How to Get the Most Out of Your HDTVOur comprehensive HDTV guide will help you figure out the best ways to set up your new TV, from getting the best possible picture to making the right connections. Here's what to do once you get it home.
If you thought that buying your new plasma or LCD high-definition television was the hardest part of bringing a great viewing experience into your home, think again. To get the most out of your investment, you'll need to overhaul your video source, the cables you use, your sound system, your remote, and even your furniture.
If you haven't decided which TV to buy yet, we have plenty of resources to help you make the right choice. For assistance in figuring out the pros and cons of the two main high-def technologies, read our article "LCD vs. Plasma: Which HDTV Is Right for You?" And before you go to the store, check out our video "How to Buy a Flat-Screen TV." Finally, don't forget to comparison-shop for the best deal and the optimum-size set for your home.
A High-Def Glossary
Let's first look at some of the specs used to describe high-definition pictures. Video at 720p, 1080i, or 1080p is considered "high definition" because it exceeds the standard TV definition of 480i. But these three resolutions certainly don't produce pictures of identical quality.
720p: Used by ABC, Fox, and ESPN for their high-def broadcasts, 720p video has a pixel resolution of 1280 by 720, and is progressive-scan, meaning that the technology involves drawing all of the lines of each video frame in sequence, rather than interlacing the odd and even lines of succeeding frames, which can cause a flickering effect in fine detail. Most 720p flat-panel sets have a native resolution of 1366 by 768 pixels.
1080i: Used by all other HD broadcast networks, 1080i has a higher resolution than 720p, at 1920 by 1080 pixels but the video it produces is of roughly equivalent overall quality because of 720p's smoother scanning.
1080p: The king of HD signals and the standard for high-end flat panels, 1080p adds progressive scanning to its 1920-by-1080-pixel resolution. It is found in HD DVD and Blu-ray Disc players, and in a few PC media player and game boxes.
Choose a Location for the TV and Arrange Seating
For optimum viewing, the viewer's angle should be not exceed 40 degrees. Image source: THX.com.To enjoy your new TV at its best, you need to rearrange the furniture in your living room or home-theater room. Sketch out the dimensions of your room on a piece of graph paper, and demarcate where you want the television to go. Then add in your seating at the proper distance and viewing angle for your TV screen. To calculate the optimal viewing distance for a 1080p screen, THX (the video and audio company founded by director George Lucas) recommends multiplying your diagonal screen size by 1.2. For a 50-inch HDTV, that works out to 5 feet; and for a 70-inch screen, 7 feet. These distances may seem short for viewing such large screens, but the added picture detail in HD video allows you to get closer than would be recommended for standard-definition screens, so you can immerse yourself in the action. Of course, if you prefer, you can sit further back--up to about 2.5 times your screen size--and still get an outstanding viewing experience, but the immersive feel will be less. Finally, be sure that your viewing angle doesn't exceed 40 degrees (see the illustration above), and have your line of sight directed as close to the center of the screen as possible.
Place Your Speakers
If you plan to add a surround-sound speaker system, sketch out locations for your speakers in your diagram. If you'll be setting up a 5.1-speaker system, place the center channel just on top of or underneath your TV, position the left and right channels on either side of the screen, and locate the two surround speakers to the sides and slightly behind your seats. You can put the subwoofer anywhere in this sound field, though situating it next to the center channel simplifies cabling--since the only long runs will be to the surround speakers. For a 7.1 setup, you'll place two additional surround speakers behind the seating area. Wondering where to hide the speaker wires? Try running them along or behind baseboards or on top of picture rails.
Speaker options can be confusing, so it's not a bad idea to compare surround sound speaker combinations.
Next, consider where and how to mount the television. Should it be on the wall, in an entertainment center or armoire, or on a stand? If you hang it on a wall, don't place it too high. You may be tempted to position it above the fireplace mantel--but if you do, you may get Stargazer's Neck from looking up at it during any prolonged viewing.
TVs are best situated at eye level (and speakers, at ear-level). If you place the television inside a bookcase or armoire, consider adding an articulating mounting arm to the setup so that you can that easily move the television forward and back, to keep it from getting buried deep in the cabinet. Even if you don't plan to pull the TV out from the wall, a mounting arm greatly improves your access to rear inputs and cables when you need it. Mounting hardware varies greatly, so be sure to consider all your options.
Make sure that you have enough shelf space for all your video sources, as well as sufficient power outlets. If you use a stand, anchor the TV set so that it doesn't tip over if your dog bumps into it, or if you live in earthquake country. Check out Dan Tynan's Gadget Freak column "I've Been to the Mountin' Top--Tips for Hanging Your HDTV" for more tips about mounting an HDTV.
