PC Advisor's comprehensive HDTV guide will show you how to set up your high-definition TV, from getting the best possible picture to making the right connections. Here's what to do once you get that brand new HDTV home.

If you thought that buying a new plasma or LCD high-definition (HD) television was the hardest part of bringing a great viewing experience into your home, think again.

To get the most out of your investment, you'll need to overhaul your video source, the cables you use, your sound system, your remote, and even your furniture.

If you haven't decided which TV to buy yet, we can help you make the right choice. Slip over to PC Advisor's price comparison-shop to get the best deal and the optimum-size set for your home.

High-definition glossary

Let's first look at some of the specifications used to describe high-definition pictures. Video at 720p, 1080i, or 1080p is considered "high definition" because it exceeds the standard TV definition of 480i. But these three resolutions certainly don't produce pictures of identical quality.

720p: Used by some TV channels for their high-def broadcasts, 720p video has a pixel resolution of 1280 by 720, and is progressive-scan, meaning that the technology involves drawing all of the lines of each video frame in sequence, rather than interlacing the odd and even lines of succeeding frames, which can cause a flickering effect in fine detail. Most 720p flat-panel sets have a native resolution of 1366 by 768 pixels.

1080i: Used by most HD broadcast networks, 1080i has a higher resolution than 720p, at 1920 by 1080 pixels but the video it produces is of roughly equivalent overall quality because of 720p's smoother scanning.

1080p: The king of HD signals and the standard for high-end flat panels, 1080p adds progressive scanning to its 1920-by-1080-pixel resolution. It is found in HD DVD and Blu-ray Disc players, and in a few PC media player and game boxes.

PC Advisor's comprehensive HDTV guide will show you how to set up your high-definition TV, from getting the best possible picture to making the right connections. Here's what to do once you get that brand new HDTV home.

Choose a location for the TV and arrange seating

To enjoy your new TV at its best, you need to rearrange the furniture in your living room or home-theatre room. Sketch out the dimensions of your room on a piece of graph paper, and demarcate where you want the television to go. Then add in your seating at the proper distance and viewing angle for your TV screen. To calculate the optimal viewing distance for a 1080p screen, THX (the video and audio company founded by director George Lucas) recommends multiplying your diagonal screen size by 1.2. For a 50in HDTV, that works out to 5ft; and for a 70in screen, 7ft.

HDTV 1For optimum viewing, the viewer's angle should be not exceed 40 degrees. Image source: THX.com

These distances may seem short for viewing such large screens, but the added picture detail in HD video allows you to get closer than would be recommended for standard-definition screens, so you can immerse yourself in the action.

Of course, if you prefer, you can sit further back - up to about 2.5 times your screen size - and still get an outstanding viewing experience, but the immersive feel will be less. Finally, be sure that your viewing angle doesn't exceed 40 degrees (see the illustration above), and have your line of sight directed as close to the centre of the screen as possible.

Place your speakers

If you plan to add a surround-sound speaker system, sketch out locations for your speakers in your diagram. If you'll be setting up a 5.1-speaker system, place the centre channel just on top of or underneath your TV, position the left and right channels on either side of the screen, and locate the two surround speakers to the sides and slightly behind your seats.

You can put the subwoofer anywhere in this sound field, although situating it next to the centre channel simplifies cabling - since the only long runs will be to the surround speakers. For a 7.1 setup, you'll place two additional surround speakers behind the seating area. Wondering where to hide the speaker wires? Try running them along or behind baseboards or on top of picture rails.

Speaker options can be confusing, so it's not a bad idea to compare surround sound speaker combinations.

PC Advisor's comprehensive HDTV guide will show you how to set up your high-definition TV, from getting the best possible picture to making the right connections. Here's what to do once you get that brand new HDTV home.

Mounting options

Next, consider where and how to mount the television. Should it be on the wall, in an entertainment centre or armoire, or on a stand? If you hang it on a wall, don't place it too high. You may be tempted to position it above the fireplace mantel - but if you do, you may get Stargazer's Neck from looking up at it during any prolonged viewing.

