21:9 – Bah! Humbug!

One of the key trends that we saw from panel makers LG Display and AU Optronics at the CES show is the release of more 21:9 aspect ratio panels and three new TVs using that aspect ratio from US hot TV seller Vizio.

I berate the panel business often enough for not innovating from the end user’s point of view (although that is usually in the monitor field), so I should be keen on this, shouldn’t I? However, I just don’t get it. I have three major objections (so far).

The first is that the justification for this shape is that ’21:9 is the aspect ratio for movies, so there are no black bars any more’. So let’s look at this.

Cinemascope was actually 2.66:1, so movies made in true ‘Scope’ should be in 24:9. Before that format, ‘Academy format’ was 1.37:1, which is close to the 4:3 ratio of classic CRTs. Since Cinerama (2.59:1) in 1952, Wikipedia lists more than 30 film formats. Even ‘modern Anamorphic Panavision’ has a number of variations, so not all of them can accurately been shown in 21:9, although it is reasonably close. Well known and highly valued movies are not in 21:9 – Saving Private Ryan and Das Boot (a personal favourite) are in 1.85:1, which is slightly wider than 16:9 (16.65:9 to be pedantic!). So to watch those in OAR (Original Aspect Ratio), you’ll see black bars down the side on 21:9 sets.

In fact, Wikipedia’s article on ‘aspect ratios’ has this to say about 21:9, ‘This aspect ratio is not recognized by storage and transmission standards’.

If viewers care enough about movies to want to buy special sets for a great experience, they will want to watch a wide range of movies, including old ones, and they will see black bars on the sides (Gone With the Wind or Das Boot or Avatar) or on the top (Mutiny on the Bounty).

If you care that much about the experience, you are best to buy a projector and mask the screens with curtains, like they do in cinemas.

The second is that, of course, anything that is broadcast at 16:9, which is virtually all of the current widescreen TV, will have black borders or will be horribly mangled and distorted.

No problem, say the set makers, you can access your social media on the ‘left over’ bit of the screen. At first, this might have some appeal. However, for most people, the main room TV, the one that’s most likely to be 21:9, is a shared TV. Believe me, in our house, if one of us was tweeting or facebooking away on the side of the TV, the other watcher(s) would be very irritated. I totally agree that people are increasingly having an ‘active TV’ experience, but I think that for the vast majority, that will be a shared main screen and a separate ‘personal’ screen – a tablet, a clever remote or a smartphone.

So, my three objections are that having 21:9 won’t eliminate black bars for movies, although I accept that it might reduce them. But it adds black bars for 16:9 and we’ve only just got rid of the black bars from 4:3 (what will those old 4:3 vintage TV shows look like on a 21:9?) in broadcast content. And I don’t accept that there will be a lot of use of ‘social media’ and other interactivity on the ‘spare’ part of the screen.

So, in keeping with the season, I will say “Bah! Humbug!”* to 21:9


* This phrase was used to criticise Christmas by the famous character, Scrooge in the Charles Dickens ‘Christmas Carol’ story.

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