Make the Right Connections
Now that you've established a floor plan, it's time to hook up your equipment. To take advantage of your flat panel's 1080p or 720p native resolution, you need true HDTV sources and cable connections. Unfortunately, notwithstanding all the hype around 1080p resolution, few sources today deliver a 1080p picture. Digital HDTV channels from your cable or satellite provider are either 1080i or 720p; no broadcaster yet offers 1080p signals. And though ordinary DVD players may be advertised as 1080p, that designation only means that they can magnify the original 480p signal up to 1080p (or to 720p, depending on your HDTV). And finally, if you use a TiVo or other DVR, you'll be stuck with standard-definition recordings unless you upgrade to an HD model. To obtain true 1080p playback right now, you need a Blu-ray Disc or HD DVD player, an Xbox 360 Elite, or a PC video source.
Take Stock and Upgrade Your Sources
You should upgrade all of the sources you care about to high definition. This means upgrading them so that they are capable of delivering 720p, 1080i, or 1080p program material, and buying HDMI cables to connect them to your television (DVI, an older high-def connection standard, is also acceptable. You can purchase DVI-to-HDMI converters to connect older HD peripherals to your new HDTV.) Avoid using high-definition component ports; otherwise, your HD video source will get converted from digital to analog and then back to digital again in your TV, lowering the picture quality significantly.
Cable TV: Cable TV subscribers should upgrade their service to high definition, which usually means paying an extra charge on top of the amount for digital cable. Similarly, if you subscribe to premium channels like HBO and Showtime, you should upgrade to the HD versions of those as well. High-def versions of local and cable channels have different channel numbers from their corresponding SD (standard-definition) ones, so you'll also have to learn a new set of numbers for switching channels.
On the hardware front, you'll need either a new HD cable box or a CableCard (if your HDTV or your DVR has the appropriate slot). With a CableCard, you can tune digital cable channels directly from your TV or DVR without requiring a box. Set your box to output 1080i or 720p, depending on your HDTV's native resolution.
Satellite TV: If you subscribe to a satellite TV service, you'll probably have to upgrade your satellite dish and your satellite tuner box or DVR. DirecTV now has 5-LNB dishes that receive signals from five orbital positions, as well as new MPEG-4-capable HD receivers and DVRs. All of those new satellites enable the company to offer high-def local channels in major markets, along with national versions of the major networks. Again, set your box to output 1080i or 720p, depending on your HDTV.
TiVos and DVRs: If you want to record your new high-definition channels in all their pristine glory, you must also get a new high-def TiVo or other brand of DVR. For cable subscribers, I recommend the TiVo HD, a $300 model that can support 20 hours of high-def recording (or 180 hours of standard-def recording), with dual tuners and CableCard slots. You can record two live programs while watching a previously recorded show, or record one and watch one live. The TiVo HD has expandable storage and a much better user interface than the HD DVR boxes provided by most cable services. If you subscribe to satellite TV, you'll have to get an HD DVR from your provider. Set the output from your DVR to 1080i or 720p, depending on your particular HDTV model.
Other Video Sources
DVD players: As noted earlier, only HD-DVD and Blu-ray Disc players provide a true 1080p picture. To watch standard DVDs, you'll want a player that can convert the 480i signal to 720p or 1080p, either from your TV or from the DVD player. So-called 1080p "up-converting" DVD players are relatively inexpensive, and typically do a better job of conversion than the converter built in to your TV will, since they are optimized for DVDs. You can set the output to 1080p, 1080i, or 720p, depending on your HDTV's native capabilities.
DVDs look dramatically better on HDTVs following up-conversion, and they should fill the gap quite nicely until a winner finally emerges from the increasingly juvenile skirmishes between Blu-ray and HD DVD. Relatively few movies are available yet in these competing formats anyway.
Game boxes: Sony's PlayStation 3 and Microsoft's Xbox 360 Elite have HDMI ports and high-definition capabilities, so you can play high-def games like Halo 3 on them. The PlayStation 3, with its built-in Blu-ray drive, doubles as an HD movie player. The Xbox 360 Elite has an optional HD DVD drive ($180) as well as a built-in up-converting DVD player.
Network media players: PCs and Macs can create, edit, and play high-def video and photo slide shows, and they are a growing source of video content. To get that content onto your TV, consider buying a network media player--a box that uses your home network to stream music and video from your PC to your television and stereo. Be sure to get one that is HD-capable, such as the Netgear Digital Entertainer HD EVA8000 (1080p, $400) or the AppleTV (720p, $300). Both come with HDMI ports for hooking them up to your TV, as well as wired and wireless network connections.
