A home theatre PC makes TV more convenient than ever, but you might not be getting the best possible picture quality out of the box. Here are a few tricks for improving it.
When you watch movies with a Blu-ray player, all you have to do is calibrate your TV and tweak a few advanced settings for the ideal picture. But a home theatre PC adds a lot of complexity under the hood, since it has a lot more settings and idiosyncrasies than that Blu-Ray player does.
Over the past few years, I've discovered a number of things that were mucking up my picture quality, and it took me a while to discover how easily I could fix them. So, while there's no one-size-fits-all prescription, here are a few places to start looking if you want to make sure you're getting the best picture quality out of your media centre.
Consider the Source (of Your Videos)
The first and most important step is to look at the video files themselves. When you rip a DVD or Blu-ray disc, most people compress the video to save space, at the expense of picture quality. In some cases, you may not notice, but if the video's been compressed too much, you may see banding or other artefacts in the picture -- even if it's a 1080p Blu-ray rip. When that happens, your first step should be to re-rip or re-download the movie with higher quality settings (or, if you have ample hard drive space, rip the movie without any compression using MakeMKV). It will take up more space, but the picture will look better.
And, even though this goes without saying, if you still have some files ripped from DVD, the best way to improve their picture quality is upgrade to the Blu-ray version (if one exists). You can often buy Blu-rays cheaply online. Look around and you'd be surprised at what you can find.
Check Your Video Driver's Settings
Your video card's drivers likely contain a bunch of post-processing settings designed to improve picture quality -- but they usually do the exact opposite. AMD tends to be the worst about this (as their settings are usually enabled by default), but NVIDIA and Intel have these settings too. So, open up your video driver's settings panel (AMD's Catalyst Control Center, the NVIDIA control panel or the Intel Graphics control panel) and search through the "video" or "media" category. Turn everything off, including all colour correction, edge enhancement, de-noise, dynamic contrast, smooth video and other settings. Uncheck as much as you can.
If you ever notice anything strange with your video, be sure to check your video drivers again -- you never know what you might've missed the first time around (or what it may have re-enabled after an update). I had flesh tone correction accidentally turned on for weeks, but couldn't figure out why blond characters all had pink tints to their hair.
Get Rid of "Judder" with 24p Playback
If you've ever noticed less-than-smooth motion in movies, particularly on wide, sweeping panoramic shots, it could be a result of something called 3:2 pulldown. Traditionally, movies are filmed at 24 frames per second, but most TVs refresh 60 times per second by default (also known as having a 60Hz refresh rate). 60 is not cleanly divisible by 24, so your TV uses a technique called 3:2 pulldown to make the video play at the right speed: it shows one frame twice, then the next frame three times, then the next frame twice again. This can produce a phenomenon called "judder". You can read more about 3:2 pulldown and judder here, and watch the video above to see a demonstration.
Depending on your sensitivity, you may not notice it much -- after all, you've been watching movies at home using 3:2 pulldown for years. But it can be more noticeable in certain types of shots, and on bigger TV screens. Many newer TVs (especially 120Hz TVs) come with "24p playback" as a feature, meaning you can watch those movies without 3:2 pulldown by enabling a setting on your Blu-ray player, or -- in this case -- on your home theatre PC.
First, check to see if your TV supports this feature (you'll usually find it on the TV's spec page called "24p playback"). Then, open up Kodi or Plex and head to System > Videos > Playback and set "Adjust display refresh rate to match video" to "on start/stop". You'll also have to turn off "Use fullscreen window" in System > System > Video Output for this feature to work.
To see if it's working properly, play a Blu-ray rip and try to bring up your TV's HUD (on my Samsung TV, this is done with the "Info" button). It will usually tell you whether the video is playing back at 60Hz, 24p or something else.
Tweak Your Playback Settings for Better Upscaling
When you watch 1080p videos, they should look pretty good as long as they come from a good source. But when you watch 720p or standard definition videos on a 1080p TV, your player has to "upscale" the image to fill in the necessary pixels. If it doesn't use a very good upscaling method, this can make the picture look blurry or pixelated. The effect is worse the lower resolution your video is (so DVDs will be affected more than 720p video), but depending on the size of your TV and how far away you sit, it may be quite noticeable.
