Tech Talk And the Really Big TV

Are you one of the lucky ones who got a large-screen TV for the holidays this year? Did you just replace an aging (and heavy) old picture-tube with a nice, light digital flatscreen, or did you go all-out and get that giant 50, 60, or even 80” monster that feels like you’re at the movie theater? Aren’t those digital cable channels amazing crystal clear?
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And are you upset with the really, really weird picture that makes it look like you’re watching a 1970’s BBC play?

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Hm. You are not alone. We had a nice 32” digital flatscreen, but when we hit a season-clearance sale the day after Christmas and found a 50” for less than we paid for the 32”, we couldn’t say no. And thus we got hit by what is technically known as “The Soap Opera Effect.”
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Does your picture look strange, like a live performance of a soap opera, or an old videotape spacing everything out and making it look – well, not like a TV picture? There’s a reason for that. “Normal” TV pictures, those we’ve all grown up with, “refresh” or “run” at a speed of 60 frames per second (if you’ve ever seen a reel-to-reel movie, maybe in school, think of all those still frames whipping through the machine to make the movie move, and think of sixty of those still pictures every second, or 3600 of them every minute). That’s what our brains can process as smooth motion, and makes our TV look like TV.
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Now enter digital. LCD TVs, because of all those pixels firing on and off, have trouble keeping motion from blurring (or, technically, “juddering”). Some people don’t like that blur, and to combat it that number of “frames” or still pictures has been sped up to 120, or even 240 frames per second . That allows you to see all those Batman action shots in such blinding big-screen clarity it’s almost like stop-motion. Football runners never blur. Car crashes never occur too fast to follow. You can trace the path of every blood spatter when those bullets hit – better than reality. However, there are still only filmed at 60 frames per second – the extra “frames” are “filled in” either by duplicating still frames, or having the computer brain of the TV “manufacture” extra frames between actual ones (frame 1, insert frame 1.5, frame 2, make up a 2.5 to connect to frame 3, etc.) all on a microscopic increment scale.
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Still follow? In short, to keep the picture smooth, extra non-existent pictures are slipped in to keep the picture from jerking.
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It’s beautiful, but the price you pay for all that motion smoothing is The Soap Opera Effect. And it has nothing to do with what you’re watching – cable channels, an old DVD, a regular Blu-Ray, or a Super HD format, it’s just the speed the TV runs at. So what can you do if you absolutely positively hate that weird flat Masterpiece-Theater-Meets-As- The-World-Turns look?
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A little, but not necessarily much. Go to your TV’s “settings” selection. There will be a setting that addresses “motion,” “motion control,” or “motion smoothing,” or some other term usually with the word motion – Google your exact TV model number for the term your TV uses. Most TVs come from the factory with the motion smoothing default setting to ON. Find your TV’s setting and simply turn the control to OFF. Yes, sometimes it’s easier said than done, and in my case it helped a little but not a lot.
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The easiest solution is 1) buy a smaller TV. Everything is less noticeable on a smaller screen. Being able to count the hairs inside Gandalf’s nose is far more distracting than you think. Remember the days when a 26” TV was REALLY REALLY BIG? 2) Check out the picture in the store on that particular model. ASK to see it with the motion smoothing turned off. If you don’t like it, keep trying different models until you come across one you do. Some are better at it than others, and it is more bothering to some people than others; it’s really a personal preference. I’m learning to live with it, trading in the awe of seamless clarity on special effects (watching the SHIELD helicarrier lift off from the water in The Avengers was jaw-dropping incredible) for the weird teleplay of people speaking. Unfortunately it’s the shape of things to come, and eventually we’re all going to have to adjust.

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