Wondering how to set up an HDTV? It may seem like a daunting task, with pages and pages of settings and a pile of cables. But since you took all that time finding the right TV for you, and you've driven/carried/dragged it home, it's worth it to spend a little extra time making sure it's correctly set up. Otherwise, it won't look its best.
After you follow the instructions for getting the TV on its stand (if it isn't already), the real setup begins. There are countless settings, options, and potential issues between box and beautiful picture. This how-to guide should help you navigate the waters of TV technology.
If this is your first HDTV, you'll find that the cables have changed a lot since the last time you hooked up a TV (it also might be worth checking out our HDTV 101 Guide). Even if you're replacing an older HDTV, it's important to understand the HDTV cable of choice: HDMI.
HDMI cables carry high-resolution images and sound over one small cable. If you bought your HDTV at a store, you were likely pushed into buying expensive HDMI cables to go with your TV.
Expensive HDMI cables offer no benefit to the average consumer. If you paid more than $10 for your HDMI cables, you should consider returning them. Check out my article on why all HDMI cables are the same for more information. Then there's the follow-up Why all HDMI cables are the same, part 2, and the follow-up to the follow-up, Still more reasons why all HDMI cable are the same.
HDMI cables are, however, vital to the overall performance of your television. There are only two ways to get an HD signal from your cable or satellite box to your TV: HDMI and component. Component cables are three attached cables identified with the colors red, green, and blue. Most are also labeled Y, Pb, and Pr. These only carry video. You'll need to add more cables for audio, most commonly a matched pair of analog audio cables.
The single yellow cable with white and red audio cables that comes with most products is not HD. Only VHS and the Wii can be hooked up with a yellow "composite" cable. DVD, Blu-ray, or cable or satellite boxes hooked up with a yellow cable will be significantly hampered in their performance.
If you haven't upgraded your other gear along with your new TV, component video is very common. If you've bought a new Blu-ray player or streaming media box (like Roku or Apple TV), HDMI is your only option.
Which brings us to...
If you haven't upgraded your other gear, make sure your DVD player is ready for your new TV. Go into its setup menus and make sure it's set to output a 16x9 image. If it's an older player, it could be set to a 4x3 aspect ratio (like old TVs). Matching this aspect ratio to your new TV will greatly improve its performance.
The same is true for your cable or satellite box. Make sure you switch this to 16x9. If it's capable of HD, take this moment to set it to output 1080i. For most people, 1080i works best, and is the same resolution as 1080p. In some cases, there are other resolutions are better. Check out Set-top box setup: Which resolution is best? for more info.
Just because the cable box is capable of HD doesn't mean you're getting HD. You need to pay your provider for HD channels (unless they're included in your current package) and you need to tune to the specific HD channels. For example, with my provider, channel 2 is SD, whereas channel 1002 is HD.
Or you can get free HDTV.
As I discuss in my article on whether to upgrade your home theater gear, if you have a new HDTV, you owe it to yourself to get a Blu-ray player. Nothing offers the picture quality of Blu-ray. Even if you have an older HDTV, you won't believe how good it can look when you watch Blu-ray.
Once you have everything plugged in (see the slideshow above for images of typical inputs and outputs), take a moment to check your TV's settings. Most modern TVs will ask you upon initial start-up if the TV is being used in a home or a store. Pick the one most appropriate to your environment (hopefully "home"; I'm not sure why you'd be living in Best Buy).
I go into more detail in my article on HDTV settings, but here's the CliffsNotes version. The TV will be its most accurate (in other words, most realistic) in its Movie or Cinema picture mode. It will appear brighter in its Sports or Vivid mode. The Contrast control adjusts how bright the bright parts of the image are, and Brightness controls how dark the dark parts of the image are. Also check out CNET's HDTV setup tips and Five tips for a better HDTV picture.
If you want to get every possible amount of performance out of your TV, consider having it calibrated. I describe this process in my What is HDTV calibration? article.
Flat panel TVs are also more susceptible to reflections than CRTs, so if you're having an issue with light washing out the picture, check out How to rid your HDTV of reflections.
Lastly, if you've bought a plasma TV, there is no need to "break it in," as some websites and stores claim.
Editors' Note November 21, 2013: This article was originally published in 2011 but has been updated to include additional relevant links, and more on setting up the television.
Got a question for Geoff? First, check out all the other articles he's written on topics like HDMI cables, Active vs Passive 3D, and more. Still have a question? Send him an e-mail! He won't tell you which TV to buy, but he might use your letter in a future article. You can also send him a message on Twitter @TechWriterGeoff or Google+.