Thankfully, both Kodi and Plex have options to enable higher quality upscaling methods, so you can make your videos look as clean as possible (provided your processor can handle the necessary calculations). Here's how to do it:
- In Kodi, make sure your Settings are set to Expert and head to System > Video > Acceleration and uncheck "Allow Hardware Acceleration (DXVA2)". In Plex, you'll find this setting under Preferences > Playback > Advanced Video. DXVA usually uses lower quality upscaling, so you'll have to disable it if you want access to the good stuff. (More on this in a bit.)
- Next, play a video from your library. Press M on your keyboard to access the menu, scroll over to the Video Settings menu, and open it. (If you don't see a video settings button, you may have to switch back to the default skin.)
- Under "Video Scaling Method", choose something like "Lanczos3 Optimised" or "Spline36 Optimised" -- these are the highest quality options. Pick the one that looks best to you. If your video doesn't play smoothly with these on, try something like Bicubic -- it's not quite as good, but takes up fewer resources.
- Scroll down and choose "Set default for all videos" to apply this scaling method to all your videos.
Again, this will produce a stronger effect on lower resolution videos. So, you'll likely notice that SD videos look significantly better while 720p videos only look only slightly better (or no different at all). It depends on your TV and your vision.
There's one catch: Disabling DXVA2 might cause high quality 1080p videos to stutter on lower-powered machines. DXVA2 is a handy feature that allows your graphics card to pick up some of the decoding slack, making it easier for your PC to play HD videos. But if you turn it off, your processor has to do all the work, and many low-powered home theatre PCs can't quite handle it. This puts you in a pickle where you're stuck with poor upscaling with DXVA2 on, or stuttering HD videos with DXVA2 off.
Kodi users can get around this by enabling an experimental feature in the advancedsettings.xml file. Head to Kodi's Userdata folder and open the advancedsettings.xml file with a text editor (if it doesn't exist, create the file yourself). Add the following below
If you already have a
<video> line, just add the
<dxvaallowhqscaling>true</dxvaallowhqscaling> line under it.
Note: this feature is experimental and unsupported. It is known to be buggy with NVIDIA cards (sorry, NVIDIA users), but I've found it works great on my system, allowing me to get the best of DXVA2 in 1080p videos and software upscaling in 720p and below videos. If you're using Plex or this feature doesn't work for you, you may have to live without upscaling. Unless you want to...
Go Further (and Possibly Insane)
Depending on your initial setup, these tweaks can make a world of difference -- however, they will not get you the ultimate best possible amazing picture quality your PC can produce. They should get you 90 per cent of the way though, and getting more than that requires a whole lot of work, a very powerful PC and possibly the loss of your sanity.
Hardcore home theatre enthusiasts use the MadVR video renderer to watch movies, which has even more advanced upscaling methods and picture tweaks than Kodi and Plex. It requires a beefy video card, and probably makes more of a difference on SD videos than HD videos, but its users swear by it if you want the best possible picture.
The other catch: it won't work with all home theatre software, so you have to use a compatible video player. Check your media centre's documentation or forums to see if MadVR is compatible, or if you can use an external player (like Media Player Classic) with which MadVR is compatible. Kodi users can download this unofficial build of Kodi that uses DSPlayer with MadVR built-in, but Plex users are out of luck for now. Check out this guide and the video above for more information on how to configure MadVR with Kodi. You can also read more about MadVR's settings in this guide -- it uses Media Player Classic instead of XBMC, but it's a good source of information on what MadVR does.
There's an entire community of people dedicated to getting the best possible picture quality out of their home theatre PCs over at the AVS Forum, and this thread is a great place to start if you want more. But you've been warned: once you start going down the rabbit hole, it's hard to dig yourself back out. If you want the best balance of quality and time spent (not to mention your computer's system resources), you're probably best off skipping MadVR. But if you're truly dedicated, it's the ultimate in home theatre PC quality.