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What is aspect ratio and why does it matter? (4:3, 16:9, 21:9, 32:9)

A closer look at the primary aspect ratios and how they can benefit you

Updated: Feb 1, 2024 10:23 am
What is aspect ratio and why does it matter? (4:3, 16:9, 21:9, 32:9)

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Aspect ratios – I know what you’re thinking, boring. While that might be the case, there are fundamental factors to consider when it comes to setting the aspect ratio of your display. That’s right, aspect ratios can change your viewing experience dramatically and, in some cases, can actually make you better at hardcore esports gaming. Well, maybe that last bit’s a lie – but you’ll often find the best Counter-Strike players using smaller aspect ratios than what their displays support.

We’ll be exploring the most common aspect ratios and what each can offer you from a visual standpoint in this guide. We’ll also be answering frequently asked questions and displaying the differences between the primary aspect ratios used by most major TVs and gaming monitors.

What is the aspect ratio?

Let’s begin with the basics, what exactly is aspect ratio? In its simplest form, aspect ratio is the ratio between the width and the height of the display in question. Most modern TVs and monitors utilize the 16:9 standard (widescreen), meaning if you were to divide the TV into 16 equal parts widthways, the height would be 9 parts.

This is great for most content consumption as the majority of video content is filmed in the 16:9 aspect ratio. That said, modern cinematic titles now prefer the 21:9 ultrawide aspect ratio, meaning most TVs and gaming monitors will display black bars – often referred to as ‘letterboxes’.

While TVs tend to use the 16:9 aspect ratio, the same can’t be said for the gaming monitor industry. Gaming monitors come in all shapes and sizes, with plenty of ultrawide (and even super ultrawide) panels available on the market.

The primary aspect ratios and screen resolutions

At present, we’ve only touched upon one of the primary aspect ratios. In this section, we’ll take a closer look at some of the other common aspect ratios utilized in modern LCD monitors and TVs.

  • 32:9 aspect ratio: 7680×2160, 5120 x 1440, 3840 x 1080
  • 21:9 aspect ratio: 5120 x 2160, 3440 x 1440, 2560 x 1080
  • 16:9 aspect ratio: 7680 x 4320, 5120 x 2880, 3840 x 2160, 2560 x 1440, 1920 x 1080, 1280 x 720, 1600 x 900
  • 16:10 aspect ratio: 2580 x 1600, 1920 x 1200, 1280 x 800
  • 4:3 aspect ratio: 2048 x 1536, 1920 x 1440, 1600 x 1200, 1440 x 1080, 1400 x 1050

What are black bars?

Black bars are often applied when viewing content that utilizes an aspect ratio that doesn’t match the native aspect ratio of the panel. Watching old episodes of your favourite 80s TV show is a fine example of a time when black bars will be present.

Old TV shows were filmed in 4:3 – meaning they are much narrower than today’s 16:9 monitors and TVs. When viewing a piece of 4:3 content on your 16:9 display, two horizontal black bars will appear on either side of the picture – maintaining image fidelity but not filling the screen.

To better display this, take a look at some of aspect ratio mismatches below:


What aspect ratio should you use?

If you want the best visual experience possible, make sure to use the monitor’s native aspect ratio and screen resolution. By doing so, you’ll ensure that no stretching or black bars are experienced.

As previously mentioned, 16:9 is the most commonly used aspect ratio, meaning this will likely be your main viewing standard. The 16:9 aspect ratio also covers 1080p, 1440p, 4K, and 8K displays. Furthermore, it offers a middle ground between 21:9 and 4:3 – with only minimal deviation between the two.

Aspect ratio in ultrawide monitors?

Unlike modern TVs that use the 16:9 aspect ratio, gaming monitors are far more versatile – featuring unique sizes that cater to 21:9 and 32:9 aspect ratios.

Fortunately, almost every modern game features support for 16:9, 21:9, and 32:9 aspect ratios. Simply set the aspect ratio in the graphics menu (if it hasn’t already allocated the correct setting) and enjoy the additional immersion and FOV that comes with the ultrawide ratios.

Aspect ratios in competitive games

That said, there are some games that don’t benefit from a wider aspect ratio – competitive esports titles being a prime example.

You’ll often see professional gamers opting for the 4:3 aspect ratio – but why? One of the main reasons for this weird graphical reduction is that many pros are familiar with using 4:3 from back in the day. When the first competitive games came out, 4:3 was the only aspect ratio to choose from – it’s where many learned their trade.

That said, there are other reasons too. Playing with a 4:3 aspect ratio allows your PC to drive more frames. More frames when playing will give you a smoother overall experience which is absolutely critical when playing at the highest level. Furthermore, with a lesser FOV, you’ll be able to achieve higher levels of focus and pick out enemies more clearly. Player models are also a lot bigger, meaning accuracy should be increased if you do plan to use 4:3 going forward.

Final thoughts

So, that’s all there is to it. Aspect ratio is an important specification to consider when setting up your panel as it can affect your visual experience quite dramatically. However, most modern displays feature the 16:9 aspect ratio which allows it to support most other common ratios.

If you are looking at a display that doesn’t fall within the 16:9 standard, fear not, most offer support for all the primary aspect ratios and allow you to view content regardless of resolution and ratio.

For as long as he can remember, Charlie has always been interested in computers and gaming. It all started with the Sega Mega Drive and then evolved into PC gaming in his early teens.

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