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Widescreen DVD's are the best

Think Before Buying a Non-Widescreen DVD!

You May be Doing Yourself a Disservice

by Jim Bray

An apparent trend in the retail DVD market threatens to leave many consumers frustrated down the road when they catch up with home theater technology.

It's the increasing number of DVD titles that are being made available in both widescreen and Pan&Scan versions - but in different packages. This could be in response to consumer complaints about those black bars above and below the screen on most DVD's, or it could be a more nefarious attempt by the studios to ensure you buy more than one copy of the DVD before you're done.

Now, releasing movies in both aspect ratios is nothing new and the DVD format has been the best for offering consumers this convenience. But most DVD's to offer you both versions traditionally put both versions in the same package, either by offering them both on a single disc or by adding a second disc with the alternative version.

But many DVD's are now being unleashed onto an unsuspecting marketplace in two separate packages, one widescreen and one "Full Screen." This will force consumers to choose between the two versions rather than having easy access to them with one purchase.

Not a big deal, you say? Perhaps. But think about a couple of things. Most TV's right now have squarish, 4x3 screen aspect ratios, the shape of TV since its early days. But things are changing quickly, as evidenced by the proliferation of rectangular, 16x9 TV's now being sold nearly everywhere. These new screens are absolutely wonderful for watching widescreen DVD's - in fact they're more practical for that right now than for the high definition television for which they're supposedly designed, since there's a lot more DVD software available than there is HDTV programming.

Most people still have 4x3 TV's, however, and many consumers prefer the cut off sides of a Pan&Scan movie because it fills the whole screen vertically instead of - as with widescreen movies - merely stretching across the center and filling in the difference with those black bars (also called "letterboxing").

But when they move to widescreen TV, as is inevitable, their Pan&Scan DVD's will only take up the middle of the rectangular screen, leaving bars to the sides of the picture (sometimes called "keyholing"). And unlike the black bars with letterboxing, most of these gray bars are dangerous to the new, digital HDTV-ready televisions in that they'll burn in if you watch too much stuff that way, leaving permanent scars on the screen that'll show up even if you're watching a widescreen program.

The way to get around this with P&S discs is to use one of the zoom or stretch settings on these new TV's to make the square picture fit the rectangular screen. Different brands do this different ways, but it results in a certain amount of distortion to the picture regardless of the method. It's a workable compromise between 4x3 and 16x9, though.

But there's a better solution. If your DVD's are already in anamorphic widescreen (sometimes called "enhanced for 16x9 TV's"), it's ready to go on the new televisions and, depending on the overall quality of the disc, will take your breath away on a good wide screen TV. There's no stretching, no distortion; it's a marriage made in video heaven.

So if you know you'll be going widescreen some day (and you will) and don't mind living with those black bars, you're far better off buying your DVD's in the widescreen version rather than the apparently more convenient and enjoyable Pan&Scan. Because once you go wide, you'll kick yourself for not having bought the widescreen version every time you put a Pan&Scan DVD into your player.

If you're merely renting a disc, of course, this doesn't matter; you aren't keeping it so it only makes sense to bring home the version that already fits your TV if the black bars really bother you. But when buying DVD's, buy for the long haul; even if you cuss out those dang black bars for the next couple of years you'll thank yourself later.

Jim Bray's technology columns are distributed by the TechnoFILE Syndicate. Copyright Jim Bray.

 

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January 31, 2006