Did I get your attention with that title? I promise, it's not hyperbole. One very simple change in the setup menu will improve your TV's image quality. We've said it many times before, but we're saying it again just in case you missed it: change the TV's picture mode.
Did you know that pretty much every TV on the market is not set up to look its best out of the box? This won't come as a surprise to anyone who regularly reads TV reviews on this (or any other good) AV enthusiast website, but it might surprise the casual shopper, who would assume--and rightly so--that manufacturers would want their products to perform their best right out of the box. Unfortunately, that simply isn't the case, and it hasn't been the case through my entire tenure as a video reviewer.
In the early years of digital and high-def TVs, the televisions often came out of the box looking very, very bright but highly inaccurate, with extremely blue color temperatures and over-exaggerated color palettes. They were usually set in a picture mode called Dynamic or Vivid, and they were set this way so that retailers didn't have to make too many adjustments to the TVs to get them floor-ready. Those exaggerated settings will certainly catch your eye on a showroom floor, often under bright fluorescent lighting. However, they don't translate well in a home environment, even a fairly bright one. In addition to being inaccurate in the color department, a Dynamic or Vivid mode usually has every processing feature enabled: artificial sharpening tools will be turned on and cranked up (creating lots of extraneous noise around edges); dynamic contrast and dynamic black controls are enabled, which causes all kinds of obvious, unnatural shifting of light levels; and motion smoothing (aka soap opera effect) will be enabled and set to a high level. Okay, we know that some of you might like that last one, but a lot of people just assume it's an inherent part of the TV's performance and can't be shut off. Guess what, it almost always can.
The good news is, nowadays most TVs do not come out of the box in the Dynamic or Vivid picture mode. Manufacturers have added a step to the initial setup process in which you dictate home or store/retail use and the TV adjusts itself accordingly. The store/retail mode will produce all those gloriously exaggerated settings for the showroom floor, while the home mode will default to a Standard picture mode that does the exact opposite: it produces an overly dim, oftentimes dull-looking picture. Why does it do this? To earn the coveted Energy Star label. As HDTV screen sizes started to grow, so did their power consumption. In 2008, the EPA revised the Energy Star certification process to include an "on-mode" power-consumption restriction, as opposed to just a standby-
mode restriction. To earn the Energy Star logo, a TV has to meet these on-mode power standards as it comes out of the box--which means goodbye to the ridiculously bright Dynamic mode and hello to the ridiculously dim Standard mode. Now that plasma is dead and the majority of LCD televisions use LED lighting systems, TV energy efficiency is vastly improved, but that doesn't change the fact that most of them come out of the box at an overly dim setting, with many of the aforementioned artificial processing features still enabled. And, since the Standard mode is what the TV defaults to when you pick the "home" mode, that's how the vast majority of people are probably watching their televisions right now. That's certainly what I've witnessed when I visit the homes of friends and relatives.
If you find yourself less than impressed with the picture quality on your new HD or UHD television, the simple act of changing the picture mode may change your mind...and it really does take about 10 seconds--depending on how complicated it is to track down the Menu button on your TV remote (which some manufacturers make surprisingly complicated these days, as they try to eliminate more and more buttons from the remote). When you hit the Menu button, Picture or Video is usually the very first menu option; and, within that sub-menu, Picture Mode is usually the very first thing you can adjust. Which picture mode should you choose? We recommend the mode that's closest to reference standards--the same standards used on the production side, so you know that you're seeing what the director intended. This picture mode is often called Movie (Samsung) or Cinema (LG and Panasonic). Vizio owners can choose between two modes, Calibrated and Calibrated Dark; both are quite accurate, but (as the names suggest) one is tailored for dark-room viewing, if you do the majority of your TV watching at night in a dim to dark room. Sony makes things a little more complicated because the menu includes two different ways to select a picture mode: there's a general picture mode setting with only three options, and there's a Scene Select tool that includes more options. The last time I reviewed a Sony TV, the most accurate option was the Cinema picture mode within the Scene Select menu. A higher-end THX-certified TV will usually include THX Day and THX Night modes, both of which are safe bets.
In addition to being more accurate in their white balance and color, these modes often turn off (or down) the artificial sharpening, dynamic contrast, and other controls that add undesirable processing effects. It's worth noting that, in many cases, motion smoothing will still be enabled in the Movie or Cinema mode, sometimes at a lower or less-aggressive setting (you have to go into the specific menu option for that feature if you want to turn it off). However, if your TV has THX picture modes, motion smoothing will be turned off by default in those modes.
So, just how accurate is the Movie, Cinema, or Calibrated mode? That depends on the TV, of course, and that's something we evaluate in every display review we do for this site. I make a point in each review to measure multiple picture modes and indicate which one is closest to reference standards. However, I am willing to make a generalization here: today's TVs are so much more accurate than they used to be, at least from the big-name manufacturers. Switching to the Movie or Cinema mode will often get you 80 to 90 percent of the way to an accurate image--an image where whites look neutrally white, colors look rich but not overly exaggerated, and skintones look natural. For a lot of people, that's going to be good enough.
For the videophile, we go the extra step in our reviews to see just how close to accurate a professional calibration will get you. And of course, switching picture modes can't fix fundamental performance issues in a certain TV, like a poor overall black level or brightness-uniformity problems on an edge-lit LED/LCD. These finer elements are what distinguish mid- to top-level displays from their entry-level counterparts, and each of us has to decide if we're willing to pay more to get those incremental improvements in picture quality.
Because I review TVs for a living, I know I'm more sensitive to picture quality than the average consumer--and I notice things that other people might not even see. Still, I can't help but be disappointed when I see someone watching a new TV in a picture mode that just doesn't cut it. You're shortchanging the TV and yourself. After all, you've just spent three or four figures to add this device to your home, and a better-looking image is just a few clicks away. Isn't it worth 10 seconds of your time to see the difference for yourself?
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