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How to Fix Picture Size on a Television

Authored by:
Support.com Tech Pro Team
This Guided Path® was written and reviewed by Support.com’s Tech Pro team. With decades of experience, our Tech Pros are passionate about making technology work for you. We love feedback! Let us know what you think about this Guided Path® by rating it at the end.

Introduction

One of the most common things we experience when we sit down to watch a television show or movie is the picture not filling the entire screen. A few decades ago, TVs were square in shape and movies were filmed in a widescreen format. Fast forward to now, and TVs are a rectangular shape and some television programs and movies are filmed in a wider-than-widescreen format. Add older programming that was filmed in a non-widescreen format, and you've got quite a few situations where the size of the picture you're trying to watch doesn't match the screen size of your television.

In technical terms, what's being mismatched is the 'Aspect Ratio' of both your television screen, and the media you're watching. If there is an aspect ratio mismatch, this means you're going to see black bars on the sides or at the top and bottom of what's on the screen. This is because your television is trying to fit the whole picture on the screen without leaving anything out.

Many television manufacturers realize that it can be frustrating to some when the picture that's being displayed doesn't fill the entire screen, so they've built-in different picture settings that will allow you to "fix" the image that's on-screen. This guide will introduce you to common picture size issues and the settings your TV may have available to help make things more closely align with your viewing preferences.
A television with the video picture in the center of the screen

What is an aspect ratio?

The proper definition of aspect ratio is the proportional relationship between the width of your TV screen to its height. It is expressed as two numbers separated by a colon (X:Y). Most modern televisions and media use a 16:9 'widescreen' aspect ratio. Older tube TVs that were square in shape, and media that was created around that time period use a 4:3 'standard' aspect ratio.

'Standard Definition' or SD
SD size
Older, square TVs will have an aspect ratio of 4:3. This means the screen is 4 units wide for every 3 units tall. Resolutions of 480p or 480i will naturally fill the entire screen.
'High Definition' or HD
HD aspect ratio
Modern widescreen HDTVs will have an aspect ratio of 16:9. This means the screen is 16 units wide for every 9 units tall. Resolutions of 720p or above will naturally fill the entire screen.

1 Common Picture Size Issues

The following are common aspect ratio mismatch situations that will not allow the picture being displayed to fill the entire screen.

In the following examples, the term "source device" is referring to your cable box, streaming device, or DVD or Blu-ray player - whatever device that is sending picture to your television.

  • Pillarbox picture (black bars on the sides): When this happens, this is because the source device is sending programming that was recorded in a 4:3 aspect ratio, or 'standard definition'. This is a square image, and stretching it to reach both sides of your TV screen would either cut-off a small amount of the top and bottom of the picture, or distort the image by making everything appear a bit wider than it was intended to be.
    A pillarbox aspect ratio issue
  • Letterbox picture (black bars on the top and bottom): This is very close to being the opposite of the previous example. In this case, the source device is sending programming that was recorded in a 'wider-than-widescreen' format. The actual aspect ratio numbers can vary a bit, but because the image is wider than your TV screen can accommodate, black bars will appear above and below. Stretching this type of image to fill the screen would either cut-off a small amount of the left and right sides of the picture, or distort the image by making things a bit taller than they were intended to be.
    The letterbox aspect ratio issue
  • Windowbox picture (black bars on all sides): This picture situation is a bit trickier to explain and most times only happens when you're watching something from a cable or satellite TV provider. If you keep in mind both of the above situations in terms of why bars appear on your screen at all, this windowbox effect is a combination of both of these things at once. In most cases, this happens when a standard definition 4:3 aspect ratio image is broadcast as a 16:9 letterbox picture (or vice versa), resulting in a black border all the way around the screen. Unfortunately, this type of image usually cannot fill the entire screen, even with the tips we'll provide. This is an issue with the way a specific channel is broadcasting its content to your cable or satellite TV provider, and nothing your equipment is doing improperly.
    Postage stamp aspect ratio issue

2 Troubleshooting a TV's Aspect Ratio

Now that we've introduced the most common picture types you'll encounter, there's one important thing to keep in-mind: whether you're experiencing letterbox or pillarbox images on your screen, the size of the picture you're seeing is how that content was meant to be seen, minus those bars. The bars you're seeing on either side of, or above or below the picture itself are only there because that space has nothing to be filled by. That being said, the following tips are more like hacks than fixes, and it's debatable whether or not they'll truly improve your experience - much of that boils down to personal preference.

