Whether you're taking the wraps off of your first HDTV or your fifth there's a few easily avoidable hurdles that can prevent you from enjoying that brand new display at its best. Now, with new internet connected TVs and 3DTVs in the mix, there's even more to consider, but we'll walk you through the minefield of figuring out how to hook that new TV up, what to connect it to and even throw in a few suggestions on where to find the stuff you like to watch most.
First on your list? Making sure everything is hooked up correctly. Surveys show an appalling number of HDTV owners have the right TV and the right services, but despite thinking they're watching high definition television, they actually aren't. When it comes to HD video cabling, these days you have two options, HDMI or component (red/green/blue) and in most cases, HDMI is going to be the only one you need/can use. If you haven't purchased a new display or receiver yet, figuring out how many HDMI inputs you'll need going in is one of the most important questions to get answered. HDMI carries audio and video on the same cable, so if you go that route, you'll just need one cable per device. Make sure they're long enough and able to fit your setup -- specialty connectors like ones with 90-degree L shaped heads designed for wall mounted displays are easy to find as long as you check before you order.
Once you're committed to procuring the proper connectors, the biggest danger is being ripped off on the pricing. While any experienced buyer will tell you to stick to online sources (Monoprice, Amazon) for cheap wiring, if you're pressed for time you can look locally but beware -- for HDMI, if you're paying more than $10 for a typical 2-3m cable you've overpaid, if the pricetag is over $20 you're being robbed and the same scale applies for most analog component wires. In the case of HDMI, its digital signal will either work or not work, it doesn't get "better" because of what the cable is made from, and unless your wiring is stretched an incredible distance the only one who sees a benefit from premium wires is the person selling them. Feel free to go back and review our mentions of various forms of cable scams but just remember -- friends don't let friends buy Monster.
Wondering about plugging in one of the new 3D capable TVs? Don't worry, your old HDMI cables will likely still work just fine (component works for older devices, but for any sources of 3D, you'll want to go digital.) During our roundup we threw more than one set of the cheapest, specless wires we could find at 3DTVs and none of them broke a sweat. Your main consideration could be elsewhere in your home theater, if you have a receiver that's not HDMI 1.4a compatible, it won't be able to pass through the 3D video properly and you'll need to replace or work around it.
Just as important as how you plug in your new HDTV is what you're connecting to it -- more than a decade after high definition first came on the scene there's more ways than ever to watch. If all you want to do is watch broadcast TV, there's antenna (try AntennaWeb to see what your options for reception are like), or cable (don't assume you need a set-top box everywhere, most HDTVs have integrated tuners that can pull a few stations directly from the coax, though which ones you get will vary by area and service provider check out our explanation of what QAM means for more details) and of course satellite. Even if you have it set up by your service provider or another professional, you'll need to make sure it's been done right.
Did they use the right cables? (See section above) Yellow composite video or S-video won't get the job done.
Are you tuned to HD channels?
They should be marked in the channel guide, and HD programming will usually say so as well
Make sure they're truly widescreen, and not just the standard definition channels stretched to fit -- faces and logos are the easiest indicators. (note - channels like TBS, TNT, FUSE, HGTV and far too many others frequently stretch video by themselves, so pick one of the major network, movie or sports channels to check.)
Check if you're seeing the whole picture and that it's not cropped, station IDs and tickers should be all the way within the viewable area
If you have surround sound, is it activated, is there any sound coming from the rear channels?
Blu-ray players are actually easier in their basic setup since they're designed specifically to work with HDTVs. There's remarkably little chance of messing things up and in almost all situations they'll automatically detect the capabilities of whatever you plug them into and deliver the appropriate content. If you're ready for the best in audio quality, make sure you've selected the lossless audio tracks on Blu-ray discs that include them. For the most part this applies for videogame consoles as well -- with one centralized setting for HD, every game you play afterwards will follow it on Xbox and PS3 without having to check the configuration each time. The only thing to be wary of is that neither console ships with HD cables in the box, so if you didn't grab some already then guess what, you're not playing in high definition.
If you're making the jump to 3D, things get a little more complicated. As mentioned above, cable requirements won't be any different but each device in the chain (source, receiver, display) will need to support 3D for it to work. Many of the new Blu-ray players released this year support 3D out of the box or after an upgrade, all PS3s do 3D gaming and Blu-ray 3D (with a few restrictions) and HDMI-equipped Xbox 360s will play 3D games. Getting 3D via satellite or cable can require a new box, but it doesn't always so check with your provider first. Newer hardware like the PS3, DirecTV's satellite receivers and most Blu-ray players will automatically detect and configure your display to play whatever form of 3D content you're watching so all you have to do is put on the glasses and lean back, but some older cable boxes and the Xbox 360 won't. This means manually selecting the right format each time, which can vary from one channel or game to another.
