How to get the best possible picture out of your HDTV

Toshiba TV

Most people never change their TV’s user settings. This is sad, as most TVs look their worst with the standard “out of the box” factory presets.

Our tips on picture optimization will go a long way to getting you a better TV picture for little or no cash.

We’ll begin with the basics:

Room lighting
Before making any adjustments, you should be aware that proper room lighting is very important in getting a better HDTV image. The two biggest obstacles to a better picture are screen reflections and high ambient light levels.

You can solve the first problem by moving any lamp that is opposite the screen, or angling your seating or the TV so that fixed lighting does not reflect towards you while you're watching.

As for the room's overall ambient light levels, try to bring them down as much as you can. For daytime viewing, this means closing blinds or opaque curtains. For evenings, lower any light dimmers, use lower output light bulbs or simply shut off some lamps. (Check out HD Guru's article on high ambient light issues for more on this topic.)

Viewing distance
If you think about it, it makes sense that there are maximum viewing distances where people with “normal” eyesight can see all the resolution of a given HDTV screen size. The larger the screen, the farther away you can sit, but it's very easy to find yourself out of range. Sitting outside the maximum distance will cause you to lose detail. For the maximum viewing distance for your chosen screen size (that is, how close together your TV and your couch need to be), check out our HDTV seating distance chart.

Sources and connections
If you want to see a high-definition image, you’ll need an HDTV signal, source box and an HD connection. Sounds very basic, but you would be amazed how many times we’ve seen people viewing their HDTVs using a standard defintion cable box or the wrong connection.

If you use cable TV, you’ll need a high-definition cable box. Satellite users require an HD receiver. Over-the-air antenna users get HD automatically by tuning to your local high-def channels.

In addition to the HD box you’ll need to learn which channels are in high definition, as many cable providers send the same content on two channels, one in standard-def 4:3 aspect ratio (you’ll see bars to the left and right of the picture) and one in high-def 16:9 aspect ratio.

Next, you must make sure the output of the set top box (STB) is set to 1080i. Consult the box owner’s manual or call your cable/satellite provider for instructions to adjust your specific STB.

Last, you need an HDMI cable for the best connection between the STB and your HDTV. They are inexpensive from Amazon and, and we have written extensively on a how dealers try to sell you overpriced HDMI cables that perform no better than quality inexpensive ones. There is no reason to buy a 2-meter HDMI cable for $40, $50 or more, when you can spend $6 to $8 for it, including free shipping. (Hi-Speed is the designation for HDMI cables that are capable of handling all HDTV signals including Blu-ray 3-D.)

User controls
All LCD and plasma TVs have controls for brightness (black level), contrast (white level), color (saturation), tint and sharpness. Optimizing these controls will produce the best image, with the deepest blacks and “punchiest” whites possible.

There are several discs you can buy that will explain these controls and provide test signals so you can set them correctly for your viewing environment.

The most popular discs are theDisney WOW: World of Wonder ($25.99), Spears & Munsil High-Definition Benchmark ($25) and Digital Video Essentials ($14.50). For more on setting these controls check out our “setting up your new HDTV article” here. For a comparison and review of these test discs, go to our test disc review here.

The backlight control is an additional control available on most LED LCD HDTVs. Our set-up article covers it. For more on backlight control go here.

Professional calibration
For the best image possible, an ISF (Imaging Science Foundation) calibration will optimize advanced controls — such as fine tuning the TV's color temperature to the industry D6500K standard — in addition to optimizing other controls usually found under the “advanced” heading in the TV’s user menu. The quality of an ISF calibration is dependent on the calibrator’s test equipment (which includes a color analyzer or a spectroradiometer), skill and experience. For a list of calibrators in your area go to the ISF website here.

Are you the one in five?
According to a Nielsen survey, one in five HDTVs is not being fed a high-definition image and therefore have never had TVs tweaked to maximum performance. By following our recommendations, you’ll see a real improvement in your HDTV’s picture quality.

Have a question for the HD Guru? Send an email

More from HD Guru:

Copyright ©2012 HD Guru Inc. All rights reserved. HDGURU is a registered trademark.