TV Technology: No ‘Catch-All’ Solution for Low End and High End Gaming

It’s been a while my Low End friends, but moving your whole life is never easy. Settled nicely into my next home now, I have some catching up to do!

Let’s start the New Year off discussing the age-old “idiot box” – better known as your television. As we all know, not all TVs are created equal and as time has marched on, our TVs have actually gotten to be worse and worse for SD (Standard Definition) and 4:3 aspect ratio content and in some cases even “Enhanced Definition” 16:9 content at 480p.

Some background.

This was all sparked by the subject of a couple of Facebook posts I have put out there recently in both LEM and other forums. One summed up (in my professional opinion) why cable and satellite companies need to dump SD broadcasts from their normal line-ups and move to 720p/1080i/1080p as a standard offering and then offer 4k as “premium” due to changing TV technologies. Another discussed why DVD needs to just go away like VHS as a thing of the past (normal DVD video maxes out at 720x480p and looks completely dated when upscaled to today’s 4k displays vs the smooth clarity of 1080p and 4k Blu-ray and streaming services). The point here is that the two technologies (Full 1080p HD/Ultra HD/4k vs Standard Definition 480i/480p) are now so different and set apart from the time that the services need to be better separated and leveraged on technologies of their particular era.

This triggered the classic gamer and AV fanatic in me to begin optimizing the technology I own into particular setups designed for the given era rather than trying to cram too much into one setup. There truly is no “catch-all” anymore.

There are a wide variety of TVs and game consoles out there, but you may have found to your own disappointment that newer TVs are just terrible for old shows, DVD, Cable TV and older game console and it’s not so simple if you want to get the best from these things anymore on the latest TV tech. Again, just to stress it – simply getting a single “catch-all” TV just isn’t possible – especially for legacy gaming and video content due to how things were designed for their era.

With 1080p TVs being the norm and 4k being the go-forward technology (and 8k being the emerging technology soon), you now have to find ways to optimize your gaming and AV configurations for both legacy and modern entertainment options into unique setups and there are both optimal and “Low End” ways to do both. With legacy content, optimum could start becoming a pipe dream for many “Low End” users, due to the scarcity of equipment and cost of expensive converters, but there are ways to significantly improve on what you used to accept as average by configuring your setups a bit better.

Certain Content is Optimal on Specific Display Technology, but Is Optimal Practical?

There have been a wide variety of technologies over the years, but the biggest oddities in terms of gaming consoles came during the late 1990s to early 2000s, which includes the Sega Dreamcast, Sony PlayStation 2, Microsoft Xbox, and Nintendo GameCube (credit: Wikipedia for all mentioned game console information). These consoles are all part of what is known as the 6th generation of console gaming and are also around the same time when some of the most interesting oddities in terms of CRT TV technologies hit the market. That’s right – old clunky, insanely heavy cathode ray tube-based TVs.

For the classic gaming fanatics out there like myself, high-end CRTs are the way to go for many late 1990s/early 2000s game consoles, and for getting the most out of these classic game consoles, you will want to know which CRT is best. Like me, you may find yourself going with a combination of two or more due to the fact that there isn’t really one great set to rule them all for that particular era. Some games in the 6th generation of console gaming were strictly 4:3, while others had a 16:9 mode; some consoles had native component video (PbPrY) output or VGA output, and others did not. Some consoles are not as easy and intuitive to enjoy the best quality on as others, so what to do? (More on that in a bit.)

It’s certainly confusing, but that’s not all – when you go back to the pre-Dreamcast era (beginning with the Nintendo 64 and all other 5th generation game consoles and earlier), you will find that, interestingly enough, many of these consoles too had advanced (native) video output capabilities, but at the time the vast majority of traditional North American NTSC TV sets (particularly US TV sets) lacked the right circuitry to enjoy it, while in Europe and other places in the world, SCART was there and allowed for far greater quality in terms of displaying SD video. As a result, many of the European versions of older game consoles that allowed for SCART connectivity (and, as such, true RGB) at 320 x 240p, provided the absolute best there was at the time for displaying the video signals for the game consoles of that era on compatible televisions.

Seems like an easy solution – just import and get an NTSC CRT TV that supports 320 x 240p, right? Unfortunately, if you are a North American or Japanese gamer who typically only has access to NTSC televisions, it’s not as simple as importing a European game console and games and adapting SCART to VGA or component video (aside from the problem of finding a CRT that supports 320 x 240p). The issue with older European consoles is the fact that they were designed to output to the PAL standard of 25 FPS at 50 Hz vs the North American/Japanese NTSC standard of 29.97 FPS at 60 Hz (discs and cartridges were also region specific).

You can technically get around that with many modern TVs such as LED, LCD, OLED, etc. that can use both PAL and NTSC standards (with CRT televisions it was one or the other), but a flat panel modern TV is not ideal for these classic game consoles, so it’s almost a catch-22.. almost. There are a few options ranging from complicated to not so complicated.

Here’s a good reference article that outlines how to milk the most out of some of these classic consoles and truly optimize your experience.

