If you are close to spending thousands of dollars on a TV because you want a better picture, you may want to save your money. You can almost certainly make your TV's picture look better than it did when the set was brand-new, and doing so is relatively easy.
Virtually every mass-produced TV is set by default to stand out in a store display. That means TVs come out of the box with the picture set to be bright, with overly saturated colors and digital sharpening. Kevin Miller, a consultant to several TV manufacturers, calls it the "Best Buy Torch Mode."
But the bright screen and many other TV ills can be fixed by just changing a few settings.
Basic settings: The most obvious fix is to turn off Torch Mode. Find your TV's menus. Look for an option named something like "screen settings" or "modes." Under screen settings, you should see options like Vivid, Games, Sports and Cinema. The truest picture generally comes from the setting with a name like Movie, Cinema or Theater. Those settings give the picture a more filmlike appearance. The THX setting usually gets you closest to movie-theater style. If you want to go a step further, you can change the modes to suit what you are watching at the time. If you don't want to constantly change settings, stick with the one for the kind of viewing you do most often, and test the picture at the time of day you watch most often.
CHECKING FOR HIGH DEFINITION: Don't overlook the Aspect setting. Televisions commonly get shipped set to "overscan" or "zoom," which enlarges the picture and can cut off the edges. The overscan feature is meant to hide errors that sometimes show up in broadcasts as a flickering white line on the edge of a full-screen picture. When you overscan, you reduce the number of lines of resolution and degrade your picture. Instead, set the TV to Full. "If you do not do this, you are not getting high definition," said Joel Silver, founder of the Imaging Science Foundation. "You could be losing 30 percent or more of your resolution." You have to check the settings on your cable or satellite box and DVD player as well.
ADVANCED SETTINGS: If you are even more adventurous, you can delve into custom settings. You can improve individual adjustments like Color Temperature, Brightness, Tint and Motion Smoother by trial and error, or you can save time by looking at what other people with your model of TV have done. People will post how they have set their TVs on audiovisual forums like avsforum or CNET.
CALIBRATION DISCS: There are low-cost calibration discs with video test patterns that help you make the optimal setting for your screen. Perhaps the easiest to use is the HDTV Calibration Wizard from Monster/ISF. The $16 disc uses simple pictures to help you fine-tune five of the most important settings, including brightness, contrast and aspect. You'll be done in about a half-hour.
THE HUMAN ELEMENT: If you don't want to do it yourself, professional calibrators can come in handy. The experts — there are about 45,000 ISF-trained calibrators in the United States — typically charge $200 to $500 for a consumer TV and can be found on the ISF website.