Image: Gizmodo

If you’re going to invest hundreds of dollars on a television set then you want to make sure you’re setting the best picture possible, but far too many of us don’t take the time to correctly configure the display we’re staring at. Here’s how to get your money’s worth from your TV tech and the on-screen settings you need to know about.

It’s worth pointing out right at the start that some experimentation may be required, because different sets have different quirks, and on top of that different types of content require different types of configuration. With that in mind though we can give you some general best practices to follow no matter what your make and model of TV.

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A good place to start is with the preset modes that come with your TV—delve into the settings to find them. Here, as elsewhere in this guide, it’s helpful to have the manual for your model to hand or loaded up in a web browser to see exactly what’s available.

You might not see a major difference, but you get the idea. (Image: HBO)

These modes automatically adjust the picture settings based on what you’re watching. There may well be some kind of sports mode for fast-moving action, and a cinema mode for more realistic-looking images from higher-quality sources, and maybe a “dynamic” or “vivid” mode that might look appealing when glanced at in a brightly lit room, but is far from perfect. That’s the mode the TV is set to when it’s in the middle of a brightly lit Costco or Wal-Mart and is not what you’d want to be watching when sitting on your couch. The mode identified as Cinema or Movie mode is usually the most accurate in terms of reproducing what the director intended your media to look like. The big exception is Vizio who has a Calibrated and a Calibrated Dark mode. The former is for an accurate picture in a brightly lit room, while the latter is great if you watch TV with most of the lights off.

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Unfortunately every TV maker likes to have a different name for the various modes so a little experimentation will be required. Skip any mode called Standard or Vivid or Eco as the colors will tended to be overly saturated with a blue tint and more brightness that you might prefer. Seek out a Calibrated, Movie or Cinema mode when watching regular TV, a Sports mode if you’re watching Sports and a Game mode for, you guessed it, gaming. Familiarize yourself with these presets and what they can do, and you can quickly switch between them in future, almost like applying Instagram filters to your TV experience.

Picture settings

Have you seen a menu like this? (Image: Gizmodo)

If you want to tweak the picture manually, then that’s possible too on the vast majority of sets. It won’t be nearly as accurate as if you hired a professional calibrater with their thousands of dollars of equipment or picked up a Spears & Munsil HD Benchmark and Calibration Blu-Ray, but you can definitely tweak things for a better looking picture than wha comes out of the box, and if you’re seeking accuracy but can’t afford the $30 Blu-Ray mentioned above you can use photos loaded via USB or the web, or the THX Tune-Up app for iOS or Android, which will guide you through a number of visual (and audial) tweaks you can make once your phone is connected to your TV set.

Once you’ve settled on whether you want to calibrate or not it’s time to hop into the Picture settings. As with Viewing Modes a lot of the neatest features change names depending on the TV brand, so you’ll need to consult a manual, but others are very straight forward. Options like brightness and contrast you might be familiar with from photo editing, allowing you to boost or reduce the black levels of your image, and increase or decrease the range between the shadows and the highlights of the picture. Hue, or Tint, lets you make things more green or red while Color, or Saturation, will usually alter the intensity of colors. A newer setting, Backlight, should adjust the base brightness of the set—which is useful if things are too dim in a sunlit room or too bright in a dark one.

The optimum settings here (and in many other cases) will depend on the lighting in your room, but the HDR feature available on many a new TV set can help. Essentially what it does is keep the detail in the very lightest and very darkest parts of a picture, making sure you can still see objects in shadows and in bright light. If HDR is an option on your new-fangled 4K TV set then make sure it’s switched on, but it can be VERY difficult to find. Many big TV makers like Samsung and Vizio have the setting hidden away, and in most cases the source will need to have HDR activated on it and you’ll need to be using high-speed HDMI cable.