If your primary goal is to have the picture fill the screen, you can use the common "ZOOM" or "Aspect Ratio" functions of your television. This will effectively change the picture's aspect ratio, which can help it better fill the available space on your screen; simply choose a setting that looks best to you, and you're all set. One downside to this is that most options will cut-off or omit a certain amount of the picture that was previously on-screen. Another downside is that these settings can persist to other source devices that did not have a problem filling the screen, and make them look very, very strange. In this case, you may find yourself fiddling with these options quite often.

For most televisions, there are two places to check for picture adjustment options:

Check your remote control for picture adjustment functions

  1. Look for a button on your TV remote labeled something along the lines of Aspect, Zoom, Format, Stretch, Picture Size, or Picture Mode. Depending on what kind of television you have in your home, the labeling of the button will differ. Using this button will allow you to cycle through any picture adjustment options that your television has available.
    Examples of TV remote buttons that can alter stretch, zoom, format or aspect settings.

    If there are no picture adjustment option buttons on the remote, available options may only appear within the TV's menu system.

    Keep in mind that your source device's (primarily cable or satellite TV provider equipment) remote can also have some of these options available. Those adjustments will only affect that particular source device.

Check your TV's picture settings for picture adjustment options

  1. Use your television's remote control to access the menu. In this example, we'll press the Menu button on the remote.
    Samsung remote showing menu highlighted
  2. From the menu, look for an option for picture adjustment. In this example, we'll select Picture.
    Samsung menu with picture selected
  3. Explore the picture adjustment options that appear. In this example, there are no picture size adjustments here, so we'll Screen Adjustment, and continue to explore.
    Samsung picture menu showing screen adjustment selected
  4. Continue searching the picture adjustment menu for any picture size adjustment options. In this example, the Screen Adjustment menu offers Picture Size, Aspect Ratio & Position options.
    Samsung Screen adjustment menu

    Depending on the brand of the television you have in your home, accessing the menu system and where the picture adjustment options will be located will vary greatly. The above is an example of where they might commonly be found.

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One of the most common things we experience when we sit down to watch a television show or movie is the picture not filling the entire screen. A few decades ago, TVs were square in shape and movies were filmed in a widescreen format. Fast forward to now, and TVs are a rectangular shape and some television programs and movies are filmed in a wider-than-widescreen format. Add older programming that was filmed in a non-widescreen format, and you've got quite a few situations where the size of the picture you're trying to watch doesn't match the screen size of your television.

In technical terms, what's being mismatched is the 'Aspect Ratio' of both your television screen, and the media you're watching. If there is an aspect ratio mismatch, this means you're going to see black bars on the sides or at the top and bottom of what's on the screen. This is because your television is trying to fit the whole picture on the screen without leaving anything out.

Many television manufacturers realize that it can be frustrating to some when the picture that's being displayed doesn't fill the entire screen, so they've built-in different picture settings that will allow you to "fix" the image that's on-screen. This guide will introduce you to common picture size issues and the settings your TV may have available to help make things more closely align with your viewing preferences.
A television with the video picture in the center of the screen

What is an aspect ratio?

The proper definition of aspect ratio is the proportional relationship between the width of your TV screen to its height. It is expressed as two numbers separated by a colon (X:Y). Most modern televisions and media use a 16:9 'widescreen' aspect ratio. Older tube TVs that were square in shape, and media that was created around that time period use a 4:3 'standard' aspect ratio.

'Standard Definition' or SD
SD size
Older, square TVs will have an aspect ratio of 4:3. This means the screen is 4 units wide for every 3 units tall. Resolutions of 480p or 480i will naturally fill the entire screen.
'High Definition' or HD
HD aspect ratio
Modern widescreen HDTVs will have an aspect ratio of 16:9. This means the screen is 16 units wide for every 9 units tall. Resolutions of 720p or above will naturally fill the entire screen.

The following are common aspect ratio mismatch situations that will not allow the picture being displayed to fill the entire screen.

