Tired of nearly every video I watch on YouTube and Google video being displayed at the improper aspect ratio, I decided to do a little testing to determine just what you need to do to get your widescreen video to display correctly on these web video services.
First up, I decided to see whether either of these services respected the aspect ratio flag video encoders can set to alter the aspect ratio at playback time. This is most commonly seen on so-called "anamorphic" DVDs, where the video is encoded at 720x480, but is scaled up to 854x480 to display the picture at the proper 16:9 aspect ratio. This is the most efficient way to encode content, as you get the benefit of both a smaller resolution and proper widescreen playback. The problem, however, is that many lazily-coded applications such as freeware DVD rippers, freeware screenshot grabbers, Windows Media Player, etc ignore them completely, choosing to instead display them at the resolution at which it was encoded rather than the one at which it's supposed to be played back. This results in tall skinny people -- and one very annoyed internet curmudgeon. (That's me.)
With this in mind, I crafted a short video that's encoded at 320x240, but set to display at 426x240. (426 / 240 = ~1.78 = 16 /9)
It looks like this:
I then submitted said video to both YouTube and GooVid, resulting in this:
As you can see, this worked OK, but it's less than ideal. You have to increase the size of your file by encoding black bars, not to mention the extra effort required to add them. There's got to be a better way. Let's just try encoding the video at a resolution that matches the aspect ratio. I chose 426x240, but you can choose any resolution you want; just make sure that when you divide the width by the height you get as close to 1.78 as possible. As an easy reference, just take the desired height of your video, and multiply it by (16/9) in your calculator. (240 * (16/9) = 426) This is the proper width to which you'd scale your video. Let's take a look at the results:
As you can see, this works flawlessly on both GooVid and YouTube, and is the best method to follow when preparing your widescreen video. No black bars. No fuss. No muss. (Hint: you can also use any aspect ratio you want. If your clip's aspect ratio needs to be 1.5:1, then just encode the video such that the width is 1.5 times the height. So: 400x266.)
If you'd like to do the same test on any of the other video sites I don't have accounts on, I've provided the videos below. If you do these tests, please let me know the results so I can update this page with them.
UPDATE: Emalyse submitted the test videos to dailymotion, wherein we learned that they too ignore the aspect ratio bit, and both pre-letterboxing to 4:3 and setting the video resolution to a 16:9 aspect work perfectly. Dailymotion goes one step further, not bothering to add in letterboxing, rather it just displays the video at the proper aspect. On Dailymotion the properly aspected resolution option becomes even more attracctive than the other video services.