Some of the big TV makers have the HDR mode located as follows:

  • LG: Picture -> HDMI Ultra HD Deep Color
  • Panasonic: Setup -> HDMI HDR
  • Samsung: General -> External Device Manager -> HDMI UHD Color
  • Sony: Setup -> HDMI Signal Format -> HDMI Enhanced
  • Vizio: Inputs -> HDMI Subsampling

Advanced settings

The THX app can help with set calibration. (Image: THX)

After you’ve tweaked the general settings to your liking there are still the advanced settings. They can dramatically alter the image on the TV set, but the labels are often insanely confusing and inconsistent, and many settings are best reserved for a professional calibrator.

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Still, there’s no harm in messing around with the Advanced Settings as you can always reset them if you don’t like them. The gamma setting is one of the most useful ones, and the change is always dramatic. It alters the detail in shadows. If you’re playing a video game and can’t spot the zombies try lowering the gamma to make the overall picture brighter, and if you want a saturated and dark look where black clothes blend into the shadows than try increasing the gamma.

A temperature setting, meanwhile, controls the ‘warmth’ or ‘coolness’ of the colors you’re seeing on screen—minor tweaks here alongside the other settings we’ve mentioned can improve the look of the image on screen. If you like the color of the Vivid display setting but feel things look to blue try increasing the warmth.

And if skintones or overall colors appear to shifted towards red, green, blue, cyan, magenta, or yellow than you can sometimes alter them in one of the White Balance settings. However White Balance is generally best left to a calibrator who can accurately determine “true white” and get you set as close to that white as possible.

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Also make note of any settings in the Advanced Settings menu like Dynamic Contrast. There are a lot of settings that try to improve the image on your TV through by automatically adjusting contrast or even brightness. While these settings can work, they can also lead to annoying flickers or a sense of the TV set “breathing”. Turn the dynamic settings off if you notice them and they bother you.

Processing power

Find a detailed guide for your TV. (Image: Rtings.com)

A lot of modern-day TVs are keen to add extra processing to the picture coming through from whatever source—in theory it’s to improve the quality of the image, but in reality it can degrade the viewing experience, depending on what you’re watching. Any fancy after-effects with “motion” in the title should be switched off for a premium watching experience according to the Duffer brothers of Stranger Things fame, though your mileage may vary. Essentially all these features, whatever their names, use algorithms to try and make the picture look smoother.

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That’s great when it works (usually if you’re watching sports events) but it can also have a detrimental effect and lead to a picture that’s rather flat and dull—it’s often termed “the soap opera effect” because it makes content look like a dated soap opera. We can’t speak for your particular set or the kind of content you watch most often but it’s worth experimenting with turning these options off.

We can’t cover every single TV set out there but a lot of them will allow you to tweak these processing effects with a variety of bespoke settings and sliders, all given their own names—a quick dive into the instruction book or a quick web search for your TV’s make and model number should turn up some extra tricks to try. Rtings.com, for example, has a useful series of calibration guides to match whatever set you’ve got.

Check your sources and cables

How well do you know your cables? (Image: Amazon)

In most situations, you’re going to have your various cable and gaming boxes connected up via HDMI, or be getting your content straight from the web. It’s hard to go wrong here but you do need HDMI 2.0 cables for full 60fps 4K content, so that’s something to double-check, especially if you’re a gamer. The HDMI 2.0a spec adds HDR support, so again if that’s being fed in from the source, you need a cable to match.

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Your ports need to match too—not all the HDMI sockets around the back of your TV are guaranteed to support HDR and 4K, even if the set as a whole does. Your best bet here is checking the manual that came with the television to see if your best-quality sources are plugged into the compatible sockets. It’s also worth checking through the settings on your cable box, or games console, or Blu-ray player, just to make sure it’s outputting the best possible picture.

Finally, don’t be afraid to experiment: Your set will come with a factory reset option somewhere, so you can always go back to the beginning and start your tweaking again from scratch, if you need to. It might be worth making a note of what you’ve changed and where, so you can retrace your steps more easily.