Thursday, August 27, 2015

Analogue Nt HDMI - First Look

I finally got my Analogue Nt with HDMI upgrade in the mail today and while the base Nt has already gotten plenty of coverage, the HDMI-upgraded model hasn't been covered at all (AFAIK) at the time of this writing.

I got the default silver model with the "limited edition" white and gold controller ports:
As covered elsewhere, the construction is incredibly high quality (the power/reset button being a button from an NES controller is a particularly interesting touch, I thought):
There has been much ado about the aluminum cart slots scratching up cart shells, which hasn't been a problem for me, but I suppose if you're really worried about it, you could open the flaps with a finger while inserting the cart. /shrug

Below the HDMI port is a standard 15-pin d-sub connector, which I've seen called a "VGA port" elsewhere, though this is not the case. That is to say: you can't hook it up to a VGA-compatible display and get any video out of it. For that matter, it's apparently not RGBHV-over-d-sub, either, as it didn't produce any picture when hooked up to my multisync XM29+'s d-sub port, even though that monitor will accept "240p" non-interlaced video over that connection. I'll have to catch up with the guys at Analogue and ask about the pinout of the port. Hopefully, it's something that won't require too much effort to get going on my own. I'm planning to hack together a SCART cable and a working RGBHV-over-d-sub cable (if possible). EDIT: I just talked to the Analogue guys and it seems the HDMI and RGB/component functionalities are mutually exclusive. It seems they will swap between the two at no charge, though:
"When you upgrade your Analogue Nt to HDMI it outputs HDMI only, there are two different systems that are not compatible with each other. Though, whats cool is you can switch between RGB and HDMI if you wanted either version (we'd install either daughterboard for you for free). Also, any other cool mods that the NES community may make in the future would be compatible with the Nt too - which is super cool!"
That in mind, I may decide to switch to RGB at some point in the future, as much of my equipment is tooled for RGB/SCART/JP21, but for now HDMI is convenient.

I won't rehash any more of the information that's readily available elsewhere, so instead I'll spend most of this post talking about the HDMI upgrade. While originally advertised as an external upscaler, they eventually nixed that idea (and rightfully so, since it's not likely they'd be able to get anything worthwhile for the ~$60 cost of the upgrade) and opted instead for kevtris' brand new HDMI board, which AFAIK isn't available anywhere else just yet.

I'm still doing testing to get a feel for what the HDMI board is capable of, but out of the gate: it's pretty incredible. The image is exactly what you would expect from an emulator, warts and all. That is, the upscaled pixels are as sharp as you can get; much sharper than the output of an XRGB-Mini Framemeister (which I also have, so I can give them the Pepsi Challenge):
The colors in those shots are washed out, but that's the fault of my camera trying to adjust to the brightness of my TV's backlight. The colors are actually bright and vibrant, and the HDMI connection has none of the "shimmering" on large swaths of color that have been reported elsewhere with RGB connections.

Getting into the HDMI onscreen menu is pretty cool/crazy in that it's a button combination on the gamepad (specifically, dpad-down+select by default). Once there, it's got a ton of cool options for tweaking the video, including overscan cropping, horizontal scaling, scanline settings, scaling filters and resolution selection driven by your display's EDID:
At 1080p, the scanlines are uneven thickness (alternating thinner and thicker), just like you would get on an emulator at 4.5x scale:
1080p's uneven scanlines
I would have liked to see an option to force integer scaling to avoid this issue, but I didn't see anything like that (I'll update this post if I find otherwise; such a thing may also be added in a future firmware update UPDATE: 9/26/2015 looks like kevtris is on it). At 720p, the scanlines are even thickness, since it's an even 3x integer scale already, but the pixels aren't as sharp due to my TV doing the rest of the scaling:
720p's even scanlines
Scanline settings. NES is locked to the resolution, while the others are pre-set scale factors (i.e., they don't always line up with the pixels, which I can't stand). There's also an intensity slider that controls how dark the lines are.
Likewise, at 1080p, the vertical size of pixels isn't consistent, just as you would expect from nearest neighbor scaling at a non-integer scale factor. This is also the case with the horizontal scaling, but there is an option screen specifically for tweaking it, from 3x (for 1:1 PAR at 720p) up to stretched 16:9 (barf). The default setting is 4:3 on 16:9 displays, which has faintly warped pixels but is the natural aspect ratio for NTSC:
1:1 PAR (i.e., square pixels) using 3x horizontal scale at 720p; notice the even checkerboard pattern in the road.
4:3 aspect ratio; notice the uneven pattern on the road.
There's also a preset for 4:3 on 16:10 displays, which is handy if you're hooking up to a monitor instead of a TV, as well as an option labeled "interpolation," but I can't really see any difference between it being enabled/disabled.

There are also scaling filters, including the ever-popular hq2x/hq3x/hq4x (no filtering vs hq4x):
No scaling filter
HQ4x scaling filter
The HDMI board also includes a lot of audio settings, with individual enable/disable toggles and volume/panning for main audio and each specific add-on audio chip for FDS audio and any in-cart audio add-ons, like the ones in Gimmick and Akumajou Densetsu:
Independent volume control for each audio device
There are a ton of other options I haven't gotten to play with yet, including hotkeys for over/under-clocking (presumably to get around some incompatibility with the Everdrive N8, which I haven't gotten to test yet), soft-reset and more.

UPDATE (8/30/2015): Looking into the Everdrive issue, it seems the N8 is indeed incompatible with kevtris' HDMI board with N8 firmware >= 4.0, while the 3.0 firmware may be okay. The Analogue folks uploaded a copy of the older firmware to their Dropbox account. Testing is easy, just copy and paste the files onto your SD card and replace the newer versions. Leave me a comment if you get to try it. I hope to borrow a friend's N8 soon, so hopefully I can provide some input/testing.

