How to Calibrate Your HDTV
Tips for Content Not on DVD
Calibration DVDs will help DVDs, Blu-ray discs, and HD DVDs look great on your HDTV, but what about your cable connection or DVR? As I pointed out earlier, you have to calibrate each input separately, and not every input is attached to a source that plays DVDs.
Though you have no perfect way around such problems, here are some helpful tricks.
Replicate DVD settings: Once you get the TV right for the DVD input, jot down your video settings on a piece of paper and then reenter them for each of the other inputs. This is the fastest and easiest solution (at least if your TV displays numeric values for its settings), but its accuracy is questionable. A setting that's perfect for HDMI may be slightly off for coaxial cable. And two different HDMI sources may require different settings because of their own idiosyncrasies.
Plug the DVD player into various inputs and recalibrate: This approach is horribly time-consuming, of course. Besides, your DVD player may not support all of the inputs you use, and this trick still doesn't help with source idiosyncrasies.
Eyeball it: I know, you've already done it. But things might be different this time. Reading this article and using one of the calibration discs might help you make more-educated guesses about display settings than you've made in the past.
Use a calibration tool that isn't disc based: Does one exist? Not yet, but DisplayMate hopes to get its USB-based HDTV Setup product out by fall. The basic version will plug into the multimedia-capable USB port on your DVR and use .jpg images and possibly other commonly supported multimedia formats. Of course, for it to work, your DVR will have to have a multimedia-capable USB port.
Currently DisplayMate offers a Windows version, which you can use by hooking up a PC to your HDTV.
Regardless of the tools you use to calibrate your HDTV, remember these important tips.
Upscale and deinterlace intelligently: Your TV has only one resolution. Everything that comes into the TV in a lower resolution must be upscaled, and everything that's interlaced (for CRT displays) must be deinterlaced for your flat panel. Your TV can make those conversions automatically--and, possibly, so can some of your sources, such as your DVD player and DVR. But should they? Only if they do a better job than the TV, and that's something you'll have to judge for yourself. Look for output options, such as various resolutions and progressive scan, in each of your sources' on-screen menus. Experiment to see which produce a better-looking image on your TV.
Understand your TV's video settings: Sometimes the labels don't tell the full story.
- Tint is almost certainly set correctly already. Don't mess with it.
- Sharpness adds false information to make a crisper image. It's less useful on HD sets than on older analog TVs, so you should probably lower it.
- Brightness doesn't actually adjust brightness, but alters black level. So when you turn up the brightness, you're really just turning down the blackness.
- Contrast, called Picture on some TVs, doesn't control the contrast, but the brightness.
For more on these and other important HDTV settings, see Roy Santos's excellent tutorial.
Try a better way to control brightness: The backlight control on LCDs and the Iris setting on rear-projection sets allow you to adjust the brightness (the real brightness) in a way that doesn't affect other settings. This approach can be really useful in transitioning from daytime to nighttime viewing. Plasma sets have nothing like it.
Avoid daisy-chaining your HDMI signal: Joel Silver of Imaging Science warns that connecting your source to your receiver via HDMI, and then linking from your receiver to your HDTV, degrades the picture quality.
Calibrate to reduce your energy consumption: A properly set HDTV uses less electricity than one still on the factory settings.
Repeat annually: Sets don't remain properly calibrated forever.
Consider paying a professional: Yes, the service is expensive, and you have to hang around at home waiting for someone to show up, but they know more than you do (we hope), and they have better equipment. Many local companies offer such a service; you can find trained calibrators through Imaging Science. Or you can use Best Buy's Geek Squad, which charges $300 to calibrate two inputs, each in separate day and night modes.
For reviews of the best in 46- and 47-inch HDTVs, check out our roundup of the top five sets.