While virtually the whole screens market uses widescreen sizes, the vast majority of presentations continue being designed with the old 4:3 templates. The time for change has come.

The birth of the 4:3 aspect ratio

In 1888, Thomas Edison and William K.L. Dickson invented the Kinescope, a machine which created the illusion of movement by conveying a strip of film bearing sequential images over a light source. In 1889, the Eastman Kodak Company created flexible film and soon they began experimenting with it.

The Eastman Company supplied the Edison lab with 70mm film stock, but this format was considered unnecessarily wasteful, so Dickson split the roll films into 35mm strips and perforated the edges to engage the holes in an electrically driven sprocket wheel. This way, Dickson settled on a frame of film that was 4 perforations high, resulting in an image that was 0.95” by 0.735”, giving birth to the 4:3 aspect ratio.


35mm film with 4:3 aspect ratio. Image credits: “The Changing Shape of Cinema”

In 1909 the Motion Picture Patent Company declared the 35mm film with 4 perforations per frame as the standard for all films that were made in the US.

The explosion of widescreen projection ratios

When television broadcasting began in the 1930s, the television industry also adopted the 4:3 aspect ratio, being the standard for all television monitor. With the advent of this new competitor and the increasingly smaller audiences, the Hollywood studios knew that they had to do something. The solution was offering a widescreen experience.

From 1952 on, there was a rapid development of a multitude of new widescreen projection ratios competing to attract the audience’s attention (Cinerama, CinemaScope, VistaVision, Todd AO, MGM 65, Super Panavision 70…). Thus, the 4:3 was substituted by a wide variety of panoramic aspect ratios.


HDTV and the 16:9 aspect ratio

Meanwhile, the television continued using the academy standard 4:3 aspect ratio, and when the TRS-80, a new generation of inexpensive, mass-market personal computers, appeared in 1977, it was also assembled with a 4:3 monitor.


TRS-80 personal computer

However, the multiple panoramic widths were creating confusion among TV broadcasters, since those formats had to be altered (cropping, letterboxing, or expanding the original aspect ratio) to fit into 4:3 screens.

In 1980, the Working Group on High-Definition Electronic Production came up with a solution. While looking for a new standard for the emerging high definition technology, they discovered that all the available formats at the time fall within a 16:9 shape, becoming the standard aspect ratio for HDTV production worldwide.

aspect ratios

The release of PowerPoint in a time of change

However, it wasn’t until the late 90s, with the emergence of flat screens, that the 4:3 was finally abandoned. Following the path of the television, computer monitors also continued having the old aspect ratio until 2003. This is possibly the reason why PowerPoint, officially launched in 1990, inherited the 4:3 aspect ratio.

From 2003 on, computer monitors with 16:9 and 16:10 aspect ratios became commonly available. YouTube was launched in 2005 with a 4:3 aspect ratio, but in 2008, HD support was added and the YouTube player changed to a widescreen 16:9. That same year, the computer industry moved definitely to 16:9 as the standard aspect ratio for monitors and laptops.

It was, finally, with the release of Microsoft Office 2013 and following the trend to widescreen, when the new default PowerPoint templates adopted the 16:9 aspect ratio instead of the traditional 4:3 in previous versions.


PowerPoint 2013

As in the case of the television and computers, however, the great majority of companies and households will continue using Microsoft Office 2010 for a few more years and, therefore, designing presentations with the default 4:3 template.

There is no reason why this should be necessarily a problem, were it not for the fact that presentations are increasingly projected on 16:9 screens. In the same way the panoramic formats had to be altered to fit into 4:3 TV screens, now we must cope with altered 4:3 presentations. Since PowerPoint also offers the option to use 16:9 templates, perhaps the time has come to replace the outdated 4:3 presentations.

The end?

The year is 2015, and screens are occupied by the 16:9 aspect ratio. All? No! The indomitable tablets still hold out against the invader. In 2010, at the height of the 16:9 era, Apple released the iPad with a 4:3 screen. This decision was justified on practical grounds, given that a 4:3 tablet is not much bigger in one dimension that the other and the user can comfortably hold it in landscape or portrait orientation.


iPad 2

In 2012, Google introduced the Nexus 7, a 16:9 tablet, but two years after, with the release of the Nexus 9, Android tablets finally moved to 4:3 screen aspect ratios.

It’s interesting to note that Keynote, the presentation software application developed by Apple (released in 2003), continues using 4:3 standard slides. On the Keynote support page we can read as follows: “This is a great choice when you know you will be playing your slides directly on the iPad to a small audience or you will be using a projector with a 4:3 aspect ratio”.

There is a last aspect we should take into account. Most of personal digital cameras still use 4:3 formats. As images are increasingly being used as background in presentations, 16:9 slides create difficulties of optimization of space.

We’ll have to wait for the result of the devices war to know if 4:3 will finally die or it comes back from its ashes.