Remember when you upgraded from your ageing VHS player to a DVD deck?

It was great, offering you an immediate leap in picture and sound quality, plus new treats like silky menu systems and (eventually) in-depth extra features.

Upgrading to the new Blu-ray Disc format is like making that VHS to DVD switch all over again. But this time it’s DVD that now looks blocky and out-of-date.

Confused? What you need is our complete guide:

Complete guide to Blu-ray: getting started

1. What is Blu-ray?

2. What products offer Blu-ray playback?

3. How much does Blu-ray hardware cost?

4. Is there regional coding on Blu-ray?

5. Which studios support Blu-ray?

6. Is Blu-ray recordable?

Complete guide to Blu-ray: what about the alternatives?

7. Why not just buy an upscaling DVD deck?

8. Why did Blu-ray beat HD DVD?

9. Can Blu-ray decks play CDs and DVDs?

10. Will all the HD DVD discs come out on Blu-ray?

Complete guide to Blu-ray: is my television compatible?

11. What sort of display do I need?

12. Do I need a Full HD screen for Blu-ray?

13. What is ICT?

14. What sound system do I need?

15. Do I need any other accessories for Blu-ray?

16. What are the different Blu-ray profiles?

17. High-def audio formats explained

1. What is Blu-ray?

Blu-ray is the next-generation HD disc format. The discs look the same as DVD, but they can be loaded with much more information.

A 90-minute movie recorded in 1080p (high-def) at 54Mbit/s requires around 29GB of storage – with a standard DVD offering a capacity of only 4.7GB, it’s clear why a new format has been launched.

A single-layer Blu-ray Disc can store around 15GB of data, and a dual-layer Blu-ray Disc (BD) can store up to 30GB. BDs use a blue-violet laser operating at a shorter wavelength than the infrared laser used by DVD. More information can therefore be crammed onto a disc because the laser beam can be focused on a smaller area.

The result is that pictures are far more detailed. Blu-ray movies are almost always encoded in a 1920 x 1080 pixel resolution; DVDs are commonly encoded at 720 x 576. Therefore, Blu-ray can offer more than twice the amount of detail than DVD can.

The sound on Blu-ray is also better. The various new higher-resolution audio formats (see: High-def audio formats explained) found on Blu-ray discs offer cleaner mixes and more channels than the DVD-standard Dolby Digital and DTS formats.

Finally, the extra features on Blu-ray Discs are more advanced. Blu-ray uses BD-Java technology for a far greater interactive experience than DVD. Current discs boast pop-up menus during movie playback, PiP commentaries, interactive games and more. BD-Live titles feature web-enabled content, too.

2. What products offer Blu-ray playback?

The first hardware appeared less than two years ago, but there are already a variety of products with Blu-ray compatibility. The most obvious of these is Sony’s PlayStation 3, which plays Blu-ray Discs as well as HD games titles.

The PS3 is flanked by standalone decks from the likes of Pioneer, Samsung, Sharp, LG, Panasonic and Sony. These are similar in look and size to DVD players.

Other machines that will play Blu-ray discs include high-definition laptops like Sony’s VAIO AR series and Asus’ G2Sc. PC or Mac lovers can even choose to mod their computer with a Blu-ray drive, made by brands including Pioneer and Lite-On.

Hitachi recently unveiled the world’s first Blu-ray-based camcorder, the DZ-BD70E. This lets budding Spielbergs record their home movies in Full HD, or cram much more SD footage than usual onto one disc.

3. How much does Blu-ray hardware cost?

Initial deck prices were very high – Samsung’s first-generation BDP-1000 went on sale for £1,000 when it launched in 2006. Now though, there are players available for as little as £250. The discs themselves generally cost between £17 and £30.

4. Is there regional coding on Blu-ray?

Unfortunately yes. There are three regions: Region A (the Americas, Japan and South East Asia), Region B (Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Australasia) and Region C (Russia, China and Central Asia). Players brought in a region will only play discs encoded in that region.

However, different studios have different attitudes towards region coding. For instance: Warner releases all of its movies on region-free discs, whereas Sony releases back catalogue titles region-free, but region-locks most of its new films. Weird.

You can import US Blu-ray but make sure you check whether they are region-free before you do!

5. Which studios support Blu-ray?

Most of the major Hollywood studios now support Blu-ray: MGM, Disney, Sony Pictures, 20th Century Fox, Lionsgate, Warner Bros and Paramount. Universal Pictures, which had been an exclusive HD DVD supporter, is expected to switch to Blu-ray in 2008. It’s getting to the stage where most movies you see in the cinema will eventually surface on a Blu-ray disc.

6. Is Blu-ray recordable?

Yes, but not in the way many of us would like. The Blu-ray drives and the camcorder mentioned earlier use BD-R and BD-RE discs. The former can be written once, while the latter can be wiped and re-recorded numerous times.

However, there are currently no Blu-ray recorders available in the UK for recording TV. This is in contrast to Japan, where Blu-ray recorders are selling like hot noodles.

This is because the available HDTV platforms, Sky HD and Virgin HD, are ‘walled gardens’ – i.e. footage can be recorded to HD Ready PVRs, like Sky+, but not archived onto disc. We’ll have to wait until free-to-air HDTV arrives, in the form of Freesat or Freeview HD, before manufacturers begin considering Blu-ray recorders.

