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4:3 vs. 16:9 -- What is the best solution?

Evan Powell, November 21, 2001

Why get a 4:3 projector with a 4:3 screen?

It all depends on what you like to watch, and how you like to watch it. The central issue is psychological and emotional, and has to do with your own personal sense of aesthetics-do you believe that "4:3 should be smaller than 16:9?" Do you like the feeling of watching 4:3 television, then having the image open up wider to view a widescreen movie? A lot of people would quite understandably say "Yes, of course, isn't that what home theater is all about?"

Maybe, maybe not. Time to think out of the box here for a moment. Personally, I prefer a big 4:3 screen. Here's why. I want to watch widescreen movies in their widescreen glory, no doubt about it. So I have a 4:3 screen that is wide enough to give me the 16:9 display I want, which in my theater is 8 feet wide. I put electric masking on it and set the masking normally to its 16:9 position so it looks like a widescreen theater. If I put on a super-widescreen film I can close the masking a little to maintain my solid black frame around the image. And I can do this no matter what the aspect ratio of the movie happens to be.

Now let's say I change my viewing material. I want to watch the terrific 4:3 format IMAX DVD "The Blue Planet." Frankly, there is nothing more irritating to me than having to shrink down a 4:3 format IMAX film just so it fits in the middle of a 16:9 screen. Even worse is viewing an IMAX film so that it fills a 16:9 screen, and letting 1/3 of the image fall off the top and bottom of the screen. But see, I don't have those problems. Instead, I've got a great big 4:3 screen hidden behind the masks. I press a button, open the masks and get the grand 4:3 IMAX presentation in its full drama.

For me, music videos are the same way-almost all of them are 4:3, and as far as I am concerned, the bigger, the better. Big music demands big video. On a 120" 4:3 diagonal screen I feel like I'm in the front row at the Eagles "Hell Freezes Over" concert. Conversely, when this 4:3 image is squeezed into the middle of a 16:9 screen, the Eagles look like they are on television.

Football is also fun to watch on the jumbo 4:3 screen. And classic films like Fantasia, Citizen Kane, The Wizard of Oz, are all 4:3 films that look spectacular in large format.

Consider this for a moment. Most people will install the widest screen they can fit into the space available, regardless of its format. So screen width is almost always the limiting factor. In my theater I can install a 16:9 screen that is 8 feet wide, or a 4:3 screen that is 8 feet wide. If I install a 16:9 screen it will be 8 feet wide and 4.5 feet high. If I install a 4:3 screen, it will be 8 feet wide and 6 feet high.

Now between these two options, how big is my 4:3 image? On the 4:3 screen it is 8 x 6 = 48 square feet. On the 16:9 screen, it is 6 x 4.5 = 27 square feet. Almost half the size! That's the difference between being at the Eagles concert and seeing it on television.

Meanwhile-and here is a key point-my 16:9 image size is the same either way- 8 x 4.5 = 36 square feet. So the only variable is how I want to display 4:3. Do you want to maximize the use of your wall space? The 4:3 screen gives you more viewing area since it uses more vertical space on the wall.

I would never give up the excitement of seeing IMAX films, or Fantasia, or music videos, or football in the largest format I can manage. Especially if it was for something as nonsensical (to me) as making sure that all of my 4:3 material was displayed in a "smaller" format than a widescreen movie. So the bottom line is this: I personally don't believe that a 4:3 image should be smaller than a 16:9-I'm a Big Picture guy and I want them both as big as I can fit on the wall.

Now. You you may feel like I'm full of hooey. And if you do, then go with your gut. We are talking about YOUR entertainment here. Think about what you want to see and how you want to see it. Then set it up the way you want it. There is no "right" solution. There is only the right solution for you.

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Contents: Introduction Screen Option One Option One Continued Anamorphic Lenses
  Screen Option Two No Right Solution Screen Option Three Conclusion