Fine-tune your new HDTV for the best picture quality

If the new high-definition TV you brought home over the holidays isn't wowing you with its glorious picture quality, don’t give up hope. It might just need a little tweaking and fine-tuning to get it into tiptop shape.

For starters, when you first power up, you’ll be presented with a choice of "home" or "store/display" modes. Choose "home," which will yield better picture quality in most residential lighting. The store mode is generally super-pumped-up to make the screens stand out under fluorescent lighting. But often the "home" mode will be optimized for energy efficiency, not the best picture quality, so you'll want to tweak the settings.

You can usually improve the picture with a just a few button pushes. Press the menu button on the remote to access the video or picture menu. Scroll through the list and try out the Pro, Cinema, Movie, or Standard preset modes (names vary by brand). As you switch modes, settings for brightness, color, sharpness, and other attributes will change. See which you prefer. One might suit you perfectly.

If you want to be a bit more ambitious, you can also adjust the various settings individually by choosing the Custom or User mode. Adjust brightness and contrast first, then color. Ideally, detail in dark and bright areas should be visible, and colors (especially skin tones) should look natural. A handy way to do this is to play a DVD or DVR recording and freeze on an image with people and a mix of dark and light areas.

There are also Blu-ray calibration discs—such as "Digital Video Essentials" and "Disney World of Wonder"—you can buy to help you optimize your TV's settings. Some Blu-ray and DVD movies come with free THX Optimizer test patterns, and there are now iOS and Android calibration apps —including THX Tuneup—that work with mobile devices that support screen mirroring.

Find the right television for your needs and budget with our TV buying guide and Ratings.

If you look at the model pages for any of the sets in our TV Ratings, you'll see that we now publish the settings we used during our evaluation that provided the best picture quality for each of the TVs. If you have the same model, you can use these settings on your TV, perhaps making small adjustments to compensate for the slight differences among individual sets.

It's generally good to start with the attributes set to a middle or neutral position, then adjust up or down until the image looks realistic. Although sharpness sounds like a plus, keep it at a bare minimum so details don't look harsh and overly enhanced. The same holds true for brightness and color. In most cases, high settings look unnatural.

I was recently reminded of just how important picture settings are when I switched video inputs on my TV. (I switched the cable box from HDMI to component-video so I could use the HDMI input for a Blu-ray player.) Suddenly, the TV picture looked atrocious—harsh, glaring, unnaturally sharp. It turned out that the set remembers the settings for each input. That's a nice feature in general, because it lets you optimize the picture for each source, say, your cable box on one and your disc player on the other. A few changes to the picture settings and I was back in business.

Of course, you need good-quality content to get optimal picture quality. A Blu-ray disc is the best quality you can get at home, but some HD TV programming is very good as well. And make sure you're using either the HDMI or component-video input to get high-def from a cable, satellite, or phone company box. With off-air HD from an antenna, you can use the coaxial input.

If you held off shopping for a new set until after the holiday dust settled, be sure to check our latest LCD and plasma TV Ratings (available to subscribers) to see which sets deliver the goods.

So don’t settle for less than the best your TV has to offer. It's all in your hands.

—Eileen McCooey

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