, making everything look bigger and er, ‘relaxing’ your eyes into the bargain.
WE WANT ONE BECAUSE: Ambilight rocks our world. Really!

LCD Sharp LC-32GD8
£600
www.sharp.co.uk

Sharp was one of the first companies to dump plasma in favour of an all-LCD line up, and this 32-inch set really shows just how affordable LCD can be. It may be reasonably light on frills, but it’s HD Ready certified, and as an entry-level HD screen it offers exceptional value.
WE WANT ONE BECAUSE: it’s HD without busting the bank.

LCD Sony KDL-40W2000
£1,250
www.sony.co.uk

This LCD set offers pretty much the best size-to-price ratio out there. It’s a rather unusual 40-inch size that dishes out great pictures, and even offers such considerate niceties as a light sensor so you can adjust the backlight for optimum viewing, as well as a pair of those all important HDMI slots.
WE WANT ONE BECAUSE: it’s blinding with Blu-ray discs.

PLASMA Hitachi P50T01
£1,500
www.hitachidigitalmedia.com

Hitachi has long been at the forefront of affordable high-definition televisions and this 50-inch plasma is no exception. For your money you get a stylish-looking set with an impressive 1280x1080 resolution panel, ideal for 1080p movies, and two HDMI connections to hook up your hi-def boxes. It offers impressive value, and is great for watching blood-pumping action movies.
WE WANT ONE BECAUSE: it’s action-movie HD heaven!

PLASMA Panasonic TH50PH9BK
£1,600
www.panasonic.co.uk

Panasonic got the look of its Viera range of TVs spot on. The stylish, almost curved design, the subtle touches... these screens are a marvel to behold. The really good news is that this 1080i set has the on-screen magic working as well, and movies are piped out with amazing clarity and a naturalness of colour that few others can match.
WE WANT ONE BECAUSE: it’s just so beautiful.

Tips in this guide originally came from our chums over on DVD Review magazine, so be sure to give them a wave. Check back next week for the final part of this feature, when we'll be looking at how to upscale standard DVDs, and which new high-def discs are worth spending your money on.