HDTV Aspect Ratios

The shape of HDTV

In this section of our HDTV shopping guide, we'll take a look at the shape of HDTV by understanding Aspect Ratios.

HDTV doesn't just mean a sharper picture. HDTV also means that the screen takes on a different shape called the widescreen format. A TV that is advertised as HDTV, but does not have a widescreen format, is not a real HDTV. TVs today might be capable of progressive (de-interlaced) images or enhanced resolutions, but that doesn't automatically earn them the designation of HDTV. They must be capable of a certain resolution and have a widescreen aspect ratio.

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16:9

Widescreen means the TV screen will be shaped like a rectangle as opposed to a square. The measurement of the shape of a TV is called its aspect ratio. The widescreen format of HDTV has an aspect ratio of 16:9, meaning for every 16 units wide the set will be 9 units high, which results in a wider screen.

16:9 Screen
Image thanks to www.hometoys.com

The widescreen aspect ratio used by HDTV isn't exactly the same as the movies, but it's a happy medium between the most popular aspect ratios that director's use to shoot film. Today, most TV shows are broadcasted in HDTV and are usually filmed using high-defintion cameras that capture a widescreen aspect ratio.

4:3

The old aspect ratio that makes up SDTV (Standard Definition Television) is shaped more like a square. Its origins date back to how older movies were shot on film, which was at this aspect ratio.

4:3

The 4:3 aspect ratio shown above displays four units of measure across for every three units of measure high. When TV was popularized in the 1950's, they decided to use the same aspect ratio used by Hollywood movies at the time. Sound familiar? That's exactly why Hollywood started shooting film in wider aspect ratios: to provide audiences with a unique experience from what they can get at home. TV has finally adapted the 16:9 aspect ratio.

Aspect ratio malcontents

One of the most common complaints about a standard definition TV is the "black bars" that appear on the top and bottom of a 4:3 screen when watching a movie on DVD. The situation worsens for many when they spend a lot of money on an HDTV believing they'll be free of the ill-fitting aspect ratios. An HDTV at 16:9 will only sometimes be a perfect fit for DVD movies and will rarely be a perfect fit for broadcast TV. Film is produced in a variety of aspect ratios and 16:9 is only one of the four most popular used by Hollywood. Don't expect Hollywood film studios to be compliant to the wishes of the HDTV community and to begin shooting more 16:9 films since Home Theater is viewed as a threat to profits of the movie industry. Broadcast TV will display aspect ratio correction bars on the sides of a 16:9 HDTV when the TV show you're watching isn't actually in HD. Even HDTV stations still broadcast the majority of their material in non-HD formats. So, get used to aspect ratios that don't quite fit your TV.

HDTV

What can you do about it?

Any possible solution is really only a compromise. You can stretch the picture on 4:3 images to fit your 16:9 screen, but people appearing on the screen will appear short and fat. However, you won't have black bars on the sides of standard TV. You can zoom into a wide-screen image that is shot in an aspect ratio wider than 16:9 and just crop portions of the picture. If you're fine with cropping images when you watch a movie (but no serious cinephile would be), you can just use the zoom feature on your DVD player's remote control to instantly turn any widescreen aspect ratio DVD movie into a "fullscreen" DVD.

The bottom line is that you should get used to ill-fitting images on your screen. No matter how much money you spend on an HDTV the problem will still exist. This is why it's best to buy a TV that is large enough to facilitate partially inset images. If you purchase a television that is large enough, you won't see the annoying black bars on your television set.

Quick Recap:
  • Aspect Ratio: Refers to the shape of the TV, widescreen (rectangle) or standard (square)
  • 4:3: The standard square TV, non-HDTV.
  • 16:9: Widescreen format. HDTV and HDTV broadcast programming is always in this aspect ratio
  • Even a widescreen (16:9) HDTV won't fit everything perfectly. Many DVD movies will be formatted for oddball aspect ratios that will require some formatting (black bars) to fit the whole picture on screen without stretching or skewing.