As you can see, the options range from complicated (modifying output on NTSC consoles and connecting to a 240p capable display) to expensive or difficult to obtain (obtaining a rare high-end broadcast monitors such as the Sony BVM-20F1U or getting an expensive and hard to come by Framemeister XRGB-Mini as referenced in the article above).

While what this article outlines can truly give you the absolute optimum, is it practical for the average “Low End” user? I say no, so here is where I come in.

Identifying Older Games You Can Get More From

Conveniently, you can search for “Games With Alternate Display Modes” on Wikipedia and find a comprehensive listing of various consoles with games that had alternate display modes (16:9 or 480p/720p/1080i, etc.). This will let you cross-reference your library for several consoles or perhaps allow you to target specific games for the TVs you chose to utilize.

Surprisingly, even the PlayStation 2 with its 294 or 300 MHz CPU with just 4 MB of VRAM had a couple of games that supported a widescreen 1920 x 1080i mode (Gran Turismo 4 is an excellent representation) and many games had both 640 x 480p 4:3 and 720 x 480p 16:9 modes such as God of War/God of War 2 and Socom 3.

Special Circumstances: Gaming in 480p on Dreamcast and GameCube

Sega Dreamcast (photo by Evan Amos)The Dreamcast was (and still is) an incredible piece of hardware that was way ahead of its time and did not receive the fanfare it deserved during its short official run from 1999-2001 (games are still being produced even today by 3rd parties). Graphics look incredible, thanks to the 128-bit graphics and anti-aliasing built into the Dreamcast. The Dreamcast also had 8 MB of VRAM compared to the 4 MB in the PlayStation 2. Most games can be played in 4:3 native 640 x 480p through a first party or third party VGA box or with third-party VGA cables. Aside from the first party (Sega) VGA box, third-party VGA boxes and cables can be had for relatively cheap (under $40 US).

There are just a couple of issues with VGA and gaming today, but they too can be overcome inexpensively:

  • Most modern flat panel HDTVs have dropped VGA in favor of all HDMI connectivity (VGA to HDMI converters exist for less than $10 US)
  • Older CRT HDTVs may lack VGA and HDMI (those with DVI can have HDMI adapted and then use the VGA to HDMI converter mentioned)
  • Many older CRT HDTVs lack both and rely on component video (VGA-to-Component adapters exist such as this one I reviewed in 2009)

Nintendo GameCubeThe GameCube is a much more difficult animal, unfortunately. Nintendo developed a special Component Video Cable that has a highly specialized, proprietary chip that handles the 480p video signals inside the neck of the cable that connects to the GameCube and outputs to the TV. These cables were only produced in Japan and only in extremely limited quantities. They sell for upwards of $300 US today on eBay and other open markets.

Alternative to Expensive GameCube Component Video Cables

The best alternative is to get an original Nintendo Wii with GameCube functionality built-in and use Wii component video cables, which can be found for reasonable prices (ranging from less than $10 US for 3rd party cables to about $30 US for official Nintendo cables). There is barely a difference in quality from GameCube to Wii, but many argue that the GameCube still is slightly superior and you also gain the ability to output Game Boy Advance from the Game Boy Player in 480p, but the difference is hundreds of dollars saved for a negligible feature loss (Game Boy Advance games pushed at 480p do not drastically improve the experience).

Resolution Revolution

Now that you have considered the games you want to play and what the best outputs are available that you can realistically use and how to connect them, think about the TV you want to connect everything to. The ever-changing improvements to resolution is a revolution, but how can you navigate it? Things just aren’t as easy as they used to be.

16:9 or 4:3 for 480p Gaming?

Consider the early to mid-00s. HDTV was new, and we as a society began to shift from 4:3 to 16:9 for a lot of things – everything from TVs to camcorders to computer displays to gaming began to shift to 16:9, but it came down to a choice of keeping a 4:3 native aspect and letterboxing or going with a native 16:9 display. CRT technology was still around, and when combined with ED/HD at 480p/720p/1080i you truly can have a wide variety of enjoyment potential whether you choose to go with a 4:3 or 16:9 variant.

Choose what makes the most sense for you based on the games you want to play, but if you want to get the most out of it, I personally would suggest going with a 4:3 HD Sony Trinitron CRT from around 2003-05 such as the KV-HS420 or KV-HS500, but consider the weight. These are the cream of the crop without dipping into the expensive professional broadcast monitors, and people practically give them away (usually for less than $100) on your local Craigslist or equivalent due to the weight and the fact that no one wants to move these around. The 32″ HD Trinitron sets weigh around 170 lbs, while the 36″ units will crush the arms of 2 strong men required to move that beast at 230 lbs. There was even a 40″ Trinitron that would not fit up and down most stairs or through doorways due to the sheer girth (usually required removal of the rear cover) weighing in at 350 lbs requiring someone like Thor or the Hulk to move them around.

