Rich Warren | Today's TVs are loaded with settings

Rich Warren | Today's TVs are loaded with settings

Greetings from the land of 1,001 settings. Back in the electronic Pleistocene era, TVs came with two knobs: volume and channel. Stereo amplifiers bristled with five knobs: volume, source selector, balance, bass and treble. The latter two did more harm than good.

The simple TVs of yore contained concealed controls that people invariably misadjusted. One of these controls, labeled "contrast," actually shortened the life of the TV when set too high. In addition to contrast, there were brightness, vertical and horizontal hold. All were frequently set incorrectly. The worst, vertical hold, compensated for aging TVs that began losing synchronization with the TV signal, causing the picture to seem to roll.

When color TV arrived, there were more controls for tint and hue. I frequently viewed misadjusted TVs with skin tones of brilliant pink or slightly jaundiced.

Today, designers engineer 100 or more settings on a single integrated circuit chip. These include a dazzling array of features of which you may never be aware. While that chip costs little to produce, instruction manuals cost plenty. You receive a slip of paper with most electronics with the basics of how to turn the units on and off and the website URL with the instruction manual. You can pay to print out the 50 pages rather than the manufacturer. However, they do include a fat pamphlet of safety regulations and warnings in a dozen languages.

Often, customers call the merchant who sold them the electronics (or if they bought online, the manufacturer) complaining about a problem with operation or performance. The out-of-the-box default settings fail to optimize picture and/or sound quality over a wide variety of sources and conditions. That's why remote controls pop with more buttons than dandelions on a spring lawn.

You are expected to burrow through layers and levels of menus to fine-tune the operation. Needless to say, the nomenclature for these adjustments might as well be Sanskrit for most people.

TV manufacturers decide on default settings that look (and sound) the most impressive, not necessarily those that deliver the most accurate picture and sound. Technical bodies establish certain standards for the creation and reproduction of picture and sound. Movie studios and TV production companies, as well as local stations, generally try to observe these standards but retain the freedom to do otherwise. Most TVs include one setting that comes close to these standards but is unlikely the default setting. It's up to the dealer to ask your preferences and adjust the TV accordingly upon delivery. Even when choosing the most accurate setting, usually labeled "cinema" or "movie," subtleties intrude.

For example, UHD/4K TVs include a computer circuit called "upconversion." Since there are so few native 4K sources, this bit of magic converts a standard 1080i or 1080p source to 4K. Depending upon the TV, source and type of programming, this often works very well. However, if the original source is 720p or lower, it creates picture aberrations, such as motion blur, that can be annoying. Thus, you would have to burrow through the menus to defeat this "enhancement" circuit.

Recently, while watching the broadcast of "Unforgotten" on Channel 12, PBS, the reception inexplicably failed. I had noticed some minor blurring on this less-than-technically-sterling program. So I switched to the online PBS Passport to watch the remainder of the program. The online stream appears to be of lower resolution than the broadcast, and the 4K upconversion in my TV caused considerable blurring during motion scenes. At the same time, the soundtrack for this show sounds somewhat muddy, so it would be necessary to adjust my Sony home theater receiver to accentuate dialogue. The receiver includes almost as many settings as the TV.

Back in the day, my father could walk over to the TV, select channel 9, adjust the volume, sit down with his weekly beer and enjoy the Cubs. We even lacked remote control.

Rich Warren, who lives in the Champaign area, is a longtime reviewer of consumer electronics. Email him at

Topics (2):Internet, Television