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

Evan Powell, November 21, 2001

Option #3. 16:9 projector with a 16:9 screen

If HDTV is your thing and not much else matters, your decision is simple. A 16:9 projector on a 16:9 screen is clearly the best combination for optimizing HDTV viewing. The 16:9 image fits the 16:9 screen perfectly, and all is well. The major advantage is that you get the highest resolution possible for HDTV sources. And for 16:9 projectors that have at least 1280 x 720 displays such as the Toshiba MT7, the Sanyo PLV-60, the Sonly PVL-VW11HT, and the Sharp Z9000, HDTV 720p can be displayed in native format with no scaling whatsoever, producing a truly superb high-def image.

Now when it comes to DVD movies there is a formatting problem to consider. Many are wider than 16:9. For example, Dances with Wolves, Tombstone, U-571, American Beauty, and Star Wars/Phantom Menace (to name a few) are all 2.35:1. So when you display these movies on a 16:9 screen you will have black bars at the top and bottom of the screen, each bar amounting to about 12% of the picture height. The bars are not as large as they are on a 4:3 screen, but they are quite visible nevertheless. So you may wish to consider electric masking to close to the frame horizontally when movies of this aspect ratio are displayed. You will find that the overall quality of the presentation is significantly improved. (I am amazed at the number of people that spend many thousands of dollars on equipment to get the best picture possible, and yet don't make the relatively small investment to frame the picture adequately.)

As you might have guessed, the major limitation of the 16:9 projector with a 16:9 screen is the display of 4:3 material. Your best option is to display 4:3 material in smaller format in the center of the 16:9 screen with side bars. No zoom lens adjustments are required for this as the projector will do it automatically. You can fix the side-bar problem with electric masks that drop down on either side of the image. If you don't watch much 4:3 material, or don't care about optimum viewing quality in this format, you may simply choose to live with the side bars and forget about side masking.

The other options for displaying 4:3 material with this combination are far worse. One is to electronically truncate the top and bottom of the 4:3 image, and display the center portion of the image in the 16:9 frame. Basically, the projector cuts off 1/3 of the image-1/6 at the bottom and 1/6 at the top, on the theory that there's usually not much important information going on there.

You only need to watch 4:3 material in this truncated mode for a few minutes to discover how vital the missing 1/3 of the image is. You can't concentrate on the content since you are constantly distracted by little irritations-someone's chin is missing in a close up, for example.

Another truly painful solution for 4:3 is to electronically stretch the 4:3 picture horizontally so that it fills the 16:9 frame. By doing this, you see the full image and the side-bars are gone. But all circles are now ovals and people look fatter by 33%. I will say this. The romantic essence of Casablanca, a 4:3 film, is somewhat compromised when you make Bogart and Bergman look like they've spent the war years gorging themselves with French cheese and pate. To anyone serious about seeing a video or film the way the creator intended it, this tasteless butchering of the 4:3 image (a "feature" of just about all 16:9 video display devices) will be unacceptable.

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