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The Big DVD Video Debate: Wide Screen Versus Full Screen

Sun Advocate/Progress Webmaster

Although many people flock to theaters to see the latest films, many would rather wait until it is available on DVD or VHS and enjoy it in the convenience and comfort of their own home. In fact, many recent films have grossed more money on video sales than in theaters. The VHS vs DVD debate is moot these days, as a strong majority prefer the superior audio and video quality of DVDs. So the biggest question many movie buyers find themselves asking is "Which DVD should I buy, the wide screen version or the full screen version?"

The fact is, there is no real answer. Both types can be played on any DVD player. Each type has been optimized for best viewing on a particular screen shape.

There are two basic screen shapes, wide screen and full screen. The essential difference between the two lies in width-to-height ratios. For example, wide screens (nearly all high-definition digital televisions) use a 16:9 ratio, whereas full screens (which includes nearly all traditional, analog televisions) use a 4:3 ratio. For example, the wide screen's 16:9 ratio means that for every 16 inches in width, there will be a matching 9 inches in height. Clearly, a 4:3 width-to-height ratio will produce a squarer screen, whereas a 16:9 ratio will produce a far wider shaped screen.

Contrary to what the name implies, full screen DVDs are less complete than their wide screen counterparts. In fact, the wide screen version is essentially trimmed down (cropped to the near-square center of the screen) to create the full screen version. For this reason, many movie collectors insist on having the wide screen versions.

Many, however, don't like the wide screen versions because of the horizontal black strips that run along the top and bottom of the film. This happens when viewing wide screen DVDs on full screen televisions. Because of the difference in screen shape, the video is scaled down proportionally to fit the width of a full screen television. The resulting gaps along the top and bottom are typically black.

To clarify, imagine trying to fit a small rectangle inside a square. Obviously the fit isn't going to be perfect and there are going to be unfilled gaps in the square not filled by the rectangle.

A similar thing can happen when viewing full screen DVDs on a digital, high-definition (wide screen) television. The video is scaled to match height. As the movie isn't wide enough to fit the wide screen, black strips along the left and right sides are often used to fill in the gaps.

In other words, the black gaps are present when the DVD and television are not using the same shape (screen ratio). A wide screen DVD will show no gaps on a wide screen television, nor will a full screen DVD show gaps on a full screen television.

Movie buyers will also find that as digital high-definition televisions (wide screens) become more affordable (and, ultimately, more common among households) that full screen DVDs will become less common.

In the end, the answer to which is better is ultimately a matter of preference, and largely depends on what kind of television the movie will largely be played on.

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