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Improving Non-HD Sources on Your HDTV

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High-definition TV is one of those rare things in life that's under-hyped — folks' first face-to-face encounter with HD programming is overwhelmingly positive, and far exceeds their expectations. But the HDTV ownership experience may not be all sunshine and rainbows.

Ready? Here's the downside: Regular, non-HD video — like standard-definition TV shows and VHS tapes — can actually look worse on your shiny new high-def TV than they used to on your old tube.

I know, you're saying, "But I just paid $3,000 for my new TV, it's top-of-the-line. Everything should look good on this set." And you're right. Your TV is very capable of displaying all the details of the video signal — that's why all of your HD sources look so stunning. Unfortunately, that also means that you'll be able to see the defects and imperfections that are often found in non-HD signals.

So why didn't it look bad on my old TV?

Your HDTV can display high-resolution scenes in immaculate detail — the individual blades of astroturf at a football game, and every pore on the players' faces. Now, the same holds true when you're watching a lower-quality signal. That means that all the static, noise, jagged edges (or "jaggies") and other artifacts in that low-quality signal will show up in full detail on your HDTV. You probably didn't see all of these imperfections when you watched the same material on your old TV, because it just wasn't capable of that level of detail.

Think of it another way. Have you ever gotten the chance to ride in a really nice sports car? The engine revs, the car glides forward, effortlessly picking up speed — it can give you a driving experience you could never get with an economy car. But what happens when you hit a bumpy road? With that car's tight suspension, you feel every dip and hump — not like an economy car with soft, forgiving springs. Your high-quality new HDTV? It's the less-forgiving — but arguably more satisfying — sports car.

Comparing video sources

To get a better idea of why older, non-high-def sources might not look so hot on your new set, let's look at how different video sources stack up.

The standard used by current non-HD analog video is the same one you've been watching for years — since 1953, to be precise. TV shows, DVDs, and VHS tapes all fall in this camp, providing your TV with 480 vertical lines of picture information. Non-HD digital video also typically provides only 480 lines, though a lot of folks find that it looks better than its analog counterpart. (If you have digital cable, think of the difference between the lower-numbered channels (analog) vs. the higher-numbered channels (digital).)

The HD format offers dramatically higher resolution, typically 720 or 1080 lines of picture information. That's actually up to six times the resolution offered by non-HD sources. That means when your HDTV receives that lower-resolution signal, it has to scale it to fit its high-resolution screen. The result? Imagine blowing up a small, low-resolution digital photograph. It had enough picture information to look OK at its original resolution, but when you make it larger, the lack of detail in the image is more obvious, and you can see some imperfections that you couldn't see before. Non-HD video on your HDTV can work the same way.

Great. So what do I do now?

Even if there are many video sources that just can't deliver a brilliant high-definition picture, there's a lot going on to improve that. For example, cable and satellite companies are adding more HD channels to meet consumer demand. And some TV manufacturers are focusing on ways to help non-HD video look more like HD. But I know you want to get your HDTV looking its best right now. Below, you'll find some practical steps you can take to improve your non-HD picture (and they won't hurt your HD viewing, either).

For a more in-depth look at a lot of these tips, check out our article on getting the best picture on your HDTV.

Get your TV set up right
monster-dvd A TV calibration DVD can help you get a clearer, more accurate picture from all your video sources.

Setup disc
Properly setting your TV's picture will have a positive impact on all the video sources you watch. One of the easiest ways to do this is to use a setup disc like Monster's HDTV Calibration Wizard. It walks you through the various settings you need to adjust, step by step, with on-screen examples to help you properly calibrate your set. For more details, check out our review of Monster's calibration disc.

Noise reduction
One setting found on many TVs that can go a long way towards helping noisy sources is — you guessed it — noise reduction. Try different levels of noise reduction on different sources. You'll probably find that noise reduction can actually introduce noise into your HD sources, so just use it with non-HD video.

Sharpness and edge enhancement
So you've got a somewhat fuzzy, blurry signal — upping the sharpness sounds like a good fix, right? Actually, settings like these can sometimes make signals worse — from good-quality video, like your DVD player, to not-so-good video, like your analog cable signal. Experiment with your TV to see what looks best.

Proper aspect ratio
Most non-HD sources come in a 4:3, squarish aspect ratio — which doesn't quite fit a 16:9 widescreen HDTV. Some folks stretch or zoom the image to fill up the screen, so that they don't have to view the black bars — that can be a good idea for plasma owners, in order to avoid burn in. But if you don't mind the black bars on either side of the picture, we recommend you leave them up. Stretching will distort an already poor signal, and zooming further magnifies any flaws. See our article about aspect ratio for more info, as well as some aspect ratio troubleshooting tips.

4:3 on 16:9 When 4:3 programs are displayed on a 16:9 screen, black or gray bars appear on the sides of the screen 16:9 on 16:9 Here's the same image in a 16:9 aspect ratio on a 16:9 screen — you can see that more of the image is visible.

Customize your settings for different inputs
A lot of TVs let you create different settings for some or all of the above features for each input. If your set can do that, take advantage of it. That way, you'll always have the picture optimized for each source you watch, without having to adjust when you jump from playing your Nintendo Wii™ to watching HDTV.

Get your sources set up right

Chances are, when your satellite receiver was installed, or when you first hooked up your DVD player, they weren't set to best match your TV. So you'll want to go into their video settings and make sure that things like resolution and aspect ratio are appropriate for your display. For example, many high-def cable and satellite boxes need to be set to output a high-def signal — which will help your HD content and, somewhat surprisingly, may help your non-HD shows as well.

Get your connections right

Using the appropriate cables can make a big difference in picture quality. You'll want to use the best-quality connection your gear can support, and usually, the cables that come in the box aren't up to the job. See our article about connecting your HDTV for more information.

Also, you might find that some high-quality sources, like an upconverting DVD player or HD satellite box, perform better with component video when displaying non-HD content, while others look better with HDMI. If you can, try going back and forth between the two to figure out which one works best for you.

Get more high-quality video sources

Over-the-air High-Definition TV broadcasts
This probably won't be as difficult or costly as you might think. Over-the-air digital broadcasts offer some of the highest-quality HD content available, and often have strong standard-definition quality as well. Better yet, they're free. You can use any UHF antenna — even the old rabbit ears you have stashed in the attic. If you live in a relatively remote area, or anywhere where reception is difficult, consider a powered or outdoor antenna. See our article about choosing and installing an HD antenna for more info.

antenna Over-the-air digital broadcasts offer some of the highest-quality HD content available, and they're free.

Blu-ray players
Blu-ray players have become hugely popular with HDTV owners. The 1080p picture from a Blu-ray player is arguably the best you'll see on your set, and players now start around $300. Plus, every Blu-ray player can also "upconvert" your standard DVD collection. That means that they can scale the regular DVD signal to a higher resolution that more closely matches your TV's high-resolution screen. Now, that doesn't mean it's actually HD — it's not. But it can look darn good on an HDTV.

Not quite ready to take the Blu-ray plunge? Consider a new DVD player that can upconvert your discs — something almost all current DVD players can do. Again, it won't be true high-definition, but it will improve the look of your current movie collection.

blu-ray player Blu-ray players can send your HDTV super-sharp 1080p video — the highest resolution you can get.
Get a stronger cable or satellite signal

If you're frustrated with the quality of your cable or satellite picture, you may want to try adding a line booster. It can amplify the signal, giving your TV a clearer, stronger feed to work with. A line booster can also be a good choice for people trying to split the signal among multiple rooms.

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