Tuesday, January 12, 2016

A Beginner's Guide to Getting the Best Retro Experience

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I. INTRODUCTION


Rondo of Blood via Component on JVC 17" PVM (DT-V1710CG)

Recently I started getting back into retro consoles, and (probably like yourself) quickly realized how terrible they looked on a modern HDTV. It wasn't at all how I remembered the games looking - very pixelated, smudged, and strange lines and artifacts all around. Even worse, it felt like controlling Mario and Sonic was much harder and less responsive than I remembered. Looking for solutions to these problems began my quest into the world of console hardware, video signals, display technology, cable and wiring types, and much more.

The purpose of this guide is to present to you the key aspects of having a good retro setup (low interference, no upscaling artifacts, low or no lag, etc), whether your preference is the phosphor glow and iconic scanlines of a CRT, or big, razor sharp pixels on an HDTV. Before we get to the display technology though, we need to understand how to get the highest quality video signal from our retro consoles.


II. VIDEO SIGNALS


Over the years there have been many different video signal formats utilized by game consoles. Before modern TVs and the now ubiquitous HDMI, all video signals were analog instead of digital. One of the earliest is RF (Radio Frequency), which combined both video and audio into a single signal, and was typically transported over the air or via a coaxial cable you screwed into the back of your TV. While functional, the image produced from this can be very noisy and distorted, and should be avoided.

Analog video cables








One step up from RF is Composite which separated the video (yellow lead) and audio (red and white leads) signals, greatly reducing distortion and improving picture quality. Another connector commonly available in the 90s was S-Video, which split the video from one signal into two and reduced color bleeding and distortion even more. Later on around 2000, Component inputs starting appearing in consumer sets, which further split the video into three signals (Y, PB, and PR - commonly mistaken to be Red, Green, and Blue because of the connector colors) giving a near-perfect picture. Unfortunately, no consoles before the PS2 generation supported it.

If you grew up in the US, you are probably familiar with all the cable types just mentioned, but you may be surprised to learn that there's one more that most retro consoles can do. In Europe, another cable type called SCART was introduced with an oddly-shaped 21-pin connector that can carry all kinds of information including video and audio between devices. Most useful to us though, is that it carries the video in four separate signals: Red, Green, Blue, and Sync. Generally speaking, RGB (the "S" is usually left off for brevity, but you might sometimes see it called RGBs) is the highest quality analog video signal you can get, and many of your consoles like the SNES, Genesis, PS1/PS2, and others can output it without even being modified! Unfortunately for those of us in the US, we never got TVs with SCART inputs or the console cables to connect them.

Composite (Left) vs. RGB (Right) on Olympus OEV 203 (Photo credit: s_tenorman)

Luckily, there are now several ways to get the cables, as well as adapt them to your preferred display device. For consoles that had multi-out connectors like SNES, Genesis, or PS1/PS2, you can easily find SCART cables for them via cable makers like retro_console_accessories or UK-based Retro Gaming Cables. Not all consoles support RGB out of the box though. Some like the NES are limited to RF and Composite by design, and need to be modified to support RGB output.

Consoles that support RGB out of the box (no modification necessary, just buy the SCART cable):
  • Atari Jaguar
  • Neo Geo
  • Playstation 1
  • Playstation 2
  • Sega Genesis
  • Sega Master System
  • Sega Saturn
  • Sega Dreamcast
  • Super Nintendo (except SNES Mini)
And the consoles that can be modified for RGB:
  • 3DO
  • Atari 2600
  • N64
  • NES
  • TurboGrafx 16
Going into how you get RGB from each and every console is beyond the scope of this guide, but there are great sites out there like RetroRGB that go into much more depth about each one individually. So now that we know how to get the best possible video signal from our retro game consoles, we're ready to talk about how to display it on our preferred device.


III. DISPLAY ON CRT


(Left) SMB on an emulator (Right) SMB via RGB->Component on Toshiba 27" CRT (27A40)

After trying just about every possible option, I've personally found CRTs to be the best way to experience retro games. And it's not only because that's how I remember it from my youth, but also because it's the only way to ever truly play these games 100% lag free and with perfect scrolling. Retro consoles output analog video signals that directly control the electron gun beaming the image onto the screen of a CRT, and the iconic scanline look is actually a byproduct of an ingenious trick by console makers to turn a 30 FPS interlaced display into a 60 FPS progressive display.

