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Getting your new HDTV's picture to look great

Recently, my husband and I treated ourselves to a gorgeous 50-inch SXRD Sony, the KDS-50A2000. We were thrilled — until we hooked it up. Our favorite DVDs looked pretty bad, with weird bands of color distracting our eyes in many scenes, and funny pixel patches surrounding titles and credits. Regular standard-definition TV looked bad too. HD broadcasts looked pretty good, although they too were sometimes marred by those funny bands of color. For example, the rosy glow of a sunset might turn into three concentric halos of red, orange and peach, which wriggled in odd and unnatural ways.

What did we do? We plugged and unplugged cables. We tried different video connections. We tried ten different DVDs. We went out to dinner, so we wouldn't have to sit glumly in our house, worrying about the TV in the next room. I wasn't hopeful when I sat down to try one last-ditch method of salvation — playing with the picture presets. But at the very least, I thought, I can make it look as good as possible before I get a technician out here.

That made all the difference.

 Now, I'd always known that the "factory settings" are designed to make a TV's picture look bright, crisp and eye-catching in a showroom, but aren't designed for regular viewing at home. I'd also heard that non-HD signals can look surprisingly bad when viewed on a good HDTV – it seems that excellent image reproduction sort of holds up a magnifying glass to video flaws that aren't noticeable with older TVs. But I had no idea that over-bright factory settings could team up with the less-than-ideal picture you get from some standard-definition sources to make my HDTV's picture such a disappointment.

So what exactly did I do? I lowered things like "Brightness" and "Picture" to halfway or less. I turned down "Sharpness" and turned off "Edge Enhancer." I set things like "Color Balance" to Neutral. (I even found a reference to the correct Imaging Science Foundation settings for my particular set somewhere on AVS Forum and played with those.) And I suddenly had much more natural gradations between shades, more lifelike handling of scenes, and the complete elimination of some of those jumpy gray pixel patches around titles and credits. Whew.

Since then, I've been spreading the word about those all-important picture settings – I want others to avoid the disheartening hours I spent wondering what was wrong with my new TV, and get on with some seriously fantastic TV viewing. (Also, if you want more tips on what might make your TV's picture better – even if it already looks great – Steve Kindig has a nice article on getting the best picture out of your HDTV on CrutchfieldAdvisor.com.)

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