Why does that new widescreen HDTV look so weird?

Why does that new widescreen HDTV look so weird?

Summary: When you bought that brand new widescreen TV, have you ever wondered why the picture looks so weird? This blog shows the most common mistakes people make video playback and how to display video correctly on normal full screen and widescreen displays.

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TOPICS: Hardware
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When I criticized YouTube over the weekend that they were displaying widescreen videos incorrectly and went on with my pet peeve about TV aspect ratios in general confusing consumers, I got a few responses.  Though I probably shouldn't be surprised, a few of them (here and here) actually blasted me because they can't stand buying a brand new widescreen TV and see black bars on the sides and waste screen Real Estate.  User smorty actually said "I let 4:3 stretch to 16:9" and he's probably very typical.  So I decided to visually explain why this is such a bad idea and maybe then people will understand why their brand new widescreen TV looks so weird.


A - 4x3 correctly displayed as 4x3 "full screen" image

Example A shown above is a 4x3 image being displayed correctly on a 4x3 screen.  This is the standard 4x3 image format known as "full screen" aspect ratio because it is the typical format used by all the TVs up until recent years.  But what happens if you want to display that same image on a newer widescreen TV that is 16x9 in dimensions?


B - 4x3 correctly displayed as 4x3 on a widescreen TV

In example B shown above, we properly maintain the correct aspect ratio by padding the sides with empty black space.  The problem with this is that most people would get frustrated with the fact that they just bought big widescreen HDTV and they don't get to use the full screen.  The truth of the matter is, displaying a standard definition 4x3 ratio image on a newer widescreen TV probably looks better when the image is smaller because the artifacts aren't as noticeable.  But many people would rather fill the entire screen and get quantity over quality.


C - 4x3 wrongly displayed in 16x9 "widescreen" format

Option C above is unfortunately one of the more popular choices that people make because it fills the entire screen.  To fill a widescreen with a 4x3 image, we have to stretch the image and completely disregard the aspect ratio.  But a lot of people just say "so what, I just want to fill the screen".  The problem with this is that you get a distorted image that looks like you're in a circus funny mirror that makes you look like you're 33% fatter.

When a person's head in the image is level, that person will just look fatter and it's less obvious that something is wrong with the image.  But once the head is slightly tilted in our examples, it becomes rapidly apparent that something is really wrong because the head is skewed.  Either way, image stretching is the ugliest option available and it drives me up the wall when I see public places showing stretched fat TV like this.  It's almost bad enough to give me a headache looking at a distorted image.


D - 4x3 cropped on top and bottom to fit widescreen TV

Option D shows a better option to fill that widescreen TV where you chop a little more than 16% off the top and another 16% off the bottom and stretch the entire image out horizontally and vertically equally.  The end result is that you get your full widescreen filled with an image without distortion but you do crop a little off the top and bottom.  This actually works out extremely well if the source is letterboxed in the first place since all you're doing is chopping empty black space.  Had you gone with the stretch option in example C, the black bars would have remained top and bottom and you still would have had a distorted image.  Even though you might cut a little off the top of the head and lose the bottom of the body, this is definitely more desirable than option C.  For the life of me I won't ever understand why people choose option C and why manufacturers offer this mode in the first place.

Of course it is possible to have just the opposite problem when the screen or playback software only knows how to deal with 4x3 "full screen" images and attempts to play back anamorphic widescreen movies in full screen mode.  This can happen when you use a typical laptop screen with "normal" 4x3 "full screen" aspect ratios or it can happen when software or a web page like YouTube insists on playing back 16x9 movies in a 4x3 box.


E - 16x9 anamorphic displayed correctly in widescreen format

Example E above shows what happens when a widescreen 16x9 anamorphic movie is played back correctly in a 16x9 format.  Unfortunately, video sites like YouTube or Google video will only play back video in 4x3 format and you get the funny mirror effect shown in example F below where everything is stretched vertically.


F - 16x9 anamorphic displayed wrongly in 4x3 format

Example F is how YouTube or Google video expects you to play back your anamorphic widescreen videos.  The same thing happens when you have an older big screen 4x3 format TV that attempts to play back anamorphic widescreen content stretched out to full screen.


G - 16x9 anamorphic displayed correctly in 4x3 format

Example G shows how a widescreen movie should display on a 4x3 display.  For some reason people are more willing to tolerate black bars on the top and bottom and I would have to assume they've grown accustom to this because a lot of movies are deliberately letterboxed.  Note that while letterboxing may look like the anamorphic example G above, it isn't the same thing.  Letterboxed video is actually encoded in normal 4x3 aspect ratio with black bars encoded in to the video and the quality isn't as good.  Anamorphic video either squeezes the video vertically shown in example G which actually increases resolution density and light, or it stretches the image horizontally to properly fit a widescreen display as shown in example E.

Topic: Hardware

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39 comments
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  • 4:3 on HDTV, you didn't mention SmartStretch...

    I've seen tv's that do Smart Stretching, i.e. the picture is stretched sideways in the middle section only a little bit, but progressively more to the edges. This avoids the deformed look of people/heads when in the center of the screen, but yes, you do see distortion when heads are close to the sides.

    But it's definitely an improvement over the 'normal' stretching, I wish all TVs did it the Smart way.
    scorpioso69
    • What's wrong with option D?

      Cropping top and bottom is better than stretching the image. It also comes in handy for letterbox content and perfectly chops off black bars. The worst display (which I often see in stores) is the letterbox being stretched out, ouch! You get ugly stretching and black bars on top and bottom.

