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(Tips)How to set up an HDTV

HDTV back panel(Credit: Geoffrey Morrison)

You found your perfect TV. You've driven/carried/dragged it home. You have this big cardboard box sitting in your living room. Now what?

Well, after you follow the instructions for getting the TV on its stand (if it isn't already), the real setup begins. There are countless settings, options, and potential issues between box and beautiful picture. This how-to guide should help you navigate the waters of TV technology.


If this is your first HDTV, you'll find that the cables have changed a lot since the last time you hooked up a TV (it also might be worth checking out our HDTV 101 Guide). Even if you're replacing an older HDTV, it's important to understand the HDTV cable of choice: HDMI.

An HDMI cable

An HDMI cable


HDMI cables carry high-resolution images and sound over one small cable. If you bought your HDTV at a store, you were likely pushed into buying expensive HDMI cables to go with your TV.

Expensive HDMI cables offer no benefit to the average consumer. If you paid more than $10 for your HDMI cables, you should consider returning them. Check out my article onwhy all HDMI cables are the same for more information.

HDMI cables are, however, vital to the overall performance of your television. There are only two ways to get an HD signal from your cable or satellite box to your TV: HDMI and component. Component cables are three attached cables identified with the colors red, green, and blue. Most are also labeled Y, Pb, and Pr. These only carry video. You'll need to add more cables for audio, most commonly a matched pair of analog audio cables.

The single yellow cable with white and red audio cables that comes with most products is not HD. Only VHS and the Wii can be hooked up with a yellow "composite" cable. DVD, Blu-ray, or cable or satellite boxes hooked up with a yellow cable will be significantly hampered in their performance.

If you haven't upgraded your other gear along with your new TV, component video is very common. If you've bought a new Blu-ray player or have a new cable/ or satellite box, HDMI may be all you can find.

Which brings us to...


If you haven't upgraded your other gear, make sure your DVD player is ready for your new TV. Go into its setup menus and make sure it's set to output a 16x9-pixel image. If it's an older player, it could be set to 4x3 pixels (like old TVs). Matching this aspect ratio to your new TV will greatly improve its performance.

The same is true for your cable or satellite box. Make sure you switch this to 16x9. If it's capable of HD, take this moment to set it to output 1080i.

Just because the cable box is capable of HD doesn't mean you're getting HD. You need to pay your provider for HD channels (unless they're included in your current package) and you need to tune to the specific HD channels. For example, with my provider, channel 2 is SD, whereas channel 1002 is HD.

Or you can get free HDTV.

As I discuss in my article on whether to upgrade your home theater gear, if you have a new HDTV, you owe it to yourself to get a Blu-ray player. Nothing offers the picture quality of Blu-ray. Even if you have an older HDTV, you won't believe how good it can look when you watch Blu-ray.

Related links
What makes a good HDTV?
What is HDTV calibration?
Other how-to articles on HDTV and Blu-ray tech


Once you have everything plugged in (see the slideshow above for images of typical inputs and outputs), take a moment to check your TV's settings. Most modern TVs will ask you upon initial start-up if the TV is being used in a home or a store. Pick the one most appropriate to your environment (hopefully "home"; I'm not sure why you'd be living in Best Buy).

I go into more detail in my article on HDTV settings, but here's the CliffsNotes version. The TV will be its most accurate (in other words, most realistic) in its Movie or Cinema picture mode. It will appear brighter in its Sports or Vivid mode. The Contrast control adjusts how bright the bright parts of the image are, and Brightness controls how dark the dark parts of the image are. Also check out CNET's HDTV setup tips.

The initial settings for modern TVs are largely quite good, but none is perfect. Some fine tweaking, either by eye or using one of the great setup Blu-ray discs, will be worth the time spent.

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