A better picture could be just a few clicks away—here's what you need to know
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After years of working with friends, family, and readers helping them get the most out of their TVs, there's one mistake I've noticed most people making: they set their TV up initially, get cable or streaming working, and don't really touch the settings menu again unless something goes totally haywire.
While this isn't the wrong thing to do, I'd call it a mistake. You wouldn't wear a winter coat to the beach, or wear flip-flops on a hike, so why are you watching movies, TV, and sports, or playing video games, all with the same TV settings? Here's how to nudge your TV into better echelons of performance depending on what you're watching.
A bunch of us still consider seeing a movie at the movie theater to be the pinnacle of the movie-watching experience. The huge screen, array of surround speakers, and seemingly endless popcorn have become the international ideal for movie viewing. But there's something else about theaters that make the experience really special: they're as dark as possible.
When most people settle in for movie night, they dim or turn off the lights in their living room or dedicated viewing space, just like at the movies. But another thing you should be doing is setting your TV up in "Movie" mode.
To do this, open your TV's main menu settings, and go to the Picture controls. From here, you'll be able to select a Picture "mode," which applies a bunch of pre-sets to your TV's picture quality. Most TVs have a similar array of picture modes, such as Dynamic, Vivid, Standard, Movie, Cinema, and so on.
For watching movies, one of the easiest ways you can set your TV up to best display movies and filmic content is to set it to "Movie" or "Cinema" mode. Most Samsung, Vizio, and LG TVs use "Movie" mode, while Sony TVs have "scenes" called Cinema Pro, Cinema Home, or Cinema. If you've got an off-brand TV, there's a chance it won't have a "Movie" picture mode (or have picture modes at all), but 95% of TVs will have a Movie or Cinema mode you can select.
If you've been watching a different mode, like Dynamic, Vivid, or Standard (what most TVs default to right out of the box), you might find "Movie" mode looks a little dim and orange/reddish or even yellow at first. This is because the international standard for cinema-quality white balance is "warmer" (or redder) than the average laptop, smartphone, or PC monitor screen, and when your TV is in Standard or Vivid modes, it's actually much "cooler" than it should be.
Even if you don't like how Movie mode looks at first, it's the best choice for dim/dark movie lighting and your eyes will get used to it after a night or two. The backlight is lower, which reduces eye strain and boosts the perceptual darkness of shadowy areas. It also tends to set the TV up for proper playback of 24 fps, the frames per second that most films and many older films are shot in. It also tends to turn off settings that oversaturate color, making movies and films look more accurate to the colorists' intentions, and reduce or remove the "soap opera effect" which is so prevalent on modern TVs.
If you're streaming movies on Netflix or Hulu (or via cable), the same strategy from above applies. However, if you're watching TV programming like daytime soaps, news, weather, or even nature documentaries, you're probably more likely to be watching during the day, or at least with more lights on or windows open to sunlight.
In this case, you can certainly use Movie mode still—it will still be the most accurate and least messed-with picture mode on your TV—but it might not be as bright/colorful as you want. You can either find the "Backlight" setting in your TV's picture and nudge it up to taste, or (perhaps easier), just switch back to Standard or Vivid/Dynamic mode.
While picture purists tend to bristle at Vivid-style picture modes, it's true that their high brightness/contrast, pumped up colors, and often over-sharpened presentation do a lot better at making a TV look good in a brighter environment with more competing ambient light. If you're going to use Vivid/Dynamic modes, it makes sense to know when and how to employ them.
Even if you don't have cable, there are still plenty of ways to watch sports content. No matter which sport you're watching and how you're watching it, however, the most important thing to get "right" in your picture settings is motion—or how fast-moving content looks on the screen.
All current TVs are locked to a certain refresh rate, which describes how many times per-second they scan for new information. Most high-end TVs are 120 Hz, while most middle and lower-end TVs are 60 Hz. Essentially, 120 Hz TVs scan 120 per second for new information, while 60 Hz TVs scan 60 times per second. Generally, 120 Hz TVs are better for sports and moving content overall, though 60 Hz is fine for things like movies and regular TV/streaming programming.
Most TVs are 60 Hz, and you're likely not going to run out and upgrade to a potentially very pricy 120 Hz TV just for smoother sports. But regardless of your TV's refresh rate, it probably has motion settings you can tweak in the picture settings menu. Here's where you'll have to do some tinkering and testing on your own, preferably while watching your preferred brand of sports.
One easy thing to do is just set the TV to "Standard" mode. While "Vivid" tends to use the maximum amount of motion smoothing and "Movie" tends to turn it all off, "Standard" usually strikes a middle-ground, making it generally acceptable for sports. However, after changing the picture mode, you should be able to dig into more picture menus (usually called Picture Options, Advanced Picture, or something similar) and adjust motion settings there.
The way to do this is to set a motion mode or setting, watch content for a few minutes, and swap to another, moving through until you find the one that looks the most natural and smooth. This will be different for just about every TV, but if you go back and forth like it's an eye exam, you're bound to find something you like eventually, even if that means just shutting off all the motion effects altogether.
Last but certainly not least, how should you set your TV up for video games? This one is actually (usually) very easy. Almost every modern TV has a "Game mode" setting. Sometimes it's a separate picture mode (as in, Movie, Standard, Vivid, Game), but sometimes it's a toggle-able option that overrides whatever picture mode you're already in.
With a Game mode, you're basically reducing (as much as possible) any extraneous picture or video processing the TV is doing: things like sharpness, color boosting, and motion assistance or motion smoothing. The idea is to simplify the TV's picture as much as possible to reduce input lag.
If your Game mode is a separate toggle and you can still adjust picture mode, we also recommend turning the TV to "Movie" mode with Game mode active. Since Movie mode turns off a bunch of extraneous stuff anyway, it's the best pairing for whatever Game mode is doing in the back ground if zippier response from games is your goal.
It might sound like a pain to set your TV for all these different kinds of content, but fortunately, you don't exactly have to do that. Most TVs these days have four or more HDMI inputs, and each HDMI input can remember different settings.
This means if your PlayStation is plugged into one, you can set that one up for gaming, while your might set up your Roku or Apple TV for ideal movie watching or TV viewing. If you have a cable box plugged in, you might set it up for sports.
While you might still have to do some tinkering now and then, it's something that really only takes a few seconds, but can really impact the quality of the content you're watching. At the very least, getting more familiar with your TV's various modes and menus can help you nail a nice "general" setting that's about right for most of the content you watch.