How to Get the Most From Your HDTV

HDTV Image Gallery A shopper inspects HDTVs in a store in New York City. See more HDTV pictures.
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­For years, people have heard that watching a movie on a high-definition (HD) set is like looking out a window. The picture is sharper, clearer and more detailed than anything you'll see on an older, standard-definition (SD) set. It's supposed to be a revolution on par with the jump from black and white to color.

But after all that hype, the experience of watching a brand new HDTV can be a little anticlimactic. If you just plug it in and start watching, you might be disappointed with what you see. The picture might look pretty good but seem brighter or more unnatural than it did in the store. Or, it might be pixelated, distorted or fuzzy and not look good at all. Why does this happen? HDTVs are supposed to be better than old, analog TVs for two reasons:

  • HDTVs can use digital signals made of ones and zeros rather than analog signals made of fluctuating waves. Digital signals aren't prone to static, interference or ghost images like analog signals are. They do a better job of carrying the information that makes up the picture.
  • HDTVs have a higher resolution than analog sets. They can display images with far more detail than traditional TVs can.

Fortunately, it's easy to get better performance from your HDTV. All it takes is a few minutes to configure everything correctly and a little knowledge about what kinds of programs will look best.  See the next page to get started.

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Step 1: The Right Connections

(1) RCA connectors, (2) an RF connector and (3) an HDMI connector
(1) RCA connectors, (2) an RF connector and (3) an HDMI connector
Image courtesy HowStuffWorks Shopper

Before you can watch your HDTV, you have to connect it to something that will give it a signal to display. This can be a cable or satellite receiver, an antenna, a DVD player, a game console or a combination of devices. It all depends on which electronic devices you own and how many of them you want to use with your TV.

In general, you'll need to use new, high-quality cables to carry signals from these devices to your TV. Extremely cheap or worn-out cables can lower the quality of the picture you see. You don't have to buy the most expensive cables to get the best picture, but it's generally a good idea to upgrade the ones that came with your set and with your other electronic devices.

You'll also need to connect everything using the highest-quality connection type available. Sending a high-quality signal through a low-quality connection can cause your picture to suffer. For example, if you use an analog composite video connection to connect your top-of-the-line DVD player to your HDTV, you'll lose data in the process. Similarly, if you send a high-definition signal through a connection that can't support it, you won't see a high-definition image.

Most HDTV sets have lots of places to connect cords and cables. The chart below will show you what the different connections are and what they should be used for.

Those connections can seem a little overwhelming, so here's what you should keep in mind:

  • Use RF or cable connections to connect cable boxes, satellite dishes and antennas only, and only if those devices do not support a higher-quality connection. For example, if your set-top satellite or cable box will support component video, use that instead. Don't use RF connections for DVD players or other digital devices -- your picture quality will suffer.
  • Use digital connections, like DVI and HDMI connections, for digital devices whenever possible. Keeping the signal in a digital format from beginning to end preserves its quality.
  • If you can't use a digital connection, use a component video connection. Component video is the highest-quality analog connection available. You'll still lose a little signal quality because of digital-to-analog conversion, but you'll lose far less than with S-video or composite connections.

We'll look at how to correctly configure your HDTV next.

Step 2: Configuring your HDTV

Once everything is hooked up, you'll need to configure your TV to display the picture properly. Many HDTVs are pre-set to show a very bright, vivid picture. This might look amazing in the store, but it can seem harsh or too bright in a darkened room.

Most HDTVs have several pre-set display settings with names like "normal," "vivid" or "film." You can browse through them and see which one suits your taste and the kind of movies or TV shows you watch the most. Or, you can adjust your TV manually. To do this, you'll need to access your TV's menu and adjust several settings:

  • Black level determines how dark the color black appears on your screen. Black level is important for displaying detail, but if the picture is too dark you won't be able to see what's going on in dark scenes. Some types of HDTV sets, including flat-panel and older LCoS sets, aren't as good at creating true black. The pictures on these sets still look good, but no amount of adjustment will make them produce very dark black.
  • Contrast determines the brightness of white parts of the screen and of the display as a whole. It may also be labeled as "picture" or "white level." If the contrast is set too high, the picture will be too bright for comfort. If it's too low, your picture won't be crisp and sharp.
  • Color saturation determines how vibrant the colors are on screen. Too much color saturation will make a picture look unnaturally gaudy. Too little will make it appear washed out or faded.

You can adjust your TV's settings using ordinary DVDs. First, put a DVD that you enjoy watching in your player and pause it on the frame you want to use as a test image. Adjust the control all the way up and all the way back down to see how the level affects the picture. Then, turn it up to the maximum setting and then slowly reduce the level as follows:

  • For black level, choose a letterboxed scene that has light and dark areas. Slowly decrease black level until the bars are black and you can still see the details on the screen.
  • For contrast, choose a scene that shows lots of detail on a white surface. Slowly decrease the contrast until the intensity of the white surface doesn't hurt your eyes but you can still see the details clearly.
  • For color saturation, choose a scene that shows a person with fair skin. Reduce the saturation until the person appears to have a healthy glow rather than a sunburn.