      Smartstretch is more of a gimick and distorts the picture even more.
      georgeou
      • Option D just seems horrible.

        I don't care to lose that much of the image. Just makes the screen look hidious. I don't much care for Full Screen movies either though, so it works out for me.

        I would rather see the black bars to begin with. This rant about not having the full use of the TV is malarky. I am used to the wide screen DVDs and knew where the industry was headed. Sorry for those who can't wait for the industry to catch up.

        Oh, and haven't bothered to buy a wide screen TV yet, some of us out in the sticks don't care to spend money yet. And I can't stand watching TV over at my friends house, he does the stretched mode as well.

        I am surprised the industry hasn't decided to start pushing in HD and use the sides of full screen for advertisments.
        nucrash
        • Way to go

          You said it! I've been thinking the same thing for quite awhile but I wasn't going to say it for fear that they'll actually start advertising over in the black space. Thanks a lot.
          BIGDSEW
      • The problem with option D...

        ...is that it cuts off part of the image (think about those news tickers, etc., too) and it zooms in, taking an image not up to big-screen quality to begin with and enlarges it even more, making it look even worse.

        I know some complain about the bars on the side because the screen isn't filled, but most people I know who avoid that are doing so to avoid burn-in. Older CRT and CRT projection sets, as well as plasma, can have that problem.
        brble
        • That's why I like a compromise crop

          They use grey bars and they only crop half and stretch half. This way the image is not distorted and you're not cropping as much. The grey bars avoid screen burn in.
          georgeou
          • I guess they're all compromises

            Anything other than 16:9 is really compromising something, I suppose.

            I've seen strange things with different cable box/TV combinations, and not every set generates the gray bars, so I think it just depends on your situation.

            Luckily for me, my DLP set doesn't have a burn-in issue, and the black bars don't bother me

            Now if I could only get rid of those darned rainbows...
            brble
  • Widescreen

    My TV recently failed so I had no choice but buy a new one. Every shop I went two was showing analogue 4:3 pictures streched and looked so bad it put me off. When I finally saw a digital TV showing the full 16:9 picture they got my money. I have the set set to display any old 4:3 pictures with black bars at the side. It looks so much better than steching it.
    rochek@...
  • Business opportunity

    Hey George, if this is really such a big deal for you then why not see this as an opportunity instead of just something to sit and b*tch about. Start up a YouTube competitor and use the "we'll handle every video format correctly" as the marketing pitch.
    Robert Crocker
  • True statement.

    Quoting:
    "The problem with this is that most people would get frustrated with the fact that they just bought big widescreen HDTV and they don't get to use the full screen."

    And "most people" are justified. The difficulty is, I think, only a refusal so far to solve the technical problem.

    Though you do suggest one good solution, I disagree with your caveat about the quality of the result:

    "The truth of the matter is, displaying a standard definition 4x3 ratio image on a newer widescreen TV probably looks better when the image is smaller because the artifacts aren't as noticeable. But many people would rather fill the entire screen and get quantity over quality."

    A solution of filling in the gaps as the image is stretched will eventually be implemented.

    And you were right the first time. People don't want to get "quantity over quality", they want to get what they paid for, as you observed in the first part of the paragraph.
    Anton Philidor
    • Option D is pretty good

      Cropping top and bottom is better than stretching the image. It also comes in handy for letterbox content and perfectly chops off black bars. The worst display (which I often see in stores) is the letterbox being stretched out, ouch! You get ugly stretching and black bars on top and bottom.
      georgeou
      • Agreed.

        I think that crop and expand will be improved by incorporating technology to fill in the image. Such already exists, though I expect it can be accomplished more quickly and better.

        By the way, if the photo you selected is of your daughter, my compliments.
        Anton Philidor
        • There is a compromise solution

          I've seen some compromise solutions which do half croping on top and bottom. That leaves some smaller bars on the side and doesn't chop as much off the image. Smarter TVs also use grey bars to avoid burning the screen. This is the compromise I would go with.

          Thanks.
          georgeou
    • Quantity over quality

      And if they sit far enough from the screen (and possibly drink enough beer) then the distortion and/or artifacts don't matter anyway...
      d.s.williams
  • Example F

    Reminds me of the Saturday morning kung-fu movies. They always used the widescreen picture for the end.
    Patrick Jones
    • End of some Bruce Lee films are like that on TV

      nt
      georgeou
  • Does anyone really use stretched mode?

    I always thought that stretched images on HDTV show that owner of TV just does not know how to setup the thing properly. I could never imagine that it was intentional... Luckily there are no triangle or round screens since square transformed to fill triangle would be quite difficult to watch :)
    paul2011
    • Read two user replies linked in first paragraph

      They were pretty adamant that they wanted image stretched.
      georgeou
    • Yes, some of us do use stretched mode

      My Toshiba 34" 16x9 HD TV provides 5 picture size modes. The 3 theater modes provide diffefent top-bottom clipping with non-linear stretching (sides mostly) such that we can confortably view any 4x3 picture. Once you get used to it, it's perfectly acceptable. But then, I prefer to watch 16x9 HD channels as well as 16x9 DVDs.
      rattlesnake0407
      • Can't stand stretching

        I've seen some compromise solutions which do half croping on top and bottom. That leaves some smaller bars on the side and doesn't chop as much off the image. Smarter TVs also use grey bars to avoid burning the screen. This is the compromise I would go with.

        Complex stretching of the sides still ruin the picture.
        georgeou