What is Blu-ray?
Blu-ray is the new high-definition format and represents the next major step in home entertainment.
It promises the closest experience to the crisp pictures and rumbling sound of the cinema ever seen in the front room, while the new disc technology paves the way for a wealth of special features, bonus content and online interactivity with your movies.
What’s so special about it?
Quite simply, there’s a lot more detail in the picture. It’s not as pristine as a film print, granted, but it’s around four times sharper than DVD.
Blu-ray isn’t just about the picture, either; the latest Blu-ray discs can serve up the original soundtrack in up to eight audio channels (seven surround speakers and a subwoofer).
No compression, no compromises: you’ll hear the film exactly as you would in the cinema.
What equipment do I need to watch Blu-rays?
First, you’ll need a Blu-ray player. All the big brands are currently offering a decent range of options. It’s possible to pick up a quality, fully-equipped Blu-ray deck for less than a ton.
You’ll also need a flatscreen LCD or plasma TV (or an HD projector for the show offs) with an HDMI (High Definition Multimedia Interface) or a component video connection.
The minimum requirement to watch Blu-ray movies is an HD-ready, or 720p, TV. If you want to get the absolute best from a Blu-ray disc, though, you’ll need a Full HD (or '1080p') screen.
Do I need a home cinema system as well?
If you want the complete experience, you’ll need an AV amplifier that’s compatible with high-definition audio formats (Dolby TrueHD, DTS HD-MA, LPCM) and at least five surround speakers combined with a subwoofer.
That said, you can still get the benefits of Blu-ray with just a player and a good quality HD-ready TV.
Are the discs more expensive than DVDs?
Unfortunately, yes. On average a Blu-ray will cost about ten quid more than the same movie on DVD and the truth is sometimes you won’t even get the same bonus content - for the most part, you’re pretty much paying for the hike in picture and sound quality.
But just as we’ve seen with the cost of players, the price of discs is starting to plummet.
Studios are starting to package DVD and Blu-ray releases together and one distributor has even announced that all its Blu-ray titles will soon cost the same as DVD.
What’s available on Blu-ray?
Most new movies are being released to coincide with the DVD, and a number of studios are revisiting classics from the archives and giving them a bit of a revamp for the Blu-ray release.
Currently there are about 2,000 titles available in the UK, with the focus on new titles but plenty of options for scrubbed-up classics.
Will I be able to play my old DVDs?
Yes. All Blu-ray players are backwards-compatible so you won’t have to buy your entire collection again. In fact, a high-definition set-up will make your DVDs look even better.
All Blu-ray players will 'upscale' your DVDs and add more detail to your standard definition movies. The quality won't be as good as Blu-ray but there'll be clear improvement.
Do Blu-rays have region coding?
Some do. But Blu-ray region codes aren't as strict as those that kept DVD in check. There are now three main region codes – A, B and C (the UK is in region B). But as the majority of discs are region-free there’s plenty of scope as to where you score your Blu-ray movies.
Generally, be sure to double-check region compatibility before you buy.
Can I play Blu-rays on my desktop computer?
It’s bad news for Mac users as Apple is yet to announce a Blu-ray drive for any of its machines. For PC users, though, a number of manufacturers are now fitting a Blu-ray drive as standard. You can also buy stand-alone Blu-ray drives to work with your PC.
What about my games console?
The PS3 was one of the first Blu-ray players on the market, although a lot of gamers still haven’t taken full advantage of its HD capability.
An HD-DVD drive was produced for the Xbox 360 but as this is now a defunct movie format, the add-on is pretty much redundant.
Despite backing the wrong horse, Microsoft is adamant it won’t be climbing down anytime soon: there’s no Blu-ray Xbox in the works.
As for the Wii, there’s plenty of speculation but as yet no word from Nintendo about adopting HD movies.
This refers to picture-in-picture content. You can now watch commentaries, interviews and the like in windows alongside the main feature.
The latest Blu-rays now offer access to live online content. At the moment this is limited to trailers and soundtracks, with some discs throwing in online trivia games and chat functions.
While the current applications are limited and studios are still to tap into the full potential, an Ethernet connection - the same port that links your PC to a modem - opens a world of possibilities to movie fans.
There’s also a bit of safeguarding going on: the Ethernet connection can be used to download software and firmware upgrades for the machine, ensuring it won’t be overtaken by the technology anytime soon.
Ali Upham is the editor of DVD & Blu-ray Review , the UK’s only magazine & website dedicated to high-definition entertainment.