480i Interlacing Example - Night of the Living Dead title closeup

A standard CRT TV has 480 lines of vertical resolution, and TV programming back in the day was broadcast interlaced (480i) at 60hz. Interlaced means each field contained only the even or odd lines of the frame, and when cycled fast enough it looked like a solid image  - albeit with some flickering. Console makers, however, manipulated the video signal and forced the gun to only draw the odd lines every field, thereby turning the set into a more responsive progressive display (240p), while simultaneously making the image much sharper by removing the interlace flickering. The black lines commonly called scanlines aren't actually scanlines at all, they're just the empty space between them.

240p Progressive Example - Super Mario Bros closeup

As you can see, retro consoles were designed specifically for CRT technology, and even take advantage of how they work for their own benefit. While many just like the nostalgic glow and scanlines of a CRT, if you dig deeper you will find there is a bit more to it than that. For instance, not only are black levels and contrast generally much better than LCDs, but speedrunners and competitive gamers alike still utilize CRTs for their completely lagless display!

If you want to game on a CRT with RGB you have two options: find a Consumer TV set with a Component input, or a PVM (Professional Video Monitor) with a RGB or Component Input. PVMs generally have much sharper images with better geometry than consumer sets, while sometimes even supporting RGB out of the box, but on the flip side they can also be very hard to find, expensive, and rarely come in sizes larger than 20".


III. - A. CONSUMER CRT


Metal Slug 3 via Component on Toshiba 27" CRT (27A40)

If you're looking for a consumer CRT that will support high quality video, the one major thing you have to look out for is a Component input. From what I've seen, a lot of the CRTs post-2000 will usually have at least one on them. Many recommend the flat Sony Trinitrons, but you must be wary of whether it's a digital or analog set. If it's digital, you will lose the iconic scanlines, and it will look much more like an LCD (for more info on the best Sony TV for retro gaming check out this handy guide).

I will also quickly mention that flat-screen CRTs are known for having poor geometry (how accurate the shape of the image is - ie. how straight lines are), but there are several models out there made by JVC, Toshiba, Panasonic, Philips and others that use the classic round tube while still featuring Component inputs.

Consumer CRT TV Connection Diagram

Once you have SCART cables for each of your consoles and a CRT TV with a Component input, you only need to obtain a SCART to Component Converter to get your RGB video signal on it. From my testing, the Shinybow SB-2840 works amazingly, and fear not, there is zero lag since it's 100% analog circuitry!

There are some cheaper clones out there, but I don't recommend them over the Shinybow. They're made with cheap parts, and don't support audio out (so you will either have to mod them, or get a popout extender). You also have to calibrate the knockoffs for the best color (there's a handy instructional video available for that), while the Shinybow comes out of the box with a perfect picture.

One last note is to make sure you get a proper Component video cable! I've seen that people tend to use normal composite audio/video cables (the yellow, red, and white leads), but these cables are not ideal for Component video signals. The audio leads on composite cables are only 35 ohm, not the standard 75 ohm suggested for video.


III. - B. Professional Video Monitor (PVM)


Rondo of Blood via Component on JVC 17" PVM (DT-V1710CG)

If your PVM has RGB inputs then you can feed the RGB signal from your console directly into it. If not, then just follow the Consumer CRT advice above and convert it to Component. The main difference you'll notice with PVM inputs is that they use BNC connectors instead of standard phono plugs. To get your SCART cable connected to it, you can either build your own adapter, or just order a pre-made BNC breakout cable.

PVM Connection Diagram

Many love PVMs because of their sharper image and bevy of inputs, but there are downsides to them as well. Most were made for industries where they saw constant use (security, hospitals, video production, etc.), and in some cases were run 24/7 for years straight. Also, people reselling them are aware collectors will pay good money for them now, and it's not uncommon to see a 20" model going for over $400 on eBay.

I will just say that PVMs are indeed great, but they really aren't the answer for everyone. If you're okay with 90s arcade-quality, then finding a 27" or so non-flat CRT with a Component input from somebody nearby on Craigslist should work well. In many cases arcade machines used the same tubes as consumer TV sets, they just had the RGB signal wired directly to them for a much better picture than what you saw at home. CRT TVs are commonly listed for free, only requiring to be picked up, and fed with a proper video signal you will get a great picture from it for a fraction of the price.


IV. DISPLAY ON HDTV


Streets of Rage 2 upscaled to 1080p by Framemeister and captured on AverMedia (Photo credit: Dave Voyles)

So you want to see giant pixels so sharp your eyes will bleed, huh? Well, prepare to pay - literally! Unfortunately, converting a low-resolution analog signal to a digital one that a modern HDTV can display is not a trivial process. Not only are SCART connectors not supported (let alone Composite, S-Video, or Component on most newer models), but there's also a whole other issue to deal with: upscaling.