TVs are best situated at eye level (and speakers, at ear-level). If you place the television inside a bookcase or armoire, consider adding an articulating mounting arm to the setup so that you can that easily move the television forward and back, to keep it from getting buried deep in the cabinet. Even if you don't plan to pull the TV out from the wall, a mounting arm greatly improves your access to rear inputs and cables when you need it. Mounting hardware varies greatly, so be sure to consider all your options.

Make sure that you have enough shelf space for all your video sources, as well as sufficient power outlets. If you use a stand, anchor the TV set so that it doesn't tip over if your dog bumps into it, or if you live in earthquake country.

Make the right connections

Now that you've established a floor plan, it's time to hook up your equipment. To take advantage of your flat panel's 1080p or 720p native resolution, you need true HDTV sources and cable connections.

Unfortunately, notwithstanding all the hype around 1080p resolution, few sources today deliver a 1080p picture. Digital HDTV channels from your cable or satellite provider are either 1080i or 720p; no broadcaster yet offers 1080p signals.

And although ordinary DVD players may be advertised as 1080p, that designation only means that they can magnify the original 480p signal up to 1080p (or to 720p, depending on your HDTV). And finally, if you use a digital video recorder (DVR), you'll be stuck with standard-definition recordings unless you upgrade to an HD model. To obtain true 1080p playback right now, you need a Blu-ray Disc or HD DVD player, an Xbox 360 Elite, or a PC video source.

PC Advisor's comprehensive HDTV guide will show you how to set up your high-definition TV, from getting the best possible picture to making the right connections. Here's what to do once you get that brand new HDTV home.

Take stock and upgrade your sources

You should upgrade all of the sources you care about to high definition. This means upgrading them so that they are capable of delivering 720p, 1080i, or 1080p program material, and buying HDMI cables to connect them to your television (DVI, an older high-def connection standard, is also acceptable. You can purchase DVI-to-HDMI converters to connect older HD peripherals to your new HDTV).

Avoid using high-definition component ports; otherwise, your HD video source will get converted from digital to analogue and then back to digital again in your TV, lowering the picture quality significantly.

Cable TV: cable TV subscribers should upgrade their service to high definition, which usually means paying an extra charge on top of the amount for digital cable. Similarly, if you subscribe to premium channels like Sky, you should upgrade to the HD versions of those as well. High-def versions of channels have different channel numbers from their corresponding SD (standard-definition) ones, so you'll also have to learn a new set of numbers for switching channels.

Digital recorders

If you want to record your new high-definition channels in all their pristine glory, you must also get a new high-definition DVR. If you subscribe to satellite TV, you'll have to get an HD DVR from your provider. Set the output from your DVR to 1080i or 720p, depending on your particular HDTV model.

PC Advisor's comprehensive HDTV guide will show you how to set up your high-definition TV, from getting the best possible picture to making the right connections. Here's what to do once you get that brand new HDTV home.

Other video sources

DVD players: As noted earlier, only HD-DVD and Blu-ray Disc players provide a true 1080p picture. To watch standard DVDs, you'll want a player that can convert the 480i signal to 720p or 1080p, either from your TV or from the DVD player. So-called 1080p "up-converting" DVD players are relatively inexpensive, and typically do a better job of conversion than the converter built in to your TV will, since they are optimised for DVDs. You can set the output to 1080p, 1080i, or 720p, depending on your HDTV's native capabilities.

DVDs look dramatically better on HDTVs following up-conversion, and they should fill the gap quite nicely until a winner finally emerges from the increasingly juvenile skirmishes between Blu-ray and HD DVD. Relatively few movies are available yet in these competing formats anyway.

