Getting It Right

You know who you are. You're an experienced Ultimate AV reader with friends who just bought a new flat panel HDTV for the holidays. They've had it delivered and set up by Crazy Zeke's TV and Refrigerator Superstore.

Or perhaps you are, indeed, that friend yourself. You just got into this whole home theater business, have been following our guidance, and bought that new Vizasonic TV for the family just in time for the high culture of the American Idol audition weeks and the gladiatorial combat of the Super Bowl.

But something isn't right. Your friend (or you) is puzzled. The set's high definition picture doesn't look so good. An HDTV should come with a warning that some assembly is required—even if it comes out of the box in one piece.

When your first impression of a new TV is bad, the first thing to check is the source. Is the set actually receiving and displaying HD? Don't laugh. Many buyers—not you, of course—think that an HDTV set will automatically give them high definition from any source. They don't realize that high definition is a complete system, from broadcast to playback, and not just a new kind of set design.

If the source is an antenna, make sure you're tuned to an HD program. Broadcasters currently simulcast their standard definition and high definition programming on separate stations. Make sure you've selected the HD station for the program you want—which may not be the same analog channel number you've always used for the show. This won't be an issue after next month's transition to digital-only broadcasting, but for now the distinction can be confusing.

If you're using satellite or cable, your program guide should tell you if a station or program is in high definition. The same simulcasting applies as above—that is, your program may be found on two different channels, one standard definition, the other high definition.

You do know, of course, that most standard cable packages do not automatically give you HD programming. Just because you subscribe to digital cable doesn't mean that you will get the high definition stations. Often, these come only in a separate, optional package (extra cost, of course). While high definition stations are always digital, digital cable stations aren't necessarily high definition.

And even if you're tuned to a high def station, you can't assume that all of their programming is high definition. Some cable/sat stations, like HDNET and Discovery HD, are a pretty safe bet for 24/7 HD. Others, such as ESPNHD, and TBSHD, can be less predictable (TBS has a bad habit of using 4:3 source material and stretching it to fit an HD screen!). Some sports broadcasts even use both true HD and (upconverted) SD cameras—though we see this much less so now than in the early years of HD.

If you're using a cable or satellite box, make sure it's set up for a high definition output—720p, 1080i, or 1080p. I once visited friends who had just put in a DirecTV box for their new 720p plasma. The output of the box had been set to 480p! Don't automatically assume that the installer got this right.

Your friend should also be using either a component or HDMI link from a cable/sat set-top box to the set. No other connection from the set-top box will give you high definition, even if you're tuned to an HD channel. (The same is true, of course, of Blu-ray players). We've heard of cases where the cable installer put in a high def box, then hooked it up to the set using an RF link that required that the set be tuned to channel 3 or 4. That's the old-fashioned, analog-style cable box hookup, and it will not send high definition to the set.

While an HD set (with a built-in HD tuner) connected to an antenna can receive over-the-air high definition stations (in a good reception area), a cable connection fed directly into the same TV, without a cable box, might receive some HD stations. But only if your cable system has not scrambled them.

If the set has a CableCARD slot with the appropriate CableCARD installed, however, it should receive all the stations you've subscribed to (HD and SD) over its antenna input without an external set top box. But the CableCARD system hasn't caught on big (so far), so this will not apply to most viewers.

If this is your friend's first experience with a widescreen set, he or she should not assume that it will automatically switch to the correct aspect ratio for all HD and SD programs. It won't. Eventually this problem will go away when all of our programming is HD, but eventually will is a very long time. For now you'll have to do it yourself. It's astonishing how many people can't recognize a stretched or squished image—or if they do, don't know how to fix it. The easiest way is to look for familiar objects that should be round, like the sun or moon. If they're oval, the current aspect ratio setting is wrong. But make sure the problem is not at the source—those stretchy TBSHD shows, for example. And some SD commercials are also inexplicably stretched.

Another common problem with some SD material is widescreen programming that that sits in the center of the screen with black bars all around it—top, bottom, and sides—but is otherwise correctly proportioned (not stretched or squeezed). Switching to zoom mode should blow such an image up to fill the screen without distorting the image or cropping it excessively.

In fact, the only aspect ratio settings you should really need are full, zoom, and 4:3 (the names may vary slightly from manufacturer to manufacturer, but those are the most common). Most other aspect ratio options are merely ways to taffy-pull a 4:3 (or sometimes a 2.35:1) source to fit a 16:9 screeen&$151;trading the black bars for a distorted image.

Some viewers have also complained that their old analog stations look worse on their new HD sets than they did before. There are two main reasons for this: video processing and a larger screen. You can slay the first dragon by choose a set that has good video processing to begin with (our reviews can help). As for the second, the old NTSC system was never designed for today's huge screens. Live with it—or even better watch as much HD programming as possible!

Once all of this is right the set must still be adjusted properly, even if you elect not to have a full professional calibration. A good DIY start is to choose the set's Cinema or Standard mode (again, different sets might use different names for these), select either the Warm or Normal color temperature setting (Warm will usually but not always be the most accurate, but anything except Cool will earn you a gold star), and use a good setup disc to set Contrast, Brightness, Sharpness, Color, and Tint. Any THX-certified DVD or Blu-ray disc, for example, includes good test patterns for adjusting these controls.

A more in-depth discussion of setup is a story for another day, but with a good HD source, the correct aspect ratio, and reasonable settings of the user video controls, your friend will get a far better picture than 99.9% of TV watchers enjoy.