The default settings on many TVs don’t always offer the best picture, especially when you consider that each video source (cable box, media streamer, Blu-ray player, game system) likely has its own ideal settings that apply. If you haven’t delved into your TV’s menu system, you might be dealing with annoying quirks you didn’t even know you could resolve. Here are easy fixes to four common TV picture problems.
Fixing a Cropped, Squashed, or Stretched Picture
Have you ever watched TV and thought that the picture looked a little off? Maybe the people look squashed, or maybe parts of the picture look like they’re disappearing past the edge of the screen. This is a common problem with many TVs, and it’s one you can mend in a just a few moments.
Picture size is a setting that has many different names on different TVs, but they all do the same thing: Affect how the video signal the TV receives is displayed geometrically on the screen. Ideally, the picture is mapped pixel-to-pixel on the TV, but that isn’t always the case. Sometimes the aspect ratio is off, forcing the picture to be stretched or cropped. Other times, the TV trims the edge of the picture to fit broadcast formats. When this happens, you need to fix the picture size.
(Photo: Will Greenwald)
The Picture Size (or Screen Size, or Zoom) setting can be also referred to as Zoom, Wide, Aspect Ratio, or even simply just Picture. Check your TV’s settings menu for any control that sounds like one of those terms. Note, it might not be under Picture settings, and could be in a second menu called Screen or Inputs. If you aren’t sure if it’s the right selection, check what options are available to see if Zoom, Stretch, Wide, or 16:9 are listed. Those options indicate you’re looking at the right setting. They also mean you’re probably looking at the wrong options to get the best picture on your TV.
For any modern game system, media hub, cable box, or computer that outputs at 1080p (1,920 by 1,080 pixels) or 4K (3,840 by 2,160 pixels), you want your TV to display the signal pixel-for-pixel if it’s an option. In the Picture Size menu, select Direct or Just-Fit. This will tell your TV to show off any video it gets from your connected device as it receives it, without stretching or cropping anything. This simple option can fix any weird distortion you see when you’re watching TV.
If the pixel-for-pixel mode doesn’t help (especially if you have an older, pre-HD video source connected through composite or component inputs), try the 16:9 and 4:3 settings. Older game systems and DVD players output at a 4:3 aspect ratio, and they look better pillarboxed on modern TVs with black bars on either side to keep that ratio.
If you connect a computer or some other device to your TV, you might experience another problem: overzealous overscan. Before digital TV was broadcast, TV signals transmitted more of the picture than was intended to be shown on the TV. This extra frame is known as overscan, and TVs are designed to trim it off. Look through your TV’s menu system for a separate option called Overscan. It will likely be near the Picture Size option in the menu, but it could appear anywhere (including the Advanced Settings). Set Overscan to Off or Disable and you’ll finally see the full picture.
How to Turn Off the Soap Opera Effect
The “soap opera effect” is a common picture grievance that occurs when movement on the screen looks unnatural. It’s often caused by the TV simulating 60 or more frames per second (fps) when the source video doesn’t provide it. Most movies and shows are displayed at 24 or 30 frames per second. 24fps is the standard frame rate for film, while 30fps is the standard frame rate for produced television.
Many modern TVs have a refresh rate of 120Hz, or can display up to 120fps. They also often offer image processing features that can make movement appear smoother to match that frame rate, or even simulate higher frame rates.
(Photo: Will Greenwald)
These features are effective at making a 24 or 30fps video look smooth. The problem is they make the video look too smooth. It appears unnatural and jarring, resulting in the soap opera effect. The motion smoothing sometimes works when you’re watching sports or playing video games, but for most movies and TV shows, it just makes everything appear weird, like you’re standing behind the camera and seeing exactly what it sees.
The solution is simple: Turn off motion smoothing. That’s it. Putting your TV in the Theater or Cinema mode might turn off those features automatically, but if it doesn’t you’ll need to disable motion smoothing manually. Read our guide to turning off motion smoothing to find out where the setting is buried in the menu systems of current Amazon Fire TV, Google TV, LG, Roku TV, and Samsung televisions.
