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Ask the Editors: Why don't you use the service menu to calibrate TVs you review?

CNET HDTV reviewer David Katzmaier answers a reader's question regarding why his reviews don't take advantage of the hidden service menu during calibration.

LG's user menu is more-detailed than the service menus of most TVs. Sarah Tew/LG

Q: As an AVS forum member, I have to tell you we really look forward to your reviews. They are often cited when discussing the various brands and models. I am writing to you however to make a suggestion on how to make your reviews even more effective for the videophiles and those thoroughly researching new TVs. I understand you at one time included service menu calibrations, but now you do not. There are those of us who would like you to access the service menu during reviews, enabling you (and us) to gauge what the real potential of what the TV being reviewed is capable of. Why don't you?

--Dean from Oregon

A: Thanks for writing Dean. I appreciate the suggestion, I understand your reasoning, and I agree that calibrating the service menu is often, depending on the model and its available user-menu controls, the only way to fully realize the potential of the TV.

For the uninitiated, the service menu contained on most TVs is typically only accessible by inputting a string of specific button-presses that aren't described in the manual. It usually contains advanced settings that control all aspects of the TV, from color points to grayscale controls to noise filter thresholds to bulb life countdowns. Some of these controls can be tweaked to improve the picture beyond the controls available in the TV's user menu. But for people unfamiliar with service menus, they can be a minefield of potential screw-ups, and in some cases an incorrect adjustment can completely disable a TV. Moreover, most service menus lack a "reset" button to take everything back to the default values.

A couple of years ago, I decided to stop using the service menu for calibrations of TVs I review. I did so for what I consider a few very good reasons.

First, since I publish picture settings with every TV review, I would have to post service menu settings as well. I'm not willing to do that because I think most CNET readers (and 99.9% of humanity as a whole) would be confused by service menu settings, and asking them to access a "secret" menu that has the potential to really mess up their TVs is asking for trouble. That trouble could come from both confused users and irate manufacturers who, understandably, want to restrict service menu access--if only to reduce the inevitable flood of calls to customer service. I consider publishing picture settings an integral part of my TV reviews, because it allows readers to get as close as possible to the picture I'm seeing in my lab. I wouldn't compromise that ideal by not publishing service menu settings, too.

Second, accessing the service menu is something the vast majority of owners would never do, or even think to do. A review of a TV performed without service menu adjustments more correctly reflects how that vast majority of viewers will actually experience the TV in everyday use, after a reasonable number of adjustments to user-accessible controls.

In addition, concentrating on the user menu gives TV makers credit for instituting better settings, and encourages them to make improvements. LG is a very good example. I've lauded the company for including numerous picture settings, and indeed its 2009 Expert user menu, seen on the LH30 series for example, is better than what's available on any service menu I've seen. Samsung, Sony, and recently Sharp and even Panasonic offer white balance gain and often cut/offset controls for grayscale adjustment. TV makers pay attention to CNET reviews, too, and I have been told by more than one engineer that what I write figures into their designs.

Finally, ignoring the service menu saves me time. I'm basically the only one who reviews TVs for CNET. Adding a service menu calibration would increase the amount of time spent for a review quite a bit, not least because I'd feel obligated to review the TV in both user-menu and service-menu calibrations, to accommodate users who don't want to risk accessing that menu. In a perfect world I'd have enough time to do this, as well as institute other, more in-depth evaluations that I'm sure would please enthusiasts. But I just don't have the time.

PS: I'm originally from Medford. Oregon in the house!