10 Easy Ways to Fix a Crappy HDTV Picture

Plenty of people have decided that it’s not yet the right time to buy a 4K TV for a variety of reasons. That’s because the benefits of a 4K television aren’t apparent unless you buy a big TV. In addition, there isn’t a huge amount of 4K content available yet, streaming 4K content is complicated, and budget-friendly 4K TVs often aren’t good buys. So if you’re sticking with your regular HDTV for the time being, you’re probably wondering: How to fix the crummy HDTV picture that made you consider upgrading to a 4K TV in the first place?

1. Use the right sources and connections

hand reaching for the off button on a remote to turn off the TV

TV and remote | Source: iStock

If you’re having issues with the picture quality on your HDTV, the first thing that you should check is that you’re using the right sources and connections. As Steve May reports for TechRadar, you need to use “decent source components,” which today means either a DVD player at the low end, or a Blu-Ray player and HD set-top box if you’re concerned about picture quality. If you have decent broadband speed, it’s a good idea to make sure you’re set up to stream Netflix, Amazon Prime, or your favorite streaming service in HD. And make sure that your TV service is, in fact, in HD.

Once you’ve ensured that your equipment is up to date and your service is in the right resolution, you need to make sure that you’re using the right connections. May notes that, “by and large, the only connection you should be using is HDMI, unless there’s an overriding reason to opt for a legacy interface.” You don’t need to spend a lot of money on HDMI cables, since they all perform the same, but you should use HDMI cables whenever you can so that you’ll actually get HD on your HDTV.

2. Check that your sources are set up correctly

Guys watching a game

Guys watching a game | Source: iStock

The next step is to make sure that all of your equipment is working together correctly. May notes that while source components often have a variety of display options, they “typically manage themselves” depending on the display that they’re partnered with. However, you can check the settings and intervene in the case of any strange effects or weird behavior. If you occasionally watch standard definition content on your HDTV, you’ll want to ensure that your TV and not your set-top box is doing the upscaling.

As May explains, “Hi-def from set top box services is invariably 1080i. In Auto mode, the upscaling of SD content is carried out by your TV, rather than the set top box. In most cases, your screen has the tools to do a better job, although on a budget HD screen you’ll probably be hard pushed to tell the difference.”

May says that the same advice applies to Blu-Ray players. And, speaking of Blu-Ray players, Geoffrey Morrison reports for CNET that this may be a good time to upgrade to a Blu-Ray player, since “even the best up converting DVD players can’t match the picture quality of full 1080p HD from Blu-Ray.” If you’re sticking with DVD, make sure to set the player’s aspect ratio to 16×9 to increase picture quality and minimize black bars on movies.

3. Make sure you have the right settings for your home, not the store

Couple setting up a TV

Couple setting up a TV | Source: iStock

Whether your HDTV is new or you’ve left the settings alone since you installed it in your living room, you may be seeing less-than-ideal picture quality. This is because the TV’s settings are optimized for the fluorescent-lit big-box store where you bought it, not for the lighting conditions in your home.

As Eric A. Taub reports for The New York Times, stores like Best Buy or Walmart typically crank up the brightness, pump up the colors, and set the backlight to maximum on an LCD or plasma TV, “which is the worst thing you can do when you get the TV home.” Lighting warmer than the fluorescent glare of your local electronics store requires “different settings from a TV to produce pleasing, natural-looking colors and images.” Test out the television’s preset picture modes to find what looks best in your home.

4. Dim the lights in your room, and on the TV

Family on the couch

Family on the couch | Source: iStock

The contrast ratio of the picture on an HDTV indicates the range of brightness from white to black, and is measured in pitch-black rooms. Your living room probably isn’t ever pitch black. The brighter the room, the more likely the picture will lack detail in the darker parts of the image. An easy way around this problem is to dim the room’s lighting. But if you can’t do that, the next-best solution is to make sure that direct light isn’t hitting the screen, which will wash out the picture.

It’s not just the lights in your living room that you should dim, either. LCD televisions create their images with a fluorescent or LED backlight. These backlights are typically turned up to their maximum brightness at the factory, but when you put a television in your living room, you should turn the backlight down to around half of its maximum level.

5. Change the brightness setting

Woman working out

Woman working out | Source: iStock

Getting the lighting right is important, but you can also improve the picture quality you see on your HDTV by making sure that the television’s brightness is set correctly. If you set the brightness too low, then images will lose their detail. If you set the black level too high, then the picture will look muddy. Taub notes that the black level is important “because the truer the blacks, the greater the perceived sharpness of the TV image. A muddy picture will look less sharp than one that has true blacks.”

