This article was originally published on RegHardware in August 2009 and has been updated for Gone Digital.
Back in the old days, when you bought – or rented – a television set, there was a pretty good chance that someone would deliver it, set it up, and tune it in for you. And there was a very good chance that when they did that, they’d be able to find a channel broadcasting a testcard without much difficulty, and use that to make sure all the picture settings were correct, or at least not completely wide of the mark.
If you’re buying a new TV to get the best out of services like FreeviewHD and Freesat, things are pretty different. Unless it’s coming as part of a high end AV installation, chances are you’ll be unpacking it yourself, and trying to make the best job of setting it up to give the brilliant picture that the reviews raved about. So, just how do you do that, then?
When you see a TV set in a typical showroom, it will have been set up to produce vivid, eye-catching colours, and to look fairly reasonable under the harsh fluorescent lighting. A typical living room will have rather more subdued lighting, and for a more realistic picture, you may well want something rather less vivid.
There’s a huge range of settings on some modern sets, and even just the basic options can be easily misunderstood. So, just how do you set up your new flat panel to give the best picture possible?
One answer is to have it professionally calibrated – and if you have the cash to spare, then for upwards of £2-300 you can have an ISF calibrator visit your home and set the TV up for you. Prices vary, and you can expect to pay more for each input that you want set up. An ISF technician will access the hidden service menus on a TV and use a colorimeter to make sure everything is set up more accurately than you’ll be able to do it with the naked eye. Is it worth it? Plenty of people think so, but the cost will rule it out for many. I’m going to look at some of the DIY alternatives; they may not be quite as accurate, but you can still improve the picture, without breaking the bank.
First catch your test card
Before delving into the nitty-gritty, what do you need to set up? Firstly, you probably don’t want to spend hours tweaking a brand new panel – wait a few weeks, until it’s been used a fair bit, and then tweak. Remember that for the best results, you’ll have to set up the picture for each input that you’re using, if the TV remembers per-input settings. You can’t assume, for example, that a signal fed from a DVD or Blu-Ray player via HDMI will be treated in the same way as one from a SCART, or a memory card reader.
Fortunately, the switch to flat panels does mean that display setup doesn’t involve worrying about geometry – aside from stretch effects applied to non-widescreen programming, you don’t suffer from some of the more annoying issues of a CRT, like circles being out of shape. It’s largely a matter of making sure black and white are set up properly, and then the colours adjusted, in that order. You can then adjust some of the other options, such as ‘sharpness’ and tinker with any additional features the set provides such as noise reduction or frame interpolation, though as a rule any ‘enhancement’ or ‘noise reduction’ options are best turned off.
To set the screen up, you’ll need patience, and test patterns. And you need to do it in the same sort of lighting as you’ll be viewing the TV. Lighting an patience are easy; what about the test patterns?
You can buy a test DVD or BluRay, like Digital Video Essentials, which will set you back less than £20, but in fact you don’t even really need to spend that much, as test signals – for HD at any rate – are widely available online.
If you do want to get Digital Video Essentials, click this link to buy it from Amazon: Digital Video Essentials – HD Basics [Blu-ray] 
For free patterns, it’s worth registering on the US-based AVS Forum. Once you’ve done that, you’ll be able to download disc images that can be burnt to a BluRay or DVD and used in your BluRay player, together with detailed instructions.
Another source of test screens is the test images that are included on many Sony BluRay releases; press 7669 (S-O-N-Y) when the disc’s main menu appears.
If it’s the performance of a built in tuner you’re after, then things are a little trickier, as there aren’t many testcards broadcast – but BBC HD does transmit one, as part of its daytime preview loop, and you can find more details, and instructions on how to use it on the BBC Internet blog – it’s well worth reading that post; and again, if you have a media player that you want to calibrate from a still image, then you can download the testcard from Flickr.
