Published On: January 21, 2013

Five Tips to Make Sure You're Actually Watching HD on Your HDTV

Published On: January 21, 2013
Last Updated on: October 31, 2020
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Five Tips to Make Sure You're Actually Watching HD on Your HDTV

Despite the technology being ubiquitous in our homes for years and years now, it is still possible to have all the pieces for HD entertainment and not actually experience it. Adrienne Maxwell gives a few tips to prevent this from happening.

Five Tips to Make Sure You're Actually Watching HD on Your HDTV

  • Adrienne Maxwell is the former Managing Editor of, Home Theater Magazine, and Adrienne has also written for Wirecutter, Home Entertainment Magazine,,, and other top specialty audio/video publications. She is an ISF Level II-certified video calibrator who specializes in reviews of flat-panel HDTVs, front video projectors, video screens, video servers, and video source devices, both disc- and streaming-based.

5-ways-to-HD-small.jpgResearch groups like NPD and Nielsen regularly release statistics regarding the rate of HDTV adoption in U.S. homes. Not surprisingly, those numbers continue to increase. What is surprising is the little tidbit that sometimes accompanies such numbers - the fact that a large number of HDTV owners are not watching HD content. For instance, in a recent Nielsen report, we learned that, in May 2012, 61 percent of all prime viewing was done on an HD set, but less than 30 percent was with a "True HD" source.

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For some people, this is a conscious choice. For whatever reason, they need to upgrade their TV, but they aren't yet interested in upgrading their sources, be it a cable/satellite box or disc player. They know they aren't watching HD, they're fine with it, and we accept that (we don't agree with it, but I guess we accept it).

Then there's that other group: those who believe they are watching HD when they aren't. Nobody in the sales process explained to them the other requisite pieces of the HD puzzle, so they simply went home, added the new TV to their existing setup, and sat down to watch. Yes, their new TV is upconverting every source to the TV's HD resolution (be it 720p or 1080p), but viewing an upconverted image is not the same as viewing a true HD source. Right now, these folks are probably a bit unimpressed with high-definition, wondering what all the hype has been about.

Does this describe you or perhaps someone you know - maybe a parent who had to upgrade after the 30-year-old CRT finally died or a friend who doesn't follow the home theater business like you do? High-definition television has been around for so long now, we tend to take for granted that everyone understands the basics of HD viewing. But research and my own personal experience with friends and relatives consistently show otherwise.

Right now, lots of tech writers are debating the merits of UltraHD in the TV realm; at screen sizes of up to 70 or 80 inches, will people really notice the step up in resolution from 1080p to UltraHD at a normal viewing distance? It's a question of just how much detail the eye can discern at a given distance on a given screen size. The jump in quality from SD to HD is much more pronounced, much more easily discerned in the average living room setup. Trust me, you will see a dramatic difference in clarity and color with an HD image, even from a larger viewing distance. If you don't, then take a moment to read these tips and make sure you have the right pieces in place to exploit your HDTV's full potential.

1. Upgrade Your Source
As I said earlier, all HDTVs will upconvert your current sources (DVD player, VHS player, gaming console, cable/satellite box) to match the TV's native resolution, but that's not the same thing as having a true high-definition source. Likewise, an upconverting DVD player will upscale to a 1080p resolution, but the source is still a standard-def DVD.

To watch true HD movies, you need to invest in a Blu-ray player and Blu-ray discs (these players also support DVD playback, so you can still watch your DVDs). Sony's Playstation 3 gaming console has a built-in Blu-ray player. You can also get a streaming media player that streams "HD-quality" movies through services like iTunes, VUDU, and Amazon. I use quotation marks because the quality of streamed HD content depends on a variety of factors (your broadband speed, for one) and, in my opinion, has not yet reached the level of Blu-ray HD.

On the TV side, if you're pulling in over-the-air signals, your existing antenna may work with your new HDTV, but it may not be the ideal type to reliably tune in the HD signals in your area. Visit to make sure you've got the best antenna for your location.

If you use a cable/satellite box, you need to upgrade to an HD-capable box and you need to upgrade your channel package to include HD channels. This often comes with an additional fee; I have DirecTV and pay $10 per month for the HD service.

If you receive cable signals directly from the wall outlet into your TV via an RF cable (no set-top box), you might be able to pull in some local HD broadcast channels via your HDTV's internal clear-QAM tuner. However, the FCC recently ruled that cable companies no longer have to offer unscrambled digital cable channels, so the days of receiving basic cable without a set-top box could be numbered.

2. Get the Right Cables
HDMI is the preferred and, in many cases, the only viable type of cable to transmit HD signals between your source and your TV. Some cable/satellite boxes, gaming consoles and older Blu-ray players allow you to send 720p/1080i (rarely 1080p) signals over an analog component video cable. Computer users can also send HD over VGA, but not all HDTVs include this type of input.

