Thursday, July 9, 2015

Analogue Nt and the Need for Hands-On Reviews

A few days ago, I made an expansive post describing the Analogue Nt, a high-end luxury third-party NES and Famicom console using Nintendo's CPU and PPU chips.  Quite a few paragraphs into that epic I emphasized the importance of getting a feel for the experience of using the console.  Pictures and company video captures can only do so much.  I have received new information today about the experience I would like to share to people interested in the subject matter, who may be considering purchasing it and who have just received it or the shipping information for it.

HDMI Upgrade Adapter and Delays

Currently, the only NESRGB units that are shipping are non-HDMI Upgraded units.  No one outside IGN can report receiving one.  When you get a non-HDMI Upgraded unit, you will see an empty hole where the HDMI port would be.  This is rather sloppy in my opinion, Analogue Interactive should have put a solid piece in place which could be removed if upgraded.  After all, to upgrade the device you are supposed to send it back to Analogue Interactive.  On the plus side, the hole seems perfect to insert coins into, so the Analogue Nt can double as an expensive piggy bank.  Dust bunnies and spiders can take up residence inside too and keep warm next to those running chips.

As far as IGN's unit goes, they received it three weeks ago and stated they would do a full hands-on "sometime soon."  The reviewer was showing off a silver unit, and he mentioned that the unit he ordered (personally) was black.  No footage from the unit was shown.  Perhaps the demo unit has been shipped back already because IGN has not mentioned the Analogue Nt since.  Assuming that the unit probably had non-finalized HDMI Upgrade hardware, IGN may be holding back on reviewing it until the receives the go ahead from Analogue Interactive.  It may come in the form of firmware that will enable the HDMI function.

At first, the HDMI Adapter Upgrade was going to be an external adapter and it was going to cost an additional $49.00.  Earlier photos of the enclosure showed no cut out for an HDMI port inside the system, just the analog video output.  The adapter would convert RGB to digital HDMI output.  Questions must have been asked how Analogue Interactive was going to make an external RGB to HDMI converter that was any good for that price, because a good device like the Micomsoft X-RGB Mini Framemeister goes for $300 at least.  At some point between November 4, 2014 and December 12, 2014, the decision to make the HDMI Adapter Upgrade internal was made and the price was raised to $79.00.  Kevtris did not announce his HDMI NES adapter and show video footage until November 14, 2014.  Analogue Interactive probably made the decision soon thereafter to approach him.

I applaud Analogue Interactive for its initiative using the best available HDMI implementation available.  It gives an answer to the question "Why not just use an X-RGB Mini Framemeister?"  I must criticize Analogue Interactive for failing to inform its pre-order customers of the change in direction.  Only on July 27 did Analogue Interactive give links to its backers of Youtube videos showing off the HDMI Upgrade and confirming that it was kevtris' design.  However, only yesterday did kevtris announce that the hardware, firmware and software for the HiDefNES (HDMI Mod) was finished and released to manufacturing for both the Analogue Nt and people who want to purchase the kit to install on their own.  So people who ordered their Analogue Nt with the HDMI Upgrade almost certainly won't be receiving their units until late June or more likely early August, if you read between the lines of the latest Analogue Interactive shipping update.

Video Issue #1 - RGB SCART Video

I have read or seen two issues with the video quality.  First, the RGB SCART (European) cable that comes with the Analogue Nt. is incorrectly designed.  It is lacking resistors on the R, G, & B lines, giving the resulting graphics a washed-out look and overly bright look.  The Component, S-Video and Composite video output do not have this problem.  Although the SCART and JP-21 cables used with the Analogue Nt do not carry audio signals, the overly bright video can add buzz noise to the audio.  According to this blogger, https://retrogamingnr.wordpress.com/2015/07/06/17/ the brightness can be reduced either on an analog CRT or an XGRB Mini Framemeister through the use of brightness and color settings.  Of course, this becomes extremely inconvenient when you want to use another console that has SCART with the proper resistors, probably 75ohm, inside.  Then you have to boost the brightness and color settings.  Considering Analogue Nt's work with the consolidated Neo Geo MVS, which output RGB video, this is a very uncharacteristic oversight.