If you want to try and set things up to display correctly from a Freeview receiver, then you can summon a test card on demand, provided your box has an up to date interactive (MHEG) engine. Tune to channel 105 (BBC red button) and wait for the logos and images to appear, then press the Yellow key on the remote. Tune to a different channel, then go back to 105, and this time press Green. When the status page appears, press Green again to display the testcard – though on one of my Freeview receivers, all that was displayed was the centre section, rather than the whole card. Note that the compression on this test card means that it’s not as accurate as one from a DVD or other source, but it should at least point you in the right direction.
If you’re lucky enough to have a FreeviewHD receiver, whether standalone or built into your TV, you can of course use the test patterns broadcast on the BBC HD channel, which will make sure you’re getting the best possible pictures when you tune in.
Adjusting the display
Whatever test patterns you have, the first, most basic adjustments, are the same. Turn off noise reduction, and turn the sharpness control of your TV right down. Make sure you turn off any automatic adjustments that compensate for things like changing light in the room, and set the picture mode to ‘normal’ if there’s a choice of settings.
Stage one of lining up your set is adjusting the black levels, which is what the brightness control is for. On the BBC testcard, just to the left of the centre circle, is a set of grey boxes; the top white one contains two dots, and so does the bottom black one. Turn the brightness up so that you can see both the dots in the bottom box; if you’re using a different test pattern, there will usually be a series of black boxes, the darkest of which has the same purpose as the darkest dot on the BBC pattern – it’s ‘below black.’
Slowly turn down the brightness, until the ‘below black’ bar or dot is not visible, but you can make out the next one up. So, on the BBC test card, you’ll be able to see the left dot in the box; if you’re using the first test pattern on the AVS Forums disc image, then you should adjust the settings so that bars from 17 upwards are visibly flashing.
The contrast control determines the white levels of the display; with the BBC testcard, you need to adjust the settings so that you can still see the left hand dot in the top box, and the levels don’t blend into each other – though note the information regarding the accuracy on the BBC blog about this setting; with the AVS test signals, you need to adjust the contrast so that bars 230 to 234 are flashing.
A grey ‘ramps’ test pattern – white to black on the top, and black to white below – is a good way of setting the contrast too. Make sure that you can see all the gradations between the different boxes.
You may also need to turn the contrast down a little if there’s a colour cast at high levels, until that disappears – fixing it completely is something that usually requires access to the service menus of the set, and a colorimeter, with associated software tools.
Colour and sharpness
If you want a simple straightforward adjustment of colour, then that’s what the girl in the BBC testcard is for; make her skin tones look natural, and you’re almost there. It’s not the most scientific way, though.
Most test pattern sets will include a set of colour bars, designed to be used with a blue filter, like the ones shown in the screenshot just below. The blue used is typically ‘Tokyo Blue’, or code 071 for lighting gels; a swatch book of filters, or a set of small sheets costs around £10, so it’s probably just as cheap to buy a test DVD that comes with a filter.
Look through the blue filter paying particular attention to the sections with the blue and white patches. The filter strips out the other primary colours, and the colour is set correctly when it appears that the blue and the white patches on the screen have the same brightness – though you may need to tweak to personal taste.
After colour, turn your attention to sharpness; on the BBC testcard, the gratings to the right are used to check this; other discs have specific patterns. Turn down the sharpness to avoid the blurring round the edges of fine lines, such as those in the gratings, and the worst of the moiré effects (where the straight lines seem to turn into curving patterns) in large shaded areas. But keep an eye on the edge of solid blacks, to make sure they’re still well defined – turn sharpness down too much, and they’ll become fuzzy.
Some of the tests for this – such as the one on Sony BluRay discs – also include markers for overscan; you can use this if your TV has settings to control the picture size, or a simple on/off for overscan, to check that everything is being displayed and no bits of the picture are being cut off.
If you’re using a standard flat planel, that’s more or less it for DIY setup. A colorimeter like the SpyderTV can help you achieve more accurate colour setup – but at around £100, plus your time, if you only have one set to adjust, it may be better value to invest in a professional ISF calibration, if you feel that a visual setup isn’t good enough.
For more advice on that, I recommend the UK-based AV Forums site, which has a specific discussion area dedicated to calibration, and also plenty of people who will be able to help you with specific settings for your particular TV set. There are also some useful video tutorials covering calibration on AV Forums.