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How to set up your new TV: Connections, HDMI cables, picture settings and more

Got a new TV this holiday season? Here's how to make sure it's set up correctly.

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Did you get a new TV for the holidays? Congratulations! Now you might be wondering how best to set it up. Relax, despite all the jargon like HDRUltra HD 4K8KOLEDQLED120Hz and HDMI 2.1, setting up a new TV isn't hard, and done right can ensure you're getting the best picture possible. There might be lots of cables to connect and adjustments to make, but after taking all that time to find the right TV, plus driving/carrying/dragging it back home, it's worth a little extra time to make sure it's set up right. 

After you follow the instructions for getting the TV on its stand or mounted on the wall (if it isn't already), the real setup begins. Picture settings galore, along with other options and potential issues between box and beautiful picture.

This how-to guide should help you navigate the waters of TV technology.

HDMI cables

Pretty much everything you want to connect to a TV these days uses the same connection: HDMI.

An HDMI cable

An HDMI cable.

HDMI.org

HDMI cables carry high-resolution images and sound over one small cable. If you bought your TV at a store, perhaps you were pushed into buying expensive HDMI cables to go with your TV.

Expensive HDMI cables offer no benefit to the average consumer. If you paid more than $1 per foot for your HDMI cables, you should consider returning them. If you bought HDMI cables in the last few years, chances are they'll still work. If not, you can get new cables for cheap.

Pretty much all video sources, from game consoles to Blu-ray players to media streamers, use HDMI cables. If you have older gear, like a DVD player, a Nintendo Wii or a VHS deck there are some older cables you need to consider. But since many newer TVs can't connect to those older devices at all, so we're not covering them here. If your gear has HDMI, use that instead, it's better and easier.

If you're got a new 4K TV, you probably don't need new HDMI cables, despite what the salesperson might have told you. It is important to understand that it is not about the HDMI 2.0 and HDCP 2.2 cables themselves, but the connection (i.e. in your TV or media streamer). The latest version of the connection is HDMI 2.1, but you don't need to worry about that for now. 

If you're getting a PlayStation 5 or Xbox Series X, you still probably don't need new cables. The exception is if you want to run them at 4K120, something only a few TVs can handle. In that case it's worth learning about Premium Certified cables, which don't cost that much more than noncertified cables.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

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If you bought a 4K or regular Blu-ray player to go with your new TV, it will probably autodetect what your TV wants (1080p or 2160p) and send it whichever is appropriate. The same is true for a newer streaming box or game console. For older devices, or a cable or satellite box, make sure that it's set for 16:9 video and set to output HD.

Just because the cable box is capable of HD doesn't mean you're getting HD. You need to pay your provider for HD channels (unless they're included in your current package), and you sometimes need to tune to the specific HD channels. For example, with my provider, channel 2 is SD, whereas channel 1002 is HD. This is also true for Netflix and other streaming services. For example, with Netflix you can only get 4K if you're paying for the most expensive streaming tier.

Amazon Fire TV 2017

Streaming sticks and boxes are easy to connect to TVs and usually set resolution and other details automatically.

Sarah Tew/CNET

You can also get free HDTV with an antenna, and 4K over-the-air is already rolling out in many cities.

If you're trying to get sound from your TV to your soundbar or receiver, there are some specific steps you need to take. This has to do with Audio Return Channel (ARC), which is easily the most common question topic I get about modern TVs and home theater setups. Regardless, if you bought a 4K TV, you may need to get a new receiver anyway. 

If you're looking to connect your 4K TV to a computer, here are some things to think about. You can also connect your laptop to your TV wirelessly.

Picture settings

Once you have everything plugged in, take a moment to check your TV's settings. Most modern TVs will ask upon initial startup if the TV is being used in a home or a store. Pick the one most appropriate to your environment (hopefully "home"; I'm not sure why you'd be living in a Best Buy).

After you run through the TV's setup routine, you'll want to choose the best picture mode for everyday viewing. Even if you don't want to adjust anything else, selecting the right picture mode will go a long way in getting your TV to look its best. The CliffsNotes version? The TV will be its most accurate (in other words, most realistic) in its Movie or Cinema picture mode. It will appear brighter in its Sports or Vivid mode.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

If you're into finer adjustments, you can dive into the TV settings. The Backlight and Contrast controls usually adjust how bright the image appears, while Brightness controls how dark the dark parts of the image look. Turning down your TV's Sharpness control actually improves its image. A similar simple fix is to adjust the TV's overscan so you can see the entire image. Yep, your TV might be cropping off the edges!

If you want to dive even deeper, check out our articles on how to set up your TV by eye and by using a setup Blu-ray disc. And if you want to get every possible ounce of performance out of your higher-end TV, consider having it calibrated.

TVs are also susceptible to reflections so if you're having an issue with light washing out the picture, check out how to rid your TV screen of reflections. Lastly, if you're putting your TV on a stand, check out how to keep your TV from falling over.

Your new TV probably has even more settings and adjustments we don't cover here, but this should get you started. And if you're looking for something to watch, check out CNET's Streaming TV Insider. Enjoy!