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3 simple steps to improve your TV’s picture quality

We regularly get emails from disappointed readers who have bought the latest-and-greatest new TV set, only to find after setting it up that the picture quality isn’t what they expected. They’ll complain that the colors just look all wrong, and that’s true.

It isn’t the TV’s fault though; any new TV can be a disappointment when you first get it home. That’s because new TVs aren’t always calibrated correctly for your home’s lighting. And if you buy a store’s floor-model TV, it will be even worse.

Floor-model sets have heavily tweaked saturation and hues designed to catch your eye in fluorescent lighting. Once you get it into standard lighting or a dark room, however, it looks terrible. The colors are overblown and have odd tints to them.

Fortunately, you don’t have to return your new TV; a better picture is just a quick calibration session away. You could pay an expert to set your TV up the right way, but unless you’re creating up a high-end home theater, you can get acceptable results doing it yourself. There are three ways to go about it.

1. Use the display presets

Your TV likely has several built-in presets geared to different uses, like movie watching or sports. You can find these in your TV’s picture settings menu. Look in your TV manual to find out how to find these settings on your TV. If you don’t have your TV’s manual, you can probably find it here.

Your TV might have been set to default for a preset like “Vivid” because that give the colors the most pop (often too much). In fact, many store models use this kind of preset. However, for general TV watching, the Standard preset, or whatever your TV calls it, is going to be better. Just making this switch can fix a lot of image quality problems.

Try cycling through the other options and seeing which one you like best. You can also test them out in different scenarios. Some TVs even have presets for specific types of sports, so load up a game or two and see what those do for you. If none of the presets are to your liking, though, you can always customize your picture settings yourself.

2. Use your eyes

Head over to a site called TweakTV and put in your TV manufacturer and model. The site will give you suggested settings for contrast, hue, brightness, sharpness and color temperature. Once you have the default settings in, grab a few of your favorite movies. You’ll want ones that include a range of scenes, including ones that are very dark, very light, filled with people and colorful. Be sure to set your room lighting to how it typically is when you watch TV.

In the dark scenes, adjust the brightness setting so shadows are as black as they can get while still showing detail. Then, head over to a light scene and adjust the contrast up so the white spaces are as white as they can be while still showing detail.

Next, adjust the color temperature until skin tones and colors look natural. If your TV has saturation controls, you can fine-tune how vivid the colors look; you want the sweet spot between “washed out” and “hurts your eyes to look at.”

Once you get everything looking good, test your settings with a few more movies at different lighting levels in the room. You also might need to turn the TV off a few times and come back after a few minutes to see your changes with fresh eyes. If you don’t quite trust your eyes, or want a bit more help, there’s another step you can take.

3. Use a calibration disc

To get a more exact calibration, you can get calibration discs. These walk you through each setting and give you carefully created visual images to help guide your tweaking. It works well in most cases, but don’t be afraid to tweak certain settings to your specific liking. It’s your HDTV, so the best picture is the one that you like the most.

There are a few ways to get a calibration disc. AVS Calibration lets you create your own disc on your computer as long as you have a DVD or Blu-ray creation program like DVD Flick. Some movies have a calibration tool built in, as well. Check your collection for any of these THX-certified movies. It will have a calibration option in the menu.

THX recommends that you use a pair of blue-filtered glasses, which it sells for $5, with its calibration system. This makes it easier because you know the color is right when all the colors look the same. There’s another setting that lets you fix your colors without the glasses, but pick up the glasses for the best results.

If you don’t want to create a disc, and you don’t have a THX-certified movie, there are other options. THX has a calibration app for smartphones and tablets that will help you adjust your TV settings. Check your TV’s manual because you might have a calibration routine built in.

There are some calibration videos on YouTube you can load if you have a Smart TV. Do a search for “AVS HD 709” for a string of them. Of course, they do take a little more work on your part.

If you really want to get technical, Netflix also has a calibration option. Log in to Netflix on your computer and then visit the link on your computer. Click “My List” to add this video to your list. Then fire up Netflix on your TV and look in your list for “Example Short 23.976.”

Start the video and fast forward to the 9:40 minute mark. You’ll see color bars to show color saturation (if you have blue glasses, they should all be the same shade); a pattern of circle and boxes to make sure your aspect ratio and sharpness are good (the circles should be perfectly round and the boxes perfectly square); and a grayscale pattern (adjust the brightness and contrast so you can see every box clearly, but the black and white are as dark and bright as they can be). The grayscale test can also tell you if your color temperature is off because the center gray boxes will have a tint to them.

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