Your guide through the Bungie A/V Calibration tool
When we finished Halo 2, we had to build the specs for the ideal review setup. At the time, HD was new, the game only supported 480p anyway and LCDs were good at two things – creating unpleasant trails and burning pixels permanently into the screen (in less than an hour, in fact, the Halo 2 logo was burned permanently into about 24 sets). In the intervening period, obviously console technology has come a long way, but so has AV tech in general. With that in mind, we’re again walking you through the minefield of what you need and what you don’t need, to get the most out of Halo 3.
First things first. We tested, designed and adjusted Halo 3 to ensure it would work well on any setup. We made sure text was readable on smaller screens and we built a game where light and color add as much to the overall effect as any amount of pixel definition. In short, if you have a crappy old setup, Halo 3 should still look pretty good and will improve when you do upgrade your AV setup.
It’s also vital to give you a little grounding here. Our Bungie AV calibrator will give excellent results for anybody using it – but it’s designed for using your set in ideal conditions – a darkened room – and that means that in a bright, sunlit lounge, you may prefer a more dynamic picture. And although we’re shooting for objective standards – your preferences are subjective. If you like it better a little darker, or a little more saturated – it’s your setup and you should enjoy it the way you want to.
But on with the show.
Consoles and HDTV
HDTVs are pretty much the norm in stores nowadays. They are more expensive than regular sets, but at this point in time, that gap is shrinking and a low-end CRT HDTV set can be picked up for a couple of hundred bucks. Before you scoff and dismiss the old tech, it’s worth noting that many AV buffs prefer the color reproduction the elderly technology provides. In theory, there’s an ancient Princeton CRT that is still considered the absolute greatest HDTV ever made. Some of that is nostalgia for the format – the way folks still love the quality of LPs – and LCDs and certain Plasma displays are not only up to snuff, but in many objective ways, are much better than CRTs ever were.
Of course the more you spend, the more you get. If we call a 32 inch LCD the sweet spot, then anywhere between $600 and $1200 can be sensibly spent. It gets confusing, but a brand new set from a major manufacturer in this range – think Samsung, Sharp et al, will net you a well-specified TV that’s likely perfect for playing Halo 3. Just make sure you’re picking up the latest model, and if you want to ensure any features, I would shoot for something that supports at least two HDMI ports, has a built-in ATSC tuner (for over the air HDTV programming) and if possible, a VGA or DVI port to attach a PC (why not!).
There are other technology’s to consider too. LCOS (Liquid Crystal on Silicon) and DLP are used in big screen projection TVs and more conventional projectors. Also inhabiting the high end space is Plasma. This tech is not only free of the problems it used to have (screen burn and refresh rates) it’s arguably the best non-CRT picture available – but you have to pay for the privilege – Pioneer’s high end “Plasma 2.0s” are among the best gaming displays on Earth.
Big LCD screens are now common and relatively affordable. If you think about it, this is probably the best market the AV industry has seen for decades – lots of new sales, lots of new technologies and lots of applications, from HD video to high def gaming.
Whatever technology you pick, make sure to read reviews. The technology is blazing ahead, and a year old set might perform very differently from a brand new one. For gaming, the main concern is quick response times (the speed at which the pixels on the screen adjust from one image to the next). 6ms is pretty darned good for gaming, and the faster the better.
Screen size is one of the biggest questions people have before making an HDTV purchase and the simplest rule of thumb is to pick something suitable for the size of the room and the distance at which it will most commonly be viewed. Resolution is the next question and while 720p and 1080i are the standard for HDTV, newer sets often feature 1080p panels. This resolution increase is useful, but only on larger sets. Worrying about 1080p on a 32 inch or under set, might be overthinking it.
5.1 audio is a fantastic addition to any gaming setup and it works great in Halo 3. To utilize 5.1 audio you need a 5.1-capable receiver, five speakers and a subwoofer (that’s the “.1”). Audiophiles like to pick separate components, high end receivers and so on, but you can get excellent results from cheaper “Home Theater in a Box” deals. Look for well-known manufacturers like Yamaha, Sony and it is said that Onkyo makes really good stuff at really low prices. If you’re willing to spend more, the sky’s the limit.
