Picture settings and calibration FAQ--Ask the editors

CNET's editors answer questions related to HDTV picture setup and calibration of picture settings.

David Katzmaier Editorial Director -- Personal Tech
David reviews TVs and leads the Personal Tech team at CNET, covering mobile, software, computing, streaming and home entertainment. We provide helpful, expert reviews, advice and videos on what gadget or service to buy and how to get the most out of it.
Expertise A 20-year CNET veteran, David has been reviewing TVs since the days of CRT, rear-projection and plasma. Prior to CNET he worked at Sound & Vision magazine and eTown.com. He is known to two people on Twitter as the Cormac McCarthy of consumer electronics. Credentials
  • Although still awaiting his Oscar for Best Picture Reviewer, David does hold certifications from the Imaging Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Standards and Technology on display calibration and evaluation.
David Katzmaier
4 min read

Complex picture settings menus like this one can raise a lot of questions. CNET

At CNET we publish our recommended dark-room picture settings with every HDTV we review, and it's one of our most popular features. We also host a picture settings forum that you can search for your model, so you can try our settings and see if you like them. We still get lots of questions from readers interested in picture settings, however, so we'll cover a few of the most popular here.

Thanks for the dark-room picture settings, but could you give me settings for my TV in a bright room?
No, I can't. We don't publish bright-room picture for a number of reasons. First off, room lighting varies tremendously; think about the difference between having a couple dim lamps turned on versus watching in daylight with a window shining on the screen, for instance. Second, a dark room is the best place to enjoy high-quality images, because the screen's reflective properties and the room's ambient light conditions won't influence the onscreen image. Third, we simply don't have the time to do so in every review. For a quick-and dirty bright-room calibration, take our dark-room picture settings and increase the contrast and/or backlight control until the image looks bright enough, then increase brightness until you see all of the detail in shadowy areas.

I read the whole review, but I can't find the settings. Where are they?
Typically they're linked from the second paragraph in the Performance section of the review. If not, try searching the picture settings forum linked above. If you still can't find them, check out this post.

I can't find my TV listed in the forum, and you haven't reviewed it. Can you give me picture settings anyway?
Nope. If we haven't reviewed the TV, we can't calibrate it, and so we cannot publish the settings.

Are the picture settings for one model going to look good on a different screen size or model by the same manufacturer?
Usually they're a good start. If we haven't reviewed your exact model but have reviewed a similar one--especially a model from the same year or even the same series in a different screen size--go ahead and try our settings. They usually translate well.

How do you arrive at those "ideal" settings anyway?
We perform a our standard calibration as part of every review.

My TV's user-menu adjustments are inadequate. Can you tell me what adjustments to make to the service menu?
Nope. We no longer use the service menu--which is a hidden menu used by manufacturers and professional calibrators, and accessible typically via a secret code--in our calibrations. We recommend against users accessing this menu as well, since accessing a service menu can void the TV's warranty and one wrong move can brick a TV (trust us on that one). That's also why we harp on available picture settings in our TV reviews, and laud TVs that have detailed settings for things like color temperature.

Are your settings as good as a professional calibration?
It depends on the TV, and the calibrator. We've heard horror stories about pointless, expensive calibrations, whether from independent contractors or services like Best Buy's Geek Squad, and we've also heard from customers who are very happy with their professional calibrations. Sometimes the CNET picture settings, since they don't address the service menu, can't be as accurate as a professional one that does go into the service menu. When a TV has plenty of user-menu controls, however, the CNET settings can be just as good as a professional calibration, with the significant caveats that of course a pro can make adjustments for you on-site, takes into account your entire system and room lighting condition, and can provide other general advice. We also use the best equipment available and our reviewers are all very experienced calibrators, while some calibration services lack our experience and equipment.

I tried your settings and they're too dark. What gives?
Some viewers are used to brighter images, and in comparison our calibration might seem too dark. We prefer an image that's a bit darker, however, to one that can cause eyestrain in dark rooms, spoil black-level performance, reveal excessive video noise or make the image appear generally less-natural--all of which can happen with overly bright settings. But hey, if you like a brighter picture, feel free to turn it up.

I want to adjust the picture myself. Do you have any tips?
I wrote a piece on doing your own picture setup, and it should provide a good jumping-off point. You can also buy a DVD or Blu-ray setup disc if you want better results.

DVE: HD Basics is our go-to Blu-ray disc for picture adjustments. Joe Kane Productions

Can you recommend any particular setup discs?
For DVD sources, I recommend Joe Kane's Digital Video Essentials for advanced users and the Monster/ISF Calibration Wizard for newbies. If you have a Blu-ray player and want to set up for HD sources, the new Digital Video Essentials: HD Basics is great.

Does your calibration account for a break-in period?
I always run HDTVs for at least 24 hours in default picture settings before I calibrate and/or compare them in a review, but I don't break them in in any standardized fashion for longer than that. Picture characteristics on any kind of HDTV do shift over time, so the settings I use for my (relatively new) HDTVs for review aren't necessarily as accurate on a TV with a few hundred or more hours on it. Again, however, they should provide a good jumping-off point.

Do you have any other questions about CNET's picture settings or picture settings in general? If so, let me know in the comments section and if I missed anything big, I'll add it to this FAQ.