Game boxes: Sony's PlayStation 3 and Microsoft's Xbox 360 Elite have HDMI ports and high-definition capabilities, so you can play high-def games like Halo 3 on them. The PlayStation 3, with its built-in Blu-ray drive, doubles as an HD movie player. The Xbox 360 Elite has an optional HD DVD drive as well as a built-in up-converting DVD player.

Network media players: PCs and Macs can create, edit, and play high-def video and photo slideshows, and they are a growing source of video content.

To get that content on to your TV, consider buying a network media player - a box that uses your home network to stream music and video from your PC to your television and stereo.

Be sure to get one that is HD-capable, such as the Netgear Digital Entertainer HD EVA8000 (1080p) or the AppleTV (720p). Both come with HDMI ports for hooking them up to your TV, as well as wired and wireless network connections.

HD extenders:

New high-definition Windows Media Center extenders are slated to roll out this fall from Linksys, D-Link, HP, and Niveus. They work directly with the Windows Media Center software incorporated into the Home Premium and Ultimate editions of Windows Vista, and they provide the easiest way to get high-def content from your PC to your TV. They even include Wi-Fi, so you don't need to run cables.

Digital antennae: If you don't want to (or can't) subscribe to a high-definition cable or satellite service, you can still get high-quality local digital broadcasts over-the-air by using an inexpensive digital antenna.

Not all of the digital channels shown will offer high-definition programming, or they may offer high def only for certain prime-time shows. Most digital TV is still produced in 480i resolution.

PC Advisor's comprehensive HDTV guide will show you how to set up your high-definition TV, from getting the best possible picture to making the right connections. Here's what to do once you get that brand new HDTV home.

Put it all together

Once your TV is mounted and your video sources are properly sorted out, it's time to connect everything. If you've done your homework on your peripherals, you have a list of HD and SD sources, and you know what cables you need to hook them up.

For all of your high-definition peripherals, you should be using HDMI cables - or perhaps DVI with an HDMI converter, in the case of older components. If you plan to keep some standard-definition sources, such as a standard DVD player or SD video camera, connect them via S-Video or component ports if possible.

These are of higher quality than RCA, or composite, jacks, and your HDTV will up-convert them to its native resolution. Don't be suckered into buying an expensive HDMI cable at the store when you buy your television. It won't work any better than any HDMI cable from any reputable company. Buy your cables online and save big.

Remember, this is digital: you need only to move the bits reliably from one place to another - not give them back massages.

HDMI musical chairs

If you have more HDMI sources than you have HDMI ports on your new TV (which is quite likely), the simplest solution is to add an external HDMI switcher box.

Be sure to buy a box that has HMDI 1.3 ports, the latest standard. Some models switch automatically between active sources, and you don't have to bring an extra remote control into the picture. Plug always-on sources like your DVR and your cable box directly into your TV.

HDTV 2There are few things you can't hook up to the Marantz SR8002 THX Select2 Surround Receiver, which includes four HDMI 1.3 inputs and an array of other connection options

Another way to perform HDMI switching is with an audio/video (A/V) receiver. If you also need a receiver to power your new surround-sound speaker system, an A/V receiver may be a good choice.

PC Advisor's comprehensive HDTV guide will show you how to set up your high-definition TV, from getting the best possible picture to making the right connections. Here's what to do once you get that brand new HDTV home.

Surround speakers

For a top-of-the-line immersive high-definition experience, you need surround sound. If you don't already have a set of surround-sound speakers, you can choose from a wide array of 5.1- and 7.1-channel sets. But an increasingly popular option is to use a single-box surround "projector" that tucks neatly under your flat-screen TV.

Universal remotes

To make everything work together seamlessly, you'll also need a universal remote. Most large flat-panels come with capable universal remotes that you can program to give you basic control over your peripherals and the TV with a single device. But you may prefer a full-featured third-party remote such as Logitech's popular Harmony 895 Universal Remote, which is optimised for HDTV and DVR systems.

The Harmony 895 lets you quickly switch between aspect ratios (such as normal, full, and zoom); has a large, colour LCD; and supports easy programming through your PC or Mac.

