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Big Screen TVTV "Tweak" Gives Better Picture

By Jim Bray

That brand new TV you just unpacked looks great, doesn't it? But did you know that, right out of the box, it probably doesn't look as good as it could?

Whether it be a widescreen, HDTV-ready rear projector or just a higher end 4x3 NTSC flat screen, today's TV’s can give you an incredible viewing experience. Yet many people set them up in their homes with little thought about how best to exploit them.

There are obviously logistical and practical considerations that affect how you display your video screen, including the extra cost that could be involved if you really want to do it justice, but even a minor tweak can help you get more satisfaction from your TV.

Technological Convergence

For example, if you have a rear projection CRT TV, remember its convergence setting – and use it. This is easy to do even if you don't want to roll up your sleeves and mess around with the TV's internal service menus (which manufacturers try deliberately to keep you away from anyway, and with good reason). Fortunately, you can often set the convergence (the aiming of the three projector tubes – red, green and blue) via a single button.

You don't have to do this often, but if you notice that your picture seems to have red or blue fringing around objects (it can be particularly noticeable on titles or channel displays), you may want to give the convergence a quick touch up.

I did this recently to the aging 40" RPTV at my local community center's lounge (though it didn't have one button setting and was rather a pain in the neck to tweak) and the result was noticeable immediately and brought comments from the people there.

You'd think they would've sprung for a couple of free beers….

Maybe it's because I'm a video snob, but sometimes I’ve been moved to tweak a TV's convergence right in a store, usually to be accosted by a "sales professional" who either didn’t know what I was doing, or who was upset that a lowly private citizen would have such audacity. When I explain my raison d'être, more often than not the clerk shrugs and moves on as if I’m some kind of crackpot. Maybe they're more discerning than I'd thought.....

Fortunately, such tweaking is becoming less necessary as flat panels such as plasmas and LCD's, and LCD/DLP projectors become popular. These digital displays don't need their convergence set – but there are still tweaks you can give them.

Bright Ideas…

Another important tweak is the brightness – as in you probably have too much of it. Most TV’s come from the factory with the picture optimized for display in a store (undoubtedly since manufacturers have no idea which box will be opened for display purposes), where there's usually bright lighting and innumerable other TV’s competing for your attention.

But if you want the best picture at home, under normal lighting conditions, you'll want to back off the brightness and contrast.

The best way to do this is with a set up disc, and you may not have to look any farther than your own DVD collection.

My favorite video reference disc so far is “Digital Video Essentials,” which includes instructions and test patterns that’ll help you get the most out of a TV. It also includes audio tweaking help as well, and some demonstration material you can use before and after you tweak to see the difference.

The downside of DVE is that its menu interface leaves a lot to be desired and it can be hard finding the test pattern stuff if you want to jump to it directly.

A quick and cheap solution you may already have handy is the THX Optimode feature found on THX-certified DVD's. This is a selection of test patterns and adjustments that offer an easy way to set up both 4x3 and 16x9 TV’s. THX Optimode setups are available right from such discs' setup menus.

Backing off the brightness and contrast to match these test patterns better can give your TV a more “film like” look. And believe it or not, your picture will also look better if you soften its sharpness setting.

Signals Smoke…

Then there’s the question of what signal to feed a TV.

The short answer? The best you can!

If you're hooking a DVD player to a new TV, for example, use its most sophisticated input/output option. So rather than using the single "composite" video output that worked so well with your old VCR or laser disc player, use the three-cable component video connections, or the single cable DVI or HDMI connections, the latter of which will be mandatory if you want to get the best out of the upcoming high definition disc formats.

Ditto for your high definition TV signal, which you probably get via cable or satellite service provider. I connect my HD satellite receiver via component video because my now-older HDTV doesn't offer the new DVI/HDMI digital connections, but if I had the other hookups I'd use one.

If you want to go whole hog with your television's picture, you can hire an outside technician to tweak your TV. This'll cost you a couple of hundred dollars or more, depending on the TV and the service you get, but by bringing in a technician certified by the Imaging Science Foundation ( you'll have your socks knocked off.

I had this done to my big screen about a year and a half ago, when the TV was about four years old. It took a whole evening for the ISF tech to work his magic, but the result was worth it.

The calibration process included computerized tweaking of the TV's internal circuits, as well as a general cleaning and dusting of whatever the tech found necessary (he stopped short of hosing it down, though). He even removed the three-layer screen and moved the "non glare" part to the back which, surprisingly enough, resulted in a picture less prone to being ruined by ambient room light.

That TV has had an outstanding picture since day one, but before calibration I couldn't see much difference between a DVD running at 480p resolution and high definition TV running at 1080i – a difference that, despite the fact that they both looked great, should have been obvious.

Now it is.

To test the calibrated picture, I ran a DVD side by side with a high definition broadcast of the same move (Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King). Wow! DVD's still look fine, but they pale in comparison with good HD.

This ISF calibration may be a little more involved and more expensive than people who aren't as anal about their picture quality as I am. But if you want the best…

Even if you don't want the best, the other tweaks outlined above can help you get the most enjoyment out of your television dollars.

By the way, the ISF people are releasing their own tweaking DVD, aimed at ordinary consumers who want to optimize their TV's without having to get a degree in electronics. They've promised to send me one, so I'll report back to you once I've had a chance to try it.

Jim Bray's columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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