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Morrison's Mailbag: Why are some of my TV controls grayed out?

Reader Diana F. has a problem with some of her TV's controls being grayed out. Geoff Morrison helps her out.

CNET reader Diana F. writes:

I have a new 65-inch plasma, and I just hooked up an HD cablebox from Comcast. In the setup menu I can't access the HD Size (grayed out) What's wrong?


Well, Diana, TV companies just don't want you changing things. Just kidding, there's more to it than that, and it's far more common than you'd think.

Modern televisions have dozens, and in some cases hundreds, of different settings for you to adjust. This is one of the less obvious ways TVs have changed over the past decade.

Ten years ago, many manufacturers were reluctant to give suckers end users consumers access to the more complex picture adjustments. One of the main reasons was they didn't want additional service and complaint calls from adventurous users who messed up their TVs and couldn't figure out how to get them back.

For years, when in the Vivid mode (the out-of-the-box picture mode), many TVs wouldn't let you adjust many functions. As most people never leave Vivid mode, TV manufacturers figured this was an easy way to hide things from an unsuspecting (and uncaring) public.

Apparently they got over it, as today most TVs give you access to color temperature, color management, and more right there in the user menu. You may need to be in a specific mode, though, for most TVs. If a lot of your TV's settings are grayed out, try switching to a different picture preset mode, like User or Cinema.

And while that explains why some controls may be grayed out, it doesn't explain why that specific control is grayed out. Many TVs, if you give them a 1080i or 1080p signal, default to maximum size. You can't zoom in on the image at all.

The reason for this could be as simple a thing as the engineers, in their wisdom, not being able to figure out why anyone would want to zoom in on a perfectly good HD image. And in that, they're right. The problem is, with cable and satellite there often isn't a perfectly good HD image.

Take, for example, BBC America on AT&T U-Verse (what I have). It's a standard-definition channel, only (480i). My cable box upconverts this to 1080i. So as far as my projector is concerned, it's a 1,920x1,080-pixel image even though it's a soft and nasty converted SD.

Like you, I can't do anything to it, size-wise. The problem is, "Top Gear" is 16x9. So on my TV it's a tiny 16x9 window, surrounded by black bars, top, bottom, and sides. Mini-Clarkson. Mini-er-Hammond. Good thing I have a big TV.

So its likely your TV is fine. Maybe it doesn't work exactly how you'd like, but this isn't really something that would just "go wrong."

Another possibility is the scaling chips in the TV can't handle it zooming and scaling a 1080 image. Either way, the end result is the same: no control for you. So it goes.

If you're having a cable box size issue (like the one I discribed) you might be able to zoom in with the cable box. Mine has this option, though the image looks even worse, and I didn't think that possible.

I get around it by just buying "Top Gear" in HD on iTunes and calling it a day. They only do, what? Three episodes a year? Lazy bastards...

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+.