However, once you experience one of these TVs, you are truly getting the best on the cheap for today, without breaking the bank on the Framemeister or a professional broadcast monitor. You will also enjoy older shows much more once again due to a CRT being able to appropriately display 480i/480p content in its native aspect ratio and resolution. The aforementioned Trinitron CRT HDTVs do not have VGA, but they do have component video or DVI (HS500)/HDMI (HD420).

Again, I stress my choice here based on 480i/480p content, which is perfect for anything like the PS2, Dreamcast, GameCube, or even the Wii, which maxes out at 480p.

What about 240p Content?

If you are more interested in the getting the most out of the NES, Sega Genesis, or other consoles that predate the Sega Dreamcast and 480p capable consoles, which will max out at 320 x 240p for true RGB with scanlines, you will want to go with a Standard Definition TV that handles 240p, and you will still need to do the mods to your consoles or get a Framemeister XRGB-Mini as mentioned above in the reference article, but you don’t need to necessarily spend the loot on a fancy broadcast monitor, costing $100s or even upwards of $1000 on the aftermarket. Consider the Trinitron FV310, which came in a 27″ and 32″ variant. It will fit the bill for 240p as well as 480i content. Here’s some interesting information on this particular set:

Light Gun Games???

If you like light gun games like I do, you should stick with an old convex screen CRT SDTV. CRT HDTVs did not ship in a convex form factor (flat screen CRTs only). You may be hard-pressed to find one of these TVs that also supports 240p, so decisions, decisions.

A Cool Trick with the Wii

The Wii’s Virtual Console will also send out a 240p signal. With a Wii hooked up to something like a Trinitron FV310 via component video, you will still get the beautiful scan lines without making mods or spending a lot of extra money. There are plenty of classic arcade titles, Neo Geo titles, and more with this workaround. Again, you will need a TV or monitor capable of displaying 240p (further reading: Wii Virtual Console 240p mode).

What about Converting/Scaling?

Many modern receivers and signal/scan converters can up-convert and/or up-scale 4:3 images sent to them to 16:9 and in higher resolutions, but quality and results will vary. Using the Sabrent VGA to Component Video Converter that I reviewed back in 2009 (linked above) I have played my Dreamcast scaled to 1080i in 16:9 on my 50″ Sony Trinitron 50W800B. The results were surprisingly impressive. While this wasn’t a great device when used in conjunction with a Mac, the Dreamcast is a perfect candidate for it, and I’m sure I will find even more uses.

The RGBMini Framemeister is truly the ultimate if you want to go the conversion route, but it comes at a pretty penny – roughly $400 these days, if you can even get ahold of one. They are not very easy to come by.

What about New 4k TVs?

Standard Definition content and Enhanced Definition content looks worse and worse as TVs get newer with higher native resolutions, especially now with 4k panels that have a native resolution of 3840 x 2160 pixels – 27 times the number of pixels in a 640 x 480 image. Up-scaling old 480i and 480p content to full screen is becoming unbearable, as pixels are stretched significantly to “fit” into a much larger canvas – hence my initial argument with the cable providers losing sight of the future and need to just move on from SD content or separate services a bit better (maybe offer a “retro” only service for old TVs). Even the Framemeister is not optimal on a 4k native set, despite its advanced scaling features (but a 1080p native set works great with it).

Where does this leave us??

Conclusion: Multiple TVs for the Job

So what to do? How do you preserve your retro gaming collection and get the most out of it while enjoying a combination of low-end and high-end technologies in today’s world? Simple! You have to embrace a combination of these various technologies in a set-up that works for you.

My Low-End Retro Setup

Lots of fun packed into one space in my gaming loft! Awesome gaming for both modern and slightly older fun on the 1080p 3D capable LED Sony Bravia 50W800B, and “old school” fun on the Panasonic CRT 4:3 (the old Panasonic is a 480i only set with component video, S-video, and composite – perfect for a mix of older systems – and for my light gun games for the NES, Genesis, and Dreamcast).

Everything is tied nicely together with a simple 300W total power 5.1 audio system and STR-DH810 AV receiver (Sony’s first receiver with stereoscopic 3D video pass-through). I also have the MDD Power Mac G4, Mac Mini, and AppleTV hooked up here for additional entertainment and utility. DVD looks great upscaled to 1080p on this setup.

Modern Setup

Downstairs above my mantle is the LG G6 65″ OLED 4K 3D display with the soon to be axed cable box, PS4, and XBox One S. These systems are designed for the modern era with 4k HDR capabilities and allow the TV do what it was designed to do – handle 1080p and 4k content. It’s all pulled together nicely with a 4k Sony Blu-ray player, 600W 5.1 Cerwin Vega home theater speaker array and STR-DN1080 receiver (Sony’s best “Low End” receiver that handles 4k HDR signals as well as Dolby Atmos/DTS-X audio), which has media server functionality.

Upscaled DVD video looks poor on this display.

Remember that no answer is right or wrong for what you want, but know that in order to get a spread of various technologies from various eras, no single TV can do the job – no matter how much you scale, convert, or emulate. Some things just work better with certain technologies.

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