Image: Sinisha Karich / Shutterstock
Image: Sinisha Karich / Shutterstock
How we watch and enjoy films at home has changed dramatically over the past 30 years.

Where we once had to wait years after a film’s cinema run for the BBC or ITV to screen it, we’re now able to re-enjoy films within months of their initial release on an array of devices and screen sizes.

This film lover’s paradise has its roots in the 1980s when the video recorder rose up to became the must have gadget in British homes thanks in part to video rental stores which made recent big name films available on the local high street for far less than a family trip to the cinema.

Video’s popularity soon saw film studios move beyond the rental market and offer titles for sale, making it possible for fans to build-up a catalogue of their favourite movies to watch whenever they wanted.

As movie buffs snapped up releases in growing numbers the studios found new ways to part them from their cash, including the invention of movie boxsets which included not just every entry in a film series but also one or more tapes featuring documentaries and other goodies.

The next big step forward was the advent of widescreen – here in the UK we adopted widescreen TV earlier than our American counterparts and film studios quickly moved to monetise the new format.

Previously films were supplied to broadcasters or released on video in a fullscreen version which required the picture to be cropped to fit a domestic TV’s square screen.

As a result bits of the picture were lost, often nothing important but sometimes key reactions or the slow, gradual approach of a secondary character were cut or truncated.

With the arrival of widescreen studios starting drawing attention to the comprises inherent in this conversion process and starting pushing the idea that widescreen was the only way to truly enjoy the director’s vision.

This was the first time that picture quality would be used to help shift the audience between formats and it was so successful that Hollywood studios and TV makers have been attempting to replicate it ever since.

However canny British buyers haven’t always been willing to play along.

While the LaserDisc platform offered better sound and picture quality over VHS, shoppers recoiled at high prices and the limited range of content and the venture became an expensive flop.

But in the late 1990s the same virtues were successfully used to persuade households to upgrade from VHS to DVD, possibly helped by the earlier adoption of CD and the fact that the new discs took up far less space on shelves than the videotapes they replaced.

For a while many homes ran a VCR and DVD player side-by-side but the growth of digital TV and Personal Video Recorders (PVRs) such as Sky+ and Freeview+ eventually helped kill off domestic use of VHS.

DVD was a huge step-up from VHS but better pictures were possible and after a brief war between two competing standards Blu-ray emerged to take advantage of the new High Definition TVs arriving in stores.

Both the movie industry and TV manufacturers seemed to expect Blu-ray to cement the shiny disc’s status as the default medium for movies but, just as with LaserDisc, consumers had their own ideas.

While hardened film fans appreciated the better pictures offered by Blu-ray, many casual viewers failed to be convinced that the format offered enough benefits over DVD to replace their players and upgrade their collection for a second time.

And the growth in home broadband and improving speeds brought new ways of watching and buying films as fast downloads and reliable streaming became possible.

Many shoppers were no longer focused just on picture quality but also on portability and mobility, a mindset encouraged by the release of the iPad and its Android rivals which finally made mobile computing and content consumption a reality.

Just 5 years after the iPad was first launched being able to watch a film on more than one device, or while out and about, has become at least as important as the viewing experience for many consumers.

Of course it’s possible to get the best of both worlds – to keep us buying discs, and to help reduce film piracy, studios started bundling digital copies with Blu-ray and DVD discs. For a single purchase you can get a copy of your chosen film to watch on your tablet and a high quality copy to watch on your large screen TV.

But even those fans who do care about picture quality no longer need a physical disc because streaming services are capable of offering exceptionally good HD images to those with sufficiently fast broadband connections.

Most Smart TVs (televisions with a broadband connection) include access to at least one of the most popular streaming services – Netflix, Amazon’s Prime Video and Sky’s NOW TV – and so place a huge library of recent and archive films alongside the traditional TV channels.

For little more than you’d have paid to rent the latest Hollywood release just a few years ago, it’s now possible to access a whole library of films to enjoy whenever you want.

These streaming services are also helping to push the next big change in picture quality – 4K, sometimes referred to as UltraHD, which is available on many of the latest Smart TVs and is the very best picture quality currently available on a mass market TV.

To get the full benefit of 4K you need a big screen which is why it’s impossible to buy one with a screen size of less than 40” and why in most stores there are more models with screens of 55-60” than there are 40” models.

But whichever screen size you go for, with supermarket own-brand models coming in at around £100-£150 cheaper than the big brand names the barriers to enjoying 4K content from the likes of Netflix and Amazon are incredibly low.

These 4K sets are also compatible with BT’s new sports channel and will also support the 4K films, TV shows and sport which Sky has promised for next year as well as the new UltraHD Blu-rays which are set to arrive in shops during 2016.

The discs will need a new player but the falling price of 4K TVs means the combined cost of a TV and state of the art UltraHD Blu-ray player will probably be less than you’d have paid for just the TV a couple of years ago.

However while picture quality has improved drastically over the past decade, the demand for ever-thinner TV sets has reduced the space available for speakers and resulted in a sound quality which routinely fails to match the gloriously rich images now on offer.

No wonder then that shoppers are increasingly augmenting their huge screens with a separate sound system, be that a full surround system or a space-saving soundbar.

While the second of these options will always produce less audio-oomph than a full system, the best soundbars can deliver sounds and effects which put most TV’s in-built speakers to shame.

Because most TV manufacturers also make separate sound systems it’s unlikely that they’ll be putting much effort into solving the issue of poor quality TV speakers.

But while innovation in speakers is unlikely, work is already underway to bring us new 8K TVs which promise pictures with four times the resolution of HD and twice that of 4K.

Experimental transmissions of 8K were tested during the 2012 London Olympic Games and a fuller broadcast is planned for the 2020 Games in Tokyo.

As with previous upgrades the first waves of these new sets are likely to cost eye-watering sums, but within a couple of years prices will fall and adoption will rise and we’ll look back at our old DVDs and wonder how we were ever impressed with that fuzzy looking picture…

In collaboration with Argos

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