Black Pluge

Tis the season for holiday gift giving and if you are among the lucky ones, you either got or gave yourself a brand spanking new big-screen  this year.

As you break open the box, there are few things you might want to remember in order to ensure you’re getting the best picture you should expect.

First, if you haven’t adjusted the settings on your new HDTV or 4K Ultra High Definition TV, the picture is very likely either overly bright and saturated to meet the demands of a retail showroom floor, or conversely, inordinately dim, using home mode settings that are often developed to help the TV meet Energy Star guidelines to reduce power consumption, sometimes at the cost of your image quality.

You should enjoy your picture a lot more if you take a few minutes to adjust the picture controls to just the right amount using either your trained eye or a few calibration helpers, like a Blu-ray setup disc.

After the jump, you’ll find some practical advice, and a basic how-to guide to get the best picture that your TV was designed to deliver:

First Things First

A lot of HDTVs today have a screen that allows the user to choose Home Use Mode or Store Demonstration Mode. This is extremely important. The “Store Demonstration Mode” is designed to produce the brightest image, at the expense of black level, contrast ratio and energy efficiency. To obtain the best picture select the “Home Mode”. You will still be able to make user control adjustments to further maximize image quality.

The screen will also ask you to choose a language and if you are using an over-the-air antenna or cable/satellite. If you don’t use an antenna you don’t want the TV to go into the tuner mode or your screen will be full of static.

Crash Course On Smart TVs

If your new HDTV has Internet connectivity for streaming movies and other content, the next step should be connecting to the Internet. Most Smart TVs have an Ethernet connection if you want to wire the TV directly, but today most homes have a Wi-Fi network. So, your TV should come ready for wireless set-up. Follow the on-screen or owner’s manual for set-up instructions. Once completed you should make sure you have the latest version of the TVs software, by performing a firmware update, carefully following the TVs instructions. The update may add new features, Internet services or apps. It could also correct a few bugs that were detected since the TV was shipped from the factory. We find nearly every TV we test has a newer firmware version available upon unpacking and set-up.

A La Picture Modes

Nearly all TVs have picture modes that adjust multiple settings to create a certain “look” to the image. The best idea is to start with the “most accurate” setting, then adjust as you see fit. To do this, hit the Menu button, and then Picture or Video, which usually is the very first option. In that sub-menu, Picture Mode should appear. Here, the best mode is the one closest to reference standards used by content producers.

Typically, this mode will be called Movie (Samsung) or Cinema (LG and Panasonic). Sony TVs will present two different picture mode options including: general picture mode with three options, and a Scene Select option with additional options. The most accurate mode for Sony TVs is Cinema mode, which is found under the Scene Select menu. Alternatively, some TVs that have earned a THX certification will offer THX Day and Night modes, which match up well with standards. Similarly, some TVs from LG and others will offer Imaging Science Foundation (ISF) Day and Night modes or ISF1 and ISF2 modes, which also match up well with Hollywood standards. Obviously, you should select the Day or Night mode, depending on whether you view the TV in a room with a lot of ambient light or in a dark or dim setting.

Warning: if you’ve been watching your TV for a few minutes, switching to one of these modes is going to be a shock. It will seem red (warm) and soft, but it really isn’t as we shall explain.


This control adjusts the bright parts of the image: Clouds, white shirts, snow, etc. The idea is to set this control high enough that the image “pops,” but not so high as to mask detail. All TVs have a maximum contrast setting, above which you’re not making the image any brighter,  you’re just making near-white objects totally white.

If you’re using a setup disc, the contrast pattern will have a ramp of progressively whiter bars. The idea is to be able see most of these (but not those labeled “above white”). On some “white pluge” test patterns available on set-up discs, this will be anything numbered above 235.

If you’re not using a setup disc, find a TV show (ideally a live sporting event) that takes place outside. Skiing works great for this, though baseball does as well (fly balls, any shot of the sky). The idea is to be able to set the control so that you can still see detail in bright white objects. There should almost never be bright white blobs on the screen. If there are, turn the contrast control down some.

There is no average number to use as a guideline for this setting, but it’s almost never 100 or anything close. Try somewhere around 80% and go from there.


This is the opposite of the contrast control. It adjusts the dark parts of the image: Shadows, black hair, black leather jackets. The idea here is to set this control low enough that the picture has lots of contrast (as in, the difference in the light and dark parts of the image), but not so far that there’s just huge swaths of blackness on screen during any night scene.

