If you're hosting a Super Bowl XLVII party on February 3, you'll probably spend more time thinking about the food and drinks you'll serve than whether or not you're getting the best out of your television. Fortunately, you don't have to be a TV guru to get your set running like a champ in time for kickoff.
It used to be that when you brought a TV home, the settings would all be cranked too high—that's "torch mode" in industry speak. That's because manufacturers, concerned that the TV might be demonstrated by a retailer on an overly bright sales floor, would turn up the set's brightness controls and oversaturate the colors to make the picture pop in harsh lighting.
These days, TVs offer a first-time setup option that lets us select a "home" mode instead of a "retail" or "store" setting. But we now have the opposite problem: Because manufacturers try to hit energy-efficiency numbers to meet Energy Star guidelines, the out-of-box home settings may make the TV too dim or undersaturate the colors.
You could pay a few hundred dollars for a professional calibrator to set up your TV for best performance, but here's a better idea: Do it yourself. We've provided a few simple tips to help you give your TV a Super Bowl tune-up that you can enjoy for the rest of the year. If you're attempting this for the first time, you might be nervous that you'll completely screw up the TV's settings. But don't be afraid to tweak to your heart's content, as almost all TVs have a reset button that will return the TV to its default factory settings.
Here's where to begin:
Try a factory picture preset. All TVs now come with a menu of picture modes with names such as "vivid," "natural," "sports," or "cinema." When you select one of these modes, the brightness, contrast, and sharpness are automatically adjusted to preset values optimized for different viewing environments. Although it might seem odd, don't choose the "sports" mode for watching sports. Also stay away from the "vivid" and "dynamic" modes, which tend to dramatically boost contrast and sharpness and lower brightness to less-than-optimal levels. We've found that modes with names like "natural," "cinema," and "pro" generally provide the most-balanced settings.
Once you've selected one of these preferred modes, many TVs let you tweak the picture's appearance further. On other sets, if you try to change the settings, your picture mode will automatically change to a "custom" or "preference" mode, allowing you to adjust picture settings individually.
Make the individual adjustments yourself. With us so far? Then go one step further by adjusting the individual picture settings yourself rather than using a preset mode. These picture settings are described below.
Brightness level: This is also called black level, and it's critical to top picture quality. Ideally, a TV should be able to display deep black without losing the detail within the darkest areas. To help you achieve the right balance, freeze-frame a nighttime scene, like one from a Batman or vampire movie. Turn the brightness/black level up until you can see the details in the image's darkest areas. Then turn it down so the black gets as black as possible without obscuring the details in the dark areas. With LCD sets, you won't get as deep a black as with other display technologies.
Contrast: Also called white level, contrast affects how bright the picture looks. Find an image with lots of white—say, a wedding gown, a man's dress shirt, or a sky full of puffy white clouds. Lower the contrast until you can see all the detail, such as the shadows in the folds of the gown, the buttons on the shirt, or the subtle gray shadings in the clouds. Then raise it to get the brightest picture possible without washing out the subtle, near-white details described. For the best picture quality, it's generally best to set contrast below the maximum level.
Color and tint: Once the black-and-white quality is optimized, it's time to adjust the color settings. Start with color temperature, sometimes called color tone. We recommend choosing the "warm" or "low" setting, so whites don't appear too blue. Then adjust the tint/hue control so that flesh tones look natural, neither too red nor too greenish-yellow—this generally works best when it's set in the middle of the range. Adjust the color-level control (saturation) so that colors look vivid and realistic but not excessive (glowing). All these settings may interact with one another, so repeat the process as necessary.
Sharpness and more: Manufacturers often set the sharpness control rather high and turn on noise-reduction and other image-enhancement modes. These are rarely needed when you're watching high-quality HD programming or a DVD movie. In most cases, resist the temptation to crank up sharpness to enhance HD's fine detail. The best HDTVs need little or no help to show all the resolution in HD images.
If you set the sharpness control too high, the background will start to look grainy, and a halo will appear around the edges of objects, making the overall image appear less natural. We suggest you turn the sharpness control down to zero, then add sharpness sparingly only if the image looks soft. Also turn off any noise-reduction and image-enhancement modes that tend to reduce image detail.
But if your TV viewing consists mainly of standard-definition programs with typically noisy picture quality, then you may want to explore the noise reduction modes to determine if they work for you. These modes are typically found in the menus for picture adjustments, advanced picture settings, or setup.
If you want a do-over: If you're unhappy with the adjustments you've made to the picture, don't panic. Hitting the reset button should restore the factory settings, and you can start over. Or choose a picture mode and fine-tune the automatic settings that produces. If all else fails, set the brightness, contrast, color, and tint controls in the middle. You'll usually get a decent picture.
Consider the source: You may have to tweak picture settings for each video source, depending on the signal and its TV input. Each TV input has different circuitry that processes various types of signals, so brightness, color, and other picture attributes may vary. You may find that a DVD player connected to the S-video input yields a different quality picture than the same player connected to the component-video input. When you switch sources, you'll get the best picture quality with settings customized to each input. Some TVs let you store the settings; others, unfortunately, do not.
Do-it-yourselfers who want to calibrate their TV picture in a more precise way can use a calibration Blu-ray disc, such as the "Digital Video Essentials HD Basics" or "Disney WOW: World of Wonder on Blu-ray." We found the latter was the easier of the two to use for first-timers. Both discs will walk you through a step-by-step picture alignment process, eliminating guesswork. In addition, some THX-certified Blu-rays include a free THX Optimizer calibration tool that will help you optimize both video and audio settings on your TV.
So that's really all it takes to get your TV primed for prime-time viewing. At the very least, try switching to one of the more accurate presets. But if you decide to go whole hog with the individual adjustments in time for the pigskin pageant, let us know how it went, and whether the improvements you've made are noticeable to your other family members.
—James K. Willcox