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Getting Great HDTV Pictures
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June 2008      back to HDTV index

See also Picking the Best HDTV for more tips. I cover some critical adjustments on that page since you need them to evaluate a set in the store, and didn't want to duplicate them here.

Source Material

The picture is only as good as the source.

Most broadcast, cable and satellite TV looks poor compared to HD-DVD, Blu-ray or even regular DVDs.

Motion, breakup, weird pixelation and most other problems are in the program. Larger TVs make these problems far more obvious than they ever were before. Most people watching cable think there's something wrong when they get their huge plasma set up for the first time.

If you're going to buy an HDTV, buy a Blu-ray player to go with it. HD DVD lost the format war, so at least a $400 Blu-ray player is mandatory. Sadly, these players are still clunky, and take a while to read the disks.

We joined Netflix, who supplies us with an endless source of DVDs, HD DVDs and Blu-ray for less than $20 a month. This is the best HD content for less than the cost of any cable subscription. Talk to anyone who uses them, and you'll never waste time driving around trying to rent DVDs again. Netflix mails us DVDs as fast as we can watch them, limited only by how many we want sitting around at the same time.

"Upscaling" or "1080i output" does not make a common DVD player into an HD source. You need to pay for a real Blu-ray or HD DVD player. Some video games have Blu-ray players, and hackers use those to play into their HDTVs.

One pal in Hollywood tells me the best Blu-ray player is the PS3. I haven't researched this.

See Source Material for more.


Video and S-Video Connections

Forget the single yellow "video" or black multi-pin S-VHS connectors. They have less quality than the other connections. These are for connecting to 1980s TVs.

Modern Connections

Use your choice of the flat HDMI connector or the three red, green and blue colored component video connectors.

Either looks as good. Any differences between them will be more dependant on the intricacies of your particular set than the technology behind them. I'd try HDMI first, but if you're picky, try each and see.

Tip: You can hook up both at the same time, and switch the TV between them with your remote control to compare!

Component Analog Video (CAV)

These are three 1/4" (6mm) RCA connectors. Usually you connect to your set with a 5-section cable, three for video and two for sound.

If you get bizarre colors, check:

1.) Be sure the cables are connected to the proper sockets. Pay more attention the the lettering at each connector than its color. If you reverse any of the three component analog connectors, you get really weird reversed colors.

2.) If things are still bizarre, the TV and the source need to be set to the same set of color signals: usually Y-Pr-Pb. If one is set to Y-Pr-Pb and the other is set to RGB, you've got weird colors.


HDMI is a flat parallel digital connector. It was invented to thwart people from copying movies, since its digital signal can be encrypted.

Don't force it: there is only one way to insert the cable. It carries picture and sound, and is the easiest way to connect things.

Picture quality is the same as the component video signals. If you're picky, try each and see if there are any differences. Many sets use different calibrations for each.

See also Shopping for Cables.

Switching Between Sources

As you change between SD and HD channels and sources, it's normal for there to be several seconds of recombobulation. Expect a few seconds of potentially weird things for everything to get resynchronized.

Adjusting Your HDTV

This is the only hard part, and the most important part after you've chosen good source material.

At its default, most sets are adjusted way too bright and gaudy. This might be impressive for sports and even optimal for casual watching in a bright room, but nasty for movies at night.

The easiest way to adjust this is to look for something like "Picture Control" in the menus, and try a setting like "Movie" instead of "Vivid," "Bold" or "Burn Out."

Most sets are adjusted too blue to look brighter. Set the Color Temperature to 6500K to match Hollywood.

Only if you know what you're doing, you may need to play around in the advanced menus to tune the image.

I've been setting up TVs for decades, so I'm at a slight disadvantage trying to see this process from a normal person's point of view. I'm going to investigate some setup DVDs and let you know.

Sadly HDTVs do not have the automated adjustment flexibility of computers. It's trivial to buy a Spyder and let it calibrate every possible color on my Mac. TVs don't have the ability to correct every color; at best you can set black, mid tones and white. This is an area for improvement.

You can drive an HDTV from a computer, and you can calibrate the computer to your screen. Good luck!

Upconversions and Scaling

Anytime you're watching SD programming, which is going to be most of the time, the image must be upscaled once to fit the larger screen.

This may happen at the TV network, TV station or cable or satellite system, in which case you have no control over it. To my amazement, some HD cable channels use awful devices to try to get the image to fit the wider screen, and make the images unwatchable to me.

At home, to watch any SD program, station or DVD on an HDTV, it needs to be upconverted once.