Taub recommends getting the proper black level by using a PLUGE pattern, “which typically consists of six vertical bars of varying black levels. Turn the picture level down until one of the bars disappears against the background.” To do so, you’ll need to use a calibration disc, like Digital Video Essentials or the Avia II Guide to Home Theater. In addition, Taub notes that “more than 300 DVD and Blu-ray movies, like The Abyss, the Indiana Jones series, and Titanic, include a range of calibration patterns created by THX, the company whose familiar certification logo precedes many movies.” Or, you can make adjustments without a calibration disc by watching a dark scene in a movie, turning the brightness or picture control down until the details in a dark area of the frame disappear, and turning it back up “until you can just make out some detail.”

6. Adjust the contrast

Man with remote

Man with remote | Source: iStock

Once the black levels are set, Taub recommends maximizing the image’s whites by controlling the contrast. “The trick is to adjust the set to get the best white level while still maintaining detail in the whites.” The simplest way to do so is to use a pattern on a tuning disc or on a THX-certified DVD. But in a pinch, you can find a bright scene in a movie — Taub recommends one that includes a white wedding dress — and adjust the contrast so that the dress retains detail “without becoming a mass of indistinguishable white.”
It’s important to note that if you adjust the contrast levels during the day, when there’s bright light in your living room, you’ll need to lower the contrast at night. (Other than the contrast, however, all of the other adjustments that you make to your TV’s settings should remain the same.)

7. Change the colors

Kid watching TV

Kid watching TV | Source: iStock

It can get distracting if the colors on your TV look more saturated than they would in real life. Adjusting your HDTV to display softer, more natural colors may look muted for a few days, but as you adjust to the change, you’ll find the more realistic colors more pleasing. You can adjust the color controls until people look the way you’d expect them to in real life, by turning the color down until it almost disappears and then raising it to your desired level.
Next, Taub advises looking at a scene that includes grass and ensuring that the greens look correct. “If not, you may need to tweak the color control. Because the color and the hue controls interact, it may be necessary to go back and forth between the two until you get the color right.” Color bars on a testing disc can help automate the process, and you can adjust the color control while looking at a series of differently colored bars through a blue filter until the pattern looks uniform.

8. Ensure the sharpness isn’t set too high

Couple watching TV

Couple watching TV | Source: iStock

Another setting to check is the sharpness on your HDTV. If you’ve just bought your HDTV, or haven’t changed its settings since you’ve owned it, the sharpness will probably be set too high. You can check if this is the case by looking at black text on a light background. If it has a white glow around it, you’re seeing the effects of sharpness that’s set too high, and you should turn it down.

9. Customize motion handling

Two men watching TV

Two men watching TV | Source: iStock

May reports that motion handling is “one of the most challenging aspects of picture performance for LED LCD TVs.” While frame interpolation is used to smooth images, it can also result in motion artifacts that make the picture look smudged or unnatural. High motion interpolation is also what’s responsible for the notorious “soap opera effect.” You should check for a mode like Panasonic’s Intelligent Frame Creation, LG’s TruMotion, Sony’s MotionFlow, and Samsung’s Auto Motion Plus and make sure that it’s not on the highest setting.

May recommends a medium setting as “a decent compromise for sports and studio based content,” while low or off is best for “movies and movie-like TV dramas.” Your TV may also enable you to customize motion handling settings with adjustable sliders for blur and judder, which is often the best way to get the picture you want without the effects of excessively aggressive motion handling.

10. Make sure that you and your TV are positioned correctly

Kid watching TV

Kid watching TV | Source: iStock

You can often improve the picture quality you experience with your TV by taking a moment to ensure that both you and your television are positioned correctly. Many TV sets lose contrast and color when your viewing angle is off, and May notes that this applies vertically as well as horizontally.

First of all, make sure that you and your friends or family are seated as straight-on to the television as possible, without anyone seating far to the side. If you’re mounting your TV on the wall, make sure that you don’t mount it too high, since it should be at your eye level when you’re seated. Melissa Perenson reports for Tom’s Guide that you should sit far enough away from the TV that you can’t see the individual pixels, and you should do your best to keep glare off the screen either by moving the TV or by adding curtains and dimmers.