The Straight Skinny on HDTV Calibration

By  |  Friday, June 18, 2010 at 4:58 pm

A while back I gave you some advice for calibrating your PC monitor or high-definition TV. I thought it was pretty good stuff, but the very foundations of the Internet began to rumble and experts started writing. (I never know who’s reading my newsletter.) Here’s what I learned.

Display Spec Baloney

DisplayMate Technologies‘ Raymond Soneira is a well-known display expert (in some circles — mine, for instance — he’s legendary). Ray says:

Most monitor and HDTV user menu options and selections are actually unnecessary features added for marketing purposes. Most actually decrease image and picture quality; in many cases it is not even clear what they really do.

Ray wrote Display Myths Shattered: How Monitor & HDTV Companies Cook Their Specs, a useful piece in Maximum PC, the only tech magazine worth a print subscription.

Viewing Distance Revealed

Alfred Poor, a writer (for PCMag.com, among other spots) I’ve known for years, is also a display maven. Who knew? Alfred wasn’t too happy with the viewing distance calculator I mentioned. Here’s his take:

Any viewing distance calculator that does not take into account the resolution of the display cannot be accurate. And the difference between a 720p image and 1080p image is enormous; one has about twice as many pixels as the other.

I’m probably losing most of you (and me, too), but for the two dozen HDTV geeks in the audience, here’s more of Alfred’s advice:

1080p sets have about twice as many pixels as 720p sets, so for a given size, you’ll need to sit closer to a 1080p set to see all the detail. I developed a viewing distance table and explanation that takes into account resolution, human vision physiology, and field of view factors. Measure the distance from your chair to the screen’s location in inches, and multiply by the factor for your screen’s resolution. The result will be the recommended diagonal screen size in inches.

Two spots that take everything into account when deciding on viewing distance: Ken’s Does Size Matter? and Carlton Bale’s Home Theater Calculator. And TechBite subscriber H. Davis recommends 720 or 1080… 1080i or 1080p Answers Here,¬† a historical thread that started in 2006. Pack a lunch, because it’s 48 pages.

HDTV Calibration Revisited

In that same newsletter, I briefly talked about Datacolor’s Spyder3TV, and the company sent me one. The kit’s a combination of software and hardware, and it’s a cool product. Here’s how it works:

  • Bring your notebook to the HDTV.
  • Run the Spyder DVD in your home theater’s DVD player.
  • Connect the detector to the notebook’s USB port.
  • Hang the detector in front of the TV’s screen.
  • Run the software.
  • Read the report and change your HDTV’s settings.
  • Depending on your HDTV, you’ll be taken through a dozen or more test pattern screens; the detector will take a snapshot of each screen.

My job was made more difficult than it could have been because I couldn’t get the detector to sit tightly against the screen. The detector comes with a counterweight attached to a cable, right next to the USB plug. Nowhere in the skimpy instructions was it explained that the counterweight could slide; I tried, and at first it wouldn’t budge. It finally moved, yet I was still concerned about damaging the cable.

Spyder3TV's detector

The kit came with a suction cup to hold the detector in place, but the warnings that Datacolor wouldn’t be held liable for any suction cup damages scared the dickens out of me. I ended up manually holding the detector up to the screen each time the software said it was about to take a snapshot.

Sharp, Rich, Saturated Color

There’s no doubt my HDTV’s picture is substantially better than when I used the preset numbers I found on TweakTV’s Tweak My TV. The process, however, was grueling; it took about two hours and three beers.

The instructions said to do the testing in the dark (no, it didn’t have anything to say about the beers). So I sat in the dark, beer in hand. I had to switch among six test patterns using the DVD player’s remote and then use the TV’s remote to switch among all of the HDTV screen setting, such as color, brightness, and contrast. [Special note to Judy: I hope you appreciate my leaving you out of all of this.]

At each step, I used the Spyder detector to snap an image of the screen. (It sounds like nothing much, but here’s what it was like: Display Spyder’s DVD pattern #1, take a snapshot, pattern #2, snapshot, sip some beer, switch contrast to zero, back to pattern #1, snap, back to pattern #2, snap, switch contrast to 100back to pattern #1, then to 50, take another sip of beer, and then repeat with four other contrast setting numbers. Now do at all again with color, brightness, and three other HDTV settings. It remained dark throughout.)

Spyder3TV

Spyder's recomendations

Now that it’s done–and despite all my kvetching–it was worth the hassle. And listen, you can calibrate more than one display. If you do decide to buy a kit, consider splitting the cost with a couple of friends.

[This post is excerpted from Steve's TechBite newsletter. If you liked it, head here to sign up--it's delivered on Wednesdays to your inbox, and it's free.]

 
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  1. Stilgar Says:

    Calibration is necessary, but ridiculously expensive, so most people aren’t inclined to buy the tools to do it, or to pay someone else to come out to the house.

    You can’t find calibration disks for rent on Netflix. I wish Netflix would make their own calibration system and make it available in their rental library for DVD, BluRay, and streaming. It does seem like it’d be in their best interest to ensure the best viewing experience on your TV.

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