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If you recently bought a new television, you’ll notice that things have changed when it comes to out-of-the-box TV settings.

It used to be that when you brought a TV home, everything would be cranked too high—to “torch mode,” in industry speak. Manufacturers would turn up the set’s brightness controls and oversaturate the colors to make the picture pop in the harsh fluorescent lighting of a sales floor.

These days, you may find the opposite problem. The first time you turn on your new TV you’ll see a setup option that lets you choose a “home” mode instead of a “retail” or “store” setting. Click on that setting and your TV could look too dim or have undersaturated colors. Why? Because these home settings help manufacturers hit Energy Star energy-use guidelines. 

To fix this and get your television looking its best, you could pay a few hundred dollars for a professional TV calibration. But these TV setting tips from Consumer Reports will let you get the best picture quality on your own.

More on TVs

It’s really not too difficult, and you don't have to be nervous about messing up the TV settings—almost all TVs have a reset button. If the green turf starts looking more like an ocean of blue, you can just bring the set back to its default settings.

If you're a Consumer Reports member, there's a shortcut for all this. Our exclusive Screen Optimizer provides the best settings for thousands of TV models. These are the settings we arrived at after calibrating each TV in our labs to get it looking its best.

But if you're going to tweak the settings on your own, here's how.  


Become a member of Consumer Reports to get access to our TV Screen Optimizer, which will help you get the perfect picture on your TV in just minutes. Join today to get started. 
 

Start With a Factory Picture Mode Preset

All TVs now come with a menu of picture modes with names such as “vivid,” “natural,” “sports,” and “cinema.” When you select one of these modes, the brightness, contrast, and sharpness are automatically adjusted to preset values.

Our advice: Don't choose “sports” mode for watching sports—or for anything else. It could artificially boost brightness, contrast, and colors, and turn on motion smoothing (more on that below). Also stay away from the “vivid” and “dynamic” modes, which tend to overemphasize contrast and sharpness and lower brightness to less-than-optimal levels.

Instead, we’ve found that modes with names like “natural,” “cinema,” and “movie" generally provide the best results.

Tweak the TV Settings Individually

Once you’ve selected one of the preset modes, almost all TVs let you tweak the picture’s appearance further. On some sets, if you try to change the TV settings, your picture mode will automatically change to a “custom” or “preference” mode. Whether that happens or not, your next steps remain the same.

Brightness level: This is also called black level—and that's actually a better term, because it controls the TV's black level, not its overall brightness. And that's critical for getting top picture quality. Ideally, a TV should be able to display deep blacks without losing the near-black detail within the darkest areas.

To adjust this, freeze-frame a nighttime scene, such as one from “Batman” or just about any vampire movie. Turn the brightness/black level control up until you can see the details in the image’s darkest areas. Then turn it back down so the black gets as black as possible without obscuring those details. (If you have an OLED TV, you'll be able to get deeper black levels than you can with most LCD sets.)

Contrast: Also called white level, contrast affects brightness and how well the TV can display near-white shadow detail.

Find an image with lots of white—say, a wedding gown, or a sky full of puffy white clouds. Lower the contrast control until you can see all the detail, such as the shadows in the folds of the gown, or the subtle gray shadings in the clouds. Then raise it to get the brightest picture possible without washing out those details. You’ll generally want to set the contrast below the maximum level.

Color and tint: Once the black-to-white range has been optimized, it’s time to adjust the color settings. Start with color temperature, which is sometimes called color tone.

We recommend choosing the “warm” or “low” setting, which will prevent the  whites from appearing too blue. Then adjust the tint/hue control so that flesh tones look natural, neither too red nor too greenish-yellow—this setting generally works best when it’s in the middle of the range. Adjust the color-level control, which might also be called “saturation,” so colors look vivid and realistic but not so intense that they appear to be glowing.

All these settings may interact with one another in odd ways, so repeat the process as necessary.

Sharpness and more: There are several settings you should probably turn off to get the best possible picture. Manufacturers often set the sharpness control rather high and turn on noise-reduction and other image-enhancement modes. But the best TVs need little or no added enhancement to display HD images at their highest resolution.

You can tell if the sharpness control is set too high because the background will start to look grainy, and halos will appear around the edges of objects, making the overall image appear less natural.

We suggest you turn the sharpness control down to zero, then add sharpness sparingly only if the image looks soft, with poorly defined edges. Also turn off any noise-reduction and image-enhancement or “dynamic” modes; these tend to reduce image quality.

Remember, if you’re unhappy with your TV calibration, just hit the reset button to start over.

What About HDR?

Many 4K TVs now have high dynamic range (HDR) capability, which means they can display a wider range from black to white, so you can see more details in the very darkest and brightest areas of the picture. You’ll also see “specular highlights,” which are the momentary glints of brightness that appear on illuminated objects, such as the reflections off a car's chrome bumper or a Roman gladiator's armored breast plate. Without HDR, those highlights wouldn't be any brighter than other bright objects in the scene.

Many TVs will automatically kick into an HDR mode when you play a TV show or movie formatted in HDR, typically raising the backlight to its maximum level to take full advantage of the set's higher dynamic range.

With HDR material, the TV will also perform a process called "tone mapping." This is how the TV handles HDR programming that makes demands this particular television can't quite handle. For instance, sometimes one object in a movie scene is supposed to hit a brightness level higher than many TV screens can produce. And the same thing goes for extremely subtle variations in color—some TVs with a very wide "color gamut" will be able to match those colors, but others won't. When this occurs, the TV does its best to produce a good HDR image, using information called metadata that's embedded in the signal.

With some sets, you're blocked from making some picture-quality adjustments when the TV is in an HDR mode; other TVs give you total control over all the individual settings.

If you do make changes to settings in the HDR mode, go back to your regular HD settings and see if they've changed, as some sets will apply any new settings universally. That's not ideal. Regular HD video has different requirements than 4K content with HDR, and you really want the TV to be optimized for each type. If your television does this, unfortunately you'll have to keep tweaking the settings depending on the type of content you're watching.

Remember, if you’re unhappy with your TV calibration, just hit the reset button to start over.