In the following examples, the term "source device" is referring to your cable box, streaming device, or DVD or Blu-ray player - whatever device that is sending picture to your television.

  • Pillarbox picture (black bars on the sides): When this happens, this is because the source device is sending programming that was recorded in a 4:3 aspect ratio, or 'standard definition'. This is a square image, and stretching it to reach both sides of your TV screen would either cut-off a small amount of the top and bottom of the picture, or distort the image by making everything appear a bit wider than it was intended to be.
    A pillarbox aspect ratio issue
  • Letterbox picture (black bars on the top and bottom): This is very close to being the opposite of the previous example. In this case, the source device is sending programming that was recorded in a 'wider-than-widescreen' format. The actual aspect ratio numbers can vary a bit, but because the image is wider than your TV screen can accommodate, black bars will appear above and below. Stretching this type of image to fill the screen would either cut-off a small amount of the left and right sides of the picture, or distort the image by making things a bit taller than they were intended to be.
    The letterbox aspect ratio issue
  • Windowbox picture (black bars on all sides): This picture situation is a bit trickier to explain and most times only happens when you're watching something from a cable or satellite TV provider. If you keep in mind both of the above situations in terms of why bars appear on your screen at all, this windowbox effect is a combination of both of these things at once. In most cases, this happens when a standard definition 4:3 aspect ratio image is broadcast as a 16:9 letterbox picture (or vice versa), resulting in a black border all the way around the screen. Unfortunately, this type of image usually cannot fill the entire screen, even with the tips we'll provide. This is an issue with the way a specific channel is broadcasting its content to your cable or satellite TV provider, and nothing your equipment is doing improperly.
    Postage stamp aspect ratio issue

Now that we've introduced the most common picture types you'll encounter, there's one important thing to keep in-mind: whether you're experiencing letterbox or pillarbox images on your screen, the size of the picture you're seeing is how that content was meant to be seen, minus those bars. The bars you're seeing on either side of, or above or below the picture itself are only there because that space has nothing to be filled by. That being said, the following tips are more like hacks than fixes, and it's debatable whether or not they'll truly improve your experience - much of that boils down to personal preference.

If your primary goal is to have the picture fill the screen, you can use the common "ZOOM" or "Aspect Ratio" functions of your television. This will effectively change the picture's aspect ratio, which can help it better fill the available space on your screen; simply choose a setting that looks best to you, and you're all set. One downside to this is that most options will cut-off or omit a certain amount of the picture that was previously on-screen. Another downside is that these settings can persist to other source devices that did not have a problem filling the screen, and make them look very, very strange. In this case, you may find yourself fiddling with these options quite often.

For most televisions, there are two places to check for picture adjustment options:

Check your remote control for picture adjustment functions

  1. Look for a button on your TV remote labeled something along the lines of Aspect, Zoom, Format, Stretch, Picture Size, or Picture Mode. Depending on what kind of television you have in your home, the labeling of the button will differ. Using this button will allow you to cycle through any picture adjustment options that your television has available.
    Examples of TV remote buttons that can alter stretch, zoom, format or aspect settings.

    If there are no picture adjustment option buttons on the remote, available options may only appear within the TV's menu system.

    Keep in mind that your source device's (primarily cable or satellite TV provider equipment) remote can also have some of these options available. Those adjustments will only affect that particular source device.

Check your TV's picture settings for picture adjustment options

  1. Use your television's remote control to access the menu. In this example, we'll press the Menu button on the remote.
    Samsung remote showing menu highlighted
  2. From the menu, look for an option for picture adjustment. In this example, we'll select Picture.
    Samsung menu with picture selected
  3. Explore the picture adjustment options that appear. In this example, there are no picture size adjustments here, so we'll Screen Adjustment, and continue to explore.
    Samsung picture menu showing screen adjustment selected
  4. Continue searching the picture adjustment menu for any picture size adjustment options. In this example, the Screen Adjustment menu offers Picture Size, Aspect Ratio & Position options.
    Samsung Screen adjustment menu

    Depending on the brand of the television you have in your home, accessing the menu system and where the picture adjustment options will be located will vary greatly. The above is an example of where they might commonly be found.