How to calibrate your HDTV

If you haven't calibrated your HDTV, you're probably not seeing the picture you paid for. Here's how to get a near-perfect image on your high-def screen without breaking the bank.

You spent a lot of money on your fancy new HDTV, but its picture probably isn't as good as it could be. If you want to see exciting sports events and movies that look the way the broadcasters and filmmakers intended, you need to calibrate your HDTV.

If you have a few hundred dollars to spare, you can hire a professional to do the job for you. But after you've spent a load of dough on the set itself, the prospect of spending more for calibration may not be appealing. Armed with a few facts, the right software, and a little time, you can handle the task yourself for just a few bucks.

What Every TV Owner Needs to Know

Sure, everyone knows how to plug in a TV and tap their way around a remote. But if you're looking for a great home-entertainment experience, here a few important things to keep in mind.

Don't stick with the factory settings: TVs leave the factory calibrated to look good in a store, where they must compete with a lot of ambient light and every other TV on display. Such an environment requires superbright, garish settings that look awful. Just turning down your TV's brightness and contrast will be a big improvement.

Remember that the time of day matters: Unless you watch TV in a windowless room, the difference between day and night is like, well, the difference between night and day. If you're willing to take the time, calibrate one programmable mode (your TV will have several) at night and another during the day. Or just calibrate it at night (when you're likely to watch more TV), and pick an existing, brighter mode for day.

Avoid Dynamic Mode: At least at night, anyway. Because it turns sharpness and contrast way up, Dynamic Mode results in overly bright, garish images. On most TVs, the Normal, Movie, or Cinema modes are likely to produce an accurate picture.

Calibrate each input separately: Getting the picture right for images from your DVD player won't help the images from your TiVo, cable box, or VCR.

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Calibration Tools

It's theoretically possible to fine-tune your picture with just your eyeballs and instincts. But if you want to get it right, you should use a DVD-based calibration tool. Here are three worth considering.

THX Optimizer: You probably already have this one, since it comes on every commercial DVD with a THX logo. But you don't have all of it. Some of the Optimizer's tests require special blue glasses that you must buy via mail order. The glasses cost only $US2, plus an additional $2.50 for shipping and handling.

THX offers a decent set of test patterns, although they're not as complete and well explained as some stand-alone products. Nor are the written instructions as helpful as the narrated ones on stand-alone discs.

Not surprisingly, considering THX's background in cinematic audio, the Optimizer can also help you set up your surround-sound system.

Imaging Science Foundation HDTV Calibration Wizard: Cocreated by Imaging Science, Microsoft, and Monster Cable, this disc manages to walk you through calibration without using a bunch of unnecessary tech jargon. The narration by singer Jenna Drey helps; she comes off like a regular person, explaining the calibration process in plain, understandable English.

Another advantage: The HDTV Calibration Wizard uses live video instead of test patterns; they're easier to look at, and they give you a better sense of what your TV's picture will look like. For instance, to set the black level (an extremely important setting that almost always has to be fixed), you get a close-up of a man's black shirt and coat, and you simply adjust the setting until you can see the difference between the two.

Monster sells the Wizard for $30.

Digital Video Essentials: Although it isn't as easy to use as the HDTV Calibration Wizard, Joe Kane Productions' DVD offers the most exhaustively complete consumer-level calibration tool I've seen. Not only does it walk you through video calibration, but it also helps you set up your audio and the room environment, as well.

Sometimes this disc is a little too thorough, however, with the narrator explaining so many technical details that it's easy to lose track of what you're supposed to be looking for. Mastered in 2001 and released in 2003, it's also a bit outdated--for instance, it operates under the assumption that most HDTVs are CRTs.

JKP sells newer, more up-to-date Blu-ray and HD DVD calibration discs, but has no newer offering that you can run on a conventional DVD player. The company sells the older DVD for $25.

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Tips for Content Not on DVD

Calibration DVDs will help DVDs, Blu-ray discs, and HD DVDs look great on your HDTV, but what about your cable connection or DVR? As I pointed out earlier, you have to calibrate each input separately, and not every input is attached to a source that plays DVDs.

Though you have no perfect way around such problems, here are some helpful tricks.

Replicate DVD settings: Once you get the TV right for the DVD input, jot down your video settings on a piece of paper and then reenter them for each of the other inputs. This is the fastest and easiest solution (at least if your TV displays numeric values for its settings), but its accuracy is questionable. A setting that's perfect for HDMI may be slightly off for coaxial cable. And two different HDMI sources may require different settings because of their own idiosyncrasies.

Plug the DVD player into various inputs and recalibrate: This approach is horribly time-consuming, of course. Besides, your DVD player may not support all of the inputs you use, and this trick still doesn't help with source idiosyncrasies.

Eyeball it: I know, you've already done it. But things might be different this time. Reading this article and using one of the calibration discs might help you make more-educated guesses about display settings than you've made in the past.

Use a calibration tool that isn't disc based: Does one exist? Not yet, but DisplayMate hopes to get its USB-based HDTV Setup product out by fall. The basic version will plug into the multimedia-capable USB port on your DVR and use .jpg images and possibly other commonly supported multimedia formats. Of course, for it to work, your DVR will have to have a multimedia-capable USB port.

Currently DisplayMate offers a Windows version, which you can use by hooking up a PC to your HDTV.

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Good Advice

Regardless of the tools you use to calibrate your HDTV, remember these important tips.

Upscale and deinterlace intelligently: Your TV has only one resolution. Everything that comes into the TV in a lower resolution must be upscaled, and everything that's interlaced (for CRT displays) must be deinterlaced for your flat panel. Your TV can make those conversions automatically--and, possibly, so can some of your sources, such as your DVD player and DVR. But should they? Only if they do a better job than the TV, and that's something you'll have to judge for yourself. Look for output options, such as various resolutions and progressive scan, in each of your sources' on-screen menus. Experiment to see which produce a better-looking image on your TV.

Understand your TV's video settings: Sometimes the labels don't tell the full story.

  • Tint is almost certainly set correctly already. Don't mess with it.

  • Sharpness adds false information to make a crisper image. It's less useful on HD sets than on older analog TVs, so you should probably lower it.

  • Brightness doesn't actually adjust brightness, but alters black level. So when you turn up the brightness, you're really just turning down the blackness.

  • Contrast, called Picture on some TVs, doesn't control the contrast, but the brightness.

Try a better way to control brightness: The backlight control on LCDs and the Iris setting on rear-projection sets allow you to adjust the brightness (the real brightness) in a way that doesn't affect other settings. This approach can be really useful in transitioning from daytime to nighttime viewing. Plasma sets have nothing like it.

Avoid daisy-chaining your HDMI signal: Joel Silver of Imaging Science warns that connecting your source to your receiver via HDMI, and then linking from your receiver to your HDTV, degrades the picture quality.

Calibrate to reduce your energy consumption: A properly set HDTV uses less electricity than one still on the factory settings.

Repeat annually: Sets don't remain properly calibrated forever.

Consider paying a professional: Yes, the service is expensive, and you have to hang around at home waiting for someone to show up, but they know more than you do (we hope), and they have better equipment. Many local companies offer such a service; you can find trained calibrators through Imaging Science. Or you can use Best Buy's Geek Squad, which charges $300 to calibrate two inputs, each in separate day and night modes.