Wide screen TVs vs. 4:3 TVsUpdated February 13, 2009
We mentioned before that just about every television available for sale today is an HDTV. Nearly every one of those is also a wide-screen television. On a wide-screen, or 16:9, television, the screen takes the same shape as many movies and HDTV shows. The number represents 16 units of width for every 9 units of height. Wide-screen is the future of the television screen, and older, squared-off TV sets, with screens that have what's known as a 4:3 aspect ratio, are going the way of the dodo. Our buying advice is simple: get a wide-screen TV.
The complicated part is that the TV shows themselves aren't going wide screen as quickly, and older shows and reruns especially are still broadcast in the 4:3 aspect ratio. To view them on your wide-screen HDTV without distorting or cropping the picture, you'll need to waste a portion of the screen area, filling it with bars to either side of the image. Conversely, if you own an older 4:3 TV and want to watch wide-screen shows without distortion or cropping, you're stuck with bars above and below the picture.
To find out exactly how much picture you'll be missing with either kind of TV, check out our calculator below. Just enter the diagonal screen size and aspect ratio of the set you're considering, then hit Calculate.
Don't want to waste space on black or gray bars? All wide-screen TVs have ways to stretch, crop, or zoom the regular 4:3 image so that it fills the wider screen. These methods distort the image somewhat, but many wide-screen TV owners prefer looking at slightly stretched people rather than black bars. Here's a quick rundown of a few of the different names for selectable aspect-ratio modes found on wide-screen sets. Note that these names always vary by manufacturer, so they may not match up with your HDTV exactly.
Normal or 4:3: Places black or gray bars to either side of the 4:3 image.
Zoom or Enlarge: Magnifies the entire image, eliminating the windowbox bars but cropping the top and bottom of the image. Often, more than one level of zoom is provided.
Wide or Full: Used for native 16:9 content such as that found on DVDs. With 4:3 content, such as regular TV, it stretches the image horizontally, making people look shorter and fatter.
Panorama, TheaterWide, or Natural: TV makers have many names for modes that compromise between stretching and zooming to fill the screen. Some stretch the sides of the image more than the middle, so people in the center of the screen look correct. Some crop a little so that they don't have to stretch as much.
For more information, check out CNET's Quick Guide to Aspect Ratio.