The most common and yet avoidable 3D mistake we've seen novices make? Switching on 2D-to-3D conversion on your display and thinking that's real 3D. While many TVs -- most notably those from Samsung but also newer ones from other manufacturers support the feature -- it just won't compare to anything that was originally made in 3D. Double check your settings to make sure you're getting the real thing -- The Daily Show isn't in 3D...yet.
Once you've got the right hardware and it's all connected correctly, the next big step to make sure you're getting the most out of your TV is to calibrate it all properly. The easiest choice you can make is to be sure your TV isn't set to the wrong display mode. While some displays have decent settings out of the box, it's possible yours arrived in a mode probably marked "vivid" or "bright." While cranking up the brightness might help it stick out on store shelves under huge halogen lights, it's just blowing out the picture and wasting electricity in your more reasonably lit living room. Switching to "natural" or "movie" mode when applicable is the absolute least you can do, although you probably already have the tools to go a step or two further. THX certified DVDs and Blu-ray like the ones from Pixar come with calibration software built in that can help get all the settings at their best levels, while gamers can look for calibration help in the menus of many games they play (preferred settings often vary widely from one title to another) and Xbox 360 owners can find a calibration app in the indie game marketplace.
One other wrinkle for gamers is processing lag, while some screens are faster than others, check to see if your has a game mode that should minimize the time between when the video signal arrives and it appears on screen as it could add a kill or two to your score and definitely make a difference in games like Super Street Fighter IV. If you're not sure whether or not lag is affecting your setup, music games like Rock Band, Guitar Hero and Def Jam Rapstar all have built in tools to measure the difference that can come in handy.
If you have one of the new connected TVs with widgets or other internet features built in, it's probably best to check for the latest firmware updates before doing anything else. Not only can it potentially affect the results or options available to you, but with some manufacturers updates can wipe out your customized settings (Samsung we're looking at you here.) Another function to look out for is motion processing, while 120Hz and 240Hz TVs often have technology that can blend one frame into another, over 50% of our readers say they prefer life without it, so unless you like "soap opera effect" -- turn it off.
The next step beyond that is to use a special purpose calibration disc to configure all aspects of your home theater and there's more than few options to choose from. The Spears & Munsil, Digital Video Essentials and Disney: World of Wonder discs come to mind as effective options usable even by relative novices. If seeing helps you get an idea of the benefits of calibration better than just us telling you about it, in the following video, our friend Robert Heron from HDNation goes over some of the options available, using the free AVS HD 709 test disc to check for 1:1 pixel mapping and measuring colors.
So what do you have to look forward to once your display is connected and configured? Say hello to your choice of all the high definition content that has hit shelves, both real and virtual, over the last few years. If you're wondering which Blu-ray discs look and sound the absolute best we've got a few suggestions right here. When it comes to broadcast TV content, check the reviews of your local providers on a site like AVSForum or DSL Reports to see which one is passing the best video quality. Verizon's FiOS promises to pass signals with the least compression, but in reality sometimes you'll be at the mercy of your local affiliate to keep all the bits and bytes in order before they hit your display.
If you want to know how to connect your PC to your HDTV, a lot has changed since we last updated or guide, but the fortunate part is that whether you're on OS X or Windows it's become pretty simple. Many laptops ship with HDMI ports on them for easy connection that way, and even older desktop PCs usually have a DVI-out that can go via a converter. Throw on an interface like Windows Media Center or Boxee, add in a WiFi remote app from your mobile device, and you're in business with a minimal amount of effort or hassle.
When you want the absolute highest quality in downloadable or streaming movies, finger that VUDU icon on your HDTV, PS3 or (soon) Boxee Box. Netflix brings the widest library for the lowest price with its all-you-can-eat viewing for less than $10 but despite upgraded quality on the PlayStation 3 and gems like Exit Through the Gift Shop, overall, quality and selection are definitely more Golden Corral than fine dining. Other VOD services like the Xbox 360's Zune Marketplace, PlayStation Network, iTunes, various CinemaNow-powered outlets and Amazon VOD tend to fall somewhere in between in terms of selection and quality.
If you're trying to tune into some 3D programming, Blu-ray 3D movies will have the highest quality and are already widely available. The selection's still limited to a few dozen flicks but many of the big names form 2010 are already available with more on the way soon -- just don't hold your breath for a retail release of Avatar, which is a Panasonic-only exclusive until 2012. Other sources for flicks include your TV provider's video on-demand package or the PlayStation Network store, at least until a few more linear channels launch like the one on the way next year from Sony, Discovery and IMAX. ESPN 3D drops in events at a pace of one or two a week, currently consisting of a steady stream of NBA games plus the Fiesta Bowl and BCS Championship over the next week or so.
While that should be enough to get most started on the HD path there's plenty of other options to dig into: audio setup, seating, feng shui, and how to leave enough space for your new Kinect / PS Move related activities. We're sure plenty of you have done the necessary homework already -- feel free to shout out any suggestions in the comments below.