I have also read that the problem exists in the BNC cables, which also carry pure analog video.  Unfortunately, there is no space to solder resistors with BNC cables.  Also, the issues with the faulty SCART cable cause synching issues with the Framemeister.  See here : https://twitter.com/gamespite/status/616685135384199168  The same user later reports that his issues have been resolved : https://twitter.com/gamespite/status/621886827843190784

That video shows a NES modded with a NESRGB board vs. an Analogue Nt.  Because the RGB output from the Analogue Nt was not usable, it is really RGB vs. Component.  Note that neither the modded NES nor the Analogue Nt show 100% same colors as an unmodded NES would, but they are closer than a 2C03 : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5me9olJYGA0  Even so, the arguments over the "true" 2C02 PPU palette will rage until the 2nd to last person who cares dies.

By the way, if you really want to see what the NESRGB looks like in the Analogue Nt, the final production board, here you go : 


A bit less sleek than those official photos show, isn't it, with the NESRGB board.  Just wait until the HDMI Upgrade comes along, those official board photos from the press kit will look positively disingenuous.  Kevtris stated yesterday that his board and the NESRGB board should work harmoniously, but he needs to test it out thoroughly.

The Japanese Analogue Nt owner who took the above photo seems to state that he received replacement RGB cables, improving the picture quality of his machine considerably : https://twitter.com/KAPPY_2164/status/621808533156204544

Note that the official press kit photos have the CPU and PPU chips swapped!  See here : https://www.dropbox.com/sh/t0q2ugrc9z3ee1r/AABLi4Fl3eLCnuxj_0Qkxijta?dl=0

The board shots IGN posted back in January have the CPU and PPU in the correct sockets :
http://www.ign.com/articles/2015/01/13/look-at-whats-inside-the-analogue-nt

Video Issue #2 - Composite Video

The second issue I have confirmed is with the composite video.  In its User's Guide for the Analogue Nt, Analogue Interactive states :

"Composite

Your Analogue Nt outputs composite directly from the PPU, untouched, exactly the way your original NES or Famicom did when you first played it. This way, you can experience identically to the way it was released."

When I saw the video of the Analogue Nt's output, it demonstrated that the above quotation was not accurate.  This video shows in several instances native NES composite video vs. the Analogue Nt's composite video captured with the same equipment : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5me9olJYGA0

The composite output from the Analogue Nt either entirely lacks the dot crawl and the three-line zig zag pattern of the native NES composite video output or the effects are greatly diminished.  It looks like the composite video is being generated from the RGB, Component or S-Video signal.  In order to have untouched composite video on a NESRGB-modded NES, you must make a fourth selection using the palette selection switch.  The Analogue Nt does have a palette selection switch, but it is a little rocker switch on the underside of the console.   In order to change the palette, you have to pick up the heavy console to expose the base.  The palette selection switch has only three positions, native NES palette, RGB NES palette and improved NES palette, it does not have the fourth position for pass-through/NESRGB disable.

I would also note, however, that this form of composite video generation (from S-Video) was probably done in the Famicom Titler, so the composite video generated from the Analogue Nt is not totally without historical precedent.  But it is not how most of us first experienced it.  So you have a choice with composite NES video, sharp and jaggy from a non-Analogue Nt or straight and fuzzy from an Analogue Nt.