HD extenders: New high-definition Windows Media Center extenders are slated to roll out this fall from Linksys, D-Link, HP, and Niveus. They work directly with the Windows Media Center software incorporated into the Home Premium and Ultimate editions of Windows Vista, and they provide the easiest way to get high-def content from your PC to your TV. They even include Wi-Fi, so you don't need to run cables.
Digital antennas: If you don't want to (or can't) subscribe to a high-definition cable or satellite service, you can still get high-quality local digital broadcasts over-the-air by using an inexpensive digital antenna. These ATSC broadcasts come in clear as a bell compared to analog; and if you mostly bought your HDTV to view movies and don't watch much television, a simple antenna is an economical way to pull in high-def channels. Visit AntennaWeb.org to see which digital channels you can receive at your address, and to determine how strong an antenna you'll need. Not all of the digital channels shown will offer high-definition programming, or they may offer high def only for certain prime-time shows. Most digital TV is still produced in 480i resolution. The TitanTV online listings provide a quick guide to which programs are in HD format.
Put It All Together
Once your TV is mounted and your video sources are properly sorted out, it's time to connect everything. If you've done your homework on your peripherals, you have a list of HD and SD sources, and you know what cables you need to hook them up.
For all of your high-definition peripherals, you should be using HDMI cables--or perhaps DVI with an HDMI converter, in the case of older components. If you plan to keep some standard-definition sources, such as a standard DVD player or SD video camera, connect them via S-Video or component ports if possible. These are of higher quality than RCA, or composite, jacks, and your HDTV will up-convert them to its native resolution. Don't be suckered into buying a $100 HDMI cable at the store when you buy your television. It won't work any better than a $20 cable from a reputable company. Buy your cables online and save big. Remember, this is digital: You only need to move the bits reliably from one place to another--not give them back massages.
HDMI Musical Chairs
If you have more HDMI sources than you have HDMI ports on your new TV (which is quite likely), the simplest solution is to add an external HDMI switcher box. Such boxes are available from Gefen, Iogear, and OPPO, among other vendors, for about $100 to $200. Be sure to buy a box that has HMDI 1.3 ports, the latest standard. Some models switch automatically between active sources, and you don't have to bring an extra remote control into the picture. Plug always-on sources like your DVR and your cable box directly into your TV.
There are few things you can't hook up to the Marantz SR8002 THX Select2 Surround Receiver, which includes four HDMI 1.3 inputs and an array of other connection options.Another way to perform HDMI switching is with an audio/video (A/V) receiver. If you also need a receiver to power your new surround-sound speaker system, an A/V receiver may be a good choice. The inexpensive Onkyo TX-SR505 7.1 Channel Home Theater Receiver ($300) has two switched HDMI ports, as well as 75-watts-per-channel 7.1 surround sound. At the high end, the new 7.1-channel Marantz SR8002 THX Select2 Surround Receiver ($2100) comes with four switched HDMI ports, a built-in 480i/480p up-converter, and all the audio goodness you could wish for.
For a top-of-the-line immersive high-def experience, you need surround sound. If you don't already have a set of surround-sound speakers, you can choose from a wide array of 5.1- and 7.1-channel sets. But an increasingly popular option is to use a single-box surround "projector" that tucks neatly under your flat-screen TV. See our buying guide "How to Buy an Integrated Home Theater Audio System" for more information about these space-efficient products.
To make everything work together seamlessly, you'll also need a universal remote. Most large flat-panels come with capable universal remotes that you can program to give you basic control over your peripherals and the TV with a single device. But you may prefer a full-featured third-party remote like Logitech's popular Harmony 880 Universal Remote ($250), which is optimized for HDTV and DVR systems. The Harmony 880 lets you quickly switch between aspect ratios (such as normal, full, and zoom); has a large, color LCD; and supports easy programming through your PC or Mac.
Preliminary Round of TV Settings
You've hooked up all your video sources and speakers, so now the adjustment phase begins. Open the owner's manual for your TV set, and follow the setup directions. These should take you through three key steps: basic settings; scanning through available channels; and setting audio and picture preferences.
Basic settings: After synchronizing the internal clock and specifying the language you want to communicate with your television in, you must identify all your sources--such as the cable or satellite box on Input 1, the DVD player on Input 2, and TiVo on Input 3. Usually you can label each input for easy reference as you click through them with your remote control. If you have any unused inputs, turn them off or set them to skip, so that you won't have to click past a blank or noisy screen every time you cycle through your options. (But don't turn off the front input that you or someone else may use occasionally to connect a video camera or game console.)
Scanning through available channels: Scan through all of the channels you receive on each tuned input (such as over-the-air television or a direct cable input.) At this point you can usually also lock out channels that you want to skip, or put specific channels in a Favorites list. Doing so will make channel surfing much quicker and easier. Be sure to choose ATSC (digital) rather than NTSC (analog) when you scan for cable or over-the-air antenna channels. (If you use a cable or satellite box to change channels, you'll perform this setup step on the box, not on the TV.)
