The home theater experience isn't complete without a television to view your programming on. When going to the local consumer electronics retail store to pick out a TV, the potential buyer is sometimes overwhelmed by the sheer selection and sizes of TVs to choose from. Not only do televisions come in big and small sizes, direct view, projection, and now LCD or Plasma flat panels, there is also another factor to consider: Screen Aspect Ratio.
Screen Aspect Ratio Defined
Screen Aspect Ratio is basically a measure of the horizontal length of a television (or film) screen, in relation to its vertical height. In other words, a traditional television has a Screen Aspect Ratio of 4x3. This means that a traditional television has a screen that is four units long for every three units in height.
Converting these units into inches would result in measurements of 4-inches by 3-inches or 8-inches by 6-inches, and on-and-on. By the same token, on widescreen television (such as today's HDTVs), the Screen Aspect Ratio is 16 units long for every 9 units in height, or 16-inches by 9-inches, 32-inches by 18-inches, etc... A 16x9 screen aspect ratio thus results in a wider image display that a 4x3 aspect ratio. This wider image display allows both movies originally filmed in widescreen and new, widescreen television programming, to be displayed more accurately.
The Increasing Need For 16x9 Televisions
As the impact of DVD, DTV, and HDTV becoming more of a factor in TV purchases, the consumer now needs to decide between purchasing a television with a traditional 4x3 aspect ratio, or the new DTV widescreen televisions with a 16x9 screen aspect ratio. Televisions with a 16x9 screen aspect ratio is more suited to the increasing amount of 16x9 and other widescreen programming available on DVD and HDTV broadcasts. However, consumers are used to the traditional 4x3-shaped screen.
With more and more programming available in widescreen formats, owners of 4x3 TVs are watching a growing number of TV programs and DVD movies with black bars on the top and bottom of their screens (commonly known as letterboxing). Many viewers, not accustomed to this, think that they are being cheated by not having the entire TV screen filled with an image. This is not the case. Most films made after 1953 were (and continue to be) filmed in various widescreen formats, such as Cinemascope, Panavision, Vista-Vision, Technirama, Cinerama, or other widescreen film format.
How Widescreen Movies Are Shown On Standard Televisions
In order to show these widescreen films so that they fill the entire screen on a traditional 4x3 TV, they are re-edited in a Pan-and-Scan format, with an attempt to include as much as the original image as possible. To illustrate this, take an example where two characters are talking to each other, but each is standing on opposite sides of a widescreen image. If shown full screen on a traditional TV without further editing, all the viewer would see would be the empty space between the characters.
To remedy this, editors must recut the scene for video release by jumping from one character to the other as they speak and respond to each other. In this scenario, however, the intent of the film director is severely altered, because the viewer does not see the entire composition of the original scene, including any facial expressions or body language in response to the other character who is speaking.
Another problem with this Pan-and-Scan process is lost impact of action scenes. An example of this is the chariot race in the 1959 version of Ben Hur. In the original widescreen theatrical version (available on DVD and Laserdisc), you can see the entire impact of Ben Hur and the other chariot racers as they battle each other for positioning in the famed chariot race segment. In the Pan- and-Scan version, normally broadcast on TV, all you see is the camera cutting to closeups of the horses and reins. All the other action in the frame is totally missing, as well as the body expressions of the chariot riders.
The Practical Side Of 16x9 Television
With the advent of DVD and HDTV, the appearance of televisions with screens more closely shaped to that of a theatrical movie screen becoming very common on store shelves. As the popularity of DVD continues and as the complete switchover to DTV/HDTV broadcasting gets closer, as well as the impending introduction of high-definition DVD (Blu-ray and HD-DVD), the practicality of widescreen 16x9 televisions is definitely obvious.
Although 16x9 sets may be best suited for watching motion pictures on video, even normal TV programming can benefit from this design. Sporting events, such as football or soccer, are well suited for this format in that now you can get the whole field in one wide shot at a closer vantage point than the distant wide shots we have been used to.
Also, there is an increasing amount of widescreen Television programming, not only from the likes of PBS and the Discovery Channel, but series, such as, Babylon5, Enterprise, Angel, ER, Stargate SG1, Smallville and movie presentations have been tested using the widescreen format. Check your TV Guide for offerings in the widescreen or letterbox format. 16x9 Television and DVD
When you purchase a DVD, you may notice the terms Anamorphic or Enhanced For 16x9 Televisions on the packaging. These terms are very important, and practical, for owners of 16x9 televisions.
What this means is that the image has been placed on the DVD in a horizontally squeezed format that, when played on a 16x9 television, is detected and stretched back out horizontally in the same proportion so that the widescreen image fills the physical screen (or most of the screen in the case of extremely wide film images) at full resolution, without introducing shape distortion.
On the contrary, if a widescreen image is shown on a standard 4x3 television in letterboxed format, the image is viewed at decreased resolution, due to the need to include space at the top and bottom of the image to accommodate the black bars. For a detailed explanation of how anamorphic DVD works, including illustrations, check out What is Anamorphic DVD? from DVD Beaver.
Burn-In: The Negative Side Of 16x9 Television
So now, as mentioned previously, the consumer has to consider screen aspect ratio when purchasing a television. Basically, the rule is as follows: If more than 15% of your television viewing is in the traditional TV 4x3 format, buy a 4x3 aspect television. If the overwhelming majority of your TV viewing is in widescreen format, then buy a 16x9 television. The reason for this is "burn-in".
Burn-in affects mostly CRT-based Direct View, Front, or Rear projection units. Plasma sets can be somewhat affected by the burn-in process, but LCD flat panel televisions are not affected by burn-in. A consumer that views mostly standard 4x3 television broadcasts, mixed with some viewing of widescreen programming and DVDs, should consider the LCD flat panel television as an option.
When viewing traditional TV programming on a 16x9 television, the image is centered on the screen and black bars appear on the sides of the screen as there is no image to be reproduced. Over time, this can cause a burn in effect in which you see two lines on the sides if you are watching a 16x9 image that fills the screen.
Although improvements have been made in this area to minimize this problem, such as "orbiting" - which constantly makes a slight shift in the image edges; this is not noticeable to the naked eye. Consult the owner's manual of any 16x9 television (especially CRT-based units) before purchasing, to note any disclaimers or comments on this issue. Also, this may or may not be covered under a manufacturer's warranty, as it is a usage issue. Purchasing a service plan from the retailer may be a good idea if they cover this potential problem.
Conclusion and Resources
Home theater is getting more and more popular with consumers. DVD, surround sound, and 16x9 widescreen televisions bring a more authentic audio/video experience to the living or entertainment room. Although most DVD releases are already in widescreen format, broadcasters continue are still catching up in widescreen programming.
As programming providers (Broadcast, Cable, and Satellite) add more widescreen and HDTV programming to their schedules, acceptance and appreciation of 16x9 Televisions by consumers will become more widespread. With this continued trend, prices of 16x9 widescreen televisions are becoming more and more affordable.
However, as with any television purchase, make sure you evaluate both the 4x3 and 16x9 options carefully. Take into consideration what type of programming you watch and how the unit will integrate into the rest of your entertainment environment.
For examples of what is currently available in 16x9 television, check out models and prices of Direct View, Projection, LCD, and Plasma 16x9 Widescreen TVs.
Get the whole picture - Go Widescreen!
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