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HomeReviewsWhat is TV Aspect Ratio (4:3, 16:9, 21:9)?

What is TV Aspect Ratio (4:3, 16:9, 21:9)?

In visual content consumption, the presence of black bars on the top, bottom, or sides of a screen is a direct consequence of aspect ratio mismatches. The prevailing industry standard, 16:9, dominates modern TVs tailored for optimal HD broadcast and streaming experiences. This is a departure from the historical 4:3 standard, which rendered an almost square image and often resulted in side black bars for older content.

However, the enigma deepens when indulging in cinematic experiences. Adopting a 21:9 aspect ratio in theaters clashes with the 16:9 norm, leading to the emergence of black bars at the top and bottom when contemporary movies grace the screens of household TVs.

What is the aspect ratio?

When you encounter large black bars on the sides of the image on your new TV, it’s due to a discrepancy between the content and your TV aspect ratio.

The aspect ratio, expressed as W: H (width to height), represents the shape of the display. On TV, it shows how many units wide the screen is for every unit’s height. For instance, all modern TVs use a 16:9 aspect ratio, indicating that there are nine units of height for every 16 units of width. Look at the table below:

Aspect RatioW-to-HContentUse
4:31.33SD channelsOld TVs
16:91.78HD channels and streamingStreaming, modern TVs
21:92.33MoviesMost theaters
14:101.4IMAX filmSome theaters
19:101.9IMAX moviesIMAX theaters

Predominantly, the ubiquitous aspect ratio for contemporary TVs stands at 16:9, aligning with the filming choice for a substantial portion of the content on popular streaming platforms such as Netflix, Max, and Hulu, as well as television channels broadcasting in the 16:9 format.

However, the cinematic realm diverges from this norm. Movies, typically produced in a 21:9 aspect ratio, designed for the expansive screens of theaters, introduce a challenge when viewed on a 16:9 TV. The resultant horizontal black bars above and below the cinematic image, a practice termed letterboxing, are a pragmatic solution to accommodate the more comprehensive format.

The retrospective lens reveals a different landscape. Older TV shows, especially those predating the mid-2000s, were crafted within the confines of a 4:3 aspect ratio, resembling a square shape more than the contemporary widescreen 16:9 standard. When these vintage shows grace the screen of a modern 16:9 TV, the manifestation of black stripes on the sides, aptly referred to as pillarboxing, becomes apparent. This phenomenon underscores the evolution in content creation and the consequential adaptations required for seamless viewing experiences across eras.

What are the most common aspect ratios for content?

  • The 4:3 aspect ratio is characteristic of old TV shows, primarily produced before the mid-2000s.
  • The 16:9 aspect ratio has become the standard for modern TV shows and broadcasts.
  • The 21:9 aspect ratio is the prevalent standard for theater movies.

It is worth noting that despite attempts by companies like Samsung and LG in 2014-2015, ultrawide TVs still need to be made available in today’s market. The lack of content and concerns about quality were pivotal factors contributing to the failure of these endeavors. Although ultrawide monitors are available, the absence of ultrawide TVs may change in the foreseeable future as the industry explores possibilities for delivering a cinematic experience directly into the living room.

Understanding aspect ratio

The illustration below shows how the content would be displayed on different TVs with different aspect ratios. It would help you to understand how different types of content would look on your TV.

When the aspect ratio of content and your TV differs, black bars appear to accommodate the spatial incongruence—their orientation, whether vertical or horizontal, hinges upon the nature of the mismatch.

When the content surpasses the screen’s width, horizontal black bars emerge at the top and bottom. Conversely, if the content exceeds the height of the TV display, black bars materialize on the sides—a phenomenon commonly referred to as pillarboxing. This is notably observable when viewing older shows with a 4:3 aspect ratio on a contemporary 16:9 TV.

Regardless of orientation, the purpose of these black bars remains singular: to safeguard against image cropping or distortion. Maintaining visual integrity in the face of divergent aspect ratios is imperative.
A pertinent example is the potential distortion observed when viewing standard definition (SD) broadcasts on a modern TV without aligning the chosen aspect ratio.

16:9 Aspect Ratio vs 21:9 Aspect Ratio

The 21:9 and 16:9 aspect ratios are prominent in today’s content, each serving a different purpose in movie theaters and streaming shows.
As previously stated, 16:9 is the standard for streaming shows and broadcasts, providing compatibility with modern television displays. In movie theaters, 21:9 is the predominant format, providing widescreen viewing, with the exception of IMAX, which uses a 14:10 ratio.
To appreciate the impact, the accompanying illustrations show the spatial consequences of viewing ultra-wide content on a 16:9 TV. These graphs illustrate the presence of black bars and quantify the discrepancy in screen size, especially diagonally.

