IntroductionThe average American spends hours in front of the TV each week, but the picture on an average American TV looks like Times Square on steroids: too bright and garish to seem anything like real life. That's because default settings for TVs are configured to make an impact on the sales floor of your local electronics superstore, not necessarily in your living room. With the emergence of HDTV, not to mention the DVD and Blu-ray movies and HDTV programs that fill their big screens, living-room images can look better than ever before--as long as you don't settle for the manufacturers' default settings.
Our guide includes three levels of advice, arranged in order from least- to more-expensive, to help make your television picture look its best. For starters, we'll help you adjust you the basic picture controls available on most TVs. Next, we'll take a look at various home-theater setup discs that provide expert advice for both video and audio fine-tuning. And lastly, we'll give you the lowdown on professional calibration and whether it's worth the investment for your high-end set.
This guide is aimed at DIY calibrators and people interested in obtaining a professional calibration, but maybe you're down with OPPs (Other People's Picture settings). If that's the case, check out our HDTV picture settings forum, which includes not only readers' settings but also the settings CNET's reviewers used when evaluating more than 100 HDTVs. And if you don't like those settings or want to improve them, the following info might help.
BasicYou can do a lot to improve your picture using the simple adjustments found on all televisions. Taking the steps below will make the picture look more realistic and closer to what the director intended.
Room lightingSince most people turn down the lights to watch a movie, our recommendations are designed to deliver a better picture in rooms with controlled lighting. Unless you have a big-screen projector or you're sitting at the minimum viewing distance, you shouldn't watch movies in complete darkness--it can cause eyestrain. For bright plasmas and smaller direct-view sets, the ideal setup is to place a dim light directly behind the TV and leave the rest of the room dark. Look for special "daylight" bulbs that glow at 6,500 degrees Kelvin. You should also prevent any light in the room from reflecting off the TV, as glare will hamper image fidelity. Watching at night is best, but if you watch during the day, thick curtains will really improve the picture.
Before you make any of the adjustments detailed below, set room lighting as if you were about to watch a movie. For viewing in brighter environments, we recommend you use one of the picture presets, such as Standard, Sports, or Vivid, or simply turn up the contrast or backlight setting until the picture looks bright enough.
What it is: Reserved for LCD displays, backlight controls the intensity of light emitted by the display.
What it does: As with contrast, backlight is usually set high by default. Lowering it can make the image more watchable in a dark room, while setting it too low can cause the picture to lose impact. Unlike contrast, however, it usually doesn't affect visible detail in bright areas.
How to set it: This setting is difficult to evaluate without specialized equipment, but it should be set before any others. The easiest way is to set the control to its midpoint, then find a very bright sequence of video, such as a hockey game, and watch for 10 minutes or so in your dim room. If you experience eyestrain, lower it by 10 or 20 percent, and then watch again. If not, keep it about 50 percent. Depending on your sensitivity and the TV's setting, you may find reducing the control all the way to zero works best.
What it is: Also called black level, the brightness control actually adjusts how dark the dark and black sections of the picture appear.
What it does: Excessive brightness can result in a two-dimensional, washed-out look with reduced color saturation. Images with brightness set too low lose detail in shadows, and distinctions between dark areas disappear in pools of black.
How to set it: After connecting your DVD player using the highest-quality input available, insert a DVD that has letterbox bars above and below the image, and find a scene that has a roughly equal amount of light and dark material. Turn up the control all the way, then decrease until the letterbox bars begin to appear black, as opposed to dark gray. If you notice a loss of shadow detail--for example, when people's eyes disappear into the depths under their brows--then you've set brightness too low.
What it is: Also called picture or white level, contrast controls the intensity and detail of the bright and white parts of the image and, on TVs without a backlight control or "cell light" control, determines the overall light output of the display.
What it does: This control behaves differently depending on whether the TV has have a backlight (many LCDs) or "cell light" (Samsung plasmas) control. For TVs with such controls, its main effect is to determine how much detail is visible in brighter areas of the picture. For other TVs, it also determines overall light output, so turning it up produces a brighter picture and uses more power.
How to set it: Display a still image from DVD of a white object with some visible details--such as someone wearing a white button-up shirt or a shot of a glacier from the Ice Age DVD. Adjust the control up all the way, then reduce it until you can make out all the details in the white (such as buttons on a shirt or cracks in the ice).
What it is: Also called saturation, this control adjusts how intense the colors look.
What it does: When there's too much color, the set looks garish and unrealistic. It's most noticeable with reds, which are often accentuated (pushed) by the TV's color decoder. On the other hand, too little color diminishes the impact of the picture, making it look drab. Setting color to zero results in a black-and-white image.
How to set it: If available, first set the color-temperature control to the warmest option as described below. Then find an image of someone with light, delicate skin tones, preferably a close-up of a face, on a DVD. Turn up the color control until it looks like the person has sunburn, then reduce it until the skin looks natural, without too much red. If the rest of the colors look too drab, you can increase color slightly at the expense of accurate skin tones.
Tint: Unless you're using one of the discs mentioned in the Intermediate section to set it properly, this control is best left at the midway point.
Sharpness: This adds artificial edges to objects, which sometimes helps with soft standard-definition signals but almost always mars the already sharp image from a DVD, Blu-ray or HDTV source. Reduce it to zero unless you detect visible softening along the edges of text; if you do, increase it until the edges appear sharp again.
Color temperature: This important control affects the color of gray, which forms the basis for all colors displayed on your TV. Select the Warm or Low option, which should come closest to the color standard of D65.
Generally, the image looks best for DVD, Blu-ray and HDTV sources with picture "enhancements" such as auto-color, flesh tone, enhanced contrast, noise reduction, and other proprietary processing modes turned off. DVD and better sources are good enough that these modes usually do more harm than good.