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Aspect Ratio and Widescreen TVs

Aspect Ratio and Widescreen TVs (presented by Philips)
It seems like everyone is excited about widescreen TV. Really, who wouldn’t be-especially if you are someone who loves movies? But things get complicated when you start to hear talk of anamorphic formats and aspect ratios. What if you just want a great big picture?

What is Aspect Ratio?
Aspect ratio refers to the relationship between the width and height of the viewing screen. A standard TV is 4:3, which means that it is four units wide by 3 units high. This breaks down into 1.33 inches of width for every inch of height, calculated by dividing 4 by 3. (You may see standard TV referred to as 4:3 or 1.33:1. Widescreen TV has an aspect ratio of 16:9, or 1.76 inches wide for every inch high (referred to as 1.76:1).

How Aspect Ratio Affects the Movies
If you are a film buff and want to watch movies at home that are in the same format that was shown on the big screen, consider this: movies made for cinema screens are filmed with an aspect ratio of between 1.85:1 and 2.4:1, and the director consciously uses the entire screen to tell you the story. So when a movie is re-packaged for television broadcast, various editing methods are used to try and make everything on the large movie screen fit onto a 1.33:1 TV. That means that 40-50% of the movie is affected.

Letterbox Format
Another way to get cinema-sized films onto a TV is using the Letterbox format. Most people have heard of this. Letterbox means that no editing was done to the film, but rather the way that the TV screen is manipulated to match the aspect ratio of the film. By adding a black area along the top and bottom of the screen, often referred to as “black bars,” the TV screen is able to mimic the aspect ratio of the movie screen. While you don’t necessarily miss out on any action, this is not always an ideal solution because on smaller TV sets, the narrow strip where the movie appears is even smaller, making it hard to see all the details. The bigger the TV screen, the less problematic the letterbox will be.

Widescreen to the Rescue
Perhaps the greatest thing about widescreen TVs is that they mean an end to the need for action-eliminating edits. Since the aspect ratio is of widescreen is closer to that found in movie theaters, there is plenty of room for the whole picture. However, because the aspect ratios do not match exactly, there may still be black bars around the movie (making it either letterboxed or sideboxed or both), but they will be narrower and therefore won’t affect the image area as greatly.

And since more and more people are buying widescreen TV’s producers are filming specifically for widescreen formats. That means that there is more widescreen content available than ever before. Since more and more TV stations are expected to be broadcasting digitally and the top digital format, HDTV, can supply an aspect ratio of 16:9, widescreen will soon be everywhere. It is likely we will see the ubiquitous 4:3 TV slowly replaced by widescreens.

All that new HDTV widescreen content will be nirvana to widescreen owners. But there still be 4:3 content. What does 4:3 content look like on a widescreen TV? Anything you watch can be presented in multiple ways on widescreen because almost all sets feature different viewing modes that you can choose from. People develop their preferences. The modes generally include:

  • Normal: When watching 4:3, you will see black bars on the sides to match the 4:3 aspect ratio.
  • Zoom/Enlarge: This mode magnifies a 4:3 image, crops the top and bottom of the image, and removes the sidebox.
  • Wide or Full: The mode most preferred for native 16:9 content, like DVDs, but when selected while watching 4:3 content, stretches the image horizontally, making people look shorter and fatter.
  • Panorama (a.k.a. Theater or Natural): A combination of stretching and zooming to fill the screen. Manufacturers use different approaches to present this mode. Some TVs stretch the sides of the image more than the middle, so most people look normal, and some might crop just a little off the sides and not stretch as much.

Again, after experiencing all the modes, most people develop a preference depending on what content they are watching.

No matter what, having some understanding of aspect ratio and widescreen TVs can help you make the most of whatever type of TV you have and allow you have the best at-home movie watching experience possible.

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