HDTV Buying Guide 2008

How to Get the Most Out of Your HDTV

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Preliminary Round of TV Settings

You've hooked up all your video sources and speakers, so now the adjustment phase begins. Open the owner's manual for your TV set, and follow the setup directions. These should take you through three key steps: basic settings; scanning through available channels; and setting audio and picture preferences.

Basic settings: After synchronizing the internal clock and specifying the language you want to communicate with your television in, you must identify all your sources--such as the cable or satellite box on Input 1, the DVD player on Input 2, and TiVo on Input 3. Usually you can label each input for easy reference as you click through them with your remote control. If you have any unused inputs, turn them off or set them to skip, so that you won't have to click past a blank or noisy screen every time you cycle through your options. (But don't turn off the front input that you or someone else may use occasionally to connect a video camera or game console.)

Scanning through available channels: Scan through all of the channels you receive on each tuned input (such as over-the-air television or a direct cable input.) At this point you can usually also lock out channels that you want to skip, or put specific channels in a Favorites list. Doing so will make channel surfing much quicker and easier. Be sure to choose ATSC (digital) rather than NTSC (analog) when you scan for cable or over-the-air antenna channels. (If you use a cable or satellite box to change channels, you'll perform this setup step on the box, not on the TV.)

Setting audio and picture preferences: These preferences include such details as whether to use internal or external speakers, and what aspect ratio mode to use for 4:3 (standard) sources. Aspect ratio choice is very important. For 4:3 sources, which most older TV shows use, you may have several options:

  • 4:3 mode is the aspect ratio commonly used in older television programming.
    4:3 mode is the aspect ratio commonly used in older television programming.
    Normal or 4:3 mode: This mode puts black bars on the sides of the screen and maintains the original aspect ratio. I prefer this style, since it doesn't stretch and distort the picture. But for plasma TVs, extended viewing of programs with black bars in place may lead to image burn-in. So if you watch a lot of 4:3 television programming, you may want to switch to Full mode. Burn-in is less of a problem with plasmas than it used to be, and it's more likely to happen in the first few weeks of use, so you may want to view without the bars for the first month or so. Burn-in is not an issue for LCD TVs. If your plasma does show symptoms of burn-in, a session with PixelProtector or PlasmaSaver may correct the problem.
  • Full mode is an aspect ratio used to stretch the picture horizontally to the edges of the screen.
    Full mode; click for enlarged image.
    Justified or Full mode: Full mode stretches the picture horizontally to the edges of the screen. Use this setting if you dislike seeing black bars at the sides of your screen, or to accommodate anamorphic DVDs (which squeeze wide-screen information into a 4:3 ratio). Greg Lovern's Web site offers a more thorough explanation of anamorphic DVDs.
  • Zoom mode is the aspect ratio used to fit letterbox-format video to a wide screen without distortion.
    Zoom mode is the aspect ratio used to fit letterbox-format video to a wide screen without distortion.
    Zoom mode: This setting magnifies the image to fill the screen without distorting it, but as a result it cuts off the top and bottom of the picture. Use this mode for movies produced in letterbox format in a 4:3 screen. It will effectively remove the letterboxing for you.

If you find these options confusing, or if your television uses a different nomenclature, try each option out with a standard TV source. You'll quickly see what each one does.

Other types of inputs may have aspect ratio or screen positioning options of their own. Wide-screen sources are best left to fill the screen, since they'll do so with little or no stretching. For video game and computer sources (which may have odd aspect ratios), you can usually adjust the picture position horizontally and vertically, or zoom it to fill the screen.

Adjusting advanced picture-quality settings, such as contrast, hue, color temperature, brightness, and sharpness, is next on the agenda.

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