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Almost a decade after the first high-definition televisions appeared, performance still varies greatly even within some brands.

Why such variation? HDTV’s are complex devices that are still evolving.  They have to accept different types of digital and analog signals and adapt them to the display Also, manufacturers face constant competitive pressure to cut costs.

Whatever the reasons, the wide quality range makes an HDTV a challenging purchase.  Although some top-scoring models are costly high price doesn’t guarantee top performance.  Here’s how to judge quality and choose wisely

Put picture quality first

When you’re buying a TV nothing matters more than picture quality that’s why it’s by far the biggest contributor to the overall score in our HDTV Ratings.  Don’t like a TV’s remote? You can buy a better universal remote.  Hate the set’s on- screen menus?  You probably won’t use them very often.  Need better sound than the TV’s speakers provide? Then hook up a receiver and speakers.  But there’s little you can do to improve a mediocre picture.

We expect better picture quality from HDTV’s than from standard-definition sets because HDTV screens have a higher native resolution.  An HDTV has many more pixels (the picture elements making up images) than a regular TV so it has the potential to display much finer detail.  The best HDTV’s display almost lifelike textures, such as the rough weave of a tweed suit or fine strands of hair.

Some of the top TVs in our Ratings have a resolution of 1080p, with 1,920 pixels from side to side and 1080 from top to bottom.  That enables them to display more of the detail in RD signals than sets with 1366x768 or lower resolution (often labeled as 720p sets in stores). The differences are most obvious on 50-inch and larger screens and in close viewing.

But resolution alone doesn’t determine picture quality Contrast, black level, brightness, and color accuracy are also important. The quality of the content comes into play as well. A ‘72Op set that does everything right can have excellent picture quality.

How to judge image quality


There should be the widest possible difference between the darkest and lightest areas, with subtle gradations in between, so that details stand out clearly.


The best high-def TVs make fine points, like the texture of the guitar strap, appear natural and lifelike. On mediocre TVs, details are often lost, especially during fast motion.


Deep black adds richness and depth to an image. Lesser TVs sometimes can’t display it. LCD’s haven’t done well with black, but some are doing better.


Colors should be rich but not oversaturated. Skin tones should look natural and smooth, not blotchy or overly reddish or greenish


When you get your new TV home, don’t expect picture-perfect images right out of the box.  The default factory settings are designed to create a super-bright, colorful image to lure shoppers, but they’re almost always a bad choice for use at home.  The first thing you should do is adjust the picture settings.  You can tweak them individually but it’s easier to use a preset mode (if your TV has them; not all do).

On the remote control, hit the menu button to access the onscreen video or picture menu. See what picture mode is in use.  It’s most likely Vivid or Dynamic, the settings that are designed to dazzle shoppers in showrooms.

Scroll through the mode choices.  The Pro, Cinema, or Standard mode (names vary by brand) is often best. As you switch from mode to mode, you’ll see that set tings for brightness, color, sharpness, and other attributes change, affecting the appearance of the picture.

Play a DVD or DVR recording and freeze on an image containing people and a mix of dark and light areas.  See how it looks in various modes, in the room lighting you use most often.  Personal taste is a factor; have family members help you choose.  The mode that’s best for RD might not be best for DVDs and regular TV Don’t be afraid to switch to a mode that’s better for whatever you’re watching.

If you’re a video enthusiast, you might want to buy or rent a DVD to help you fine-tune the picture. Joe Kane’s “Video Essentials” and Ovation Software’s “AVIIA” are two programs with test patterns and tips on calibrating a TV picture.