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Using Software to Calibrate an HDTV

When you're serious about getting an accurate picture

When you look at your TV's picture, what do you see? Does its balance of bright and dark and presentation of colors resemble the real world outside your window, or is your TV's world faded, exaggerated, or otherwise distorted? Picture quality is certainly in the eye of the beholder, but picture accuracy is something that can be measured and adjusted with precision that often exceeds what we can distinguish with our eyes.

The ultimate measure of a TV

In our Calibrating Your HDTV article, we talked about the first level of adjustments, where you use your TV's basic controls to fine-tune Brightness, Contrast, Color, and Sharpness. That approach can yield a picture that's more to your liking. If you'd like to get a more accurate picture, you can get a calibration disc like the Spears & Munsil High Definition Benchmark Blu-ray disc, which includes a couple dozen test patterns. That disc is a great low-cost solution, but again you're limited to what you can achieve using your TV's basic controls.

A true TV calibration can increase picture accuracy significantly, but requires a greater commitment — not only of money to purchase the software, but also of your time and energy. The key difference between a disc like the Spears & Munsil and calibration software is that the software is used with a light meter to actually measure what your TV is doing as far as brightness, contrast, grayscale and color. Because the program knows precisely what's happening with your TV's picture, it can tell you precisely how to fix it. It's a calibration that's totally customized for your particular TV

One of the most popular and affordable calibration software solutions is SpectraCal's CalMAN series, now in v4. SpectraCal has been making calibration software for years, and they offer more expensive and elaborate products for the professional and commercial markets. But CalMAN was designed for home users — it's listed as a "DIY" solution. At around $200, it's also priced with the home user in mind. Yet it includes every feature and function necessary to perform a professional-level calibration.

The software is available as a download from SpectraCal's website. In addition to the software — which is available for Windows PCs only — you need a light meter to take measurements from your TV's screen. SpectraCal offers several bundles which include the software and a meter of varying sophistication and expense.

I recently tried out the most basic combo: CalMAN v4 with the Xrite Eye-One Display 2 meter. I calibrated one of the TVs in our Lab, and here's how it went.

A different kettle of fish

Over the past two years I've used the Spears & Munsil disc to calibrate over a dozen TVs and a couple of projectors. I thought I had a decent understanding of how calibration works, but I felt like a newbie using this software. SpectraCal graciously provided me with a fully functional but temporary copy of CalMAN v4, and sent me the Eye-One meter and GetGray DVD of test patterns. CalMAN can be used with an external pattern generator, which would typically cost hundreds more than the software itself, but most home users will probably rely on a disc like GetGray played on their DVD or Blu-ray player.

The first time I launched CalMAN, it needed to identify the meter I was using, the Eye-One Display 2. I plugged the Eye-One into a USB port on my laptop. The Eye-One is a compact meter, and the side that goes against the TV screen is covered with little suction cups to provide solid contact. I followed the instructions and positioned the meter in the center of the TV screen, with the cable draped over the top of the screen. The USB cable is short, so I had to have the laptop close to theTV. Once the meter was in place, I loaded the GetGray disc into the Oppo BDP-95 Blu-ray player. The TV to be calibrated was one of Panasonic's 2011 plasma models, the 50" TC-P50GT30.

The first step was to find out which of the Panasonic's color temperature presets was the most accurate. Like most TVs, the Panasonic has several color temperature options labeled as variations of "Cool" and "Warm," plus "Neutral." The industry standard for color temperature is 6500K or D65. A "cool" color temperature gives whites a slight bluish tint and measures above 6500K (sometimes as high as 10,000K or 12,000K). A "warm" temperature imparts a reddish tint and measures below 6500K. Now, you'd think that the TV's "Neutral" option would be closest to 6500K, but in fact, TV makers routinely set color temp defaults that are cool because it gives whites extra pop. For the Panasonic, the "Warm 1" setting measured quite close to 6500K.

To do a calibration, I followed the step-by-step instructions on the laptop screen, which prompted me to display a series of test patterns from the GetGray disc. The program stepped through a series of white, gray, and black test patterns of varying intensity followed by a series of color patterns. Each time the program took a reading, it made a "click-whirr" sound that resembled snapping a picture with a motor-drive camera. Nice touch. The program also provided real-time charts showing that the TV's colors were out of balance. Once I'd completed an entire test series I could save the before and after profiles, and do it for multiple TVs.

Should you give calibration software a try? Maybe.

To take full advantage of CalMAN's precision and accuracy requires accessing more than just the basic user picture controls. Many current TVs, especially higher-performing models include complete adjustments for tweaking the TV's primary colors (red, green, and blue). To tweak your TV's picture to match CalMAN's optimum settings requires access to this level of color controls, either through the regular user menu or the service menu. Important Note: It's a bad idea to go messing around in your TV's service menu unless you know what you're doing. Your TV's user controls will never result in damage to the TV, but the service menu controls can if you do something wrong. That's why you usually need a special secret code to access the service menu.

If you've used a setup disc like Spears & Munsil and want to take the next step with a calibration program, you may find as I did that it's a pretty big step. Where Spears & Munsil is goof-proof, I found CalMAN less intuitive that I expected, and ended up spending a chunk of time on the phone with their tech support (which was excellent). I'm going to be playing around with it more in the coming weeks, but I'm already impressed by the program's power and flexibility.

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