Sunday, May 3, 2015

Fun with the Framemeister

If you want to run your classic consoles on a modern flat screen HD TV, you probably will not like what you see if you connect the console's video output directly to the TV.  In fact, if you have a 4K TV like mine, you may not see anything at all!  Classic consoles were designed to display on CRTs, but if you do not have a CRT, you need this :


This is the Micomsoft XRGB-mini Framemeister.  As the photo indicates, it is an upscaler.  It is designed to upscale the video image of classic consoles from 240p and 480i/p to HD resolutions like 720p and 1080p.  It and the other products Micomsoft produces are unique because they are the only video scalers designed to work with classic video game consoles.  This comes at a steep price, the unit retails for just over $300 USD.  A friend lent me a unit to test, so here I will give my impressions of the unit.

The Framemeister outputs only via HDMI with a standard cable.  It has multiple inputs, composite video, S-video, analog RGB, D-Terminal (carries component video, adapters available to use RCA-style component cables) and two HDMI.  In addition to the buttons, it comes with a remote that makes selecting options from the on-screen menu much easier.  The Framemeister requires you to select the input you are going to use, and the remote has a button for each input.  If you do not select the correct signal, you will see nothing.  

Micomsoft a Japanese company, and while the company's page is not English-friendly, there is a large amount of information out there to help the new user out on various forums.  The firmware is upgradeable with a micro-SD card.  In addition, the micro-SD card can store the user's image settings, but the unit itself will remember stored settings.

With analog video, RGB (15.75kHz horizontal scan rate, 240p) the Framemeister provides the best possible output quality available today.  Alternatively, component video also provides nearly identical video output quality but also supports 480p whereas RGB is limited to 480i.  A third alternative is VGA, which is essentially 480p or better RGB (31.5kHz horizontal scan rate).  Below this tier is S-Video, then comes composite video and finally RF modulation.  

The RGB input uses a mini-DIN 9 connector, and Micomsoft provides a mini-DIN 9 to JP-21 adapter with the Framemeister unit.  Higher end European TVs had a SCART connector to accept an RGB signal and Japanese TVs used a physically identical but electrically incompatible JP-21 connector to do the same.  Micomsoft ships a Japanese JP-21 adapter, but there are European SCART adapters.  If you are using the Japanese SNES RGB cable, you need the JP-21 adapter, and if you use the European SNES RGB cable, you need a SCART adapter.  

The Framemeister can do a superb job upscaling RGB video to HDTVs.  It does not seem to matter if your RGB output is using composite sync or composite video for the sync signals, the device supports both.  In fact, you can approach the picture quality that you would get if you were displaying the output from an emulator on the screen.  The unit can output to standard HDMI resolutions like 720p, 1080i or 1080p.  I obviously recommend using a progressive resolution where possible.  It also supports DVI computer monitor resolutions if the display is DVI capable (and most are).  Here is the table in English of all the options available :

http://www.micomsoft.co.jp/XRGB-mini_Ver200_OSD_E.pdf

With S-Video, my SNES looked almost as good as the RGB output.  With composite video the image was nowhere near the quality of either.  Composite video is far, far more easier on the eyes on a CRT than any LCD, even as upscaled by the Framemeister.  I do not have a D-Terminal to Component adapter, but my HDTVs still support component input, so I cannot tell whether the Framemeister would be an improvement.  However, I doubt my TVs support 240p over component video, which is technically outside the standard.

Other than image quality, the other reason to consider a Framemeister is to decrease the lag involved in upscaling and processing the low-resolution console video to HD video.  At a 60Hz refresh rate, a console is generating frames every 16.66 milliseconds. It has been stated that the Framemeister adds 1 frame or 20 milliseconds of lag compared to the unprocessed output (i.e. being connected to a CRT).   TVs upscale and process all video to its native resolution before displaying it, so in this regard the Framemesiter is superior to just about any TV.  LCD TVs tend to have input processing delays of tens of milliseconds, and some sets can go over 100 milliseconds.  While one to three frames of lag may be imperceptible, how about five or ten?  By outputting to the panel's native resolution, one major source of lag is eliminated.   

I took some photos of the screen with my camera to give some idea of the differing picture quality between the inputs of the Framemeister and my TV's native input scaling.  My TV is an HDTV from 2008 that supports 1080p and has an S-Video and Composite input.  The SNES and the PC Engine Duo are the only RGB-capable consoles for which I have RGB cables.  The SNES almost always outputs 256 horizontal pixels.  The Turbo Duo usually outputs 256 horizontal pixels but many games use a 288, 320 or 336 horizontal pixel mode.  Here are the photos :

