Get the Most from Your HDTV

Few scenarios could be worse for buyer’s remorse than this: You’ve just brought home your brand new HDTV, pulled it out of its packaging, and set it up on your stylish modern TV stand. Why doesn’t it look as good as it did in the showroom? In fact, it doesn’t even look as good as your ten-year-old junker. Doh! Once again, you’ve been duped by technology propaganda!

Not so. The truth is, the picture quality is only as good as its source—that is, the signal coming in. You can’t blow your hard-won cash on a new spaceship and expect it to run on kerosene. But getting a good picture shouldn’t cost an arm and a leg either. So don’t fret. You’re just a hiccup away from Hi-Def bliss.

The first thing you have to do is forget the standard TV hookup nonsense you’ve accumulated over the past 30-50 years. Running a basic cable line in isn’t sufficient enough anymore. You’ve got to run at least one or two more lines (and, in terms of through-the-air signal, upgrade your equipment). These days, different cables do different things, so all you have to do is get the right cable for the job. Sounds simple enough, right? Then why doesn’t your standard cable or satellite installer give you the lowdown? Are they hording the information, too lazy to care, too ignorant, or just following procedure by offering you the crummiest equipment to cut corners on overhead? Beats me. But the fact is, it’s not uncommon for people—like YOU—to be charged for a high quality signal only to be cut off at the knees by garbage (often outdated, used) equipment.

Important note: You will only get an HD picture if you have an HD source, such as an HD satellite receiver or cable box, upscaling DVD player, or Blu-Ray or HD DVD player.

When I say “running a basic line isn’t enough anymore” I’m not speaking of the line into the house from your satellite dish or your (outdoor) cable box. That line (as long as it’s the proper grade) is fine. No, I’m speaking of the cable between your (indoor) cable box or satellite receiver to the HDTV. Here you have a couple options.

Note: Ignore the inputs labeled “digital coaxial” and “optical”; those are for audio and have nothing to do with picture quality, and their corresponding wires are very expensive and pointless if you’re not running a home theater, surround-sound system.

The best quality and simplest option is something called an HDMI cable. Not only does it send the highest quality picture signal, but it also incorporates the audio too, so you only need one wire to complete the job. (Avoid buying this at the store; it will cost you around $50. You can get one on eBay for around $5 that works great and shipping usually only takes a couple days—always check the seller’s feedback.) These are new-fangled hassle-free wires that you just plug into the source at one end and plug into the HDTV at the other.

The next best thing is a component video cable, sometimes referred to as RGB—red, green, blue. It’s not quite as good as HDMI, but very close*. These days, most DVD players come with component video cables, which are recognizable by their obvious three-part red/green/blue video lines attached to a separate duo of red/white lines (the red/white are designated for audio). In this situation, simply plug the wires into their corresponding colors on both the source (player, receiver, box) and the HDTV. For sound, do the same with the red/white.

The main thing to keep in mind is you’re putting a puzzle together; there’s no technical know-how to this stuff. Don’t be afraid of your manuals! They’re your friends. In fact, they have pictures to help you locate the correct inputs and outputs.

Now that you’ve got the wires hooked up, comes the hard part: you have to “tell” your HDTV to “look for” the proper signal, and you have to “tell” your source (again: player, receiver, box) to send the proper signal. It’s easier than it sounds and it’s why the cable guys make the big bucks—by tricking you into thinking it’s hard (trust me, he has to figure it out every time too, since every home has a different setup; these guys are no rocket scientists). Fortunately for you, the jargon is pretty standard between various audio and video components.

Now, look on the back (or side) of your HDTV to where you plugged your wire(s) in. There should be an area outlined around the plug(s) separating it from any others, that reads Input 1,2,3,4, or 5 (or more). Now, step away from the TV and find the “Input” button on the TV’s remote control. Push this button (once, twice, etc.) until the message on the TV screen cycles through to the input number that corresponds with the one your wire is plugged into. If your source (player, receiver, box) is ON, you should have a signal. If you do not have a signal, it’s time to dive into the source’s (not the TV’s) manual and figure out why (more on that later**).

If you have a signal (picture), as you should by now, it’s time to adjust it to best suit your HDTV. Use the “setup” function on the source’s (not the TV’s) remote control and scroll through the menus to adjust the picture signal. Select 16X9 for widescreen TV or 4X3 for standard TV (some earlier HDTV models were standard size). Look into your TV’s specs to see what resolution it reproduces—often this will be on a sticker somewhere or the box. If your HDTV is “full HD” (1080p) and you’re using an HDMI cable, set the signal to 1080p. If you’re using a component (RGB) cable set it to 1080i. If your TV is only 720p, regardless of the cable you’re using, set the signal to 720p.

Repeat this process for each source running into your TV. For sources that cannot reproduce an HD signal (standard DVD players, VHS, older cable boxes, etc.), you can run old standard wires/signals into your HDTV, but it will only give you a low-quality non-HD 480i signal. Remember, the picture is only as good as the signal running into it; the HDTV can’t magically make a crummy picture beautiful. If your cable box etc. is substandard, call your cable company and tell them you’ve upgraded to HD. That’s what you’re paying for.

Notes:

*If you don’t have an HDMI cable and you’re running component (RGB) video instead, check to see if your HDTV has a “3:2 pull-down” capability, sometimes referred to as “Movie” or “Theater.” Turn that on in the setup menu and you’re good to go, because the TV will compensate for the processing gap.

**Some players’ menus (Harman Kardon, for example) only display through old standard technology, such as the yellow, composite video (not component) wire, or S-Video. There’s no rationale for this, but if you want to access their menus, you have to run an extra, old-school wire to another input on your TV to make adjustments (if, say, you own an upscaling Harman Kardon DVD player).

One final note: if you plan to use the RGB option and happen to have some spare “RCA” cables laying around, they’ll do for an easy work-around option. (RCA cables are those familiar red-and-white wires that come with most audio equipment.) Simply substitute your own RCA cables for the RGB cables; just make sure each wire connects to the correct color-coded jack—i.e. red to red, green to green, and blue to blue.