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How to Get the Best TV Picture Quality
Great picture quality comes from a combination of great input and great output: your source material and your TV.
A bad source (like a streaming service with low resolution) will make a great TV feel like a waste. And a bad TV won’t look good no matter how many 4K Blu-rays you feed it.
But when these two components work in harmony, they can improve your TV picture quality in unparalleled ways. So let’s take a look at these nine easy steps to get both halves of the whole awesome-picture-quality dream.
Step 1: Evaluate your TV
Let’s start with your TV. (If you’re not in the market for a new TV, skip down to step 5. But if you are, read on!)
At the end of the day, your final picture is only going to be as good as your television is capable of displaying—which makes it a good place to start.
If you’re trying to watch Blu-rays with an old CRT (cathode ray tube) TV, then you’ve already found your problem. TVs today can get a much clearer picture. Consider an HD (high definition) TV with 1080p resolution—your final picture will be much clearer . . . most of the time.
If you’re watching a standard-definition (480p) DVD on that HD TV, the picture’s going to get scaled up to match the TV’s resolution, and a 4K Blu-ray at 2160p is going to get scaled down. All that scaling will change the visual quality of the image, and not in a good way.
So what should you look for in a TV?
There are two main technologies used in TV screens these days: LCD (liquid crystal display) and OLED (organic light emitting diode).
LCD screens have been around. They’re tried and tested. But they need a backlight to light the pixels on the screen, and OLED screens don’t. So OLED screens have infinitely better contrast levels, more vibrant images, less distortion, and less chance for the motion blur that LCDs sometimes create.
But OLED TVs are newer. And the thing with new tech is that it’s expensive. A decent OLED TV will cost you several thousand dollars, whereas you can get a decent LCD set for several hundred.
If you can’t justify the cost of an OLED TV but still want the best picture quality, look for LED TVs that have full-array backlighting or quantum dot technology. Full-array backlighting will give you better contrast ratio, and quantum dot tech will give you brighter pictures across a wider color gamut.
LCD screens have some advantages too. They’re brighter and easier to see even in sunny rooms, so it’s not all bad news if you can’t spring for an OLED set. Don’t feel like you have to break the bank to get quality TV imaging.
Step 2: Check your resolution
The next thing to look at with your TV is its resolution—the number of pixels that a TV screen has, which make up the image you see. Typically, the more pixels there are, the better and clearer the image will appear.
Most TVs these days are 1080p, or what’s called “Full HD.” These have a resolution of 1920×1080, and they’ll put out a good picture at a great price.
If you want the best, though, you want a 4K or “Ultra HD” TVs. These screens have an incredible 3840×2160 resolution; that’s four times the picture size of a 1080p set, and it makes a huge difference.
To really take advantage of these screens, you also need content in 4K, which is also becoming more common. You’ll want to look at the best TV services for 4K TVs.
Step 3: Look at the HDR
If you’re not confused with all the acronyms just yet, let’s add one more.
HDR (high-definition range) is the TV tech responsible for the best contrast ratio (the range between the lightest and darkest images) and color accuracy available.
OLED TVs obviously have HDR tech, but lots of LCD TVs have it as well, so you’ll want to check and see if it’s included. Also, a feature often included with HDR is WCG (wide color gamut). WCG has a wider range of colors available, allowing TVs to reflect reality to a greater degree.
So if you really want the best image on your TV, look for a TV with HDR and WCG technology. Lucky for you, most OLED and quality LCD TVs made within the last four years typically have it—just check for it before you buy.
Step 4: Check refresh rates
Finally, take a look at the refresh rate on the TV—that means the number of times the TV screen image refreshes in just one second. You want to aim for at least 120Hz for refresh rate, meaning the screen refreshes 120 times per second.
That may seem like a lot, but it’s absolutely necessary if you want a crisp image. The old standard was 60Hz, but if you have a high-res screen, that low of a refresh rate creates a choppy picture. 120 or even 240Hz is your best bet.
TV companies throw around terms like “effective refresh rate,” but watch out: the actual refresh rate tends to be around half the stated “effective” rate.
So if refresh rate is important to you, here’s a good test. Look for the “effective refresh rate” on the TV box and divide by two to get the actual rate.
Step 5: Try moving your TV
Of course, not everyone wants to run out and buy a new TV. If that’s you, don’t worry. You can still try a few things to maximize the potential of your existing set.
First, and possibly most important, is the location of the TV itself.
Your viewing angle is critical for maximum quality. You want your TV to be at eye level, with your seating more or less directly in front of the screen. If you’re looking at the screen from an off-center position, it can ruin the image, especially with an LCD TV.
So first, move your couch or chair so it’s directly in front of the TV. If you decide to mount the set on your living room wall, place it above eye level and angle it downward so it still faces you straight on when you’re sitting down.
You won’t suffer as much from off-axis viewing with an OLED TV, but placement is still important—no one wants to tilt their head for two hours to watch Captain Marvel.
Step 6: Fix your TV settings
You can also play with the settings on your TV to improve the picture quality. But in general, the preset settings will be your best bet. They’re usually tuned pretty well to help you get the most out of the screen.
For picture mode, stick with Standard or Normal settings. Dynamic modes are usually intended to be used for displays in stores, so they’ll lack accuracy. Cinema modes are okay, but these tend to be geared toward low-light environments, which are hard to maintain all the time.
If the TV has an ambient light sensor, consider turning it off for a more consistent image quality. These sensors adjust the display for the lighting conditions in the room, but they can also lead to inconsistent, frequently shifting images.
