You've just broken your new high-def TV out of the box, hooked it up to your cable box and fired it up. And chances are, you love the picture. But after the initial joy of seeing that screen in action wears off, you might be wondering: How can I get the most out of it? Here are a few tips.
Get a high-def source
The single most important thing you can do to get your new HDTV looking its best is to hook up an actual high-definition source. For television programming, that means an HDTV-capable cable box or satellite box–or an antenna. Ask your cable or satellite provider for a high-def box or DVR, and they'll hook it up for you (although it's a good idea to double-check their work; see below). If you don't have cable or satellite, try using an antenna to tune over-the-air HD stations, which are available in most areas.
Most TV services offer both standard-def and high-def channels, and if you have an HDTV you'll want to be watching (or recording) the HD versions. If your box allows it, you might be able to select a list in your programming guide that shows only HD channels.
You might also want to consider getting a Blu-ray player. The picture quality on standard DVDs looks very good on an HDTV, but Blu-ray discs look even better, especially on larger screens. Just don't expect the player to make regular DVDs look noticeably better on your TV–it can help, but usually not by much.
Other HD sources include game consoles like Xbox 360 and PlayStation3 (but not the Nintendo Wii, which is standard-def), media players like Roku and Apple TV, and even newer digital cameras, camcorders and computers.
More info: HDTV 101: A beginner's guide, Blu-ray guide
Use an HDMI connection
The cable guy might connect your box using analog component-video cables, but HDMI is really the way to go. It's worth buying an HDMI cable to get the most out of your TV. HDMI cables are often quite expensive in stores, however, so we recommend buying a cable from an online vendor like Amazon, newegg.com or monoprice.com. For the vast majority of viewers, it's not worth spending extra for an HDMI cable.
More info: What HDMI cable should I buy?
Set up the source resolution to match your TV
Here's where a lot of even experienced HD owners (not to mention cable box installers) get confused. HD sources can have a lot of settings, and to take full advantage you'll want to match the resolution of the source as closely as possible to the capabilities of your TV. If you have a 1080p TV–the most common resolution among new models–you should set the source to 1080i or, if available, 1080p resolution. If you have a 720p (or 1366×768) TV, set the source to 720p resolution.
If the source lets you choose among other resolutions, check off every one that the TV can support. If there's a "native" option available, we recommend most users check that one off as well. These steps allow the TV to perform the video processing, and usually TVs do a better job of it than cable or satellite boxes. If you have a Blu-ray player and a TV that can handle 1080p/24 sources, we also recommend engaging that option. Computers should be set to output the native resolution of the display, as long as the TV can accept it. Check your manual if you're not sure what source resolutions your TV can support.
More info: HDTV resolution explained, PS3 Blu-ray settings
Adjust screen format (aspect ratio)
Now that you're watching HDTV, you might notice that the screen often isn't completely full. That's because the wide format of the screen doesn't always perfectly fit the source. The first step is to make sure your source is set to the wide-screen (or 16:9) format mode. The next is to adjust the aspect ratio control, which can zoom, crop, stretch or properly display the image. The confusing part, aside from the name "aspect ratio," is that such controls can be found on both the TV and the source.
In general we recommend setting the TV to the mode that fills the screen without distortion when fed a high-def source, yet preserves the full resolution of that source. Such modes can be called "Native," "Dot-by-dot," "Just Scan," "Full Pixel," or others. Some TVs have a secondary control to enable this native mode, then require you to select "Full" or a similar mode to fill the screen without zooming or stretching. Try cycling through the modes on your TV by pressing the button that controls aspect ratio repeatedly, just to get familiar. The manual will also have a section devoted to this control.
For TVs connected to cable boxes with their own aspect ratio controls, the least confusing route is to select the recommended TV mode as described above, then control aspect ratio using the box's own control. But results vary widely, and it's important to remember that some sources, like non-wide-screen TV shows and many movies, look best when you leave the bars on the screen.
More Info: Quick Guide to aspect ratio
Adjust the picture settings
If you thought the section on aspect ratio was confusing, brace yourself. The myriad picture settings available on many TVs can leave the most experienced techie baffled. Fortunately there are some shortcuts to adjusting your picture for optimal quality.
First try cycling through the presets. They have names like "Standard," "Movie" "Dynamic," and "Sports," and each typically delivers different brightness, color and other characteristics. Many TV watchers are content to choose a mode they like and leave it at that.
If you're not, it's time to dive into the individual controls. You can make basic adjustments by eye with the right program material, invest in a setup disc on DVD or Blu-ray, or even spring for a full-fledged professional calibration. You could also try using the picture settings we at CNET publish as a part of our TV review process.
More Info: HDTV Tune-up tips, CNET's HDTV picture settings forum
Consider tweaking your room
Room lighting can have a big effect on picture quality, so when you can we recommend watching in a dim or dark room. When that's not possible, you should avoid letting a light source, such as a lamp or even a window, reflect from the TV screen. To avoid windows you might even want to consider moving your seating configuration to avoid reflections.
HDTVs can use a good deal of power, especially large models with bright picture settings, so if you want to be a greener TV watcher you can definitely take a few steps. Check out TV power saving tips for more info.
Still confused about how to get the most out of your new TV? Check out CNET's Home Audio and Video forums. Think you have a good tip I missed here? Leave a comment below.