Step by Step: How to use SpyderTV Pro to calibrate an HDTV

It's no secret to regular readers that watching an HDTV on its default factory settings is like buying a high-performance car and never taking it out on the highway to let 'er rip. Even the best TVs come out of the box in what industry insiders call the "torch" mode - a super-high-contrast preset with too-blue whites, intended to make the set stand out on bright retail floors. That might work for stores like Best Buy and Costco, but at home it's a surefire recipe for washed-out and unnatural color, exaggerated video noise, and eye fatigue.

So, for the best picture, you've got to calibrate your HDTV. Usually, that means not only selecting the best preset mode and adjusting basic controls like contrast, brightness, and color saturation but also adjusting the color temperature, which determines the precise tint of white. The goal is to achieve a neutral gray that measures as close as possible to the industry-standard color temperature of 6,500 kelvin.

It can require a several-thousand-dollar investment in test gear to make these "grayscale" adjustments. But DataColor has created a $1,199 system called SpyderTV Pro that, while not as flexible as the best professional tools, lets you do these crucial tweaks. The catch: Your TV's user menu must have dedicated controls for independently adjusting the red, green, and blue color temperature, or at least two of the three. (Fortunately, more and more HDTVs have these controls.) Here's how SpyderTV Pro can get you closer to picture perfection than you can by using any test disc alone.

Step 1: Load the Software SpyderTV Pro includes a spider-like colorimeter that plugs into your PC's USB port (there's no Mac support). It measures light from your TV or front-projection screen with the help of software that you load onto your hard drive. There's also a DVD for generating the necessary test patterns. After loading the software (it's compatible with Windows XP and Vista), plug in the colorimeter. Once the software acknowledges that everything's working, insert the DVD into your player, which should be plugged into the TV input you want to tune. (For instance, you'll need a player with an HDMI output to tune an HDMI input.) Set the TV to the video preset whose color temperature is closest to the industry standard - most often called the Movie or Cinema mode. (Use an alternate preset if this mode doesn't allow full adjustment of the controls.) Keep the remotes for the TV and the DVD player handy - you'll need both.

Step 2: Position the Spyder One option is to hang the Spyder's cord over the top of your TV and use the supplied counterweight to suspend the colorimeter over the center of the screen. (It has a suction cup that's suitable for some TVs.) With sensitive LCD flat panels or with front-projection screens, though, you're better off using the supplied tripod mount to position the colorimeter close to the screen.

Step 3: Indicate Range Limits After telling the software what type of TV you have, you'll need to indicate the range limits of your controls for the different video adjustments. SpyderTV Pro will help you optimize contrast, brightness, color, tint, and (if you have them) red, green, and blue "cuts" and "gains." (These might be labeled "bias" and "drive.") Sometimes your TV will have only one slider each for the red, green, and blue color temperature, with no other labeling. These are typically gains and should be entered into the software as such.

Now, grab your TV remote and follow the software as it asks you for the current setting and range of each adjustment. For example, you'll call up the contrast ticker from your TV's menu system and enter the labeled range of the control - from -15 to +15, from 0 to 100, or whatever. Once you've done that for all available settings, you're ready to calibrate.

Step 4: Tune Your HDTV For each video control, the SpyderTV Pro software will instruct you to call up a specific test pattern from the DVD. Then it will tell you to adjust the ticker to various settings, taking a reading at each one as it slowly zeros in on the optimum. (Imagine a baseball player caught in a rundown between two infielders, and you'll get the idea.) By swinging back and forth in smaller and smaller increments, the software finds the right position for the control.

When you're done - a process that could take an hour or more - SpyderTV Pro generates an awesome report that graphically shows where you started and where you ended up versus the industry-standard settings. And the software remembers your TV's profile, so that the range settings can be instantly recalled when you want to retune the set or tune another input. In the meantime, though, you can be confident that, short of going into arcane service menus with fancy test tools, you're looking at the best image your set can deliver.

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