Everybody can see the difference between a good and a poorer picture quality. However, it is very hard to define for an average consumer what is picture quality. Contrast ratio is one very important element of picture quality, followed by color saturation and accuracy. Resolution should also be considered.
Contrast ratio is the ratio between the darkest and the brightest color your HDTV can produce. Obviously, the higher the contrast ratio is, the better your system is. Low contrast ratio means washed out pictures, dull images and lost details. In the recent years contrast ratio had been greatly improved. Best contrast ratios have a price premium, but technology is getting cheaper. At this time, even the low-end HDTV's have decent contrast ratios.
Another important aspect of image quality are the black levels. Systems with poor black levels will have grayish blacks when absolute black is expected. Poor black levels can be especially annoying in dim light conditions, because in this type of light the human eye is very sensitive to dark images. Lot of users set black levels very low, to achieve absolute black. This is a mistake: by doing this, black shadow details can be lost.
High white levels are good because they help images become vivid and lively. White levels also make daytime viewing more pleasant. Again, it is not a good idea to set white levels too high, because bright highlights and details can be lost.
Important characteristics of the images on your display are color temperature, saturation and accuracy. 6500K, corresponding to daytime illumination, is the standard for color temperature. This is the natural light temperature. Everything above this is bluish, and everything below is yellow or reddish. If the color temperature is not set properly, every color will be bluish or reddish.
Color saturation can be relatively easily adjusted by using the color patterns that come with calibrations discs or TV channels. Color accuracy depends on how your HDTV decodes the image data. These are pretty complicated issues. You may want to read more about this elsewhere, but if you only want to stay at beginner-level, it is enough for you to know that the decoders of your system should match the color encoding used in film production.
Grayscale and display characteristic (gamma) are also important for good color reproduction, but again, these issues are for those who want to have professional image calibration. A specialist can help you to adjust grayscale and display characteristic, or you can do it yourself, but you should do your homework first and read some serious guides about image calibration.
The latest HD resolutions provide 5 times more pixel amount compared to Standard Definition. As a result, image is not simply clearer, but there is night and day difference: the smallest detail can be noticed on the image. If you want to have the best, go for 1080 capable HDTVs.
Another notion related to resolution is percieved sharpness. This is very similar to the concept of edge contrast used in photography, and it basically means that users have the choice to make the image borders crispier. This gives the sensation of better image quality with the same resolution.
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