What to Do If the Picture Is Too Dark
Have you ever noticed the picture on your TV looking brighter or dimmer depending on the time of day? That’s likely due to a power-saving feature that’s the bane of cinephiles everywhere: the light sensor. Many TVs have ambient light sensors that adjust the brightness of the picture on the fly, based on whether the room is bright or dark. It sounds handy on paper, but it means you can’t ensure consistent control of the TV’s brightness yourself.
(Photo: Will Greenwald)
You can keep direct control over your TV’s brightness by turning off the ambient light sensor. This setting can be hidden in several different areas of your TV’s menu system, depending on the interface. For Android and Google TVs, it’s a setting found in the Backlight menu of the Picture settings. On LG TVs with webOS, it’s in the Energy Saving menu. Disable any setting that says Ambient Light or Intelligent Sensor to turn off the feature. You might also have to switch picture modes to make sure it stays off. Be sure to steer clear of any Automatic Power Saving (APS) picture mode, since it will also usually err on the side of dimmer output.
For more precise control, you can also disable the energy-saving features on your TV. They might not all use light sensors, but they can still tweak the TV’s backlight to save electricity. Look for any Power Saving, Energy Saving, or Eco setting and set it to Low or Off. Then you can adjust the TV’s backlight manually to suit your tastes. Of course, brighter backlight settings will result in your TV using more power.
How to Fix the Color on Your TV
If you’ve watched TV and thought the picture looks too blue or too green, or that skin tones appear unnaturally yellow, your TV’s color settings might be off. A professional calibration can get the best possible colors out of your TV, but this is a complicated, expensive process that most people won’t want to go through. Fortunately, there are several simple settings you can cycle through to get more accurate colors out of the box, and in our testing they usually are accurate, themselves.
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Video signals are based around the D65 white point, a standard value that sets white to a color temperature of 6,504 Kelvin. Without getting into the extensive math behind it, this is what white should look like under average midday light. The default picture modes of TVs tend to set white to appear slightly bluer than it should. This setting is known as white balance, and it’s available on nearly every TV. Most picture modes, like Normal, Standard, and Vivid, set the white balance intentionally cool. This makes the picture pop out more, but it isn’t natural.
(Photo: Will Greenwald)
Using a TV’s movie-focused picture mode will generally produce the most accurate colors. This picture mode might be called Movie, Cinema, or Calibrated, and it will automatically set color temperature to be as close as possible to what filmmakers intended, without a full calibration. Set your TV to this mode if it’s available.
If that doesn’t get the job done, set your TV’s white balance to the warmest available setting. You just need to know how to find that setting. In your TV’s menu system, under picture options, look for a value called White Balance or Color Temperature. This setting should give you a few different options like Cool, Normal, and Warm. Choosing Warm will likely give your TV the most accurate colors you can expect from the panel.
If you see more than one Warm setting, or if there’s no Warm setting, you’ll have to choose the option that makes the picture look the least blue-green and the most red-pink. Don’t worry: these presets won’t horribly skew the colors, and even if the pinkness of the picture looks odd at first, it’s actually the most accurate of the options.
Near these settings you’ll likely find advanced submenus that invite you to calibrate the color or tune the white balance. Stay away from these menus, or any option that invites you to change numbers. These are settings are for calibrators to work with, and it’s too easy to completely warp your TV’s color accuracy if you don’t know what you’re doing. If this happens, you’ll need to restore your TV’s default settings and start again.
What Else to Know
Remember, even if you have a brand new TV, it may not be configured properly for the best possible picture. It’s worth scrolling through the settings menu to check things out. If you’re looking to buy a new TV, meanwhile, see our stories on What TV Model Numbers and SKUs Actually Mean and How to Choose the Right Screen Size. And check out our explainers on 4K, 8K, and HDR to figure out what features are important to you.
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