Our friends in the electronics industry love to tell us that high-definition TV (HDTV) is right around the corner. What they don't say is it's likely to stay around that corner for a long time to come. A slow rollout of HDTV programming and exceedingly high prices for these photo-realistic wide-screen marvels will keep them out of all but Bill Gates's home for years.
So while we're all making do with our old low-definition TVs, is there any way to squeeze out better performance? Well, you can add a DVD player and a surround-sound stereo, but you're still stuck with the same old pixelated picture tube. Right? Not according to the Imaging Science Foundation (http://www.imagingscience.com), a Boca Raton-based association that, among other things, trains technicians to calibrate old-fashioned TV sets to bring their image quality up to their full potential.
TV tunists say that most sets are pre-calibrated to look good in flourescent-light-saturated dealer showrooms, while the average home has softer lighting. And since manufacturers want their TVs to stand out beside the competition, they have an incentive to boost colors and brightness excessively. Finally, the argument goes, rough handling in transit can reset these presets, especially on delicate rear-projection TVs.
Fans of the process claim that it can not only extend the life of a TV--especially expensive projection sets--but that it "has the possibility of adding a 3-dimensional realism and a 'film like' look to video," according to a "frequently asked questions" article on the subject. The FAQ site (http://members.accessus.net/090/awh/how2adj.html) explains how to do some of this magic yourself, but it also warns that the steps described are not guaranteed to work and that opening your TV can expose you to lethal voltages.
Some of the ISF's solutions seem sensible, such as lowering contrast so you can see subtle gray tones that usually fade into black, but some sound counterintuitive--for instance, turning off the sharpness control and other special features. Many non-ISF-affiliated TV sales and repair firms were disdainful of the TV-tuning thesis; Ronald Laboy, a service technician at Strauss Photo-Technical Service in the District, said the slightly better image that results wouldn't be significant enough to offset the fuss and expense.
To see for myself, I called ISF-certified technicians at Myer-Emco and scheduled a tuneup for a five-year-old 27-inch Sony (which was in great shape and had a terrific picture to begin with). The tune-up typically takes one to two hours and costs $175, so if you never pay more than $200 for a TV in the first place, forget about this entirely.
To my relief, the technician did not have to take the case off the TV, instead using the "Video Essentials" DVD to produce a series of test patterns on the screen. He viewed the patterns through a series of colored filters and a special calibration device, altering the TV's basic settings after he had put the set into a special service mode with a complex remote-control sequence. When a circular test pattern appeared squashed, he adjusted it back up to a perfect circle. When part of the image was clearly off the right side of the screen, he centered it. He straightened lines that bent between bright and dark shades, and ended some of the distortion between parallel lines.
When he was finished, I could actually see the improvement--in both cable TV and DVD. The image appeared slightly darker overall, but I could see more detail in shadowy areas. In comparison, a non-tweaked TV suddenly looked too bright and over-saturated with color; the calibrated set offered additional detail and less "noise" in fuzzy areas where two unfriendly colors clashed.
But was it $175 worth of improvement? Probably not. But if I was dissatisfied with the picture on a $3,000 projection TV--and I've seen some bad ones--then I'd be more likely to give it a whirl.