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Should I purchase a 'Full Screen' or 'Widescreen' DVD?

While many DVDs are now shipped with both "Full Screen" or "Widescreen" formats on a single DVD, there are still several DVDs that are sold with only one or the other in the box. This forces the consumer to make a decision of which format to buy which can be confusing to the average person.

Types of DVD Editions

"Full Screen" DVDs are intended to be played on traditional TVs - those that are more square in shape. This format fits perfectly on this TV as they have the same 4:3 aspect ratio. Since almost all theatrical releases are filmed in a widescreen format, a full screen edition DVD must be 'formatted' (or cut) to fit a full screen TV. This is similar to cutting a 4x6 inch photograph to fit in a 3x5 frame - some of the image is lost.

"Widescreen" DVDs are intended to be played on widescreen TVs - those that are more rectangular in shape. A widescreen DVD will fit close to the full size of a widescreen TV (16:9 aspect ratio), but since widescreen aspect ratios vary, the picture might not fit exactly. A widescreen DVD contains the original unformatted movie as it was released in theaters.

Playing DVDs on TVs

Both types of DVDs will play on either type of TV.

If you play a full screen DVD on a widescreen TV, the picture can either be stretched to fit the screen (making people look fatter than they are), or it can be shown with in the full screen format with 2 black bars on the right and the left of the screen.

If you play a widescreen DVD on a full screen TV, the picture will be shown with black bars on the top and the bottom of the screen. The size of the bars will vary based on the aspect ratio of the DVD.

Purchasing Tips

When choosing a format to purchase, consider the type of TV on which the DVD will be played. Obviously, if you own all traditional TVs, the full screen edition fits perfectly on them. However, you must realize that you are not seeing the picture the way it was originally produced and that might be important to you.

If you already own or intend to own a widescreen TV, there is really little downside to purchasing the widescreen edition. As all TVs made in the future will be widescreen, if you purchase a widescreen DVD today, you can still enjoy it on your full screen TV and yet be able to watch it the way it was intended (in widescreen) when you purchase your widescreen TV.

Before purchasing, be sure that you look at the top, bottom, or back of the DVD case to make sure that you are purchasing the right format/edition for your needs. If you are purchasing online, usually the format is displayed at the end of the title. If it is not there, look at the detail and make sure that they DVD specifically says widescreen or full screen.

For more information on how aspect ratios display on different TVs, see Matt Whitlock's article

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