One thing we’d strongly recommend is an HDMI capable receiver. It cuts cable clutter and keeps you “future-proofed” for a little while at least. Higher end receivers from Pioneer, Harmon Kardon and others, quickly start to give way to incredibly expensive stuff. If you’re not familiar with any of this, it’s likely you’d be astounded by the sound coming from the lower end ones anyway. Stick to a budget, read reviews and do your best.
Surround headphones can be a good alternative for more compact play spaces, and Pioneer and Sony both make excellent sets.
Every 360 ships with a composite cable. That’s the Yellow RCA style one, that is paired with the red and white stereo connectors. On the Premium edition, it’s attached to the HD component cable and used as an either/or solution. Composite is the most basic connection and provides a 480i (or your regional equivalent, Pal pals) standard definition signal.
Component video exists in two main flavors – standard and high definition. Both contribute to improved color performance for Halo 3, but obviously HD component is preferred and is entirely reliant on what kind of TV you have. The same cable is used for each, but if you have an HDTV set you need to flip the switch found on the connector at the console end.The technical explanation of component video is pretty boring, but basically it splits the video signal into chroma and luma “parts.” Component can, contrary to popular belief, carry a 1080p signal – but again, only if your TV supports 1080p over component and many otherwise 1080p compatible TVs do not support this method.
The age-old, yet flexible video standard for PCs is also compatible with the 360’s high resolution output – and VGA often provides a wider range of resolutions. Games will use these resolutions in different ways, but often the result is the same – a high definition picture being scaled correctly to your monitor’s settings.
Halo 3 works well on the old school consoles, the Elite console and of course, the Halo 3 Limited Edition 360. The only real difference between machines as far as Halo 3 is concerned (other than storage that is) is HDMI. Do you need it? No. HDMI is a convenient connector and provides a high quality digital signal to your HDMI-equipped TV – but other than accurate color reproduction, HDMI’s most important aspect for most consumers is that it only uses a single connection for video and audio. A six cable component connection can become one elegant and easy to connect cable.
The technology was designed first and foremost to protect movies and other media from piracy. The other benefits are simply a side-effect of modern tech. If you only have a component connection for your HDTV, it’s likely that the picture will be identical, give or take some brightness and contrast defaults. So do you need it to run Halo 3 in any of its available resolutions? No. Is it nice to have? Yes.
Halo 3, with the correct TV and cable will scale correctly to:
And of course, too many VGA resolutions to count.
Gameplay Benefits – HDTV and 5.1
First and foremost: You don’t need a fancy setup to enjoy Halo 3. It works fine on a regular old TV and with stereo – or even mono sound, but the fact is the aesthetic experience and the gameplay experience are both improved by using state of the art tech.
Simple examples of these improvements would be the ability to see a sniper’s head at a greater distance, or the ability to hear where an opponent is, in either Campaign or multiplayer modes.
These lil dudes are part of the Contrast testing in the Bungie calibrator
Using the Bungie Calibrator
The Blue Thing!
During your calibration session, Johnson will refer to the use of “blue dealy” for a couple of the more fine-tuned tests. This is a blue plastic film that we use to filter light in order to achieve some useful levels of calibration. You don’t need this, by any stretch of the imagination, but it will make a difference to your final image quality.
You can read more about this at www.bungie.net/filter
Although it’s presented in a pretty fun fashion, the Bungie AV Calibration tool is a fairly advanced item. If used correctly, it will easily and smoothly assist you in the calibration and refinement of your picture and sound. We used the voice and character of Sergeant Johnson, since we figured you were more likely to obey him, than say, Luke.
Now it’s not going to work miracles. If your TV is a crappy 14 inch CRT set from 19-Oatcake, then all this will do is tart up your image quality a bit. But on a better SD or HDTV set, it will bring your color, saturation, brightness and contrast up to very palatable levels – and levels that Bungie has deemed “ideal” for Halo 3 and gaming and movies in general.