The impact of an aspect ratio mismatch becomes pronounced when it comes to a larger screen size, such as a 75-inch TV. Watching cinematic content on a 75-inch TV with a 16:9 aspect ratio is effectively the same as watching it on a 65-inch TV. This discrepancy in screen size due to the aspect ratio mismatch results in an apparent reduction of nearly 10 inches.
This observation can be extended not only to regular TVs, but also to gaming monitors, an area where ultra-wide aspect ratios such as 21:9 are prevalent. For example, when viewing 16:9 content on a 32-inch 21:9 monitor, the actual screen size is reduced to a comparable size to a 28-inch monitor, a noticeable 12% reduction.

This pragmatic conclusion cautions against the use of ultra-wide monitors unless their primary purpose coincides with gaming preferences. For content consumption, especially common on platforms such as Netflix, a noticeable reduction in screen size can be inconvenient. It is not recommended to purchase a monitor with a 21:9 aspect ratio if the viewer’s preference is exclusively for cinematography.

How to get rid of black bars?

Black bars can be annoying, I know. But there’s no magic way to get rid of them. Technically, there may be three main handlings. But first, look at this picture; that’s a 4:3 frame from the original Tom & Jerry.

And now, let’s imagine we have a 16:9 TV, and we want the picture to fit the screen without black bars.

  • Stretching. I don’t recommend this one; any services are never used this way. It just mechanically hurts the image to make it fit the TV screen. As you may understand, if the original picture is 4:3, it would be distorted while stretching it to 16:9. That looks like this (and you can imagine what my mom felt like).

This option isn’t great, in my opinion, as it distorts the image and makes it unrealistic and bad to watch.

  • Simple cropping. This way, the picture is cropped to remove the black bars, so the image fits less content.

This option doesn’t distort the image. However, it crops it, so you will see less image than in the original.

  • Zooming + cropping. This way, the image would be scratched and then cropped to reduce the area.

This way, you get less image cropped, but the image itself would be slightly distorted.

But if you want to try, here’s the table with the proper settings for 4 most popular TV brands, as they are named differently:

TV BrandStretchingCroppingCropping+stretching
SonyFullZoomWide Zoom
SamsungFit to screenZoom/PositionNone
LG16:9All Direction ZoomVertical Zoom

Remastered Content and Aspect Ratio

Remastering is enhancing old media content, usually films, for improved quality on modern systems. This often involves a change in aspect ratio and improved picture and sound quality in television and movies.

Historically, many TV shows and movies were filmed using a 4:3 aspect ratio, standard during the era of CRT (Cathode Ray Tube) TVs. However, with the industry’s shift to the 16:9 widescreen standard, viewing these older shows and movies on modern screens can result in pillarboxing, where black bars appear on either side of the image.

Remastering provides an opportunity to adapt this older content to modern viewing standards. During the remastering process, content originally filmed in 4:3 can be reframed for 16:9. This involves re-composition each scene carefully to ensure that important elements remain within the new frame boundaries. The result is a version of the film or TV show that can be viewed full-screen on a modern TV without the distraction of black bars.

However, it’s worth noting that this process can sometimes lead to issues, as it can cut out parts of the original image that weren’t intended to be seen. For instance, microphones, props, or set edges that were originally out of frame in the 4:3 version may be visible in the 16:9 version.

A great example is the F.R.I.E.N.D.S show, remastered to 16:9 and HD quality.

With AI on the stand, such a process is becoming easier, so more old movies and shows would be remastered. We can expect TVs to include AI-powered settings to remaster the content onto your screen soon when the content is not just cropped but enhanced to look like one filmed in 16:9.

ultra-widescreen TVs is not without its challenges. Most TV broadcasts and streaming services still cater to the 16:9 standard. Watching these shows on a 21:9 TV could lead to pillarboxing, with vertical black bars on either side of the screen unless the content is stretched or cropped (as in the illustration at the beginning of this article).

To sum this up

  • 4:3 is largely considered a legacy standard, occasionally employed for specific directorial visions, exemplified by instances like the Snydercut.
  • 16:9 stands as the indisputable industry standard, prevalent in most TVs, monitors (estimated at nearly 95%), and modern content across various mediums, including TV/streaming shows, broadcasts, YouTube, and other media.
  • 21:9, recognized as a cinematic format and embraced in gaming monitors, is notably absent in most TVs. However, a forecast suggests an imminent emergence of such TVs in the market over the next few years, driven by the rationale of catering to an audience seeking a more immersive movie-watching experience.

Despite the potential rise of 21:9 TVs, it’s anticipated that their adoption will be niche. This projection is underpinned by the compromise they entail, particularly in the form of conspicuous vertical black bars, which, as demonstrated, can consume up to 12% of the screen size. While offering an enhanced cinematic experience, the practical implications on content consumption may limit their widespread appeal, affirming the continued dominance of the 16:9 aspect ratio as the prevailing industry standard.



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