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How to properly use widescreen mode for TV viewing

As some people come to my article about TVs in widescreen and stretch mode looking for advice, here is some basic advice on how to get it right.

Generally problems only occur when you have an ordinary analog connection from your video source (DVD player, Cable box, satellite box) to your TV. Analog connections are things like composite video (one wire with RCA plug, plus 2 RCA plug wires for audio), S-video (the video cable is a round plug with 4 pins in it) or component video (3 RCA plug wires, plus the audio.) When you have an analog connection, the source box can’t tell whether your TV is widescreen (16 by 9) or regular (4 by 3). If you have a digital TV connected to an antenna, it will get it right automatically, but if you have a digital TV converter box, you need to set up that converter box.

That usually means your source box will have a menu item, somewhere in the setup section, where you can tell it what sort of TV you are connected to. Most of them will default to an old 4:3 TV size, so you need to go into the menus on the source box, and look for where you can set the size or “aspect ratio” of the TV. This is not done on the TV’s setup, but on the setup of the DVD player or set top box.

If your source box is connected to the TV via a digital connection — which means DVI, HDMI or even VGA — it should be able to figure out the size of your TV on its own. Normally you should not need to play with things. However, if it’s doing it wrong, you may need to go into it and play around.

The other control — the one you want to avoid using — is the one on your TV remote. It will be marked with a name like “size” or “p. size” or “aspect ratio” or “zoom” or even “mode.” It lets you change what your TV does with the signal. You should very rarely have to use this setting if you have a widescreen TV and you set up the source boxes to know you have a widescreen TV.

The one exception will be if you have a widescreen TV, and you watch a program on a 4:3 channel (which means most non-HD channels) which was widescreen. Then you get what’s called a letterbox inside the pillarbox (the bars on left and right.) The result is your image is a smaller rectangle in the middle of the screen. If you are far away from your TV, you can blow this up by setting your TV to a “zoom” mode, expanding the box. Some TVs come with two zoom settings. I tend to prefer the partial zoom that does not fill the screen, as the full zoom tends to “overscan” and lose a little bit of the image.

Some TVs have an “auto” mode. In the auto mode, they try to detect this small box, and automatically zoom. If yours works that’s great, but it may not work, and it may get confused as commercials change the aspect ratio.

Normally it would be highly unusual to have to use the 16:9 or stretch mode, because again, you should have told your source box that you have a widescreen TV. This mode normally would only be used with a DVD player which is unable to be told that the TV is widescreen. It is the stretch mode that you often found used on widescreen TVs of people who hate the bars on the sides so much that they would rather see everything distorted and fat.