HDTV calibration on the cheap
So you've got an HDTV. How do you know it's properly calibrated for the best possible picture? You could invite a technician over for dinner and a movie, but that costs too much and sounds a little too personal. Perhaps you could buy the DTV calibration standard called "Digital Video Essentials", but by the time you order it and receive it you've just watched a week's worth of television. Hmm.....what else could we use? If you have kids, chances are you already have a passable tool for this: a THX-Optimized DVD.
Before we get pounded with comments, we will disclose that this method is not the best way to calibrate your digital set. The intention here is to make some basic adjustments to get your set closer to perfection. Let's just say it's much better than "eyeballing" the adjustments!
Tucked away on just about every Pixar and Lucasfilm DVD since the year 2000 is a "THX Optimizer" chapter in the SetUp or Special Features section of the DVD. Check any of the recent kids DVDs from Pixar: Monsters, Inc. seems to be the one we use the most. Pop the disc in and look for the Optimizer chapter. The DVD will walk you through a series of tests, complete with instructions, on how to adjust your set to best "pass" the test.
The first test helps adjust your Contrast and Picture settings. You're looking for the darkest blacks and the brightest whites in this test. The DVD will show a white box that has eight sections to it. Around the white box is a black border. For this test, you adjust your Picture and\or Contrast settings so that the eight white boxes are distinct and so they don't blur into the black border.
The second test focuses on setting the Brightness levels. The test will show the "THX" logo surrounded by boxes in ten shades of black. Here you want to ensure the black levels are dark, but not limited to just a few shades of black. This will help with dark scenes and shadows, providing depth to those areas of the screen. Adjust your Brightness settings until you can count seven of the ten shaded boxes.
The next test requires special blue filter glasses available from THX and helps with the color and hue of your set. Luckily, you can skip this test if you don't have the glasses or if you just feel silly wearing blue glasses. Skip this chapter and proceed to the Monitor Performance test. Here you are focusing on two key features: the Color and the Sharpness of your picture.
Look for the red box, which is the sixth color box across the top half of the screen. Adjust your Color settings on your TV to make the box red, but not bleeding into the boxes next to it. A good way to approach this test is to back your Color setting to zero so that the picture is black and white. Step up your color settings until the red appears red to you, but again, not so much that it bleeds into the next box. Once the Color setting is good, adjust your set's Tint setting until the Cyan and Magenta blocks appear correctly. This test is a bit of judgment on your part.
Finally, look at the Sharpness Bar on the lower half of the screen and move your sets Sharpness setting up until the vertical lines look edgy. Move the Sharpness back down to where the lines become softer, but are still defined. This test is also semi-subjective, so there is no right or wrong here.
Following your Sharpness adjustments, the next test validates your set's 4:3 aspect. If you have a 4:3 or full screen television, you should see two perfectly formed rectangles and one perfect circle. Any lines that appear jagged or non-linear could indicate an issue with your set's alignment. If you have a 16:9 or widescreen television, change your aspect setting to 4:3 for this test.
Similar to the last test, this final one checks your 16:9 aspect ratio setup. If you have a 4:3 television, you can skip the test as it's basically a repeat of the last test. For a 16:9 set, you're again looking for the perfect rectangles and the circle. This test also checks your DVD aspect setting to ensure that it's optimized for your television's aspect ratio.
That's it! You've run through some basic calibration techniques to provide a better picture on your digital TV. At this point, the THX Optimizer will play a short clip of the DVD or another film so you can get a feel for the changes you've made. Again, this method doesn't take the place of professional calibration or one of the other videophile DVD methods, but it works in a pinch and you probably already have the Optimizer in your home. Now, where did we put our cool blue glasses?
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