Many modern TVs have settings for motion-handling effects to smooth out the picture—don’t set these too high. Stick with a medium setting for sports and action programs and a lower setting for movies and reality TV shows. These settings will give the best compromise between smooth motion and a natural-looking image.
Step 7: Update your DVD input
If you want a good picture, you need a good video source.
Consider this: DVDs have a resolution of 480p. A standard HD TV has a resolution of 1080p. Forget about playing that DVD on a 4K set.
Here’s why that won’t work: when you feed a lower-resolution image into a higher-resolution TV, you get something called “upscaling.” Basically, the TV blows the image up to fit the resolution of the screen. This can lead to a fuzzy, distorted picture—and no one wants a fuzzy image ruining the crisp detail of Jurassic World’s dinosaurs.
If you have an HD TV, you want Blu-ray quality video at a minimum. Blu-rays have a resolution of up to 1080p, or even 4K in some newer cases, so they will take full advantage of the amazing screen you paid so much for.
You’ll also want to make sure your Blu-ray DVD player allows for HDR content (most do, but not all, so you’ll need to check). Just like with HD content, if your TV has HDR, but the input doesn’t, then the TV will upscale your movie for the HDR range, but it won’t really look like an HDR movie.
Lastly, remember you need ports to connect those inputs to your TV. You want HDMI ports, and plenty of them. These will give you the best input quality by far. If you’re getting a 4K TV, make sure it has HDMI 2.0 ports to support 4K sources—otherwise that fancy screen will be wasted.
Step 8: Decide between cable TV, satellite TV, or streaming
When you’re choosing a TV provider, you basically have two options: cable or satellite.
Cable TV tends to be more expensive, but it’s also less susceptible to weather interference. Satellite TV is more widely available and cheaper, but since you have to put the antenna outside on your roof, it can be affected by inclement weather.
Really, your choice may just come down to cost and what is offered in your area.
A third option is streaming. Video streaming options have become increasingly popular. Many TVs have streaming capabilities built in, or you can grab one of the many streaming devices, like Roku, to get set up with an internet connection in no time.
Luckily, those streaming devices often already have HDR and 4K video capabilities built in.
If you don’t have a Roku or a similar device, consider a streaming service that offers 4K video and HDR content. Netflix has some 4K content, as does Amazon Prime. 4K content is becoming more popular, so there’s plenty available.
Step 9: Choose HD-level inputs
If you choose cable or satellite, make sure your set-top box is HD. Some cable companies still offer non-HD boxes as cheaper options—and it shows in the picture quality.
Also, and this may seem obvious, but make sure the channels you’re watching are actually in HD. Typically, even with an HD box, low-res channels are still an option, and not everyone realizes this. But why watch Game of Thrones without HD when you don’t have to?
Some providers, like Verizon Fios, will show a pop-up on the screen offering to move you to the HD version with a simple button press. Some, like Xfinity, also allow you to filter the channel list to show only HD content. Use these tools to make sure you’re watching something at the resolution you really want.
It may seem like a lot of work to get the best TV picture quality—but it’s worth it to have the best possible viewing experience. And it’s really just a matter of making sure you have the best tech that matches on both the input and output level.
But even if you don’t have the best tech, you can use these steps to be smart about the settings, location, and services you use for your TV. You’ll definitely notice the improvements to your picture quality.
What exactly is the difference between LCD and OLED?
The majority of TVs today are LCD. More specifically, LED LCD (what a mouthful). LCD panels use a backlight to illuminate the pixels, and in this case, that backlight is made up of LEDs (light-emitting diodes). These are typically marketed as “LED TVs,” with no mention of the LCD display itself.
An OLED TV, on the other hand, has no backlight. It uses “organic LEDs” that are controlled at the individual pixel level. So instead of lighting up all, or a portion of, the screen, an OLED display will only light up the pixels needed to produce the image, and it won’t light up any pixels at all to produce black pixels.
But LED TVs aren’t all bad—they’ve been the common tech for many years now, and they do better in ambient lighting. Plus, LED TVs are getting more innovative and well-designed all the time as technology improves.
What are the new, improved LCD LED TV options?
There are two types of improved tech being created: full-array backlighting and quantum dot technology.
TVs with full-array backlighting place the LEDs in a grid behind the screen, typically along the edges. This grid is divided into zones that can be shut on and off independently, which allows for deeper black colors and better contrast.
The other new LED tech is called quantum dot technology. This adds an extra layer of nanocrystals to the screen and allows for a brighter picture and a wider color spectrum, without the need to buy an OLED TV.
What about smart TVs?
Think of a smart TV like a giant smartphone, but it’s a TV—it has apps and streaming services all on the TV.
These TVs can even respond to voice commands, so don’t worry about remote controls and antennas: you can turn the sound up or change the channel without moving an inch.
Smart TVs may make it seem like we’re living in the future, but they won’t improve your TV picture quality. Still, they’re considered some of the newest tech, so you can often find TVs that include smart TV tech and LED, LCD, or OLED technology.
Can satellite be better than cable?
The answer is yes and no. Cable is more reliable than satellite, but satellite is cheaper than cable, largely because building out cable infrastructure is very expensive.
It’s the difference between laying hundreds or thousands of feet of cable in the ground, only for one part of one city, compared to putting another satellite in the sky—which services a much bigger area and thus more customers.
Satellite can also have a better image quality than cable, simply because cable providers have to compress the signal through physical wires and outdated infrastructure. This limits cable’s peak quality overall.
So whichever type of TV service you go with, there’s going to be some tradeoffs.