Set up your HDTV for watching the Winter Olympics

Optimise your HDTV to watch the Winter Olympics with these three tips

You're all geared up for Super Bowl Sunday--or, if football isn't your thing, maybe you're anticipating the men's slalom at the Winter Olympics. Either way, you have your pizza, your beer, and your brand-new, beautiful HDTV. But is that HDTV giving your favorite sport everything it's capable of giving?

Even if your set is already perfectly calibrated, three extra adjustments can help your new plasma or LCD present sports in their best light. In tweaking your settings, you should compensate for daytime viewing, make sure that you're not losing image quality through your DVR or set-top box, and take full advantage of your 120Hz or 240Hz set.

Here's why--and here's how.

Fix Your HDTV for Daytime Viewing

Sports events often happen during the day, and if you prefer watching them live, that means viewing them with the sun shining through your windows. Even if you've placed your HDTV where sunlight won't hit the screen directly (and you should), you must compensate for the presence of any window in the room by making the picture brighter.

Simply turning up the brightness won't help. The Brightness setting on most HDTVs doesn't actually control brightness, but black level; turning it up makes the image brighter, but more washed out. To fix that, you have to increase the Contrast (called Picture on some sets), which controls the white level. You'll probably have to fiddle with both controls, going back and forth between them, until you're pleased with the result. Then fiddle with them again the next time you watch TV at night.

You have other options. If you own an LCD set, for instance, the Backlight control changes the picture's brightness without throwing any other settings out of whack--so if sunlight is making the game hard to see, just turn up the backlight. (If you have a rear-projection set, the Iris setting will do the same thing.)

Plasma sets offer no such convenience, so your best bet in this case is to set up separately calibrated modes for day and night viewing. Most HDTVs offer various modes, some preset and some user-configurable. In some HDTVs, even the presets are configurable. If your set has two or more configurable modes, calibrate one at night and one during the day. (How do you know if a preset mode is configurable? Select it and start trying to configure the TV. If the mode name changes to something like 'User', that's the only configurable mode.)

If your plasma HDTV doesn't allow you to configure more than one mode, or if the above steps sound like too much trouble, experiment with the preset modes and hope that you find a good one. The Sports mode, if your TV has one, is an obvious choice, although it might not actually be appropriate for your situation. Vivid mode may also work well during daylight hours.

Don't Let Your Set-Top Box Get in the Way

If your TV signal passes through a set-top box or a DVR, it could be arriving at the television in an altered, lower-quality form. You can fix that with the right setting.

First, some background: HDTV broadcasts come in two standard resolutions, 1080i and 720p, each with its own advantages. Though 1080i has more pixels and therefore offers more detail, it interlaces the image, drawing only half the lines with each pass (first the odd lines and then the even ones). This approach can cause problems with rendering fast-moving objects. In contrast, 720p--the p stands for progressive--draws all of the lines with each pass, avoiding those problems. (1080p offers the best of both worlds, but it isn't a broadcast standard.)

Converting either format to the other one will compromise image quality. Converting either to 1080p--which any 1080p HDTV will do automatically--will do little or no harm, depending on the quality of the TV's upscaling circuitry. Keep in mind that much of what you watch on a 1080p set (except a Blu-ray Disc or material from a 1080p streaming video source such as Vudu) is upscaled, deinterlaced, or both; but not all TV upscalers are created equal, and image quality can vary accordingly. If your TV signal passes directly from the cable or antenna to your HDTV, your TV alone will convert the image, and you don't have to worry about this problem at all. But if your signal goes through a DVR or set-top box (a certainty if you have satellite, and a likelihood with cable), that box is probably set to output everything at one of the broadcast HD resolutions--and as a result, the quality of material sent at the other resolution is being hurt by the conversion.

What to do? Go into your DVR or set-top box's Setup menu and look for a setting called Video Output, Format, or even TV Type. Once there, if you find a Native option, which sends everything to the TV without changes, pick that. If Native isn't available but a 1080p option is, go with that one. You can keep either of these options indefinitely, because it allows every broadcast, no matter the resolution, to upscale to your TV's resolution without going through another, potentially harmful conversion first.

If neither option is available on your set, you'll want to change the output setting to match the broadcasting standards of the television station. If you're going to be watching ESPN, Fox Sports, or ABC, set the DVR's output to 720p. For CBS or NBC (broadcasters of the Super Bowl and the Olympics, respectively), go with 1080i.

Go for Smoother Motion

Many of today's LCD HDTVs have 100Hz or 200Hz refresh rates. Among other advantages, these faster sets can interpolate extra frames, smoothing out fast motion--if you set them correctly.

You won't find the word interpolate in your set's manual. TV manufacturers give the function trademarked names like Motionflow, Smooth Motion Technology, or Auto Motion Plus. HD video runs at 50 frames per second. With interpolation turned off, a 100Hz HDTV simply shows each frame twice. With the feature turned on, the TV creates an extra frame based on what it thinks should be in between each two.

Not everyone agrees that this approach really helps. My own experience is that it definitely helps with text crawls running at the bottom of the screen (pretty common in sports broadcasting), and that it sometimes makes a slight improvement with a moving camera or a ball flying across the screen. But I've also noticed that, when set too high, interpolation can create a slight but unfortunate judder effect.

Manufacturers say that their default settings reflect their recommended optimization for the widest variety of circumstances. My recommendation is to find the option to control this feature (it probably has the word motion in its name), pick a middle setting, and judge how it looks for the material you're viewing. Don't use the highest setting, though: You'll see more distortion than advantage.

With your HDTV properly set, nothing will stop you from enjoying the big game or any other competition--unless, of course, you bet on the loser.