If you’re using a setup disc, the brightness pattern will have a ramp of progressively darker black bars. The idea is to be able to see most of these (but not those labeled “below black” or similar). On some “black pluge” test patterns available on set-up discs, this will be anything numbered darker than 16.

If you’re setting this by eye, any night or darkly lit scene will do. The Blu-ray version of Gravity works wonderfully. Set the control fairly low, past the point where you lose detail. Now gradually increase it until you see detail. If the picture looks gray or washed out, you’ve gone too far.

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Generally speaking, you shouldn’t have to adjust these at all. These are holdovers from the old tube TV (CRT) days. With component and HDMI connections, the TV shouldn’t need adjustment to color or tint.

But so you know, color is color saturation. Set too high, people will look sunburned, and everything will seem cartoony. Tint adjusts the green/red in the image (Martian/lobster). Without specific color filters (that usually come with setup discs, however they may not produce proper saturation with an number of LED LCDs), you can’t adjust either of these settings these correctly. Skip.


This is a highly misleading control. Generally speaking, the Sharpness control adds enhancement to the image to make it appear sharp. Ironically, by doing so, it’s actually masking true fine detail in the image. This setting should be set as low as possible. Some TVs actually soften the image if you set it too low (bizarre, to be sure), so watch out for that. Look for dark lines on a bright background. Edges of buildings work great. Lower this setting so there isn’t any ghost line next to the dark edge. This ghost line is called “edge enhancement,” and goes a long way in making the image look artificial.

Once you get used to the naturalness of the image without edge enhancement, you’ll never go back.

Color Temperature

This one is going to be tough. Not because it requires any labor on your part, it’s just going to do something to the image that at first is going to seem bad. Typically, the picture mode you selected earlier will automatically select the optimal Color Temperature.

Color temperature is how bluish or reddish the image looks. Picture a typical scene of people walking down a street. Set the color temp too cool, and it will look like they’re walking down the street in winter, with that season’s normal bluish tones. Set the color temp too warm, and it will be a reddish warm day instead.

With most TVs, the ideal setting is “Warm” or “Low.” In some cases, this is too warm, and “Normal” is closer. If you’re changing the settings for the first time, and the TV was set in the “Cool” color temperature mode, it is definitely not accurate and even “Normal” will appear to your eye as too warm. Give your eyes time to adjust. Watch on “Normal” for a few hours, and “Cool” will seem incredibly blue.


If you’ve read our buyers beware article on TV backlights, you’ll know the importance. Interestingly, no setup disc offers instructions on how to set this control, perhaps, because it is best adjusted using a spectroradiometer and calibration software. It’s very difficult for human eyes to properly adjust without proper instrumentation. The backlight is an LCD/LED or LCD specific control. OLED TVs, which don’t have backlights, emit their own light, but still offer an OLED Light control, which adjusts light output in a similar fashion to a backlight control. Plasmas don’t have backlights or Plasma Light controls.

The backlight setting is like a volume control for the image. Turn it up, and the entire picture (bright whites and dark blacks alike) get brighter. Turn it down, and everything gets darker.

If you leave this turned all the way up, not only are you wasting energy, but at night your TV can be hard to watch. Modern LCDs are extremely bright, and watching such a small bright object in a dark room can create severe eye fatigue.

During the day, set this as high as you want.

For critical viewing, or watching at night, the idea is to get the best black levels, while still creating a watchable image. Once you set contrast and brightness correctly, turn the backlight control all the way down. This will likely be too dark for most viewing. Turn it up to the point where it looks the best. Often, at night, this could be as low as 20%, depending on the TV.


It’s not possible for a TV to be set at the factory with the best settings possible for your home. Twenty minutes or so on your end can drastically improve the picture quality of your TV. We strongly suggest a setup Blu-ray. They’re cheap, and the Disney WOW disc is especially helpful and easy to follow, but it’s getting harder to find. Joe Kane’s Digital Video Essentials is another excellent set-up disc that will go into detail on a lot of these issues.

Beyond that, a local ISF Calibrator will dial in your TV perfectly, including calibrating the color temperature and often the actual color points of the TV.

For more on what your HDTV’s controls do, read our Guide to HDTV Settings

Quick Set-up Guide To Your New HDTV is an update a revised edition of “Setting Up Your New HDTV”


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