Welcome to ‘Kagoo Explains’ - a series of short articles explaining some of the confusing terminology used to describe technology. Today we’re looking at aspect ratio, and we’ll help you understand exactly what the difference is between a 4:3 monitor and a 16:9 television.
The simplest way to explain aspect ratio is that it describes the shape of a square or rectangle - usually a screen or some other display. This takes the form of two numbers separated by a colon - the first is width, the second height. These numbers describe the ‘proportional relationship’ between width and height - so in a 4:3 aspect ratio, for every 4cm the display is wide, it will be 3cm high. This is therefore a landscape rectangle - since the width will always be greater than the height.Conversely, a 3:4 aspect ratio would be a portrait rectangle (think a modern smartphone screen) where the height was always greater than the width.
An aspect ratio of 1:1 would be perfect square, with the width and height always being exactly equal. It’s rarely used in TV, but is a popular choice
Why is this important? Well it helps us understand the way modern screens are set up, and why sometimes movies, games or images can appear strangely. 4:3 used to be the aspect ratio used for Hollywood films, and when television started to become popular, movie studios needed something to prove that seeing films in the cinema was better than staying in watching TV. Their answer was to make the films bigger and more immersive - moving to larger screens with a bigger aspect ratio. An arms race kicked off between movies and TV, and soon television sets started mirroring the wider aspect ratio of films - moving to a 16:9 ratio, which most current television sets still use.
However the shift between aspect ratios causes problems when trying to watch media recorded in one aspect ratio on a display in a different ratio. Say you were watching a widescreen movie on a standard TV screen: widescreen means the image is far wider than it is tall, so if the TV is to fit the whole width of the image on the screen, there won’t be enough image to fill the entire height. The most common solution to this is to fill the blank areas with black - the infamous ‘black bars’ synonymous with watching films on a small screen.
The reverse is also true - because most early TV was filmed in 4:3 aspect ratio, the wide screens of modern TVs are actually *too* wide. Because they are made for very wide images, when forced to accomodate a relatively small image, the height is greater than the screen can easily display. This means that the image would have to have horizontal black bars to effectively ‘shrink’ the screen down to a 4:3 aspect ratio.
The other alternative is to crop part of the image that doesn’t fit, or just zoom in on the centre of the image and lose whatever can’t be displayed. This is clearly not the best solution, since you’ll miss parts of the image, but it does still happen - recently Disney annoyed Simpsons fans by choosing to crop the images in old episodes, meaning that the jokes no longer work.
If you’ve been reading our list of ‘Best Ultra-Wide Monitors’, hopefully their gigantic 21:9 aspect ratio will make more sense now - it is a gigantic step up from the 16:9 format used in TVs, meaning they are far more immersive for games!