Digital Set? Pre-Digital Picture? Try These Tips

If you've taken the digital-TV plunge, but you can't figure out why your 46-inch flat-screen doesn't look as good as the store's display model did, here are three things to check. They can help make the difference between digital disappointment and big-screen bliss.

Know Your Signal: If you've got an HD-compatible TV, make sure you're getting an HD signal. That means either a digital-compatible antenna to pick up your local stations' HD broadcasts, if any, or an HD programming package from your cable or satellite provider.

Hook It Up Right: HD signals can only be carried to your shiny new TV from your TiVo, your cable converter or your satellite box through HD-ready cables. Basically, you'll need one of three types: component cables, HDMI cables, or DVI cables. Check the manual for your TV to see which kinds it'll accept — many of the very newest TVs don't have DVI inputs — and then shop your local electronics retailer.

Stop the Taffy-Pulling: Widescreen TVs, designed with what's called an "aspect ratio" of 16:9, are great for watching movies and other programming meant to be seen in a widescreen format. But many TV shows are still filmed in the narrower 4:3 aspect ratio — the shape of most older TVs and many computer monitors. That can mean distorted images.

You'll want to find the aspect-ratio setting on your TV (its location will vary, but there's probably a button on your remote) and toggle back and forth depending on what you're watching. Set it to 4:3, and the TV won't stretch a sitcom-size signal to fill your widescreen display. You'll get black bars to the left and right of the picture, but the actors on that Sex and the City re-run won't look wider than you remember. Switch it to 16:9, and those high-def Shark Week scare-fests will show up in all their widescreen glory.

The good news: After February 2009, most programming will be created in digital widescreen formats. For consumers who've upgraded their TVs, these complications will fade away.

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