On a CRT, the video signal syncs with the electron gun and moves it back and forth drawing the pixels on the tube line by line in perfect timing. Digital TVs operate much differently, with each frame essentially received all at once as a full image, not unlike a JPG file on a computer. So not only does the analog signal have to be digitized after the full frame is received, it also has to be upscaled from a tiny 320x240 image up to a 1920x1080 image that the TV can display. And, unfortunately, this is where you hit a brick wall with most HDTVs. When an HDTV receives a 240p signal, it will do one of three things: not display anything (likely), take a really long time to digitize and upscale it, and still look terrible because its not made to display it (very likely), or understand how to process it optimally and do a decent job of upscaling it both time and image-quality wise (not likely).

Whether your HDTV supports 240p signals natively or not can be found on this handy compatibility guide. If it's listed as Passes on the 240p test and has a Component input, you can just use the Consumer CRT connection method detailed above with a SCART to Component Converter. For everybody else, you're going to need a much more sophisticated and expensive device called the XRGB-Mini Framemeister.

HDTV Connection Diagram

The Framemeister is a separate processing unit made just for this situation. It takes in a SCART connection via a SCART to Mini-Din adapter, and outputs a high-quality 720p or 1080p image over HDMI very quickly (there's still some input lag, I've read between 1-3 frames in good cases). Unfortunately, the Framemeister is not cheap and will set you back at least $300 USD. If you're serious about the hobby though and don't want to go down the CRT road because of space constraints, then it's one of your only real options at the moment. There are other converters (search for "SCART to HDMI"), and while they may work, many have absolutely terrible response times (> 8 frames) that make some games nearly unplayable.

UPDATE: There is now a new kid on the block known as the OSSC (Open Source Scan Converter). From the initial reviews I've read, the input lag is even less than the Framemeister, while producing an even sharper picture. However, it's said the device isn't nearly as friendly or full-featured as the Framemeister. It's still also rather difficult to get one since pre-orders aren't catching up with demand. I will update with more info as it becomes available.

Lastly, be sure to optimize your HDTV for video games! Most TVs have an optional Game Mode that speeds up response time by disabling extra image post-processing effects and other unnecessary features. There's also usually a "Stretch" or "Full" picture mode that will make sure you're getting a full, perfect 1:1 pixel image. There are many guides on the internet dedicated to this, so just give it a search and you will find a wealth of information for your specific TV.


V. CAVEATS


There are a couple things to be aware of, especially with SCART cables. When you start buying them for your consoles to get RGB output, you may see some listed as "Euro" (or just standard "SCART" if JP-21 isn't specified) style and others as JP-21 ("Japanese SCART"). They both have 21 wires that mostly carry the same info, but the big difference is which pins in the connector those wires connect to. You can easily adapt between the two (and will need to if you want to connect a SCART cable to the Framemeister), but consistency is the key here. If you have multiple consoles, you will most likely end up with a SCART switch that lets you easily switch which console is displayed on the TV. If you have a mixture of JP-21 and Euro SCART cables, then some will work and others won't. So  just make a decision before you start buying the cables if you want to go Euro or Japanese route.

One other thing to keep in mind is what kind of video sync to use in your SCART cable. That topic is beyond the scope of this guide though. Check out this page for more info.

VI. CONCLUSION


I hope this guide has been of some use to you! I wish I had run into something earlier on that introduced the concepts of the RGB video signal, the SCART connector, and how to get them displayed on CRTs or HDTVs properly. If anything is unclear or not explained just let me know and I'll try to expand upon it. Happy gaming!

4 comments:

  1. Cool blog! Will there be any post on fixing CRT geometry issues?

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    Replies
    1. Thanks! I haven't had much time to focus on it lately, but that would be a good topic to cover. I will add it to my list.

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    2. A few interesting links:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RAi8AVj9GV8

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yoBqm4ThJxw

      http://educypedia.karadimov.info/library/DX2P.pdf

      http://www.arcaderepairtips.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/guide_setup_adjust_arcade_monitors_v1.2.0.pdf

      https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCBJRCv0tNMQ2rnCm7VKYOkA

      http://scarthunter.blogspot.com/

      BTW, RGB is nice, but it's worth mentioning that composite video has some advantages as well which add to authenticity: http://nerdlypleasures.blogspot.com/2015/03/the-case-for-composite.html

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