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How to calibrate your HDTV

How to calibrate your HDTV

Q: Hi Kim, I have a new HDTV but it doesn't look as good as the demo in the store. Have I been duped?

- Uly N. from San Francisco, CA listens to The Kim Komando Show on 810 AM KGO

A: You probably just need to fine tune your picture settings. Salesfloor TV demos are often set as bright and vividly as possible to stand out against the store lights and other TVs competing for your attention.

At home, depending on your ambient lighting, the default picture settings of your TV may not be appropriate and you will need to adjust them manually.

Although there are professional TV calibration services out there, you could try tweaking your TV's picture settings yourself to suit your liking.

Picture Presets

First, put on your favorite, preferably HD movie, either via streaming service or a Blu-ray Disk.

Check your remote for a button called "Tools" or "Menu," this should open a window where you could tweak your picture preferences. Manufacturers typically program a number of presets you could choose as a starting point.

Depending on your brand and model, the basic presets are usually "Vivid/Dynamic," "Standard," "Cinema/Movie" and "Game/Sports." Cycle through these to check what they look like.

"Vivid" is the setting upon which most retail stores put their display TVs. This dials up the sharpness, contrast, backlight, color, brightness, and all the digital enhancements of the TV. These settings may look good on the bright showroom floor but may be too loud and garish in the living room or bedroom.

"Standard" is what the manufacturers think is the ideal setting for most homes. This setting cranks down the brightness, sharpness, and color from the boosted levels of the "Vivid" mode to suit the average living room. Although this is the quick setting you might choose to get it over with, it still may not be the right one for your needs.

"Movie/Cinema" mode is the starting point for most videophiles. This mode uses a warmer color and tint temperature than the cooler tones of "Vivid" or "Standard." Brightness, contrast, color, sharpness, and digital enhancements are also toned down in an effort to accurately recreate how filmmakers intend their movies to look.

Tweak your settings

Once you select which mode you prefer, start adjusting the basic levels. For now, let your eyes be the judge.

  • Backlight - LED/LCD TVs use this to illuminate the display. Brighter rooms typically need this on a higher setting while bedrooms may not need much. Most TVs have ambient light sensors that automatically adjust the backlight level to match the available light in a room. Typically, you want this as low as possible to avoid eye fatigue.
  • Sharpness - It is tempting to bump this up to make the picture look crisper but it is not recommended. Cranking up the sharpness will just introduce unsightly artifacts and jagged edges in the image. 
  • Brightness -  Despite the name, this setting actually controls the black levels of your TV. Turn this up and you'll see detail in dark areas but the overall picture will look gray and washed out. Turn it down to enhance the black levels in exchange for a loss of detail, a term called crushed blacks. 
  • Contrast -  This controls the white levels of your TV. Too high a level will crush out the white areas of a scene leading to loss of detail in bright areas. Too low and the picture will look dim and washed out. Contrast affects Brightness and vice-versa so adjust these two settings hand in hand.
  • Color - This setting controls the saturation of the colors and how vivid they look. Turn it up and everything will look cartoonish, turn it down and everything will be black and white.
  • Temperature - Some TVs have this setting. Cool and variations of Warm are usually the options for this setting. The Warm settings are usually the good starting points for accurate color reproductions.
  • Tint - This setting on dead center is the company's recommendation for proper color reproduction. Better leave this flat on "zero" unless you have a calibration disk.

Depending on your TV, there may be other enhancements available for your TV. These include Edge Enhancement (increases sharpness), Dynamic Contrast (automatically adjusts brightness and contrast depending on the scene), Noise Reduction, and Motion Blur Reduction. Again, let your eyes be the judge for now.

Another useful site is Tweak My TV on TweakTV.com. Here you just select your TV brand and model and it will display the suggested settings for your TV.

Use a calibration disk 

You may have been tweaking your TV levels to your heart's content and your picture is now closer to what you have in mind. They may not be accurate but if they look good to you, then that's all that matters.

But what if you want to take this calibration business a bit further? If you want to achieve proper and industry standard sharpness, brightness, contrast, and color, you will need a calibration disk.

A popular choice out there is Disney's WOW: World of Wonder. The Blu-ray version has a collection of beginner and professional grade calibration tools with step-by-step tutorials. It also includes demo clips from various Disney flicks to evaluate your calibration results. Check out Disney WOW on Amazon.

A cheaper option is Digital Video Essentials: HD Basics. Aside from the tips and calibration guides in this disk, it also features test patterns to validate your results. Check out Digital Video Essentials on Amazon.

You may also check your Blu-ray and DVD collection, some THX Certified Disks come with a calibration tool called THX Optimizer.

Get a professional

Lastly, if you absolutely need to have your HDTV fine-tuned and calibrated as optimally as possible (maybe for home theater purposes), you will have to bring in a professional TV calibrator. Professional TV calibration services will have the fancy tools and measuring equipment required to optimize your TV's picture, taking out the guesswork. But where's the fun in that? 

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