Today's TV images have never looked better. Indeed, the latest 4K Ultra HD screens are so good that broadcasters and content providers are struggling to offer programmes able to truly do them justice.
These 3840 x 2160 televisions offer four times the pixel density of regular Full HD sets and with deep color technologies, like Quantum Dot , OLED and enhanced WCG panels, have a depth and vibrancy that leaves yesterday's TVs looking positively pallid. HDR (High Dynamic Range) is another new technology that looks set to revolutionise the humble television set, and we're seeing a number of TVs and media devices (such as the Xbox One S) which take advantage of the new tech.
Yet despite all this, it's still possible to buy the best and see the worst.
If you inadvertently view your new screen on a preset with colors set to sear or ramp all the picture processing modes to Max (because that's bound to be for the best, right?) you'll be left wondering just why you upgraded your viewing in the first place.
The good news is that fine tuning your screen is not that difficult (in fact it's easy), and you really can't go that far wrong. You don't need to be a calibration wizard.
And even if you do get into a multicoloured motion-blurring muddle, we have an easy fix for that as well - just hit the Factory Reset.
So pick-up that remote, and let's have a play…
1. Use the right sources and connections
It's an obvious truism, but in order to get the best from your TV you need to put the best into it.
This boils down to both using decent source components (if you're still rocking a VHS VCR STOP NOW - unless it's because you dig the cool retro vibe of bad tracking and poor resolution, in which case carry on daddy-o). DVD players represent the base line of what's acceptable, but if you're quality conscious, they should really be ousted in favor of Blu-ray and HD set top box (Sky+, VirginMedia Tivo, BT TV, EE TV box et al). Ultra HD Blu-ray players are also set to become more affordable in the next year.
If your broadband speed is up to snuff you should also consider a streaming solution for Netflix, Amazon Prime Instant Video and those catch-up services. These days Internet delivered HD can look as good as packaged media - and both Netflix and Amazon are now offering 4K streaming with HDR support as well.
Of course, once you have your kit, it's imperative that you use the right connections. We probably all know someone who watches a Sky+ HD box through the SCART connection (hint, you ain't gonna get HD that way).
By and large, the only connection you should be using is HDMI, unless there's an overriding reason to opt for a legacy interface. Owners of high-end Panasonic TVs will also have the option of DisplayPort. This is used for connecting PCs and can deliver equally high quality signals.
2. Make sure your sources are set up right
Source components usually have a variety of display options, but will typically manage themselves depending on the display they're partnered with thanks to the EDID (Extended display identification data) info they encounter. You can manually intervene though if your combination results in some aberrant behaviour.
Hi-def from set top box services is invariably 1080i. In Auto mode, the upscaling of SD content is carried out by your TV, rather than the set top box. In most cases, your screen has the tools to do a better job, although on a budget HD screen you'll probably be hard pushed to tell the difference.
This Auto advice also applies to Blu-ray players, but with caveats when it comes to upscaling on 4K televisions. Some high performing 4K upscaling BD players have better (or perhaps more accurately, different) upscaling characteristics, which could prove preferable.
For example, the Sony BDP-S7200 has superb 4K silicon that we found outperforms that found in Sony's (2014) 4K screens. The Amazing Spider-Man (Blu-ray) demonstrates more realistic detail when the player is left to do the upscaling. For example, when Gwen Stacy turns up at the Parker house after the funeral sequence, we found her tear stained face has more texture via the player's 4K output than when upscaled by a Sony UHD TV.
That said, Sony TVs have the edge when it comes to upscaling fine vertical and horizontal lines. Which is better is a matter of choice – this is interpolation after all.
3. Ambient light affects image perception
One important characteristic of LCD screens is that they subjectively behave differently according to the ambient light levels in your room. Because LCD is a backlit display technology it becomes increasingly torch-like in a darkened room.
What looked like a black leather jacket in a room with average ambient light, becomes grey (be it dark grey or light grey) in a darkened room. Panel makers will try every trick in the book, from filters to backlight chicanery, to disguise this fact.
Plasma as was, and now OLED, are self illuminating displays and do not suffer this torch-like trait. They even improve in rooms with low light, making them a great choice for movie fans.
But don't feel too bad about LED LCD TVs.
The next time you go to a movie theatre, look at the black level performance. The average projected image is actually pretty grey too – and you'll probably not leave the theatre feeling shortchanged.
4. Presets are there for a reason
Conspiracy theorists will tell you that most image presets on your TV actually ruin the image, and that the only way to get a great picture is to for you to do it yourself or pay a third party contractor to come and set your telly up for you.
This is, of course, nonsense.
The engineers responsible for the screen you have just bought want you to have a great viewing experience without having to get your hands dirty.
The key point is that the various presets and modes are there for a reason.
For most content and viewing conditions the Standard or Normal setting provides the best starting point: black levels will probably be spot on for your particular panel, colours suitably optimised and contrast nice and snappy.
Dynamic is essentially a shop mode and should be avoided, while Cinema modes are designed to be viewed in low light only.
5. Game advice
Heavy image processing is anathema for gamers, as lag impacts timing quite profoundly. Even the slightest lag could result in the best gamers suffering humiliating defeat at the hands of online rivals when playing reaction-based shooter.
To combat this, makers now offer a dedicated low lag preset which maximises performance.
These turn off most processing. If your set doesn't have a Game preset, it will probably be worth manually deactivating as much picture processing as you can for your gaming input.
Those milliseconds of competitive advantage will doubtless stand you in good stead when you next fire up Destiny.
6. Contrast is good
Back in the days of CRT tube televisions, managing contrast was a major headache. Overcrank it and peak whites would bloom.