Your DVD player, cable box or video receiver all may be able to do this. Your set always can, too. Your set will always upconvert using its converter when fed an SD signal, and not even tell you.

To select whether the TV set or the source does the upconversion, set the source to upconvert, or not. If the source upconverts, you're seeing its upconversion. If you set that source to "output: 480" for an SD output, then your set will automatically do the upconversion.

Upconverters may differ in quality. If your set is the best, then be sure to deactivate any upconversion in your sources, like the DVD player. If your DVD player does it better than your set, then activate it in the DVD player.

DVD players and cable boxes don't usually use the word "upconversion" in their menus. More often, setting or forcing them to 1080i output makes them upconvert.

It pays to play with the settings to see which is best to use for watching standard-definition video.

DVD Players

Upcoverting DVD players don't always do the right thing. If they upconvert a regular training or amateur video DVD to 1080i, often your HDTV won't be able to stretch the smaller 4:3 image to fit the screen. In these cases, you'll want to try to tell the DVD player not to upscale.

Making the Picture Fit: Wide Modes

Here's an extremely important aspect of any TV or big screen. Most ordinary TV viewing has to stretch the standard-shaped 4:3 TV image to fit the wider HDTV screen.

Sets vary wildly in how well they do this stretch. TVs have various options, and we always need to select among them as the programs change. If you use a universal remote (from your cable company, for instance), you'll need one that lets you choose the various Wide Modes to fit whatever you're watching.

Important is to have a set with an intelligent wide-stretching algorithm. Few sets do this well.

Not only do few TVs do this well, some "HD" cable channels merely upconvert standard movies to make the HD light on your set blink, and do a crappy stretch to make it fit the wider screen. Once these networks have done this stretch the wrong way, there really isn't anything you can do to undo the crappy stretching and do it better at home.

This is the most important aspect of selecting a TV, but sadly, few people in the TV store can find the remote and let you see how these modes work. They are different and have different names on each brand of set.

Here are some of the options you'll have on most sets.

"Stretch" or "Full"

In this simplest mode, the wide TV simply stretches all of the narrower 4:3 image to fit the wider screen.

People look fat and round things aren't anymore. Don't use this, but sadly, its the best option on most HDTVs.

"Panoramic" or "Wide"

This smarter mode leaves the middle of the picture alone, but has to stretch the farthest sides of the image much more to fill the screen.

This mode usually looks awful since things are pulled out so far at the sides. If there is a pan you'll get sick from how much faster things move at the sides. Scrolling letters at the bottom of the screen also look stupid because they come in fast from one side, slow down in the middle, and sped back up on their way out the other side.


This simply blows up the image to fill the screen.

There is no distortion, but when you use this to make a standard image fill the wide screen, you are cutting off the top and bottom of the picture.

This is perfect if you're watching a video that has the top and bottom cut off already with black bars, but poor if it doesn't.

Some TVs, like the Vizios, have arbitrary zooms so you can get very close. The bad part is that these zooms are usually at the wrong magnifications so you have to compromise between losing some picture or having some black bar left.

"Smart" or "Wide Zoom"

This mode does everything right to make a standard 4:3 picture fill the screen without distortion. It uses just a little of three different stretch modes to get the picture to fit with no visible artifacts.

To stretch properly, the set needs to:

1.) Leave the center alone!

2.) Stretch out the far sides just a little.

3.) Squish-in the top and bottom just a little.

4.) Cut off just a little from the top and bottom, and voila, 4:3 fills 16:9 with no visible problems.

I've only seen this on one set, a $5,000 Sony 32" 16:9 CRT consumer HDTV from about 2001. Good luck! This is a feature which would make or break a purchase decision for me, and one which is never listed in the specs. You just have to watch it.


Wide Screen vs. Full Screen DVDs

I explain these at Source Material.


Burn In

Plasmas can burn-in if you're using them to project your computer, or watch the same channel with the same bright logos all the time. If you're watching graphics all the time, you might want something other than plasma.

The good news is that one of our pals ran Pioneer for a while, and he tells us that today's sets no longer burn out too soon. Panel life is no longer an issue, but the fear of it still exists.

In one of my broadcast magazines there was an editorial wondering if a station's logo got burnt into someone's plasma set, if that station was liable to replace his set. I have no idea.

I've seen this happen when I was at a trade show where we rented a plasma to demonstrate some of out technical measuring equipment. There were lines and graphs up on the screen for about a week, and oh-oh, when we put it away after the show, those lines were burnt in. No problem, having half the world's brightest TV engineers in one place we simply generated a reverse signal (dark lines on white) and let that burn-in a while to compensate for the other burn in. You or I personally wouldn't have that ability.



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