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Monday, March 22, 2004
Updated: October 9, 10:36 AM ET
Calibrating your TV

By Brooks Flynn
Product Specialist Philips Consumer Electronics

After you have been shopping for your new TV and have finally come to a selection from all of the choices in styles, brands, features, and performance, most people just take it home (or if you are lucky have it delivered) and plug it in.

What most people do not realize is that without making adjustments to your set, you are most likely not watching it at its best picture performance. Depending on the type of TV you purchased, you may shorten its life or increase the chance of damaging the set. While the HD picture on your set may look great, it can actually look better, and proper calibration and set up of your TV will help both pictures look dramatically better.

TV sets are usually calibrated in the factory to look good on a showroom floor. In order to stand out on a showroom floor the most important factor is a bright picture. In a bright store setting, TVs are competing with both the ambient light in the room and all of the other TVs on display. The best way to draw attention to a TV is by having a bright picture.

When you take your TV home though, you are not competing with other TVs (unless you have a really cool TV room) and you can control the ambient light. If you are installing your TV in a home theater setting you will probably find it blaringly bright. And, when dealing with Plasma and Rear Projection TV's, these settings can reduce the life of the set and increase the risk of "burn in."

Burn in is a condition related to the way a picture is displayed on these TVs. With both Rear Projection and Plasma, the image is produced by phosphors that are excited through different processes. These phosphors get hot and they can burn in if left with a static image on the screen. Properly calibrating you set will greatly reduce the risk of burn in and will prolong the life of you TV.

We will look at six basic TV settings that you can adjust to calibrate your picture properly. Some parts of a TV picture are personal preference, especially when dealing with color adjustments.

There are standards by which you can set these colors, and there are some resources you can use to reach the "perfect" picture on you TV set. First though, we will start out with the basics and let you know what each item is, what it does, and what you should see when set properly. It is best to adjust your picture will a still image, so if you can find a DVD with a variety of dark and bright scenes that would be the best option.

Brightness

The brightness setting is actually officially called black level. The brightness control changes the color and brightness of black within the picture. Most times the brightness control is set way too high in order to give a floor model of a TV an overall bright picture. When turning down the brightness control, you want to adjust it so that the darkest areas of the picture are black, but not so much that you lose detail. Take a dark alleyway image from a DVD or on TV, and adjust is so that black is black, and that you can still see the detail on images in the dark.

Contrast/Picture

This control is also called the white level. It controls the overall color of white within the image. This control is also often set very high in TVs right out of the box. You will probably end up turning this control down to between 40-60% of its available level. You want to make sure that edges of bright white images do not appear blurred, or what is technically called "blooming." This setting is especially important to turn down in Plasma and Rear Projection TVs as it is one of the major contributors to an increased risk of burn in.

Sharpness

Sharpness is a control that artificially enhances the edges of images on the TV screen. It is probably the most over used control on most TV sets today. Most people see sharpness and think "I want as sharp a picture as possible, so I'll just turn it all the way up." In fact, you will want to take sharpness almost all the way down and off is usually the most preferable setting for this control. In trying to enhance the edges of objects on the screen, it's more likely that it adds picture artifacts, making edges look fuzzy, or like they have a halo. If the source material is good (i.e. you have a really strong cable signal) you may find it does help the picture slightly. Be judicious with this control and never turn it all the way on.

Color

Color is a more personal setting, in that different people perceive color and find different amounts of color pleasing. Color is often set to high on a TV out of the box, but it may not be as drastically high as some of the other settings. Setting the color level should be done with an image whose color you know well, things like school buses, stop signs, and other objects to which you have some reference in real life. Color should appear natural and not overemphasized. You want the school bus to appear yellow, but not fluorescent or dull.

Tint

Tint is something that is probably best left in the middle. Even after calibrating several of my TVs, I have almost always found that the middle is the best setting for this level. If you do change this setting from the middle, only change it a few notches.

Color Temperature

Color temperature is a setting that most people set to "warm." Even though color is a personal preference, "warm" is not usually the most accurate setting. It over emphasizes red tones, and makes pale people look tan. I always recommend adjusting the setting to normal, or even cool in some instances.

Now, after you have calibrated your TV set, it will look different. Give yourself time to adjust to your new settings. Do not look at your set and say, "it doesn't look good, I'll just put it back to the way it was." Wait at least a week, and re-examine the picture again. Many people are so used to watching an improperly calibrated picture that they are actually used to seeing a bad picture. If you give yourself time to adjust, you will probably start to notice details and parts of the picture you have never seen before.

It is also important to note that on some TVs there are different picture settings for each video input. So check you settings and see if they have been set for all inputs or just one. You may have to attach a DVD source to each input you plan to watch in order to calibrate it properly. If you are watching regular cable, and have no access to put a DVD into that co-axial input, you may just have to try and find a movie channel and attempt to adjust your settings with a moving picture.

All of the settings we made above were just made with whatever content you could find. Maybe a DVD (paused on specific images), or a TV movie. But, you can purchase a DVD made specifically made for calibrating you TV set. These DVDs have varieties of test patterns which will allow you to make much more accurate adjustments. They are a wise investment, usually in the neighborhood of $25-$50, and should be used on every TV in your house in order to keep you TVs running smoothly and at their peak performance.

If calibrating your set does not seem like a task you feel competent in tackling by yourself, you can hire a professional to do the work for you. You will want to locate an ISF certified technician to come and calibrate your set. ISF stands for Imaging Science Foundation, and is a body that trains and certifies technicians with courses covering the professional calibration of video displays. They will use equipment designed specifically for measuring the parameters of the TV set, and will spend several hours getting your TV picture perfect.

They will also be able to access service settings that the general consumer does not have access to. Even people who have noticed a fantastic difference after they have calibrated their own sets with a DVD calibration disc, say that they didn't know their set could get any better until they had an ISF technician come and calibrate their set professionally. You will pay for this calibration though. Prices most likely running in the neighborhood of $200 and up. Check with your local ISF technician for exact pricing.

Whatever you do, at the least try to make the basic video calibrations yourself especially if you have not changed the default picture settings on your TV. As a general rule, you should turn down the contrast a fair amount, cut down the brightness, reduce sharpness to the off position or very close to it and adjust color so that objects look natural and not over emphasized. In the long run your set will perform better, last longer, and will give you the full enjoyment of any kind of picture, and especially an HD picture.