Different Aspects: 16:9 vs. 4:3

Aspect ratio relates the units of horizontal measurement on a TV screen in proportion to the vertical measurement. You'll notice when you're in the store that TV screens come in two shapes -- 4:3 for normal televisions, and 16:9 for widescreen TVs (for movies or HDTV).

Photo courtesy Panasonic and Matsushita Electric Corporation of America
4:3 aspect ratio

Photo courtesy Panasonic and Matsushita Electric Corporation of America
16:9 aspect ratio

Widescreen televisions are made to be shaped like movie screens. You've probably seen the message before a video starts that reads, "This presentation has been formatted for viewing on your television..." The formatting they are referring to is video formatting. If you've read How Video Formatting Works, then you know that formatting is the process of cutting, stretching and/or squeezing images to fit different aspect ratios. The problem with video formatting is that the image often becomes distorted or cropped at the edges when it's transferred. If the image is not cut, then it is stretched, squeezed and just generally reshaped to fit in those black bars called the letterbox.

Widescreen TVs have offered movie buffs an alternative to formatting or letterboxing that more accurately recreates the movie theater experience. For every 16 inches of width, they offer 9 inches of height -- and no cropping. With widescreen, films can be seen at home exactly as they were seen in the theater.

There are, however, two downsides. First, 16:9 TVs are noticeably more expensive than their 4:3 counterparts. Second, when you watch 4:3 broadcasts on a 16:9 aspect ratio, the TV stretches the image to fill the screen. People look shorter and fatter and, depending on the screen size, the picture may appear grainy. Sports are still primarily broadcast for viewing on conventional televisions. If you watch a game on a widescreen, your favorite power forward may suddenly look more like a linebacker. Widescreen TVs have a tendency to stretch images intended for normal TV screens.

Many TV manufactures offer different picture modes on their widescreen TVs to help solve this problem. A 4:3 setting is usually available and works by putting black bars on the sides of the screen, called picture boxing. If you don't like the bars, all manufacturers offer a mode that crops a little and stretches a little to fill the screen with out distorting the picture too much. You should experiment to see which works best for you.