September 6 2019

What Is Aspect Ratio

You’ve probably heard the term “Aspect Ratio” thrown around a lot, and are wondering about it. Well, in the most technical sense it describes the relationship between the width and height of an image. Ok, maybe that’s a bit too technical. It basically just means how long and tall a screen or image is, and it’s an important factor in deciding what content matches what screens.

A Quick History of Aspect Ratio

If you’re in your 30s or late 20s, you probably remember the old school CRT and LED displays that used to be square. Well, that aspect ratio is usually described as 4:3 or 5:4 and was one of the first-ever aspect ratios ever used. Actually, 5:4 came first, then with standardized computer monitors, 4:3 became the norm.

That was up to around 2003, which is when the standard switched over to 16:10. Now, you’ve probably heard 16:9 and are a little confused. Well, 16:10 was an aspect ratio that we had a short trist with between 2003 and 2010.

16 9 vs 4 3 aspect ratio

The main reason for 16:10 was interestingly for design purposes, rather than anything else, as 16:10 perfectly displays two side-by-side letter pages as well as allowing CAD (Computer-Aided Design) software to display both the design and the design menu at the same time.

In around 2008, 16:9 started becoming more commonplace. There’s a variety of reasons for that, but mostly it was due to them being slightly more cost-effective for the average consumer than 16:10. After all, not everybody does design work, and making it slightly smaller had no real effect on them, not to mention that design programs now can scale their UI, so it’s not as big of an issue.

Sometime in 2014, a new aspect ratio started becoming popular 21:9, otherwise known as “ultrawide” displays. You’ve probably seen these pop up a lot lately as they’ve become pretty popular. They tend to come with their own pros and cons which we’ll look at a little bit later. There’s also a variety of different ratios that are more commercial, like 1.85:1 and 2.35:1 which are both cinema aspect ratios.

What Aspect Ratio do Games Use?

This is actually a slightly more complex question than first glance. For the most part, all modern games come in 16:9 as a standard, with more and more games supporting 21:9.

169x219 aspect ratio comparison

When it comes to older games before 2003-2005, they tended to run at 4:3, so if you like playing older games, you’re going to have the image letterboxed. This is actually why you see a ton of games being remade, not just to bring them up to modern resolution standards, but also to bring them up to modern aspect ratios.

What Aspect Ratio are 1080p and 4k?

Again, this is also slightly more complicated than you might think, and most of that comes from the fact that those resolution names are colloquialisms, and not actually technical specs.

Display resolutions tend to be two numbers that take the form of A x B. So for example, 1920 x 1080. The thing is, that the second number describes the height of the image, which is almost always static. The width, on the other hand, can be varied. For example, a 1080p display could be 1920 x 1080 or it could be 2560 x 1080, with the second one being an ultrawide screen with a 21:9 ratio.

4k 1080p 720p 480p

Similarly, 4k can refer to two things: 4k cinema resolution, or UHD. The former is 4096×2160 and the latter is 3840×2160. So as you can see, you can have different width resolutions within the same height standard. What does it all boil down to? Mostly that 1080p, and 4k or 2160p as it’s more technically known, only describe the height of an image, without any assumptions made of the width.

What Aspect Ratio Should I Use for Gaming?

That really depends on two things; personal preference and, more importantly, budget. 16:9 is a standard and therefore everybody works towards that. Games are made for 16:9, monitors are made for 16:9, graphics cards are made to push 16:9. Optimization for all that also focuses on 16:9.  So, I’d probably say stick to 16:9.

That being said, 21:9 (ultrawide) does have its benefits. With such a wider screen you can get a much larger field of view, which helps with immersion. Even more so if you have a curved ultrawide display. Problem is, it tends to get expensive.

Aside from the cost of ultrawide screens on their own, running a resolution with a higher pixel count means that your graphics card also needs to be more powerful. In fact, I wouldn’t even consider running 1080p ultrawide without at least a GTX 1070, and even a GTX 1080 just to be sure. As you can tell, that tends to add up.

32 9 aspect ratio

Then, of course, there’s 32:9 which is even more ridiculously widescreen and essentially allows you to run two standard images side-by-side. Is it useful for the average consumer? Probably not. Maybe if you’re a streamer and want to run a game window and stream chat side-by-side, or if you’re a digital artist or work with some form of CAD, having two images on one display can be really helpful.

Again though, you’re going to need a really beefy PC to run that setup, and you’re probably going to start looking at SLI or Crossfire, which means you can just double your GPU cost. So it’s not really worth the cost unless you just have money burning a hole in your pocket.

Final Thoughts

Thankfully, if you aren’t very technically minded, you don’t really need to worry about aspect ratio too much, as most of that is already decided by the industry standards and manufacturers. Not to mention that there are waaaay more important things to focus on than aspect ratio when buying a display, such as a panel type, refresh rate, resolution, response time, and screen size.


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Albert Bassili