Regarding Blu-ray players, the Analog Sunset occurred back on January 1, 2011. Blu-ray players produced after that date aren't allowed to output HD signals through the analog component video output; the HD signal is downconverted to SD. On all newer players, you must use an HDMI connection to pass the HD signal from the player to the TV.

3. Tune to the Correct TV Channels
As I mentioned above, cable/satellite subscribers must upgrade to an HD package that includes HD channels. Every service provider is different in how they handle the placement of HD channels in the lineup. Many cable providers group all of the HD channels together up in the higher number realm, perhaps starting at channel #1000. The SD version of CBS may be located on channel 2, but the HD version is located on a different channel. Make sure you tune to the HD version of any desired channel. Not all channels will have an HD counterpart; that depends on your provider's HD package.

In my case, DirecTV places the SD and HD channels right beside each other in the lineup and gives them the same number. It makes the HD version easy to find, but can also be confusing. I created a customized channel lineup in which I omitted all the duplicate SD channels.

Click on over to Page 2 for number 4 and 5 . . .

4. Make Sure Your Source Component is Actually Outputting HD
Don't assume your cable/satellite installer (if you hired one) set up the box correctly, or that the product is correctly configured out of the box. In several instances, I have encountered setups where the person has an HD box and is tuned to the correct HD channels, but the box has been incorrectly set up to only output an SD resolution. So, all of the HD channels are actually being downconverted to 480i/480p.

A quick way to check this is to tune to a channel that you know is an HD channel and hit the Info or Display button on your TV remote. Somewhere on the screen, the TV will show you what resolution it is receiving from the box. If you're on an HD channel, it should say 720p or 1080i; if it says 480p or 480i, your cable/satellite box is set up incorrectly (this test is good for other source devices, too).

Go into the box's main menu and find an option to adjust TV/video settings. Find the option for the box's output resolution, and make sure it is set to 720p and/or 1080i. The best boxes will give you an option called "
native" or "source direct" that allows the box to output every channel at its native resolution. You'll get 720p channels (ABC, FOX, ESPN) output at 720p, 1080i channels (CBS, NBC) output at 1080i, and 480i channels (any SD channel that isn't offered in HD by your provider) at 480i. This is the best option, because it allows the video processor in your TV to perform the necessary upconversion and deinterlacing. In most cases, the processor in your TV will do a better job than the one in your cable/satellite box.

If you don't have a "native" option and are forced to choose only one output resolution, you want to pick 720p or 1080i. I'm not going to get into the debate here over which one is better. If you watch more 720p channels, then maybe you want to go with 720p, and vice versa. Or try them both and see which one you prefer.

My DirecTV boxes allow me to select all resolutions that my TV can accommodate, from 480i up to 1080p. I selected them all, which allows the box to output every channel at its native resolution and allows my TV (or A/V receiver) to handle the upconversion.

As for other sources like Blu-ray players, streaming media players, etc., they should all have a Resolution setting in the setup menu. If there's an Auto option, go with that. If not, make sure the box is set for the highest resolution your TV can accommodate, which these days will likely be 1080p.

5. Choose the Desired Shape (Aspect Ratio) for SD Channels.
Okay, this one doesn't directly pertain to getting an HD signal, but it does involve proper setup, and I know it's a common frustration for many people when they upgrade to an HDTV. When viewing squarish (4:3-shaped) standard-def sources on a rectangular (16:9-shaped) HDTV, you must choose how you want to view the signal. Do you want to view it with sidebars that preserve the correct shape of the image in the center of the screen, or do you want to get rid of the sidebars by either stretching the image to the screen's edges (which distorts the shape) or zooming in on the image (which cuts off information at the top and bottom)? I personally can't stand a stretched or zoomed image, but to each his own.

If your cable/satellite box is automatically stretching all the 4:3 channels and you don't like it, you can change this option in the video settings menu (ditto for your Blu-ray player). Every device words this differently, but it's usually located in a menu called "TV Shape" or "TV Aspect Ratio." You want to choose a 16:9 shape for your HDTV, but there are often at least two 16:9 options. For instance, in my Panasonic Blu-ray player, I can set the TV shape for just 16:9 (which puts sidebars around 4:3-shaped content) or "16:9 Full" (which stretches the square content to fill the 16:9 screen). In my DirecTV boxes, I can choose to display SD content in one of four ways: Original Format, Pillar Box, Stretch, or Crop. Original Format outputs the native shape, so I can use my TV's aspect-ratio controls to make the shape adjustment I desire. Pillar Box will always put sidebars in 4:3 sources, Stretch will (obviously) stretch them, and Crop will zoom in on them.

And there you have it - a few tips that will hopefully lead you or someone you know to a true high-def picture and a greater appreciation for just how much better HD can be.

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