When High-Def Goes Low-Res

It used to be that we assumed companies had access to better technology than consumers did, and therefore understood it more deeply than us, but I think that’s no longer the case. Very often, it seems to me that ‘regular’ people now understand technology better than many companies do.

This occurred to me over the past few days as I traveled to Austin and then Minneapolis. In each city I stayed in a pretty nice hotel, both of which had flat-screen televisions in the rooms. Of course it’s not unusual that hotels will have LCD or plasma televisions these days, but what I’ve found is that no matter how nice the hotel is or how many stars it might rate, they all fundamentally misunderstand what a flat-screen television is for.

>Picture This

If you turn on this kind of TV in any given hotel, the signal coming through the cable and being displayed on the screen will almost certainly be a standard-definition signal, and that signal will almost certainly be a 4:3 aspect ratio picture that is inelegantly stretched to fit a 16:9 screen. That is, the hotel did not opt to upgrade their service to a full HD signal, and even worse, they’re showing the lower-resolution signal in the worst possible way. Looks terrible.

Often I even go to the trouble of adjusting the aspect ratio myself, to display the standard definition signal in its ‘true’ 4:3 format, which I personally find to be much more pleasant, even with the two black bars on either side of the picture that that format necessitates. But what I’ve found is that if I turn off the TV, the next time I turn it back on it will revert to 16:9. It’s almost as if the hotel believes that filling up the screen, even if the result is worse than what you’d see on an old tube-style TV set, is the preferred presentation.

I guess that to a proprietor of one of these hotels what’s critical is just the hardware, the physical TV itself — and showing their customers that they have acquired this object of a certain status. Meanwhile, the importance of the software, the signal quality and its presentation, completely escapes them.

All of this is nitpicking to a certain extent, but what I find remarkable is that this circumstance — high-quality TV, low-quality TV signal — is so prevalent at big, reputable, high-end companies like these. I mean, these are serious businesses that purport to put a premium on customer experience values. Meanwhile, I can’t remember when I’ve seen a flat-screen television in the home of a friend or acquaintance that suffered from the same problem. Everyone who gets one of these modern televisions also seems to figure out how to get the right kind of picture out of it. It’s really not that difficult.



  1. While you probably haven’t seen your friends’ TVs at home exhibit that problem, it’s shocking how many of them exhibit an even worse one: soap opera mode (http://hdguru.com/a-solution-to-the-dreaded-soap-opera-effect/2119/). Samsung and a few other TV manufacturers offer this really terrible “feature” on their TVs which “smooths” the picture by essentially making up data and adding fake frames between the real frames of the program you are watching. The effect is beyond horrible. It makes everything look like a soap opera… even exquisitely shot modern movies. I’ve gone over to three friends’ houses and turned this setting off for them, after which, they say things like “Jesus! I thought my TV just really sucked this whole time.”

    Worst feature ever. Turn. Off. Now.

  2. I’m continually surprised when I talk to non-videophiles about this. It seems like most I talk to actually prefer a stretched picture that fills the frame. It’s like they don’t even notice (or are just willing to tolerate) the distorted proportions of people and objects onscreen, but they do notice (and are more bothered by) the black bars.

  3. I agree that it’s annoying and a terrible use of technology. But I’d also bet money that:

    a) Most people would rather see a low-res image on a new flat thin-profile screen than a higher-res image on a older TV. Why? Because newer is better, and they can’t see the difference.

    b) Most people would rather see a distorted anamorphic stretched image filling a big screen than a properly-proportioned but slightly-smaller image with black bars on either side. Why? Because bigger is better, and they can’t see the difference.

    You’re blaming the proprietor for valuing “new” and “big” over “good”, but I think it’s the customer, too. Everybody.

  4. I had the same thought recently in Florida, though I was actually more flabbergasted by the ux of the on demand system than by the aspect ratio of the TV.

    In my case, the hotel had both standard and HD channels – the HD came in properly, though there was not full replication across the channel types. The system used to access channels, content, etc, was horrible – starting with the remote itself. While I know that the TV in the room came with a perfectly useable remote, it had been replaced with a piece of crap with awful placement of opaque buttons. There was no obvious connection between the buttons and what I wanted to do. Every time I turned the TV on, I had to walk through the same painful experience.

    The truth – all they need to do is throw something like netflix onto the tv, and charge by use. Should be simple, but I’ve never seen it.

  5. Thank you! I’m glad I’m not the only one that notices this – huge pet peeve for sure!

    Christopher raises some really good points above, but I don’t think this applies to companies though. It’s a mentality, or acceptance for status quo.

    Whenever I visit my parents, they have their TV setup to stretch the 4:3 aspect ratio across their lovely widescreen television. It breaks my heart! I’ll adjust it to the correct setting and explain that there is a loss in quality in this “mode.” Without fail they change it back to “full screen mode.” I assume they don’t like the black bars on either side of the picture…but sheesh!

  6. A few years ago, watching a Champion’s League game broadcast by Sky in the UK, I thought the picture looked odd and tried changing the aspect ratio to fix it, but whatever setting I used it still looked wrong.

    I eventually realised that it was fake widescreen. It had been filmed in 4:3 by the host broadcaster in the country where the game was being played; but Sky had trimmed off a bit at the top and the bottom of the image and slightly stretched the remainder to fit a 16:9 screen.

    The result was that you could see less of the pitch, and the picture was slightly distorted whatever aspect ratio you choseЁ but it looked ‘widescreen’. It seemed like a stupid compromise to me, and I found it infuriating and insulting that they were broadcasting an intentionally broken image; but perhaps they would have annoyed a lot more people if they broadcast it with the black bars.

  7. This problem is not just confined to hotels either. I’ve noticed a trend work for mounting flat screen TVs everywhere, mostly with no regard for the content. Often it’s Powerpoint shows, built in 4:3 and stretched to 16:9. A dreaful combination. I think it’s because of a lack of general awareness of resolution and aspect ratio, and a definite idea that ‘bigger is better’.

  8. What a huge number of people don’t realize is that you can get a full HD, 26:9 signal over the air, that is from a normal rooftop antenna, in most urban areas. No cable, no satellite, nothing. Of course you’re limited to the standard seven or eight channels, but hey, it’s HD!

  9. Hah! I am so glad you find this annoying too. So many people don’t seem to notice. I am forever adjusting friends’, family’s and hotel TV sets. Distorted images drive me crazy. I think as visual people we have greater sensitivity to this though.

  10. Here in India, it is much more prevalent in homes too! It’s a usual sight of people watching 4:3 telecasts on 16:9 ultra big displays….but unfortunately we don’t have too many HD channels here…and whatever are there, they cost lot of bucks….so many families stay away from them…though ironically they don’t mind spending 1500$ on HDTVs at home…..and they most gladly, much to my annoyance, almost always stretch the 4:3 display to 16:9 display…..!

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