7. Why not just buy an upscaling DVD deck?

Firstly, with Blu-ray players now available at mass market prices, you may as well choose one instead of an upscaling DVD player. Your BD deck will play and upscale all your DVDs, too.

Secondly, while upscaling has a dramatic effect on the picture quality of DVDs, it simply isn’t a match for the real HD impact of Blu-ray. And lastly, you won’t get the benefits of the new HD audio mixes or the advanced extra features offered by Blu-ray. So why miss out?

8. Why did Blu-ray beat HD DVD?

Because of studio support – and the Sony PlayStation 3. No matter what the performance of the hardware, a format needs software to survive, and with every PS3 owner having the ability to watch Blu-ray discs, it became the favoured format of movie studios.

9. Can Blu-ray decks play CDs and DVDs?

DVD playback is a certainty, but you should double-check whether an individual player offers CD playback. Samsung’s early BDP-1000 wouldn’t play ‘em, for some reason.

10. Will all the HD DVD discs come out on Blu-ray?

Probably, but don’t hold your breath. Paramount, which has switched from HD DVD to Blu-ray support, is rumoured to be re-releasing some of its flagship HD DVD titles (like Transformers) on the Blu format. Yet Universal HD DVD titles, like King Kong and The Bourne Ultimatum, could be a while longer.

Bear in mind that releases might not be identical either – they could feature different extras or audio mixes than the original HD DVDs.

11. What sort of display do I need?

You can watch Blu-ray discs on any HD Ready TV, though you’ll see more benefit from a larger screen (a 50-inch HDTV over a 26-inch HDTV, for example). Blu-ray movies will look even better on a Full HD screen.

12. Do I need a Full HD screen?

You don’t need a Full HD screen to reap the benefits of Blu-ray. A standard HD Ready TV (typically with a 1366 x 768 resolution) will work with any BD player, and you’ll spot the picture benefits straightaway over standard DVD. While the majority of Blu-ray discs are encoded in 1080p, a non-Full HD TV can display the footage at either 720p or 1080i.

If you’re looking at larger screen sizes (42 inches and above) then you’ll ideally have a Full HD TV. It’s around this point where the difference between 1080p and 1080i becomes visible.

13. What is ICT?

The Image Constrain Token (ICT) is a flagging system used to protect Blu-ray movies from unauthorised copying when HD signals are output via the analogue component connection. ICTs are encoded into movies at a studio’s discretion; the deck will reduce the resolution of the picture from 1920 x 1080 to 960 x 540 if an ICT-flagged disc is played via component.

This shouldn’t be a worry, as you will be unaffected if you use your player’s HDMI output. The only people who might come unstuck are those trying to use a Blu-ray player with an older display that doesn’t have an HDMI input.

14. What sound system do I need?

As with DVD, you can use any sound system you like. If you want to make the most of Blu-ray’s high-resolution soundtracks then you will need a surround sound speaker and a multi-channel amplifier.

15. Do I need any other accessories for Blu-ray?

Other than a Blu-ray player and an HD Ready TV the only thing you’ll need is an HDMI cable to connect the two. These can cost between £5 and £80. Our advice is to get the best you can afford. If you have a Full HD screen make sure you get an HDMI lead which can accept a 1080p signal as well as 720p and 1080i.

16. What are the different Blu-ray profiles?

The Blu-ray format has three different profiles: Profile 1.0 (aka Grace Period Profile), Profile 1.1 (aka Bonus View) and Profile 2.0 (aka BD-Live). All decks and discs conform to Profile 1.0, but certain newer titles may offer interactive extra features and online content (via Profile 2.0) that cannot be accessed by some players.

17. High-def audio formats explained

There are five new higher-resolution audo formats that you might find lurking on a Blu-ray disc.

Dolby Digital TrueHD offers up to 7.1 channels of lossless 24bit/96Khz audio at a bitrate of 18Mbps.

Dolby Digital Plus isn’t lossless, but with a bitrate of 6Mbps it is still far superior to standard Dolby Digital, which tops out at 640Kbps. It can be used for 7.1 mixes.

DTS-HD Master Audio is very similar to Dolby TrueHD. It too offers up to 7.1 channels of lossless 24bit/96Khz audio, but can reach bitrates of 25Mbps.

DTS-HD High Resolution Audio is a lossy alternative to DTS-HD MA with bitrates up to 6Mbps, and 7.1 channels of audio.

Linear PCM is a lossless 7.1-channel audio format that doesn’t require any decoding. It uses up more space on a disc than Dolby or DTS mixes. You’ll still need to put it through your amp, though, for, erm, amplification.

Different studios put different audio mixes on their disc. For example, all Fox discs feature DTS-HD MA 5.1 mixes, but some studios don’t put anything other than a standard Dolby Digital track on a title.

You’ll need an AV amplifier and speaker system to hear these soundtracks. If your Blu-ray player cannot decode the new Dolby and DTS mixes itself, then you’ll need an HD audio-capable amplifier with HDMI v1.3 input to handle the decoding.