iPod widescreen mode

Q: When viewing videos, what does the “Widescreen” option on the iPod actually do?  I haven’t noticed any difference when turning it on or off – all my videos still play on the full screen, and some still have the black bars on top regardless of the setting.

– Heather

A: Firstly, the “Widescreen” option on the iPod will only work for content that has been encoded in a widescreen format. Typical TV show content is not normally encoded in this format, and therefore the widescreen setting will not do anything for this type of content.

Widescreen format is also described in terms of something called aspect ratio which is the ratio of the width of a screen to the height of the screen. The most common aspect ratio used by televisions is 4:3, although most newer HDTV sets and “widescreen” TVs use a 16:9 aspect ratio. Theatrical movies, on the other hand, generally use either a 1.85:1 aspect ratio (which roughly corresponds to 16:9) or a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, also referred to as “Cinemascope.”  You will often find these numbers indicated on the back of many commercial DVDs.

A standard TV show, 4:3 Aspect Ratio

iPod widescreen mode

A widescreen TV show, 16:9 aspect ratio

iPod widescreen mode

A Cinemascope Movie, 2.35:1 aspect ratio

The problem is that the screen on the iPod is a 4:3 aspect ratio, specifically 320×240. This makes it a perfect size for viewing traditional television content, but when viewing widescreen TV shows or movies, it becomes necessary to add the black bars at the top and bottom of the screen (also referred to as “letterboxing”) in order to display the full width of the video. This also occurs when connecting the iPod to an external television.

If the “Widescreen” option on the iPod is set to ON, then the iPod will play 16:9 widescreen videos in their full width. This will result in black bars at the top and bottom of the screen, since the video doesn’t properly fit the 4:3 iPod screen.


iPod widescreen mode

A widescreen TV show, 16:9 aspect ratio, as shown on a 4:3 screen

iPod widescreen mode

A Cinemascope Movie, 2.35:1 aspect ratio, as shown on a 4:3 screen

However, if you find that your videos are too small to view in this mode, you can turn the widescreen setting on the iPod OFF. This will cause the video to fill the entire iPod screen. In order to do this, however, the iPod cuts off (or “crops”) the left and right sides of the video, since it now cannot display the full width. In essence, the iPod is “zooming in” on the video in order to make it fill the screen.


iPod widescreen mode


iPod widescreen mode

A widescreen TV show cropped for 4:3 display

iPod widescreen mode


iPod widescreen mode

A Cinemascope Movie, 2.35:1 aspect ratio, cropped for 4:3 display

The result is a trade-off between being able to view the entire width of a widescreen movie, or enlarging the video to fill the iPod or TV screen. As shown above, the cropping can be particularly intrusive with the wider screen rendering of Cinemascope movies.

It should be noted that all of this is dependent upon the video content itself actually being encoded in the proper resolutions and aspect ratios. Although all widescreen content purchased from the iTunes Store is properly encoded in this regard, content converted from DVDs may not be.

The problem is that many DVDs, particularly older ones, were actually in what was known as a “letterbox” format, rather than a proper anamorphic widescreen format. In this case, even though the original video format may have been widescreen, the DVD video is not actually encoded in a widescreen aspect ratio. Rather, “letterboxed” movies were basically encoded onto the DVD in a 4:3 aspect ratio with the black bars at the top and bottom actually added to the movie. This would allow these movies to play in a widescreen format even on older DVD players that did not have a widescreen mode.

Unfortunately, however, when these DVDs are converted to iPod format, most video converters will leave them in their original 4:3 aspect ratio, with the black bars as part of the frame. In this case, the “widescreen” setting on the iPod will have no effect, since as far as the iPod is concerned, you are watching a 4:3 video. In this case, the black bars at the top and bottom are not being generated by the iPod, but are in reality part of the video image.

When dealing with DVDs, the description on the packaging can often be helpful in determining what the source format is. Although the terminology differs among the different studios, many older DVDs that used the term “Letterboxed” referred to this type of encoding: a 4:3 image with the black bars added to the frame. On the other hand, the term “anamorphic widescreen” almost always refers to videos that are properly encoded in 1.85:1 or 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Note that this will be a much less common issue with DVDs that have been more recently published.

You can also check whether or not your video content is in a proper widescreen format by viewing it in a window on your computer through iTunes or QuickTime. When playing video in a window, QuickTime will not add any black bars, but will rather show the window itself in the proper aspect ratio.


iPod widescreen mode

On the other hand, if a video is “letterboxed” and has been encoded in a 4:3 aspect ratio, the QuickTime window will be in a 4:3 aspect ratio as well, and the black bars will be apparent in the video.


iPod widescreen mode

Note that the same holds true for most DVD playback applications, so you can often check a DVD before encoding it by simply playing it back on your computer in a window through your software DVD player, such as Apple’s DVD Player app included with Mac OS X.

You can also check the resolution in QuickTime with the Window, Show Movie Info menu. A 4:3 iPod video file will have a resolution of either 640×480 or 320×240, while a proper 16:9 widescreen video will have a 640×360 or 320×180 resolution and a Cinemascope movie will be in 640×272 or 320×136. Note that there may be some slight variance in these numbers depending upon the source content, but they should be reasonably close to these resolutions.

Many encoders offer the ability to “crop” videos during encoding. When converting older letterboxed videos, cropping the top and bottom will generally produce content with a proper 16:9 aspect ratio for iPod playback. Simply crop off an appropriate number of pixels from the top and bottom to eliminate the black bars, using the resolutions above as a guideline.

More information and discussion on various options and settings for encoding videos for the iPod and Apple TV can be found in our TV & Videos Forum in the iLounge Discussion Forums.

One last item of note:  The iPod itself does not provide any output support for actual widescreen televisions or other devices. The TV output from the iPod is always sent out to the TV in a 4:3 aspect ratio, with the appropriate black bars added for widescreen content if the widescreen menu option is turned on. This will result in an image that may look distorted on widescreen televisions in native 16:9 mode. Fortunately, most widescreen televisions include a mode for viewing 4:3 content such as normal (non-HDTV) broadcast television stations, and the TV should be set to this mode when viewing content from an iPod.

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