Update (9/25/2015): KRIKzz got his hands on an HDMI board and has been investigating the issue. Hopefully, a fix will be forthcoming. Update (9/28/2015): Oh sweet: looks like he's got it working! Anyone with the HDMI board should upgrade their N8s to firmware v13. Update (10/3/2015): d'oh, not working for me :(. I get a garbled mess if I boot my new N8 with no SD card and a green screen with firmware v13.

In addition to the N8 issues, Kevtris' HDMI board has been having issues with some games and mappers, the most popular of which is Castlevania 3. Apparently, holding reset while powering on the console alleviates some of the issues but this isn't an option on the Nt. Kevtris is working on it, though, and it should be addressed in the upcoming update. Update (10/30/2015): Kevtris' update is out and it apparently fixes the Everdrive green screen, FDS and MMC5. Anyone still having the Everdrive green screen issue can still apply the update from their Everdrive by powering on with the HDMI cable unplugged, wait a few seconds for everything to initialize and then plug the HDMI cable back in.

I plan to update this post as I learn more but I wanted to get this info out there, both for people waiting on their Nts and for those eager to learn more about kevtris' awesome HDMI board (for reference, it seems my board's serial number is 30, so I would assume it's one of the first to make it into an end-user's hands).

Anyway, here are a couple more glamour-shots:

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Retr0brite Is Just Hydrogen Peroxide Plus Filler

I bought an SNES Mini on eBay the other day with the intention of applying an RGB restoration mod + csync. It was in decent condition other than a few scuffs and some extensive yellowing of the plastic, which I decided to try correcting with some "Retr0brite."

After reading up on recipes and some related forum posts, I decided not to go through the trouble/expense of buying and mixing up actual Retr0brite paste, which contains glycerin and xanthan gum, and instead focused on the active ingredient: concentrated hydrogen peroxide. Recipes typically call for some low-concentration, aqueous hydrogen peroxide, like you find in the big brown bottles, bolstered with OxyClean--basically dehydrated hydrogen peroxide powder--and thickeners to make a paste that you can spread onto things. This in mind, it doesn't make much sense to use relatively expensive low-concentration hydrogen peroxide as a base when you could just start with regular water and add more OxyClean...

If you have access to a Sally Beauty Supply store, they sell bottles of 40 vol creme developer, which has an even higher concentration of hydrogen peroxide than OxyClean and is already goopy, so you don't need to fool with the glycerin/xanthan gum to get it to stick to stuff. This can be helpful if you don't have an appropriately sized container in which to submerge your plastic, and reports suggest that it works within hours rather than days. However, you need to be more cautious with this, as it can damage clothing and skin/hair.

Anyway, I skipped the low-concentration stuff and just dumped a bunch of OxyClean into a roasting pan full of water, plopped the top section of my SNES Mini in and left the whole thing out in the sun for 2 days (you'll have to replenish the OxyClean periodically, as it seems to lose its mojo over time).

The first day, I didn't put nearly enough OxyClean in, so there was very little improvement. The second day, I drastically increased the concentration and had much better results. I found that, in a properly high concentration, the plastic should be more buoyant than the solution, so you'll need to hold it down with something. Also, there seems to be some disagreement as to whether the process needs actual sunlight or if any light source will do. In my case, there was no effect from 8 hrs under a CFL light bulb, so the sunlight (or a UV lamp) seems to be necessary.
It's not perfect, but it's a pretty dramatic improvement, I think. The RGB+csync mod was a success, as well! The resulting picture is noticeably sharper than on my older model (the model with the sticker underneath the power button) and there's no annoying bright vertical line going through the center of the screen. The colors are identical to the original model because I put 1.1k ohm resistors on each line to dim the channels. The tutorial I linked above mentions this as an optional step and I highly recommend it.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

NEC XM29 Plus Broadcast Monitor

I lucked into another broadcast monitor recently, this time the "holy grail" of retro gaming monitors, NEC's XM29 Plus. I won't rehash a whole bunch of info that's available elsewhere, but I will provide some answers to questions I had as I started using it:

Unlike the Sony PVM series, the XM29 Plus has no support for component inputs, but it supports almost everything else (Svideo, composite, RGBHV, VGA). You can get a YPbPr-to-VGA transcoder, like this thing, but most of them (including that one) don't support resolutions below 640x480, so they're not good for PS1 (which frequently jumps between 480i and "240p"), non-progressive PS2 games (admittedly, the vast majority of PS2 games are 480p-capable), or "240p"/doublestrike emulation via Wii homebrew, etc.

That said, I don't think component is a particularly useful on the XM29, which is a shame because that's what I had settled on for use with my PVM. Instead, it seems best to stick with RGB SCART, which is easily converted to RGBHV, as the XM29 has two of those inputs available. You will need a sync cleaner, though, so either get a sync strike or get a cable with a sync cleaner built-in, like this one.

There's a lot of uncertainty online about which resolutions work over SCART but I can answer definitively: 480p over RGB SCART totally works fine.

Other than that, there's not much else to say. Low-res non-interlaced content has extremely sharp scanlines with thick, black spaces between them, which some people don't care for. Likewise, interlaced content bobs very visibly when sitting close to the screen. Slight geometry issues are also apparently common on these monitors, and mine's no exception. However, it still looks great and many of the imperfections can be hidden with a teensy bit of overscan.

Here are some shots (click to embiggen):
240 noninterlaced full frame TATE
240 noninterlaced closeup TATE

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