HDTVs which detect letterboxed standard-definition broadcasts?
March 28, 2009 8:58 AM   Subscribe

Does this feature exist in current HDTV models: automatically detect letterboxed shows broadcast in standard definition and expand them to fill the whole screen?

At a hotel I was staying at last week, the room had a HDTV, but the hotel's cable did not get any HD broadcasts. Whenever I first turned the TV on, it was set to 16:9, but I found the horizontally-stretched image annoying. Fortunately there was a "ratio" button on the remote, where I could change it to either 4:3, or "set by program" (which I assume would display it in the ratio appropriate to the broadcast). This had to be changed each time I turned the TV on, but I assume that can be set to the default on HDTVs. (Some of the menu settings on the TV were greyed out, which I assume was a deliberate crippling of the hotel TV so guests couldn't muck about with it.)

Some of the broadcast shows, however, were letterboxed. Thus, when displayed at 4:3, they had a black border all around: on the left and right because it's displaying a 4:3 ratio on an HD screen, and on the top and bottom from the broadcast itself. I could set the ratio to "zoom" which made the letterboxed SD broadcast fill the whole screen (horizontal and vertical both stretched equally, so the aspect ratio was preserved), but that had to be done manually.

I've been thinking about buying an HDTV for some time, but I would like the set to automatically detect letterboxed SD broadcasts and automatically apply a zoom to those. (Also, I noticed the network "bug" usually extended outside the letterboxed areas in such broadcasts, so ideally the TV would still zoom even with such a bug.) Does that feature exist in current HDTV models? If so, what's it called, i.e., what do I look for on the "features" listing of TVs? "Auto zoom" would seem to be a logical name for such a feature, and some HDTVs list this, but I'm not entirely clear whether the "auto zoom" listed is actually what I want.

(This thread from High Def Forum is asking about the same thing, but it's from 2006.)
posted by DevilsAdvocate to Technology (7 answers total)
Yes, some TVs do have such a function. But you're right to be wary of it; some merely stretch the picture vertically to fill the screen, rather than maintaining the aspect ratio. Your best bet is to go to an actual store and try out various models. Take some DVDs with various types of program material (true anamorphic widescreen,"fake" letterbox, full 4:3) and ask to try them out on the TVs you're interested in. Make sure the DVD player they're using is hooked up by the analog inputs.

Take note that on most HDTVs this only works with standard definition input. With HD input, the TV already "knows" it always fills the whole screen (though sometimes you can adjust overscan). Sometimes I see material that was made letterbox in SD, but is being broadcast on an HD channel. So they have the black bars at the top and bottom from the SD letterboxing, plus at the left and right from being SD upconverted to HD. My TV (a Philips plasma) can't zoom this because it's HD and every pixel is already accounted for. Fortunately, it seems to mostly happen with commercials.
posted by kindall at 9:14 AM on March 28, 2009

My mom's Mitsubishi 65" rptv does a great job stretching & zooming, with the caveat that one must manually select which of the 7 or 8 options to use (and they'll differ from channel to channel & source to source). None of it will happen "automagically."
posted by torquemaniac at 9:49 AM on March 28, 2009

Yes, my Philips HDTV has a mode called "auto" that detects black bars and zooms when needed. There can be a delay before it switches, and occasionally it zooms when not needed, eg because the scene is mostly black. It generally works pretty well though.
posted by w0mbat at 10:10 AM on March 28, 2009

What w0mbat said.

Also, on my "old" LG HDTV, I never found myself having an issue with having to do it manually. It had so many options that I could make almost any show appear in the proper aspect ratio, even when idiotic stations (like TBS or TNT) would break the aspect ratio of the program to fill the screen.

Can't do that on the Philips, although it does handle letterboxed 4:3 content mostly fine. It overstretches 1.85:1 and 2.35:1 films, since it just removes all the black around the border, but for 16:9 content stuffed in a 4:3 frame, it works great.

If your Philips plasma has the "Auto" feature, it's the closest you're going to get to what you desire.
posted by wierdo at 11:41 AM on March 28, 2009

Yep, I've got a 42" Phillips LCD and can corroborate what was said above. Automatic mode mostly works.

Sometimes, though, my over-the-air broadcast stations seem to screw it up themselves, squashing a true HD program into a 4:3 format with 360 degree letterboxing. This frequently happens when they're running storm warnings.
posted by General Tonic at 12:32 PM on March 28, 2009

Our 42 inch Samsung does most screen conversions automatically. I was going to say I haven't encountered many SD letterboxed shows as you describe (commercials in SD for widescreen movies, yes, but not actual shows or movies), but then I look up and see my 14 year old has turned on a History Channel (standard def channel, not their HD channel) and there's a widescreen SD program with black bars all around.
posted by lhauser at 9:24 AM on March 29, 2009

I've had two televisions in the Toshiba Regza line, and I've been very happy with the way they handle aspect ratios (and I'm a stickler). I just tested a few channels and it doesn't look like mine sizes SD broadcasts the way you want. I have to push a button on the remote to get what you want (pic size 2). When I switched back over to ESPNHD, though, it sized that automatically and gave me a widescreen picture.
posted by soonertbone at 6:57 PM on March 31, 2009

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