So you've finally sprung for that colossal-sized Ultra HD TV, set it up in your family room, and well, it doesn't look quite as awesome as you imagined. In fact, everything looks a bit fake and unnatural, surely not what you anticipated when you plunked down your cash for a state-of-the-art television.
Before you race back down to your local TV barn to demand a refund, take a deep breath—you may be a victim of your TV's out-of-box settings rather than a conniving salesman looking to unload a lackluster piece of technology.
Many new TVs come withy a bevy of features that are turned on by default, and a few could be robbing you and your set of the best picture possible. Here are three features we recommend you shut off—or at least turn way down—when you get the TV home. (Save your anger for the salesman who insisted that the set wouldn't work right without pricey "Ultra HD" cables.)
1. Noise reduction
"Hey," you might argue, "why do I want to turn off noise reduction? I don't want to see any noise on my TV!" That would seem to make sense, except it doesn't. Noise was a bigger issue with older analog TVs, and especially with lower-definition analog signals. And, yes, when TVs upconvert video signals from lesser-quality sources you may see still some noise. But for the most part, you're getting much cleaner, higher-quality digital source content these days, whether its over-the-air digital broadcasts, high-def signals from cable and satellite TV services, or pristine video from Blu-ray discs.
The problem with engaging noise reduction is that it comes at the expense of detail and fine texture—these tend to get smoothed over when the feature is active. Turn off noise reduction and you'll have more picture detail and a more natural-looking image.
2. Sharpness control/edge enhancement
Another denizen of the "sounds good, but really isn't" department is sharpness control, which oxymoronically doesn’t actually make the image sharper. What it really does is artificially boost fine detail and texture, while accentuating the edges of images in the picture. At first glance this might give the impression of greater detail, but what it's actually doing is masking fine detail—and oversharpened images can add a halo around objects. So turn it way down, or completely off. Note: Some models have a zero setting in the center of the control, so lowering it beyond that point might actually soften the image.
3. Motion smoothing
Like a spy or credit-card fraudster, motion smoothing has many names, including smooth motion, motion estimation/motion compensation, and motion interpolation. To make things even more confusing, companies tend to give this feature their own proprietary names, such as Auto Motion Plus (Samsung), Motionflow (Sony), and TruMotion (LG). And it's yet another one of those features that sounds like a good thing—who, after all, wants an unsmooth picture?
For one, movie lovers, who are uncompromising when it comes to preserving the "film look," which means faithfully reproducing a slightly stuttering effect called judder. This appearance comes about because movies and a lot of prime-time TV shows are shot at a relatively slow 24 frames per second, or 24Hz. The jerky motion is most evident on scenes with camera pans.
In contrast to movies, video is typically shot at 60Hz. That's why video of sports, and reality and game shows, has smoother motion than 24Hz films. When a TV's smooth motion feature is activated, movies can start to lose much of their character. This is referred to as the "soap opera" effect, because soap operas are typically shot with 60Hz video cameras.
So what, exactly, is motion smoothing? LCD TVs have a tendency to blur during fast-moving scenes, and manufacturers have found ways to reduce that effect, including repeating frames, or inserting black frames into the video signal. (Check out our TV Ratings, available to subscribers, to see how well each set we've tested does with motion blur.)
Motion smoothing involves a more sophisticated technology, called frame interpolation. The television analyzes adjacent video frames, makes a guess as to what the in-between frames would look like if they'd been captured, and inserts those new frames into the video stream. It's smart technology, but it can make TV shows shot at 24 frames per second look hyper-realistic and somehow less natural than what you're accustomed to.
The easy fix is to turn off smooth motion. Most sets with 120Hz and higher refresh rates let you do this. Unfortunately, in many televisions, anti-blurring processing—which can be beneficial—is tied to motion smoothing, so you can't get one without the other. But other TVs do let you adjust these features independently. What you want to do if you've got such a TV is to shut off the anti-judder feature while engaging the anti-blurring processing.
Here's a final note. Our advice to anyone buying a new TV is to experiment with the various picture-control settings to find the best ones for your room and viewing conditions. While we recommend turning these three features down or all the way off, play around with them and see what effect they have on your set's picture quality. And don't worry about straying too far—most TVs have a reset button to restore factory settings.
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