Setting audio and picture preferences: These preferences include such details as whether to use internal or external speakers, and what aspect ratio mode to use for 4:3 (standard) sources. Aspect ratio choice is very important. For 4:3 sources, which most older TV shows use, you may have several options:
If you find these options confusing, or if your television uses a different nomenclature, try each option out with a standard TV source. You'll quickly see what each one does.
Other types of inputs may have aspect ratio or screen positioning options of their own. Wide-screen sources are best left to fill the screen, since they'll do so with little or no stretching. For video game and computer sources (which may have odd aspect ratios), you can usually adjust the picture position horizontally and vertically, or zoom it to fill the screen.
Adjusting advanced picture-quality settings, such as contrast, hue, color temperature, brightness, and sharpness, is next on the agenda.
Calibrate Your Picture
Calibration is the final step to getting the best possible picture from your new HDTV. Most new televisions come with picture "presets"--for specific inputs like movies, games, and sports--that take the work out of adjusting contrast, brightness, hue, color temperature, and sharpness. But the quality of these presets can vary. Some manufacturers do a good job with them, and some don't, so test them before buying to make sure that they deliver the picture you want. TVs often emerge from the factory with their color temperature and brightness set too high, or with their hues set too vivid, to give their picture a boost in a brightly lit showroom. If you want accurate color reproduction customized to the lighting level in your viewing room, you should do your own calibration.
Quick and Easy Calibration
Many DVDs containing THX audio, like "Pirates of the Caribbean," also include the THX Optimizer, which will help you calibrate your TV's picture. Source: "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl."For a quick and easy "free" calibration, you can use almost any DVD that features THX audio. Star Wars director and THX developer George Lucas wanted viewers of his movies to enjoy accurate reproduction of both audio and video, so he provides a set of calibration tools in the DVD setup area of the disc. Just click THX Optimizer, and then follow the on-screen instructions.
Before you start calibrating, be sure to do three things:
The THX Optimizer Brightness adjustment should show ten levels ranging from gray to black at the top and bottom of the screen, and yet be dark enough to cause the drop-shadow behind the THX logo to disappear.When you're ready to calibrate, the THX Optimizer will lead you through five test patterns for adjusting contrast, brightness, color/tint, aspect ratio, and sharpness to their optimum levels. The optimizer presents a simple instruction screen for each adjustment, telling you what to look for, and what parameters to alter. Do this while you are standing close enough to the screen to see any necessary detail.
Calibrate Like a Pro
Serious videophiles may want to go further, and invest in either a professional calibration from a video consultant (most home-theater stores can provide this service, and they may even include it if you pay for in-home installation), or a professional-level setup disc such as Joe Kane's Digital Video Essentials (DVE).
DVE comes in standard DVD ($25) and dual-sided HD DVD/standard DVD versions ($35). If you have an HD DVD player, get the high-def version, which includes 1080p and 720p test patterns. Bundled with both versions is a set of red, green, and blue filters that you can hold over the screen to help you make color corrections--a task that can be difficult to perform accurately if you rely on your unaided eye.
This combination color bar and grayscale pattern from the Digital Video Essentials disc is helpful in correcting colors.The DVE disc's video tutorial leads you through basic picture setup, starting with black levels (for brightness and contrast), and then moving on to colors, overscan, and sharpness. The disc includes many additional test patterns, and an extensive manual explains how to interpret them. Be prepared to become a video expert if you get this product.
This Snell & Wilcox Zone Plate test pattern is designed to reveal motion and interlacing problems, among others.One example of the test screens included in the Digital Video Essentials disc is the Snell & Wilcox TV Test Chart, which offers test patterns for optimizing various settings on your television.
Save Your Profiles
Once you've calibrated your TV, save your picture settings in a custom picture preset, or profile, so that you can retrieve them easily when you switch between different sources. Your television may also let you save custom picture settings for each input, such as your DVR (which handles TV shows mostly), your DVD player (movies, mostly), and your Xbox, PlayStation, or Wii. Gamers may want to bump up the sharpness or make colors more vivid; again, adjust those settings when you are actually playing a game and then save them in a separate profile. For their part, sports fans tend to want smooth motion, but they may also prefer a more detailed (read: sharper) image than works best with movies and regular TV shows. Experiment.
Regardless of how you perform your calibration, taking the time to work through the picture settings will help you get the most out of your new HDTV by educating you about what makes a good picture and by forcing you to learn about how your TV operates.
Now it's time to sit back and enjoy HDTV as it's meant to be.