Calibrate your HDTV for a better picture

So, you bought an HDTV. You studied the specifications. You compared the sets in the store to find the best picture.

But when you got the television home, reality intruded. The picture quality just wasn't as good as in the store. That's because manufacturers set pictures so they stand out in the store. A bright display with a cool, bluish cast pops in the showroom.

In the home, those settings make colors look garish. Skin tones look particularly bad. And the picture is probably too bright. In fact, the picture probably looks worse than a traditional CRT.

Fortunately, your television's settings can be adjusted. You can optimize the settings for your home lighting conditions.

Hire a professional

The best way to calibrate an HDTV is to hire a professional. Professionals certified by the Imaging Science Foundation undergo rigorous training.

ISF-certified professionals know a lot about color. They rely on expensive equipment to get the settings just right. They can access hidden menus in your TV to fine-tune your display. You can find these technical menus yourself. But I wouldn't. You could damage your display.

You'll spend $300 or more for professional calibration. And your television should be calibrated yearly.

Fortunately, you don't need to pay a professional to get better picture quality. With a little help, you can calibrate your HDTV yourself.

Use a calibration DVD

A calibration DVD is an inexpensive way to calibrate your set. These DVDs display test patterns to help you adjust your settings. Of course, you're relying on your eyesight. So, it is somewhat subjective.

You can pick up a calibration DVD for about $30. Or, rent one from your local video store.

However, you may already have a DVD that includes calibration tools. THX-certified DVDs released from 2000 contain the THX Optimizer. You may need to poke around the DVD menus to find the Optimizer.

THX-certified DVDs include popular titles like "Monsters, Inc." and "Finding Nemo." Check other DVDs produced by LucasArts or Pixar.

To get the most from the Optimizer, you need blue-filter glasses. These will help you adjust the hue and color. You can buy a pair from THX for $2.

The THX Optimizer will also help you set up your sound system correctly. DVD calibration tools aren't as effective as hiring a professional. But you can improve on your HDTV's default settings.

Use a colorimeter

Another option is to use a colorimeter like Datacolor's Spyder3TV ($200). You must connect the gadget to a computer's USB port. Use a laptop, if you have one.

The colorimeter attaches to your set with a suction cup. Sensors inside the colorimeter measure brightness, contrast and color settings.

The colorimeter then walks you through calibration. This helps eliminate the subjectivity of adjusting your settings

Buying a colorimeter is only slightly less expensive than hiring a professional. But over time, you'll quickly recoup the cost. This is especially true if you have multiple sets.

Hidden benefits of HDTV calibration

Maybe you're happy with your HDTV's picture quality. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't calibrate your set.

By adjusting contrast and brightness, you'll cut down on energy usage. Savings will depend on your set and how often you use it.

Also, calibration will prolong your television's lifespan. The backlight will operate at an optimal, rather than maximum, level.

Kim Komando hosts the nation's largest talk radio show about computers and the Internet. To get the podcast or find the station nearest you, visit: www.komando.com/listen. To subscribe to Kim's free e-mail newsletters, sign up at: www.komando.com/newsletters. Contact her at gnstech@gns.gannett.com.

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