How to set up your new HDTV

Sony Bravia LED EX645 Internet TV
Newer Sony Bravia models like this LED EX645 Internet TV can adjust the picture mode based on the content type. It's important to know what those modes are, and how you can adjust them yourself.

It’s not possible for a TV to be set at the factory with the best settings possible for your home. Take 20 minutes or so on your end, and you can drastically improve the picture quality. If you just bought a TV, or just haven't found the time to mess around with your set, here are tips for doing it right. 

If you really want to nail it, we suggest a setup Blu-ray. They’re cheap, and the Disney WOW disc is especially helpful and easy to follow. (A step-up from that would be the $30 ISF HDTV Calibration Wizard.)

Straight out of the box
All HDTVs generally have a start-up screen that lets the user to choose between a home mode and a store demo mode. This is extremely important. The store mode is designed to produce the brightest image — at the expense of black level, contrast ratio and energy efficiency. To obtain the best picture select the home mode. You will still be able to make fine-tuning adjustments to maximize image quality.

The screen will also ask you to choose your language, and will ask about using over-the-air antenna or cable/satellite. If you don’t use an antenna, make sure you select cable/satellite. You don’t want the TV to go into the tuner mode, because you won't see an image.

Special instructions for smart TVs
If your new HDTV has Internet connectivity for streaming movies and other content, the next step should be connecting to the Internet. All smart TVs have an Ethernet connection if you want to wire the TV directly. Many also have Wi-Fi for wireless set-up. Follow the on-screen instructions or the owner’s manual for the proper steps.

Once completed, you should make sure you have the latest version of the TV's software, by performing a firmware update as per your TV's instructions. The update may add new features, Internet services and even apps, and will assure you have the latest and best version of your new HDTV. Don't skip this: Nearly every TV we test has newer firmware waiting for it when we connect it to the Internet.

Picture modes
Nearly all TVs have picture modes that adjust multiple settings to create a certain look to the image. The best idea is to start with the most accurate setting, then adjust as you see fit. With nearly all TVs, this mode is called “Movie,” “Cinema,” or something similar. If these aren’t options, “Standard” is likely closest.

If you’ve already been watching your TV for more than a few minutes, switching to one of these modes is going to be a shock. It will seem red (warm) and soft. It isn’t, which I’ll explain as we go.

This control adjusts the bright parts of the image: Clouds, white shirts, snow, etc. The idea is to set this control high enough that the image “pops,” but not so high as to mask detail, like cloud textures or shirt wrinkles. All TVs have a maximum contrast setting, above which you’re not making the image any brighter, you’re just making near-white objects totally white.

If you’re using a setup disc, the contrast pattern will have a ramp of progressively whiter bars. The idea is to be able see most of these (but not those labeled “above white”).

If you’re not using a setup disc, find a TV show (ideally a live sporting event) that takes place outside. Skiing works great for this, though baseball does as well (fly balls, any shot of the sky). The idea is to be able to set the control so that you can still see detail in bright white objects. There should almost never be bright white blobs on the screen. If there are, turn the contrast control down until those blobs get their detail back.

There is no average number to use as a guideline for setting contrast, but it’s almost never 100 percent, or anything close. Start somewhere around 80 percent and go from there.

This is the opposite of the contrast control. Despite its name, brightness control adjusts the dark parts of the image: Shadows, black hair, black leather jackets. The idea here is to set it low enough that the picture has lots of contrast (as in, the difference in the light and dark parts of the image), but not so far that there’s just huge swaths of blackness on screen during any night scene.

If you’re using a setup disc, the brightness pattern will have a ramp of progressively darker black bars. The idea is to be able see most of these (but not those labeled “below black” or similar).

If you’re setting this by eye, any night or darkly lit scene will do. Set the control fairly low, down past the point where you lose detail. Now gradually increase it until you see detail in the darkness. If the picture looks gray or washed out, you’ve brought your brightness too far up.

Color and tint
Generally speaking, you shouldn’t have to adjust these at all. These are holdovers from the old tube (CRT) TV days. With component and HDMI connections, the TV shouldn’t need adjustment to color or tint.

But so you know, color is color saturation. Set too high, people will look sunburned, and everything will seem cartoony. Tint adjusts the green/red in the image (Martian/lobster). Without specific color filters (that usually come with setup discs), you can’t adjust either of these settings these correctly. Skip.

This is a highly misleading control. Generally speaking, sharpness control adds enhancement to the image to make it appear sharp. Ironically, by doing so, it’s actually masking true fine detail in the image. This setting should be set as low as possible. Some TVs actually soften the image if you set it too low (bizarre, to be sure), so watch out for that. Look for dark lines on a bright background, like the edges of buildings for instance. Lower this setting so there isn’t any ghost line next to the dark edge. This ghost line is called “edge enhancement,” and goes a long way in making the image look artificial.

Once you get used to the naturalness of the image without edge enhancement, you’ll never go back.

Color temperature
This one is going to be tough. Not because it requires any labor on your part, it’s just going to do something to the image that at first is going to seem bad.

Color temperature is how bluish or reddish the image looks. Picture a typical scene of people walking down a street. Set the color temp too cool, and it will look like they’re walking down the street in winter, with that season’s normal bluish tones. Set the color temp too warm, and it will be a reddish warm day instead.

With most TVs, the ideal setting is “warm” or “low.” In some cases, this is too warm, and “normal” is closer. If you’re changing the settings for the first time, and the TV was set in the “cool” color temp mode, everything will look wrong, and even “normal” will appear to your eye as too warm. Give your eyes time to adjust. Watch on “normal” for a few hours, and then “cool” will seem incredibly blue.

This is an LCD-specific control — plasma TVs don’t have backlights. Think of the backlight setting as a volume control for the image. Turn it up, and the entire picture (bright whites and dark blacks alike) get brighter. Turn it down, and everything gets darker. 

If you leave this turned all the way up, not only are you wasting energy, but at night your TV can be hard to watch. Modern LCDs are extremely bright, and watching such a small bright object in a dark room can create severe eye fatigue.

For critical viewing, or watching at night, the idea is to get the best black levels, while still creating a watchable image. Once you set contrast and brightness correctly, turn the backlight control all the way down. This will likely be too dark for most viewing. Turn it up to the point where it looks the best. Often, at night, this could be as low as 20 percent, depending on the TV. During the day, you can set this as high as you want.

Interestingly, no setup disc offers instructions on how to set this control. Read more on this in our buyer-beware article on TV backlights.

For more on what your HDTV’s controls do, read our Guide to HDTV Settings.

You can catch up with Geoff Morrison on Twitter at @TechWriterGeoff. His novel, "Undersea," is now in paperback.

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