Your TV may have other adjustable settings that determine picture sharpness or color balance. It may also have enhancement features that are supposed to make broadcasts look better. Exactly how these settings affect your picture and whether they should be turned on or left off depends on your TV and what you choose to watch on it.

To get your picture to look even better, you can use a calibration or setup DVD. Calibration DVDs come with instruction manuals and use test patterns to help you adjust all of the controls correctly. Your TV may come with a simplified setup DVD, but you can also buy one separately. If you want the best possible quality, you can also hire a professional to calibrate your television for you.

If you use your HDTV primarily to watch DVDs, these steps should make your set display a clear, accurate picture. You may still want to upgrade to a high-definition player, such as an HD-DVD or Blu-ray player, especially if you have an exceptionally large set. But if you hope to watch TV programs or sports broadcasts in high definition, you'll need to make sure that you're really getting a high-definition signal. We'll look at how to do that in the next section.

Step 3: Picking the Right Programs

An indoor HDTV antenna
An indoor HDTV antenna

Even with top-quality connections and perfect calibration, an HDTV can't turn a bad signal into a good picture. If you try to watch old, videotaped episodes of TV shows on huge, high-definition set, the display will magnify static, snow and distortion. Even standard-definition cable, satellite or over-the-air signals might not look very good on a high-definition set.

However, watching standard-definition broadcasts on a high-definition TV is pretty common. About half of the people who currently own high-definition TVs aren't watching high-definition programming on them. About 17 percent of HDTV owners don't know that they're not watching high-definition broadcasts [ref]. In some cases, people don't have access to high-definition signals. But in others, people don't know how to make their TVs pick up HD broadcasts or haven't taken the steps necessary to do it.

Sometimes, you can watch high-definition broadcasts over the air for free. To do this, your TV has to have an HDTV tuner. Your TV may already have a tuner built in. But if you bought an HDTV-ready set rather than an HDTV, you'll need to buy a separate tuner to pick up HD broadcasts. You'll also need an indoor or outdoor antenna to receive the signals.

An outdoor HDTV antenna

Currently, the United States is transitioning from analog to digital over-the-air broadcasts. For this reason, many stations broadcast on two channels - one is analog, and the other is digital. Check with your local stations to find out which channels carry digital signals and whether they broadcast in high definition. Make sure to tune into the digital stations rather than the analog ones you're used to. Unless trees, the landscape or long distances keep the signals from reaching you, you should see a clear picture that doesn't have interference or ghost images.

You can also watch high-definition broadcasts via cable or satellite. To do so, you'll need to contact your local provider and ask about digital and high-definition service plans. To receive high-definition broadcasts over cable or satellite, you'll need:

  • Equipment that supports high-definition signals - you may have to upgrade your satellite dish, receiver or set-top box
  • A service plan that includes high-definition broadcasts
  • Stations on that plan that broadcast in high definition
An HDTV cable box
Image courtesy Amazon

Once you're ready to watch digital broadcasts, the last thing you may need to adjust is your set's aspect ratio. HDTVs use a 16:9 aspect ratio. This means that you'll be able to watch most recent movies in their original aspect ratio without black letterbox bars taking up part of your screen. If you were previously buying full-screen DVDs, you'll want to switch to widescreen to make the most of the widescreen display.

However, when you watch television shows that were filmed in a 4:3 aspect ratio, you'll see black bars on the sides of your screen. These bars make the part of the screen you're looking at the same size as an old-fashioned TV, but some people find them irritating. Through your TV's menu, you can stretch or crop the image to make it fit the screen. This can distort the image, but if you don't like the bars, it can be an acceptable trade-off.

Check out the links on the next page for more information on TVs, high-definition broadcasts and other topics. ­

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More Great Links

Sources

  • Lamb, Gregory M. "Why HDTV Is Getting a Fuzzy Reception." Christian Science Monitor. 2/9/2006.
  • Kindig, Steve. "Help Your TV Make the Most of Every Signal." Crutchfield Advisor. http://www.crutchfieldadvisor.com/S-cahQwJ4qALq/learningcenter/home/tv_signalquality.html?page=1
  • Samsung Interactive Guide to DTV and HDTV http://product.samsung.com/cgi-bin/nabc/campaign/dtvguide/index.jsp
  • Cnet: Picture Perfect: HDTV Tune-up Tips http://bestbuy-cnet.com.com/4352-12658_7-6544389.html