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
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
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
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.
technology columns are distributed by
TechnoFILE Syndicate. Copyright Jim Bray.
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