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HDTV Setup: You're Doing It Wrong

  • Category: Features

By Will Greenwald (12/06/2012)

You like watching TV. You just bought a new HDTV, hooked it up, and just want to sink into your couch and enjoy that beautiful HD picture. That's perfectly reasonable. You should be able to just press a few buttons and access hundreds of channels and watch them in high definition with total ease.

But unless you set things up correctly, that might not be easy to achieve. The wrong cables, picture modes, standard-definition channels, and even screen cleaner can negatively affect your high-def enjoyment. Fortunately, it only takes a few easy steps to get things right. Below are six of the most common HDTV viewing errors, and how you can fix them in a snap.

Not Using HD Connections
We've seen this one too many times. Joe drops a grand on a new HDTV, takes it home, and sets it up only to find that the picture looks softer and less detailed than it did at the store. This isn't because the set is defective, or Best Buy used black magic to optimize the picture to get him to buy it. Joe connected his set-top box to the television with a composite video connection, or he simply screwed the white coaxial cable from his set-top box right into the back of the TV.

Just because your HDTV can display 1080p HD video doesn't mean it always displays 1080p video. The resolution of the video source is important, but so is the connection you use. There are several different ports on the back of HDTVs, Blu-ray players, game systems, and cable boxes, and most of those choices will get some form of picture on your screen. It just might not be the best picture.

The best way to connect your video source—cable or satellite box, game console, or Blu-ray player, for example—to your HDTV is HDMI. That's the trapezoid-shaped port—most HDTVs have at least 3 of them. Up to 1080p video and 7.1-channel audio can be transferred through one cable, offering the best picture and sound with the simplest connection. If you run out of ports, or if your video source doesn't have an HDMI output, you can use component video cables, which typically top out at 1080i and deliver stereo audio; video will still look good through five cables (three for the red, green, and blue color channels, and two for the audio channels).

If your device has HDMI output—and if it was made in the past five or so years it probably does—use it. It's the easiest to set up and offers the highest quality video, and you won't spend hours scratching your head, wondering why the picture on your new HDTV doesn't look as crisp as it did at the store.

Buying Expensive HDMI Cables at Retail
If you buy your HDTV at a major electronics retailer, the salesperson might try to convince you to buy your HDMI cables there. They also might try to convince you to buy expensive, brand name HDMI cables. Don't.

We've tested various HDMI cables from different manufacturers and retailers, and found that there is no appreciable difference for the average consumer. A $3 HDMI cable you buy online at Amazon.com will give you just as good a picture as a $60 name-brand cable you buy from an electronics store. If you're running a complicated setup where the sources are more than fifty feet away from your screen, you might have to look at cables with special features like shielding, which might make them more expensive. But for an everyday, simple home entertainment setup there's no reason to spend more than a couple of bucks on your cables.

Not Tuning In HD Channels On Your Cable Box
This is one of those things that seems really obvious, but can be easy to miss. When surfing those channels, make sure you're tuning into the HD version when available.

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The numbers and labels vary from service to service and market to market, but pay close attention to the channel guide and check to see if you're watching the high definition channel. On Dish Network boxes, for example, large gray HD logos appear behind the logos of high-def channels. On other cable services, the channels call letters might end with "HD" to indicate they're high definition channels. Many cable and satellite boxes let you limit the channel grid to just HD channels through a menu setting, like on the Dish Network Hopper screenshot above, but if your favorite channel isn't available in HD from your provider, you might not want to use that method.

Not every channel is available in high definition, and you might just not be able to watch your favorite programming in HD. Check with your cable or satellite provider to find out which of your channels are available in high definition, and to troubleshoot channels that should be displaying in HD but aren't.

Using "Dynamic" Or Other Preset Modes
Your HDTV probably has several nice-sounding picture settings like Cinema, Dynamic, and Sports. Cinema mode might come somewhat close to an objectively good picture, but Dynamic and Sports are right out of the question for film purists because they tend to blow out highlights and oversaturate the picture. They might look brighter and more colorful, but these modes often blow out contrast and destroy shadow and highlight detail. They often throw colors off, making red, greens, and blues seem cooler or warmer than they should.

Whenever possible, calibrate the HDTV and write those settings for future use, saving them in the "Custom" picture mode. Film-accurate, precise HDTV calibration can take hours and cost several hundred dollars if you get a professional to do it, but you can perform the basic brightness, contrast, and color adjustments yourself. Our Calibration Guide serves up simple steps to make your picture look as realistic and accurate as possible.

Watching in the Wrong Aspect Ratio
Even if your HDTV is calibrated, the picture can look extremely warped with a single accidental press of a button on your remote. Aspect ratio and zoom are settings HDTVs usually handle automatically through the video source, but when you switch between standard definition television, high definition television, Blu-ray discs, and video games, it's easy to get those settings wrong.

Whenever possible, set the aspect ratio (also sometimes called Zoom or Picture on many remote controls, or P.Size on the Samsung remote above) to Full or Just Scan. This will make the HDTV display the picture as it's being received, without stretching or zooming to fit the screen. This can mean your television shows might be pillarboxed and your movies might be letterboxed, but they will also show everything on the screen, without any part of the picture getting clipped off or warped to fit the screen size. This is the best way to fix a picture that seems strangely "off," with characters appearing taller or shorter than they should.

Using Windex or Other Household Cleaners On Your Screen
Keeping your big, beautiful screen clean is important, but don't ever use household cleaners. And don't use paper towels, which can scratch and leave residue behind. nowindexCleaners with alcohol and ammonia can damage screens, and any excess moisture that drips down into the bezel can hurt your TV's electronics.

Use a microfiber cloth with a spray bottle of water or electronics-specific cleaning solution, like the kit seen above. Spray the cloth and wipe the screen to get rid of spots. Don't spray cleaner directly on the screen. For everyday cleaning, you don't even need solution. For dust, all you need is a microfiber cloth; simply wipe the screen until the particles are gone, and your screen will be clean without risking damage through chemicals or moisture.

For more, read Buying an HDTV: Frequently Asked Questions, The 10 Best HDTVs, and Plasma vs. LCD vs. LED: Which HDTV Type is Best?

This guide is in partnership with PCMag.com.