You can do a lot of things in this world, but you can't just plug in your HDTV and automatically get the best picture possible.
Even if you enjoy tinkering with things, the average HDTV setup can be daunting. It's often a confusing maze of resolutions, ports, cables, aspect ratios, picture presets, refresh rates, and arguments between your in-TV menus and cable-box menus. As soon as you miraculously stumble upon the ideal combination of settings, accidentally sitting on the remote control will ruin everything.
We can't provide assistance for dealing with everything that could go wrong with your HDTV, but we can help you solve some common problems in time for the Super Bowl. Here's a 2-minute drill of tips on how to get the picture you're paying for this Sunday.
Quick ways to improve your picture
1. If you have a brand-new HDTV, make sure it's set for 'Home' use, not for 'Demo' or 'Store' use. This is a key step. In 'Demo' or 'Store' mode, the HDTV boosts its brightness and color saturation to ridiculous levels in an attempt to look more fancy than the other TVs sitting next to it on store shelves. It also may not let you save your own personal picture adjustments while it's in an in-store mode. In most cases a new TV will prompt you to pick between the two picture modes the first time you turn it on. Otherwise you'll need to dig into your TV's settings menu and confirm that the picture mode is set to 'Home'.
2. Don't connect your HD cable box to your HDTV with a coaxial cable. If you do, you'll see only standard-definition footage. If you want the best possible picture with the least amount of hassle, use an HDMI cable to connect your HD cable box to your set. You can also use component video cables to get full HD, but it takes five component video cables to do the same video and audio job as a single HDMI cable.
3. Use your HD cable box's highest-resolution setting. Your HD cable box has video-resolution settings that start at 480i (standard definition) and range up to 1080i (which is the resolution at which CBS will broadcast the Super Bowl in HD). Check the settings in your cable box's menu to determine whether it lists its 'Video Settings', 'Video Format', or 'Video Resolution' as 1080i or 720p.
4. Make your TV display the correct aspect ratio automatically. HD broadcasts are in 16:9 widescreen, but if you're watching standard-definition broadcasts on an HDTV, the picture will look stretched out and splotchy if the TV is set to a 16:9 aspect ratio. The good thing is that your HDTV can adapt to whatever source you feed into it. Use the 'Just Scan', 'Screen Fit', 'Full', or 'Dot by Dot' setting to make that happen. The setting will cause the TV to display the source video in its native format from the signal, and will prevent it from overscanning and stretching the image.
5. Consider avoiding the 'Sports' picture mode on your HDTV. Sounds like weird advice, right? In the PCWorld Labs, we found that a dedicated sports mode can produce a cooler (bluish) picture; greens can also look much more saturated than normal. TV vendors may believe that the grass should "pop" more while you're watching sports, but such a setting can make the players' skin tones look out of whack. Our recommended mode is a 'Movie', 'Cinema', 'THX', or 'ISF Calibration' mode. Even though such modes are optimized for movies, they usually yield the best balance between color accuracy and skin tones.
This is a good place to stop if you don't want to dive too deeply into your TV's brightness, contrast, color, tint, and sharpness settings. But if you do, the previous step is a good place to start: A 'Movie', 'Cinema', 'THX', or 'ISF Calibration' mode represents our ideal baseline setting for a deeper calibration process, and you can always return to that picture mode if you don't like the effects of your own tweaks.
Do-it-yourself calibration tips
1. If you can't hire a calibrator, we recommend buying this disc. Digital Video Essentials: HD Basics from Joe Kane is available on Blu-ray. We use it in the PCWorld Labs to make sure our own calibration process is up to snuff.
2. Calibrate your set to your regular viewing environment. A lot of people tend to calibrate in full darkness, but if you end up turning on the lights or watching your TV during the day, the image quality will look too dim for those settings. If your room is usually bright, then leave it that way while you're calibrating.
3. Remember that the calibration disc will show you how to adjust only five basic controls. Those adjustments are brightness, contrast, color, tint, and sharpness. The disc doesn't cover grayscale adjustments and individual color management—and tinkering with those settings might do more harm than good. If you follow the disc's instructions (and only those instructions), you should see a clear improvement.
4. If it doesn't look perfect, be patient. Your eyes will need a bit of time to adjust to the new calibration settings, but it's worth it in the long run. Once you are used to the changes, you will realize how far off the color balance was initially.