BOSTON - Getting a brand new high-definition TV should be an enjoyable experience, but when you open up that big box you could also be opening up a frustrating can of worms. HDTVs are complicated gadgets. It's not like the old days when you could just plug a TV into the wall and everything magically worked. HDTVs require a little nuance and a little knowledge.
Without this set-up savvy, you might be left looking at an absolutely dreadful picture and wondering why you wasted all that money. Thankfully, there are some easy solutions to your high-definition headaches.
Broadly speaking, many of the most common problems plaguing new HDTV owners fall into four broad categories. People have problems connecting their systems, adjusting the picture display, configuring their viewing area and showing DVDs.
In Pictures: 10 Tricks For Improving Your HDTV Picture
Poor connections are often the root of most beginner HDTV problems. There are at least six or seven ways to connect your TV to a video source like a cable or satellite TV set-top box. Unfortunately, not all of them make for an excellent HDTV.
If you've simply hooked your high-def TV up to the same old wires you had for your standard-definition television, then you're most likely looking at a less-than-optimal picture. Those older connections, the analog coaxial and the red, yellow and white composite cables, aren't good enough.
To avoid falling into this connection trap, make sure your set-top box is equipped with outputs for either component or HDMI connections. Analog component connections (the blue, green and red cables) are adequate for HD signals and a good place to start. HDMI, or high-definition multimedia interface, is the best possible hookup for your HDTV. As a digital connection, HDMI plays well with the digital HD video signals; component connections must convert the HD signals to analog, resulting in some loss of quality.
If you've got outputs for either HDMI or components on your set-top box, your next step is to buy the appropriate cables and plug them in. Don't be fooled by the exorbitant prices tagged on these cables by brands like Monster. A six-foot HDMI cable from Monster costs anywhere between $40 and $60, even though they are no more advanced than a $10 HDMI cable from an unknown brand. Replacing your old, outdated cables is a good first step toward resolving your image-quality issues.
Of course, even if you have all the right hookups, your TV might not look perfect when you press the on button. It's important to change the TV's picture settings, which include brightness, sharpness and contrast, in order to find the balance that looks right to your eyes. Out of the box, an HDTV's picture settings aren't tuned to look good in your living room. They're configured to look appealing and eye-catching in a store. A few minutes of fussing with these levels can go a long way toward making things look a lot clearer and more vibrant.
One common pitfall that viewers should avoid is the use of the "stretch" setting when watching standard-definition programs. When watching non-HD television, the boxy 4-to-3 aspect ratio of traditional TV leaves black vertical bars on either side of the picture, known as pillars. Many TVs allow you to fill in those spaces by stretching the square picture so it fits the rectangular 16-to-9 aspect ratio HDTV. All this does is trade one aesthetic annoyance for another: Although the unsightly pillars disappear, stretching the picture exaggerates flaws in the lower-quality standard-definition signal and makes people look unusually wide. If an HD channel isn't available, always pick the true picture (even if it has pillars) over stretching or zooming. You may have a cropped picture, but at least it won't be distorted.
Then there's the question of where you plop down to watch your new system. The way your room is set up can have a significant effect on how your TV's picture looks. It's important to make sure your couch is at the correct viewing distance. If it's too far away, you'll miss out on the fine details visible in HD; too close, and the screen will look pixilated. Take the diagonal screen size of your HDTV and multiply it by 2.5 to decide how much space should be between you and the screen.
Moving your lamps and adjusting your lighting is also important. Too much ambient light can result in a duller picture, and glare or reflections can be distracting. Placing a light behind your TV is a good idea, as it provides illumination without interfering with the picture.
Finally, if you're using an old, standard DVD player to watch movies on your new HDTV, you're missing out. For a much-improved DVD experience, you need to get a player capable of "up-scaling" the picture from 480 lines of standard-definition resolution to something more compatible with your HDTV's 720 or 1,080 lines of high-definition resolution.
Up-scaling DVD players fill in the difference in resolution and come as close to HD as possible; it's not perfect, but it's definitely a big improvement. One possibility is a stand-alone up-scaling DVD player like the Oppo DV-980H ($170). Even better, splurge and get a next-generation HD player like Panasonic's Blu-Ray DMP-BD10 ($500) or Toshiba's (other-otc: TOSBF - news - people ) HD-DVD HD-A30 ($170). A next-generation player will both improve the quality of your old DVDs and allow you to experience true HD movies as well.
Taking 30 minutes to check and double-check whether you're doing everything listed here could save you from needlessly returning a perfectly capable HDTV and feeling disappointed on your maiden voyage into high-definition. Though HDTVs require a little more effort and interaction to get things working right than older TVs ever did, the ultimate payoff is worth it--once you get everything calibrated properly, you'll almost certainly agree.