Modern LED LCD screens have no such problems, and contrast can be comfortably left high. Many presets will default at 100%, and the resulting image will look dynamic and snappy. Makes vary, but it could prove advantageous to just edge this down a tad.
However, the last thing you'll want to do with your new screen is rob it of its visual snap, so don't feel a need to go lower than 90 percent on that sliding scale.
While plasma screens have all but disappeared from general sale, a good number remain in use, and for them a high contrast setting is not advisable as it could contribute to image retention and (if you're really unlucky) screenburn. The latter is where channel logos and other static image elements can eventually leave a permanent shadow burned into the screen. This was a problem for early plasma screens but much less so on later panels.
Unlike LED LCDs, OLED screens boast near infinite contrast, and do not suffer from image retention like plasma. This is why they are often demonstrated in store with footage of fireworks. However, they are actually not as bright as LED LCDs.
7. Mastering the Dark Side
The quest for ever deeper blacks has resulted in a number of image processing techniques which can diminish image quality rather than enhance it. Black level boosting and stretching options can make dark parts of the picture look blacker, but crush much of the subtle shadow detailing that makes dark areas look convincing.
Treat them with caution.
Dynamic Contrast alters the level of bright highlights by continually adjusting in response to changes in the image content. This can result in an unnatural pumping in the image. If you find yourself noticing it work, try switching it off or minimising it.
Depending on the panel technology, this may result in unacceptably grey blacks though.
Few things impact the overall viewing experience on an LED LCD TV more than local dimming. Both edge-lit LED TVs (common) and direct lit LED TVs (not so much) use local dimming to adjust the brightness of different parts of the screen independently to suit the demands of the image.
The technique can be a little crude, resulting in a splashy pools of light and backlight clouding, wherein bright highlights in a dark scene can illuminate swathes of the screen and cause distracting side effects.
Set Local Dimming to Minimum to minimise such annoyances.
8. A new wonderful world of colour
The latest generation of TVs are capable of a wider colour spectrum than ever before, thanks to technologies such as Quantum Dot and Wide Color Gamut panels. On LCD panels, they help reds look less orangey and make greens more verdant.
Some screens offers access to additional deep color management control. These usually take the form of adjustments to the main RGB color elements. Some TVs also support adjustment of the secondary cyan, magenta and yellow color components. However these should only be adjusted in conjunction with color metering hardware. Generally, leave alone.
Most TVs employ sensors able to detect the ambient light in your viewing room, allowing the TV to automatically adjust facets of the picture to compensate for changing conditions. While clever, this can prove irritating as the image begins to oscillate.
Generally speaking our advice is that you turn all light sensors off. You will get a more consistent viewing experience.
9. Sort out Sharpness and Overscanning
If you think that by increasing sharpness you'll get more detail in your TV images then you're probably going to be disappointed. Out of the box the sharpness on all presets will invariably be set too high. Look at black text on a light background: does it have a white glow or ring around it? This extra emphasis improves legibility when viewed at a distance but does not improve detail, it actually obscures it. And on a 4K TV, meant to be viewed larger/closer, this is a particular no-no. Often Sharpness should be no higher than 10/15 on the adjustable gauge.
One consistent bugbear with most TV brands is that they typically offer out of the box defaults with overscanning On. This means that the edges of the picture are effectively lost behind the bezel. This is an easy win.
Overscanning is a throwback cure for earlier broadcasting artefacts caused by non-picture data parked at the extremities of the frame. This rarely happens in the HD age, as real picture information is used across the entire 1920x1080 HD frame. Non-Overscan modes can have a variety of menu names depending on the brand. Look for aspect ratio adjustments and watch for the one which causes the image to 'step back' and reveal a tad more.
10. Get up to speed on motion handling
One of the most challenging aspects of picture performance for LED LCD TVs is motion handling. All manner of frame interpolation is offered, to smooth images and remove film judder, but they come with serious caveats. Aggressive motion control will result in motion artefacts, commonly seen as a smudgy halo around moving objects, the feet on a running football player will flicker unnaturally, galloping horses may appear to have additional legs, and Wimbledon will be played with multiple balls rather than one.
High motion interpolation also leads to a video like sheen. This can make event the most expensive blockbuster look like a cheap telly drama (hence the oft quoted term 'soap opera effect'). Generally speaking these modes, called Intelligent Frame Creation or IFC (Panasonic), Trumotion (LG), Motionflow (Sony) and Motion Plus (Samsung), plus a host of others, should be kept well away from their highest settings. Mid is usually a decent compromise for sports and studio based content, while Low or Off is best for movies and movie-like TV dramas (Game of Thrones, Arrow and so forth).
Many manufacturers allow you to customize motion handling settings with adjustable sliders for blur and judder. This is often the best route to go. LG's UF850V 4K TV, for example, has one such mode customisable User mode, with variable de-judder and de-blur. Set the former around 5-7, and the latter at 0, and motion artefacts are reduced to almost zero. The result is a decent compromise for both sport and movies.
11. Location, location, location
Finally, canny positioning and seating can profoundly improve the viewing experience. LED LCD sets will suffer dramatic loss of contrast and colour when viewed off angle – and that applies vertically as well as horizontally.
For the best image quality, ensure all seating positions are as straight on to the TV as possible. When wall mounting, never position an un-angled screen too high. This is an all too common mistake which will impact image quality more dramatically than any menu manipulation. Your screen should be at eye level when you're in your usual seating potion.
Managing room reflections is similarly important if you're thinking of buying a curved TV, as the bend tends to exaggerate the scale of any reflections that hit them. They also distort screen geometry; look at a programme EPG on a curved screen and it'll look distinctly odd.
And when viewed from the side, visual distortions become very apparent. Not all curves are created equal though. Panasonic and Sony sets have a very minor curve, Samsung are more pronounced. When it comes to image fidelity, generally flat is best.