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Widescreen TV 4. 'Now Make Your Own Mistakes' by Richard G. Elen


The dreaded 'Zoom' button

A remote control's 'Zoom' button, which can be lethal in the wrong hands

Having criticised broadcasters for their indiscretions, it must now be revealed that widescreen sets have controls that allow you to make many of these production mistakes yourself, in the privacy of your own home.

Someone, somewhere, a long time ago, evidently asked a focus group what they thought of 4:3 content pillarboxed on a 16:9 screen and, having probably never seen 16:9 pictures in their lives, they complained that the picture wasn't using all that blank screen at the edges.

As well as misleading broadcasters, this piece of conventional wisdom has coloured the behaviour of TV manufacturers, who as a result give you 400 ways of making anything fill the screen one way or another. Why you should want to do anything like this, I hate to think. Please don't press that button again. But it is a fact that you probably have these controls on your remote that allow you to mess with the aspect ratio, many of which have the purpose of allowing you to fill a 16:9 screen with images that weren't meant to, and thus allow you to mangle 4:3 sources the way real broadcasters do.

There are other controls, however, that are less advisable to mess with. Worst of all are features that change the picture displayed by varying horizontal and vertical size by different amounts.

Let's look at some of the controls you're likely to encounter and see what useful things you can do with them. The divisions between these categories are a little arbitrary as they overlap somewhat: you might have one control that offers all the features discussed below, or you may have several.

Zoom: You often have a few levels of zoom, which are the equivalent of zoom and crop. They expand the image equally in all directions to fill the screen width, and lose top and bottom (or sometimes top or top and bottom - some displays have a 'subtitle' mode which keeps the bottom of the image visible). These features may well bring up an on-screen label such as 'Zoom1', 'Cinema', 'Subtitle' etc when you select them.

It is worth examining the screen carefully in each of these modes while watching something you know well or can examine easily, such as a familiar 24-hour TV news channel for example, where there are on-screen graphics in standard places, and you can check you can see everything in the right place and the right shape, so you can get to know what they do. I would suggest that modes that zoom horizontal and vertical dimensions by different amounts are best left unused. Why would you want to do this? Well, earlier I mentioned 14:9 images floating in a 16:9 space. A zoom control that maintains the image proportions will hopefully have a level of zoom that more or less fills the screen with the image without losing anything important.

There may also be an 'auto' facility that tries to work out what the image size and shape are supposed to be and sets the screen to it. Note that these guesses are usually wrong.

Stretch: You can generally stretch a 4:3 image to full width for that "I see fat people" effect. Why would you want to do this? Some DVDs are not authored properly, and don't tell your player to switch to widescreen mode when they are in fact in widescreen. This can also happen if the particular video input on your TV that you are using throws away automatic widescreen switching commands. The stretch control is designed to deal with this problem, so if you see thin people on the screen with black bars on the edges, you are watching an unstretched anamorphic image and you need to expand it to the correct aspect ratio.

Some sets have an 'intelligent' zoom or stretch, which usually means that the 4:3 image is stretched to full screen one way or another, with more stretching at the edges of the picture and less - or none - in the centre area. The idea is that 4:3 content is made to fill the screen, but the important stuff centre-screen is largely left alone. Why would you want to do this? I really can't imagine.

Aspect: The zoom and stretch capabilities may be part of this function, or vice-versa, or they may be separate. The aspect (ratio) control allows you to switch between different available aspect ratios, typically 4:3, 16:9 and sometimes 14:9. Why would you want to do this? You will probably often have to switch between 4:3 and 16:9 aspect ratios manually, typically because one or more elements in your home entertainment system do not recognise widescreen switching signals, and you obviously need to be able to do this. Simply make sure you choose the right mode: 4:3 is usually labelled as such, while 16:9 might be labelled '16:9' or 'wide'. Check the image to make sure you are seeing all of it; that circles are still circles (ie that the image has been sized in correct proportions); and that people are neither fat nor thin.

Note that you may have to suffer from a little aspect ratio distortion, usually minor variations in the height of the image, if you are watching an NTSC tape or DVD with a PAL display (not uncommon in Europe where most of us have multi-standard equipment) or vice versa. If you have the option of switching the TV standard of your devices, see which one does the standards conversion best. Often a more expensive large-screen TV will do it better than a cheap DVD player, for example, but a good DVD player may do it extremely well. In addition to picture height, look out for image quality and how smooth, continuous motion is handled - the view from a helicopter flying over scenery in the movie Koyaanisqatsi, for example, reveals motion artefacts in standards conversion all too clearly.

Once you've found the best combination, stick to it - for example if your DVD player displays better PAL from an NTSC disc than your TV, set the DVD player to output PAL (rather than 'auto', which generally follows the standard on the disc) and leave the TV in auto-sensing mode.

Configuration: Another reason for the 'fat people' effect can be that the set and the video source don't have the same aspect ratio setting. If you have a 16:9 display, do make sure that all your video sources know it. Most DVD players have a 'video setup' screen that allows you to tell them what kind of TV or display you have. So will your Freeview box, and so will your digital satellite or cable box - in the UK at least. Generally you'll have three options on your DVD player or digital set-top box: 4:3, 4:3 LB, and 16:9 (though they might be described as 'full height', 'letterbox' and 'widescreen' or something similar).

The middle option assumes that you have a 4:3 display but you want widescreen images to be letterboxed so you see the whole image - this is a good setting if you have a digital television set-top box and a 4:3 TV, especially a large one. In this mode, a set-top box will generally switch automatically between 16:9 letterboxed and 4:3 according to the TV channel, just as you would expect; and a DVD player will do the same. If you have a 16:9 display, be sure to tell your video sources that this is the case by setting them up accordingly.

A major challenge in this respect is that some (Sky) satellite television installers will configure your satellite receiver for 4:3 even though you have a widescreen set, and you'll have to go and check the setting yourself.

You, gentle reader, being sensible, would not consider "I see fat people" as the way to use a widescreen TV. But with the installer problem, coupled with the fact that all the TV shops you have ever been in were probably showing 4:3 material stretched to 16:9 on all their widescreen sets at the time, a lot of people think that widescreen is designed to make people look better-fed than they would otherwise do. Ignore them: please don't stretch 4:3 pictures to fill a 16:9 screen: it is not what the producers intended, you don't see things (especially people) as they really are and the picture really isn't any smaller than it was on your old 4:3 set, honest.

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Stretching, zooming, cropping: how to wreck the original image

Make Your Own Mistakes

The perils and pitfalls of adjusting aspect ratios at home

The HDTV Challenge

The high-definition future and what it means for viewers and broadcasters


Seeing films and programmes as their makers intended