The first part of the AV calibrator simply checks to make sure your settings match your TV. A huge number of folks have the most basic stuff screwed up, so don’t be embarrassed. Johnson will first check to see that if you’re using an HDTV set, that the switch on your HDTV component cable is set to “HDTV” and not standard definition. Component cables can carry both kinds of signal, hence the occasional confusion.
If you’re using VGA or HDMI cables, you can skip this part.
Next, Johnson checks to make sure your TV’s aspect ratio matches what the Xbox 360 is set to display. The two supported are 4:3 and 16:9 repsectively – or in layman’s terms, “regular” and “widescreen.” Because widescreen TVs will stretch some regular 4:3 images, we run a test to make sure that’s not happening, using Jackal shields. Basically you’re checking them to make sure they’re perfect circles, rather than squished or oval shapes.
That taken care of, it’s on to the main show. Now, each of the segments being run through by the Sarge are important to your final image quality. It’s possible that some of the items shown just aren’t possible to achieve with your set, or with the controls available to you. But don’t worry. Match the settings Johnson shows where you can, and skip the ones you can’t match or replicate on screen.
The main items he will go through are:
Brightness: Literally how bright your screen is and how much light it’s producing.
Contrast: The range of difference between the brightest and darkest parts of a screen. The higher the contrast ratio, the better the picture – and the closer to “true” black the TV can display.
Tint: NTSC TVs can suffer from color errors, less so with modern sets, and Pal TVs, but tint allows you to adjust the color space between green and magenta extremes. This has objective standards, but some folks prefer to shift towards magenta for warmer skin tones.
Sharpness: Obviously this digital enhancement adjusts the sharpness of the TV image. You’d think that maximum sharpness would be ideal, but in fact, too much sharpness can cause grainy artifacts to appear around the edges of objects on your screen.
Color: The overall intensity of all the colors on your screen.
There are some occasional issues when using different types of connector. For example, rarely, HDMI connections won’t let you match Johnson’s brightness or contrast suggestions precisely, but don’t worry – just get as close as you can to what he suggests. And make sure that your TV is set to its most “natural” level. Sometimes a TV will have a range of modes – Dynamic, Movie, etc. Try to pick one that you like the overall look and feel of as your baseline standard before using the calibrator.
Many TVs also include special modes that “enhance” the picture, such as “Game” or “Noise Reduction” and so on. Now this is where it gets tricky. Some TV brands have a game mode that turns off all this digital correction and so reduces “input lag” – the slight delay between your button press and the action being filtered, processed and then reproduced on screen. You’re going to have to research your make and model – ideally you don’t want anything happening to the image that doesn’t happen instantly.
The Audio portion of the Calibrator is correctly termed a “test.” It doesn’t really calibrate anything, but rather helps you make sure that all your speakers are correctly wired and functioning. You would be surprised how often people reverse their rear surround channels, or use a Home theater for months with an accidentally disconnected cable.
In the Game
In Halo 3, we include a useful Brightness setting that can be accessed at any time through the Start menu. This allows you to step through a range of brightness settings quickly and without using your TV controls or the Bungie Calibrator.
What Does Bungie Use?
In our test lab right now, we have a combination of Sharp 32 inch 1080ps, Samsung 26 inch 720ps, 14 inch Toshiba CRTs and a vast array of random sets for test purposes. In our “reference” room, we have a Pioneer Elite 1080p Plasma set, we use a Pioneer Elite receiver, a Denon receiver and tons of different speakers and subs from manufacturers like Tannoy, Bose, Mordaunt Short and more. It’s a mixed bag in the studio, with Dell monitors, Philips TVs, Samsung sets and lots of headphones – some surround, some stereo.
http://www.monoprice.com - incredibly, impossibly cheap cables and connectors and adapters and wall mounts. $4 HDMI cable, anyone?
http://www.avsforums.com - scary, terrifying AV experts answer questions for free, but also tell you that if you don’t buy a $1200 subwoofer, you’re basically hurting kittens.
http://www.pricewatch.com - this site scans various e-retailers for the best deals on TVs and more. It is possible to find better deals by hunting yourself, but a pricewatch price is usually a pretty good indicator of what you should pay.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Television - A very comprehensive collection of user-submitted TV info. Mostly technical and historical, but with lots of definitions.
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