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Five tips for a better HDTV picture

If you're not satisfied with how your TV looks, or want to make sure you're getting the best out of it, here are five easy steps for better picture quality.

Geoffrey Morrison Contributor
Geoffrey Morrison is a writer/photographer about tech and travel for CNET, The New York Times, and other web and print publications. He's also the Editor-at-Large for The Wirecutter. He has written for Sound&Vision magazine, Home Theater magazine, and was the Editor-in-Chief of Home Entertainment magazine. He is NIST and ISF trained, and has a degree in Television/Radio from Ithaca College. His bestselling novel, Undersea, and its sequel, Undersea Atrophia, are available in paperback and digitally on Amazon. He spends most of the year as a digital nomad, living and working while traveling around the world. You can follow his travels at BaldNomad.com and on his YouTube channel.
Geoffrey Morrison
5 min read

It may seem extreme, but it's possible for one TV to look as good, and as bad, as the two halves of the picture above. Geoffrey Morrison

Everyone wants the best performance out of any product they buy. HDTVs can look great in a store, and then terrible at home. If you're not satisfied with how your TV looks, or want to check to make sure you're getting the best out of it, here are five easy steps for better picture quality.

Check your cables
Any new TV should be hooked up to your sources (i.e. cable/satellite box, Blu-ray, or DVD player, etc.) with HDMI cables. If your equipment is slightly older, component cables (red, green, and blue) also deliver HD signals.

If you're using the yellow composite cable for anything, know that you're not getting HD. By far the easiest upgrade is to get new cables, and that will result in the biggest improvement in picture quality if you're still using composite.

HDMI cables need not be expensive. A short HDMI cable shouldn't run you more than a couple of dollars. Check out my article on why all HDMI cables perform the same and the follow up Why all HDMI cables are the same, part 2.

Some sources, like VCRs and Nintendo's Wii, are standard definition only, so if you're using a composite cable for these, that's OK. The Wii will look slightly better if you use component, but it's not a tremendous improvement.

Bottom line: Use HDMI cables wherever you can.

Upgrade your sources
Just having an HDTV doesn't mean you're watching HD. You need an HD source as well.

If you didn't upgrade your TV service when you bought your new TV, you're missing out. Nearly all cable and satellite providers offer step-up HD packages. Without paying for or activating these, you're not getting HD.

Blu-ray offers six times the resolution of DVD. Even the best upconverting DVD players can't match the picture quality of full 1080p HD from Blu-ray. Players are cheap, with some models less than $100.

A free option is over-the-air HDTV, where you just need an antenna. Here's an article on how to get free HDTV.

Bottom line: You need an HD source to watch HD. The TV alone doesn't make what you're watching HD.

Check your source settings
Even if you have an HD source, like Blu-ray or an HD cable/satellite box, it still doesn't mean you're getting HD. Make sure the cable/satellite box is set to output HD, generally 1080i. Don't assume it will automatically set the resolution correctly (though it should). You can find this resolution setting in the box's menu, sometimes labeled "Aspect Ratio." For more info, check out Set-top box setup: Which resolution is best?

Also make sure you tune to the correct channel. Some providers have separate HD channels from their SD counterparts.

This would be something like channel 4 being standard-definition NBC, but channel 1004 is high-definition NBC.

Your provider will have a listing as to where your specific HD channels are.

It's important to note that if you've set your box to 1080i, your TV will say "1080i" regardless if the channel is HD or not. Just because the TV says "1080i," doesn't mean you're actually getting HD. You have to be tuned to an HD channel as well.

If you're sticking with DVD, make sure you set the player's aspect ratio to 16x9. If you bought a new HDTV, upgrading from an old CRT "tube" TV, the player is likely set for 4x3. Changing this output to 16x9 will increase picture quality, and also minimize the black bars on movies. Similar to the warning about 1080i in the previous paragraph, if the DVD player is set incorrectly you'll still get an image, but you'll either have black bars on the sides (and the top and bottom) or everyone will be stretched out and fat. Black bars at the top and bottom are normal on some movies, but unless you're watching an old TV show or an old black-and-white movie, bars on the sides are not.

Bottom line: Make sure your source is friendly with your HDTV for the best picture quality.

Adjust your TV settings (basic)
If everything is plugged in and set correctly, a few minutes spent with your TV's settings will be the next tweak toward the best it can look.

Setting the contrast and brightness controls will result in the biggest change. Check out my guide on how to do this by eye.

Take a few moments to cycle through the preset settings on your TV. For most people, they leave it in the Vivid or Sports mode. These modes rarely have accurate color, and often add "edge enhancement" that adds subtle halos around objects to give the appearance of sharpness while masking true fine detail. Movie or Cinema mode is often the most accurate setting. Here's how to pick the best picture mode.

If you're looking for even better performance, there are several setup Blu-rays available, which will lead you through each setting and how to adjust it. Disney's "WOW: World of Wonder" disc is a standout. I review several setup discs here.

Bottom line: A few small adjustments in your TV's menus can result in big changes in picture quality (usually for the better).

Adjust your TV settings (advanced)
If you've adjusted what you can either by eye or with a setup disc, the next step gets a bit more elaborate. Certain settings, like color temperature, can only be accurately adjusted by a trained TV calibrator.

HDTV calibration is the ultimate step in ensuring you're getting the best performance from your TV. It isn't for everyone, though. I did an article about the pros and cons of calibration, and got some pretty varied comments that are worth checking out.

Bottom line: For the absolute best your TV can perform, consider hiring a professional.

Got a question for Geoff? First, check out all the other articles he's written on topics like why all HDMI cables are the same, LED LCD vs. plasma, active versus passive 3D, and more. Still have a question? Send him an e-mail! He won't tell you what TV to buy, but he might use your letter in a future article. You can also send him a message on Twitter @TechWriterGeoff or Google+.