“How can I display a 4:3 picture on a widescreen TV? What do I actually get?”
With all the fancy new widescreen TVs out there, this question is perhaps the most frequently asked of all. It’s not surprising! If you don’t like horizontal black bars (also known as letterboxing) on your squarish older TV when you watch a widescreen movie, it stands to reason you’re not going to like vertical black bars when you’re watching a Seinfeld re-run on your gorgeous new widescreen set.
Many folks don’t really notice the effects of stretch mode, especially when watching sports. Some visual purists, on the other hand, may be put off.
So what can you do? Well, every widescreen set I’ve ever seen has a “stretch” mode that widens the image, and eliminates the vertical black bars that otherwise appear. This approach can leave actors looking kind of short and dumpy, however.
Some sets give you additional options, like “zoom” mode, which fills the screen by increasing the size of the image, then cutting off the top and bottom. You may even see an intelligent stretch mode, which stretches the left and right portions of the image, but leaves the center essentially untouched. (Because actors tend to stay in the center of the shot, this avoids some of the problems of a garden-variety stretch mode.)
As HDTV becomes increasingly popular, you’re probably going to see less and less new material shot in squarish 4:3 aspect ratio. However, that doesn’t change the material that already exists. If you’re like me, and watch a ton of Netfilx DVD movies (and don’t really mind black bars), it probably isn’t much of an issue. But if you mainly view TV shows, you may want to look for a TV with plenty of viewing options.