PC Advisor's comprehensive HDTV guide will show you how to set up your high-definition TV, from getting the best possible picture to making the right connections. Here's what to do once you get that brand new HDTV home.

Preliminary round of TV settings

You've hooked up all your video sources and speakers, so now the adjustment phase begins. Open the owner's manual for your TV set, and follow the setup directions. These should take you through three key steps: basic settings; scanning through available channels; and setting audio and picture preferences.

Basic settings: After synchronising the internal clock and specifying the language you want to communicate with your television in, you must identify all your sources - such as the cable or satellite box on Input 1, the DVD player on Input 2, and DVR on Input 3.

Usually you can label each input for easy reference as you click through them with your remote control. If you have any unused inputs, turn them off or set them to skip, so that you won't have to click past a blank or noisy screen every time you cycle through your options. (But don't turn off the front input that you or someone else may use occasionally to connect a video camera or game console.)

Scanning through available channels: Scan through all of the channels you receive on each tuned input (such as over-the-air television or a direct cable input.) At this point you can usually also lock out channels that you want to skip, or put specific channels in a Favourites list. Doing so will make channel surfing much quicker and easier.

Be sure to choose ATSC (digital) rather than NTSC (analogue) when you scan for cable or over-the-air antenna channels. (If you use a cable or satellite box to change channels, you'll perform this setup step on the box, not on the TV.)

Setting audio and picture preferences: These preferences include such details as whether to use internal or external speakers, and what aspect ratio mode to use for 4:3 (standard) sources. Aspect ratio choice is very important.

For 4:3 sources, which most older TV shows use, you may have several options:

  • Normal or 4:3 mode: This mode puts black bars on the sides of the screen and maintains the original aspect ratio. We prefer this style, since it doesn't stretch and distort the picture. But for plasma TVs, extended viewing of programs with black bars in place may lead to image burn-in. So if you watch a lot of 4:3 television programming, you may want to switch to Full mode. Burn-in is less of a problem with plasmas than it used to be, and it's more likely to happen in the first few weeks of use, so you may want to view without the bars for the first month or so. Burn-in is not an issue for LCD TVs. If your plasma does show symptoms of burn-in, a session with PixelProtector or PlasmaSaver may correct the problem.
HDTV 34:3 mode is the aspect ratio commonly used in older television programming

  • Justified or full mode: Full mode stretches the picture horizontally to the edges of the screen. Use this setting if you dislike seeing black bars at the sides of your screen, or to accommodate anamorphic DVDs (which squeeze widescreen information into a 4:3 ratio).
  • Zoom mode: This setting magnifies the image to fill the screen without distorting it, but as a result it cuts off the top and bottom of the picture. Use this mode for movies produced in letterbox format in a 4:3 screen. It will, in effect, remove the letterboxing for you.
HDTV 4Zoom mode is the aspect ratio used to fit letterbox-format video to a wide screen without distortion

If you find these options confusing, or if your television uses a different nomenclature, try each option out with a standard TV source. You'll quickly see what each one does.

Other types of inputs may have aspect ratio or screen positioning options of their own. Widescreen sources are best left to fill the screen, since they'll do so with little or no stretching. For video game and computer sources (which may have odd aspect ratios), you can usually adjust the picture position horizontally and vertically, or zoom it to fill the screen.

Adjusting advanced picture-quality settings, such as contrast, hue, colour temperature, brightness, and sharpness, is next on the agenda.

PC Advisor's comprehensive HDTV guide will show you how to set up your high-definition TV, from getting the best possible picture to making the right connections. Here's what to do once you get that brand new HDTV home.

Calibrate your picture

Calibration is the final step to getting the best possible picture from your new HDTV. Most new televisions come with picture "presets" - for specific inputs such as movies, games, and sport - that take the work out of adjusting contrast, brightness, hue, colour temperature, and sharpness. But the quality of these presets can vary.

