Published On: May 30, 2009

Why Don't Today's HDTVs Auto-Calibrate Their Picture?

Published On: May 30, 2009

Why Don't Today's HDTVs Auto-Calibrate Their Picture?

If you are an Apple user, you can auto-calibrate your monitors using a simple tool in system preferences. Why can't your HDTV allow you the same tools right at home? Getting the most from your HDTV is the best tweak money can buy in a home theater...

Auto-calibrate.gifAs an enthusiastic Mac user and admitted home theater junkie, I wonder why today's HDTVs can't calibrate themselves. The current set-up process for a Mac is nothing short of genius, which includes "wizard-like" auto calibration for video. Simply follow a few simple steps in an included application found in the System Preferences of the operating system and you are a long way towards making your computer monitor look as good as it can, even if what you are watching on it is an occasional YouTube.com video, a low-resolution Hulu television show or a movie in 720 from iTunes.

In the world of consumer-grade HDTVs, the big boys are always looking for new features and new value to add to their increasingly commoditized flat HDTVs. One feature they should be looking to borrow from Apple is the ability to simply auto-calibrate the picture directly onscreen. Selling video in the real world, the pressure is to push blue, because the human eye tends to prefer the look of that color, despite the fact these settings don't accurately match broadcast standards nor do they help the set last as long as it possibly can. Moreover, today more HDTVs are sold under the video-degrading halogen lights of Costco, Wal-Mart and other big-box or warehouse stores. These lights wash out the look of sets, so the pressure is on to differentiate an HDTV over others in the store, so that you will drag it home.

Auto-calibration isn't a new idea in the world of home theater and consumer electronics. In the late 1990s, some of the top CRT projectors, like Vidikron's pricey Vision One ($50,000), had features that auto-converged the projectors, which was a novel concept. It still never seemed to work as well a professional touch-up by a video calibrator or installer, but the idea was certainly ahead of its time. Today, a $1,200 Apple iMac can offer a quick yet meaningful calibration set-up for its LCD screen. Why can't an LCD HDTV offer the same type of basic calibration, even for the most basic elements of video? Reportedly, B&O's 103-inch $111,000 plasma HDTV has some level of auto-calibration. However, at the price, it should also give you a back massage and/or make you a sandwich for lunch any time you like. What I am calling for would be for the $2,000 HDTVs that real sports and movie fans buy by the millions per month. I understand what it takes to get an HDTV from the isles of Costco to having it hanging on your wall at home, but once it's there, wouldn't it be great for the set to have a running chance at looking in the ballpark of its best?

Auto-calibration features will never replace the role of true video calibration professionals, like those trained by the Imaging Science Foundation (ISF). These guys can take a Samsung, Pioneer KURO or Sony XBR and eke out a 20 to 30 percent-better looking picture from your set within a few hours. To their credit, the ISF put out a pretty easy-to-use DVD set-up disc that offers some of these set-up features. However, I am suggesting that this type of set-up should be built into the HDTVs themselves. For the do-it-yourself guy, there are always set-up discs like Joe Kane's in-depth Video Essentials, but those discs are complicated - to be polite - to use.

Specialty retailers thrived in the mid-2000s, as HDTVs still had some profit margin in them and the housing market boomed year after year. Today, the ultra-thin margins that are attached to ultra-thin HDTVs make it difficult for even the biggest players to survive. The idea that a video manufacturer can open the discussion with mainstream consumers about video calibration not only offers more value for HDTVs, it opens up a conversation about getting a more in-depth professional calibration. This is a good thing on all levels.

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