There are two common TV screen shapes that most folks will recognize — the squarish shape of conventional TVs, and the widescreen shape of today’s HDTVs. The term used to describe TV screen shape is “aspect ratio” — conventional TVs, and some small LCD HDTVs, have a 4:3 aspect ratio; widescreen HDTVs have a 16:9 ratio.
TV shows also typically have a 4:3 or 16:9 ratio. While most new HD programming is in 16:9, a significant amount of TV broadcasts are still sent in the conventional 4:3 ratio. And it’s the difference in shape between those two ratios that can result in a “pillar boxed” picture — one with black columns standing to the left and right of the image — when you watch a conventional 4:3 program on your widescreen TV.
You may choose to keep the black bars on 4:3 sources, or decide to stretch or zoom that picture to fill the whole screen — it’s a matter of personal preference. Nearly all recent widescreen TVs include one or more viewing modes that fill out the screen’s width by stretching, zooming, or stretching and zooming the image. While most people find this effect acceptable for non-critical “background” viewing like the local news, many aren’t thrilled when their favorite actors suddenly look noticeably stockier. See the images below to get an idea of how these picture adjustments might look.
4:3 image on a 16:9 screen
4:3 image stretched to fill a
4:3 image zoomed to fill a
16:9 image on a 16:9 screen
Troubleshooting aspect ratio problems
It’s important to keep in mind that your TV isn’t the only thing in your system that can affect aspect ratio. Your cable box, DVD player, and other source components likely all have their own aspect ratio settings. And the TV show your cable box displays, or the movie in your DVD player, also have their own set aspect ratios. If your TV, source component, and source material aren’t all on the same page regarding aspect ratio, some pretty funky things can happen.
To avoid aspect ratio issues as much as possible, here’s what we suggest:
As you’re setting up your video sources, be sure to go into the picture settings to menu and set it to the proper aspect ratio. The specific terms used in these menus differ, but for a widescreen TV you’ll likely see something called “widescreen” or “16:9,” for example.