Some manufacturers do a good job with them, and some don't, so test them before buying to make sure that they deliver the picture you want. TVs often emerge from the factory with their colour temperature and brightness set too high, or with their hues set too vivid, to give their picture a boost in a brightly lit showroom. If you want accurate colour reproduction customised to the lighting level in your viewing room, you should do your own calibration.

Quick and easy calibration

For a quick and easy "free" calibration, you can use almost any DVD that features THX audio. Star Wars director and THX developer George Lucas wanted viewers of his movies to enjoy accurate reproduction of both audio and video, so he provides a set of calibration tools in the DVD setup area of the disc. Just click THX Optimizer, and then follow the onscreen instructions.

HDTV 5Many DVDs containing THX audio, like "Pirates of the Caribbean", also include the THX Optimizer, which will help you calibrate your TV's picture. Source: "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl”

Before you start calibrating, be sure to do three things:

  1. Adjust the room lighting to its level during the time when you'll typically be watching TV.
  2. Turn the set's sharpness down to normal.
  3. Make sure that the colour temperature is set to 6500 degrees Kelvin (the video standard).

When you're ready to calibrate, the THX Optimizer will lead you through five test patterns for adjusting contrast, brightness, color/tint, aspect ratio, and sharpness to their optimum levels.

HDTV 6The THX Optimiser Brightness adjustment should show 10 levels ranging from gray to black at the top and bottom of the screen, and yet be dark enough to cause the drop-shadow behind the THX logo to disappear

The optimiser presents a simple instruction screen for each adjustment, telling you what to look for, and what parameters to alter. Do this while you are standing close enough to the screen to see any necessary detail.

PC Advisor's comprehensive HDTV guide will show you how to set up your high-definition TV, from getting the best possible picture to making the right connections. Here's what to do once you get that brand new HDTV home.

Calibrate like a pro

Serious videophiles may want to go further, and invest in either a professional calibration from a video consultant (most home-theatre stores can provide this service, and they may even include it if you pay for in-home installation), or a professional-level setup disc such as Joe Kane's Digital Video Essentials (DVE).

DVE comes in standard DVD and dual-sided HD DVD/standard DVD versions. If you have an HD DVD player, get the high-def version, which includes 1080p and 720p test patterns. Bundled with both versions is a set of red, green, and blue filters that you can hold over the screen to help you make colour corrections - a task that can be difficult to perform accurately if you rely on your unaided eye.

The DVE disc's video tutorial leads you through basic picture setup, starting with black levels (for brightness and contrast), and then moving on to colours, overscan, and sharpness. The disc includes many additional test patterns, and an extensive manual explains how to interpret them. Be prepared to become a video expert if you get this product.

HDTV 7This combination colour bar and grayscale pattern from the Digital Video Essentials disc is helpful in correcting colours

One example of the test screens included in the Digital Video Essentials disc is the Snell & Wilcox TV Test Chart, which offers test patterns for optimising various settings on your television.

HDTV 8This Snell & Wilcox Zone Plate test pattern is designed to reveal motion and interlacing problems, among others

Save your profiles

Once you've calibrated your TV, save your picture settings in a custom picture preset, or profile, so that you can retrieve them easily when you switch between different sources.

Your television may also let you save custom picture settings for each input, such as your DVR (which handles TV shows mostly), your DVD player (movies, mostly), and your Xbox, PlayStation, or Wii. Gamers may want to bump up the sharpness or make colours more vivid; again, adjust those settings when you are actually playing a game and then save them in a separate profile.

For their part, sport fans tend to want smooth motion, but they may also prefer a more detailed (read: sharper) image than works best with movies and regular TV shows. Experiment.

Regardless of how you perform your calibration, taking the time to work through the picture settings will help you get the most out of your new HDTV by educating you about what makes a good picture and by forcing you to learn about how your TV operates.

You're done

Now it's time to sit back and enjoy HDTV as it's meant to be.