TurboGrafx-16 Bonk's Adventure - Composite Video Native TV Scaling
TurboGrafx-16 Bonk's Adventure - Composite Video Framemeister Scaling
TurboGrafx-16 Bonk's Adventure - RGB Video Framemeister Scaling
SNES Super Mario World - Composite Video Native TV Scaling
SNES Super Mario World - Composite Video Framemeister Scaling
SNES mini Super Mario World - RGB Video Framemeister Scaling
SNES Super Mario World - RGB Video Framemeister Scaling
SNES Super Mario World - S-Video Native TV Scaling
SNES Super Mario World - S-Video Framemeister Scaling
TurboGrafx-16 Ys Book I & II Composite Video Framemeister Scaling
TurboGrafx-16 Ys Book I & II RGB Video Framemeister Scaling
TurboGrafx-16 Ys Book I & II Composite Video Native TV Scaling
When it comes to SNES video quality there are generally the early consoles, which have one CPU and two PPU and APU chips, and the later consoles, which have a combined CPU and PPU chip and a single APU chip.  The latter are known as the 1-chip SNES, and were introduced in the last batches of the original SNES case.  When Nintendo released the SNES mini (a.k.a. SNESjr., SNS-101), this 1-chip design was always used. While the original case 1-chip SNESes still include RGB and S-Video output, the SNESjr. lacks the lines and circuitry for both.  The capability is still present in the video encoder, but requires an amplifier between the encoder and the Multi AV output pins.   Considering the tendencies of SNES consoles to exhibit the white line issue, using an amplifier is probably a good idea if you are going for the ultimate in image quality.  

The Framemeister is a jack-off-all-trades device.  For the NES, it is a great choice if you have a NESRGB mod.  The mod board costs about $70, more if you have a Top Loader or a Famicom.  Installing it is no small task because you have to desolder the PPU without destroying it or the pads and traces on the NES or Famicom PCB.  Of course, if you want to shell out the big $$$, you can get a Super 8-bit or someone to mod it for you.  However, for the most lag free and lossless video and audio, there is an HDMI kit that is nearly complete from Kevtris and GameTech.  This kit has lag that will be measured in scanlines, not frames.  HDMI kits may give the best video quality available, being tweaked to specific consoles, but a Framemeister will be cheaper than modding multiple consoles and supports just about any console or home computer that outputs a pure RGB analog signal.  It is probably the best overall choice if you don't have or want a CRT.

One important thing to note is that the HD resolutions of choice, 720p and 1080p, are not necessarily ideal for retro consoles if you want razor sharp pixels or to have all pixels the same size.  There are very few large 720p panels, and many of them may actually be 768 pixel panels that stretch everything.  Many of the best panels are plasmas, which you should not use with video games due to burn-in.  720 lines is an excellent resolution for NTSC retro consoles, all of which output 240 lines, even if some of those lines only show a border color.  1080 is not an ideal resolution.  Some pixels will take up more lines than others.  The best solution is to output a 960 line image and put up with borders.  Many TVs will simply stretch everything.  The Framemeister does not seem to allow for total user control over the horizontal and vertical scaling.  

7 comments:

Unknown said...

Hi,

First of all, BIG THANKS for this informative post.

Second, I'm interested in this kind of hardwares, but my intent is to use those with PC DOS gaming hooked up to a DELL LCD monitor 4:3 1600by1200.

Micomsoft produces also the XPC-4 upscan converter to use with western and Japanese vintage PCs (Sharp X68000).

Alternatives are an Extron Super Emotia + Gefen VGA to DVI Scaler Plus.

What do you think about?

Best regards,

Mauro from Italy

Great Hierophant said...

I am sure the Micomsoft products can do a good job with the material you are looking to use on your LCD monitor, but if you have a 1600x1200 LCD monitor, I would save your money and use DOSBox to stretch 320x200 into 1600x1200.

Unknown said...

Hi,

Well, Dosbox is a possibility but I prefer pure Dos/Windows 98 experience.

Right now I have the Gefen hardware and I'm searching an Extron Super Emotia.

Hopefully I'll be able to test the quality output of a 320x200 resolution on a 1600x1200 resolution lcd panel.

Mauro

keropi said...

the framemeister is an AWESOME device. Nowdays fw2.0+ supports profiles so there are some good ones waiting for you to download and use here: http://www.firebrandx.com/pixelpurist.html

RetroPlayers said...

Great post guys, I am finally looking at getting a Frameeister Mini as part of my setup at home. Any questions that I had with regards to setup / config are pretty much ironed out now, I just need to find the most reliable / cheapest retailer to acquire one and get it to the UK. So far Solaris seems to be the best option that I have found so far, any other suggestions?

Michael Burns said...

Question for you, since I also have a 4K TV: my SNES via RGB looks glorious scaled from 240p->720p->2106p, however, when I turn scanlines on, there are also noticeable horizontal bars, sort of like banding, that occur on every other batch of, say, 4-5 scanlines. Does that make sense? It's sort of like banding. It's most noticeable when scrolling vertically.

Great Hierophant said...

I think that your TV is unevenly scaling the lines vertically. That is typically the cause of scanline banding. What happens at 1080p?