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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)?

Remember the black bars on the top, bottom, or left and right when watching content? That happens when the content and TV aspect ratios are mismatched (for example, watching a movie that usually has a 21:9 ratio on a 16:9 screen), so you have a space on your TV screen.

The industry standard is 16:9; it’s used for most new TVs and is suitable for HD broadcast and streaming content. And old standard for TVs were 4:3 (an almost square image), so old content lefts black bars on the sides. But why do you see black stripes on top and bottom when watching a modern movie on a new TV? That’s because 16:9 is common for household TVs and streaming/broadcasting content but not for theaters, which rely on the 21:9 format.

And all these ratios sound messy until you see clear examples and understand the difference.

I want to talk about different aspect ratios, where they’re used, and a little bit about the history of TVs and content: why are so many different aspect ratios around? And how they’re compared to each other. For example, how much screen size do you lose when watching content with black spaces?

Let’s discover.

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 units height. For instance, all modern TVs use a 16:9 aspect ratio, indicating that for every 16 units of width, there are 9 units of height. 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

As I already said, the most common aspect ratio for TVs is 16:9, and most content is filmed in such an aspect ratio. For example, Netflix, Max, and Hulu are using 16:9 for the prevailing part of their content. And channels are also broadcasting in 16:9 format.

Movies are usually filmed in a 21:9 aspect ratio, that’s standard for cinema; it’s wider than 16:9. This mismatch results in horizontal black bars above and below the movie image to fit it into a 16:9 TV, a practice known as letterboxing.

Older TV shows, especially those produced before the mid-2000s, were made using a 4:3 aspect ratio, closer to a square shape than the widescreen 16:9 aspect ratio. When you view old shows on a modern 16:9 TV, you will see black stripes on the sides, known as pillarboxing.

What are the most common aspect ratios for content?

I’ll make it simple:

  • 4:3 aspect ratio is used in old TV shows, mainly produced before the mid-2000s.
  • 16:9 aspect ratio is a standard for modern TV shows and broadcasts.
  • 21:9 aspect ratio is a standard for theater movies.

By the way, almost zero ultrawide TVs are on the market nowadays. Samsung and LG made some attempts in 2014-2015s but failed those times. There were a lot of reasons, but the most important ones were lack of content and quality.

While ultrawide monitors are on the market, there are still no ultrawide TVs, but I’m sure they will be announced in the near future, following the idea of a cinematic experience right in your 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 content’s aspect ratio doesn’t match your TV’s aspect ratio, there would be black bars to fulfill the space. Their placement depends on mismatch: they can be both vertical and horizontal.

If the content is wider than the screen – there would be horizontal black bars at the top and bottom.

If the content is taller than the TV display – they would appear on the sides. That’s the most common black bars issue, known as pillarboxing. You may notice them when watching old shows with a 4:3 aspect ratio on a modern 16:9 TV.

In each case, the black bars serve one idea – to prevent an image from cropping or distorting.

You may notice such distortion when watching an SD broadcast on a new TV without the chosen aspect ratio. My mom was watching stretched picture from an SD broadcast until I fixed the issue.

16:9 Aspect Ratio vs 21:9 Aspect Ratio

Okay, with 4:3, that’s clear; that’s a legacy standard with almost no use in modern content (except Zuck Snyder’s Justice League). But what about 21:9 and 16:9?

Well, both of them are widespread nowadays regarding content creation. As I said above, 16:9 is the standard for streaming shows and broadcasts, while 21:9 is almost the standard for theaters, except IMAX (here’s used 14:10). But how do they compare? In the picture above, you can see how much space would be occupied by black bars if you’re watching ultra-wide content on your 16:9 TV. But here’s one more picture it illustrates what the difference would be between TV and content in terms of screen size (diagonal):

I’ve taken a big screen size (75 inches) to compare. And if you’re watching cinematic content on your 16:9 75-inch TV, that’s the same if you’re watching content on a 65-inch TV, so the aspect ratio mismatch “consumes” almost 10 inches of the screen size.

Also, that’s not directly related to the topic, but the same thing works with gaming monitors (there are plenty of them with 21:9 or even wider aspect ratio, despite TVs, there are a lot of different models). If you’re watching, for example, shows on Netflix on your ultrawide monitor, the mismatch in aspect ratio will take away almost 12% of the screen size.

So, if you have, for example, a 32-inch 21:9 monitor, the true screen size for 16:9 content would be like watching it on a 28-inch monitor.

That’s why I don’t recommend buying an ultra-wide monitor unless you’re a true gamer. If you use the monitor for watching content quite often, that would be inconvenient, as the real difference between the 21:9 monitor and 16:9 content is that the real screen size would be 12% less!

And for the future (let’s imagine that’s the plenty of ultra-wide TVs you can buy), the same works for TVs, and I don’t recommend buying one with a 21:9 ratio unless you’re cinema-geek that watches only cinematic content. Such TV would be great for theatrical movies, with no black bars, but things would be sad when you decide to watch streaming shows, YouTube, or broadcast, as you will get black bars on the sides if you have a 65-inch 21:9 TV, that corresponds to just a 57-inch 16:9 screen size.

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.

Different TV Aspect Ratios: From 4:3 to 16:9 and Beyond

In the evolution of TV technologies, the aspect ratio has undergone significant changes to adapt to viewer preferences and advancements in content creation.

Starting with the ‘classic’ 4:3 aspect ratio, this format was the standard for broadcast TV until the late 20th century. The near-square design of 4:3 was inspired by early cinema, closely mirroring the shape of movie theater screens at that time. This aspect ratio was prevalent during the era of CRT (Cathode Ray Tube) televisions.

However, the wider 16:9 aspect ratio became the new standard as the television industry progressed. Also known as ‘widescreen,’ the 16:9 ratio provides a broader field of view that aligns more closely with our peripheral vision. This ratio was adopted to fit the transition to high-definition content and was later endorsed for Ultra High Definition (UHD) or 4K content.

It became the universal standard for TVs and computers, smartphones, and video games, influencing media consumption across different platforms.

16:9 aspect ratio improved better content sharing between different media. A TV show could be easily reformatted for the cinema or vice versa, with minimal alterations to the original framing of the scenes. This standardization significantly impacted the entertainment industry, becoming a cornerstone for viewing and interacting with visual content today.

But the progress didn’t stop there. Now there’s ultra-widescreen, 21:9 aspect ratio. This ratio is used in theaters to bring an immersive experience.

There are a lot of ultra-wide monitors, but now there’s almost nothing to choose from when it comes to TV.

In the gaming world, the 21:9 ratio offers significant advantages by providing a wider field of vision, enhancing the immersive experience of gameplay, and giving players a competitive edge in certain games.

Also, the adoption of 21:9 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 legacy or some director’s vision, as we saw in Snydercut.

16:9 is the industry standard. Almost all TVs have a 16:9 aspect ratio now, a great percentage of monitors (I can assume that’s nearly 95%), and almost all modern content, including TV/Streaming shows, broadcast, YouTube, and other media.

21:9 is a cinematic format also used for gaming monitors, but there are still almost no TVs with such an aspect ratio. We can forecast that such TVs will appear in the market in the next few years, as that looks rational and audience-targeting for people, aiming at a more immersive experience to watch movies.

But 16:9 still looks like the king, and 21:9 may be good for movies and cinematic experience, but it results in awful vertical black bars that will consume 12% of your screen size. So although I predict 21:9 TVs will appear on the market in the near future, I can also assume they will be niche ones.



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