How To Calibrate Your HDTV

Understanding Your HDTV’s Menus

In our monitor and HDTV reviews, we show you every product’s OSD and how each function affects image quality. While most features are the same on a desktop screen or big-screen TV, there are some important differences you should be aware of. Let’s take a look at the terminology so you can better understand what all those controls and sliders actually do.

Backlight – You know that a computer monitor’s backlight control is labeled brightness. But on HDTVs, it’s a separate adjustment. This is super-handy because you can set the brightness and contrast for maximum detail and dynamic range, and then adjust the backlight to your preferred output level.

Brightness – So what does brightness actually control? On an HDTV, it sets the minimum black level. This is important because if you lower it too much in search of deep blacks, you will likely remove fine shadow detail, giving the picture a “black blob” look. We’ll show you the proper test pattern to use in setting your TV’s brightness on page four.

Contrast – This control sets the white level and can be used to control your display’s maximum output. Again, you want to adjust it to your preferred level without clipping detail in the image’s brightest areas. Setting it too high can also cause a color tint in bright whites that isn’t correctable with the RGB sliders. Page four will show you the proper way to adjust contrast.

Color & Tint – Here is another mislabeled option. It really should be called color saturation and color hue. Color control increases or decreases the saturation level of all six colors simultaneously. Therefore, it should be used sparingly unless all colors are under-saturated equally. Tint, or hue, rotates the secondary colors closer to one primary or another. Again, since it alters three colors at the same time, it should be used carefully.

In most cases, if you are able to dial in the color temperature correctly, color and tint can stay at or near their default settings.

Color Temperature – We also refer to this as white balance or grayscale tracking. HDTVs typically have a few presets labeled warm, normal, and cool, plus a user-adjustable mode. It’s the most important adjustment governing color because it not only sets the white point, but also affects the color gamut as well. The best way to adjust it is with an instrument. However, we’ll show you how to get close without any gear.

Other Image Enhancements

Unlike computer monitors, HDTVs include many options in the category of picture enhancements. These should be used carefully because, in most cases, they degrade picture quality and create unwanted artifacts. In fact, the movie modes on many sets disable all of them in pursuit of a more pure image, unspoiled by display-added modifications.

Sharpness – Almost every HDTV we’ve seen comes with sharpness set to a medium level. To our eyes, the resulting edge enhancement (also called ringing) is obvious and reduces the picture's clarity. All sharpness does is attempt to highlight contrasting areas of the screen by drawing a white line around dark objects or a black line around light ones. We recommend lowering this control either to zero or to a point where the ringing disappears.

Dynamic Contrast – Even though LCD is the dominant technology in today’s HDTVs, it can’t even come close to the contrast levels offered by plasma or even CRT. To compensate for this, display manufacturers introduce an algorithm that manipulates white and black levels dynamically depending on content. When used subtly, it can enhance perceived contrast. But cross that fine line and detail is lost. Most sets have three or four levels available. Start at the bottom and work your way up, watching carefully for signs of crushing. Better yet, use a test pattern.

Frame Interpolation – Most HDTVs have this feature today. Since a lot of LCDs run at 120 or even 240 Hz, the extra available frames can be used to reduce motion blur in content originating at 24, 30, or 60 frames per second. It’s accomplished through sophisticated processes that create new frames by essentially filling in the blanks. Now that it’s been available for several model generations, the tearing artifacts plaguing early models are largely gone. It works quite well at creating smooth motion and maintaining resolution. Its only drawback is known as the “soap-opera effect”. Some people, me included, are not fans of the flat and phony look that results. Since it doesn’t change other image parameters, its use is a matter of personal preference.

Now we’ll move on to a brief discussion of the SMPTE standards we employ in all our reviews and calibrations.

Christian Eberle
Contributing Editor

Christian Eberle is a Contributing Editor for Tom's Hardware US. He's a veteran reviewer of A/V equipment, specializing in monitors.

  • youcanDUit
    aww... i thought i was going to be able to calibrate with this. i am sad now.
  • Paul NZ
    Nothing to calibrate here. Connect it it works
  • vmem
    Thanks for the detailed and great write up. it is inspiriting as always

    Though honestly, for the "average" consumer, I find it hard to justify spending $350 to calibrate a $500 or so monitor set up and maybe a $800-1200 TV. I feel this is the type of thing you have to really get into (and end up doing it for free for your friends and family)
  • rdc85
    Well I'm using the pic for calibrating the monitor right now :D...

    looks like my brightness and contrast slights off
  • crisan_tiberiu
    the question is: why arent the producers calibrate the TVs right out of the factory? why? is it so hard to make a preset for the TVs? 99% of the TVs that come out of a factory will have the same "crappy" default settings. And sorry, i wont spend 350$ to calibrate my TV ^^ no way
  • shahrooz
    well the first time I saw a calibrate your something's screen article was a year ago. Back then I found out "one does not simply calibrate the screen of something"
  • Onlyrgu
    I prefer AVS HD 709 - Blu-ray & MP4 Calibration
    And its free
  • The_Icon
    This is something I have been wanting for a long time now. Is there any good free tool to calibrate both the HDTV and my monitor? The TV is connected to my PC as well.
  • vmem
    14324342 said:
    the question is: why arent the producers calibrate the TVs right out of the factory? why? is it so hard to make a preset for the TVs? 99% of the TVs that come out of a factory will have the same "crappy" default settings. And sorry, i wont spend 350$ to calibrate my TV ^^ no way

    They do calibrate the TVs (any manufacturer worth their salt anyway). the problem is two fold: first all TVs / monitors are relatively low margin because the market is highly competitive. unless you're paying a premium for "professional" monitors such as the Dell ultrasharp series, most panels will be calibrated the 'easy' way to some factory pre-set that is considered "good enough".

    the second thing is that everyone's lighting conditions are different. maybe your room is brighter than mine and you like having the traditional type of bulbs that have a yellow / orange hue and I use white light bulbs. these things have a huge impact on how your TV looks, so at the end of the day the consumer will always need to do some calibration if you want perfect color reproduction.
  • bic
    Go get the free software on