Cartridge Scratching

The most troubling issue reported so far is that the aluminum edges of the Analogue Nt's cartridge slots can scratch and shave plastic off cartridges when you insert and remove them.  The aluminum dust flaps which you push down on to insert a cartridge have stiff springs.  There is only about a millimeter's worth of clearance from each side of the cartridge when it is inserted into the slot.  The aluminum edges surrounding the cartridge slot are not beveled or smoothed.  If you insert it or pull it out so that the sides or the face of the cartridge makes contact with the aluminum edge, you can easily shave plastic off your cartridge.  You had best practice the Perfect Push/Pull of inserting/lifting the cartridge straight down/up to avoid damaging your carts.  Can you imagine that Little Sampson you bought for $350 in mint condition getting scratched up because you were a little off on your Pull?  While the cartridge connectors do not appear to have a Grip of Death, media damage can come in many forms.  (Broken record needles, tape/disk head crashes, out of spec lasers.)  While the NES and Famicom may also make close contact with cartridge shells, that is plastic on plastic and damage is not ordinarily going to occur.

This is what Analogue Interactive had to say about the cartridge inserting issue :

"Inserting Cartridges into the Analogue Nt

One of the most unique aspects of the Analogue Nt when compared to other video game systems, is of course that it is made from aluminum. The Analogue Nt is a high end product and it may require some reasonable extra attention when inserting cartridges. Carelessly inserting / removing cartridges into the slot or dramatically rocking them back and forth, may scuff your cartridges. Cartridges should be inserted and removed in a straight, upward and downward motion to avoid any issues. We’ve tested the cartridge mechanism with hundreds and hundreds of games, for nearly two years now and there are no known issues."

This is similar to what Apple said during the iPhone 4 antenna debacle, "you're holding it wrong!"  This is typical of a product that has never been tested outside the design lab.  Unfortunately it is way too expensive to recut the aluminum, (which was done in China), in order to widen the slot or soften the edges to prevent scratching in the future.  This may be the console you keep your Everdrive N8 or NES PowerPak always in the cartridge slot and leave your precious cartridge collection on the shelf.  I would note that only one in-depth review has reported shaved or scratched cartridge plastic from the Analogue Nt.  Analogue Nt has offered to make an extender available for anyone with an affected console so that the cartridge plastic will not make contact with the aluminum sides.

Note that there will be some difficulty using the PowerPak.  The PowerPak requires you to press reset to reset the game, but to hold down the reset button to return to the PowerPak menu.  The Analogue Nt uses a press of the switch to reset and holding down the switch to turn off the console.  You may have to get very good at the timing to get back to the menu.  The Analogue Nt's modern approach to the power button is at odds with Nintendo's separate power and reset buttons.  The Everdrive has a menu setting to allow a press of the reset button to return to the menu.

Everdrive Incompatibility

According to kevtris, the Everdrive will be incompatible with the HiDefNES board unless an ancient mapper set is used.  http://forums.nesdev.com/viewtopic.php?f=9&t=12019&start=105#p150882  This is the Board Analogue Interactive is using for the HiDefNES, so the situation will be the same if you have either an Analogue Nt or a console modded with the HiDefNES board.  kevtris says it can be fixed, but it must be done at the FPGA end, and krikzz has not made the Everdrive completely open source.  Krikzz has plenty of second rate hardware clones from aliexpress to deal with.  [update : The EverDrive's compatibility issues with the HiDefNES adapter appear to be resolved with EverDrive OS v13 and HiDefNES Update V2.00]

The Analogue Nt was sufficiently successful that a second run of consoles was made.  Unfortunately, this batch has serious issues with the EverDrive.  Games will often freeze after playing for 5-10 minutes.  Krikzz and Analogue Interactive have acknowledged the problem for some users, but there is no fix as of yet.

Positive Things about the Analogue Nt from Initial Reviews

I should not have it said that the Analogue Nt is a piece of overpriced junk or there is nothing positive about it.  For that extra $79.00, you get both the HDMI Upgrade board and the modification.  If you purchased the upgrade from Game-Tech.us, it would probably cost you double.

The reviewer had no issues with the Composite, S-Video or Component Video from the Analogue Nt.  The Component video, as shown in the test video, is pretty stunning.  The colors are bright and the pixels are crisp.

The FDS RAM Adapter fits flush and well on the Analogue Nt.  Nor have there been any complaints that the controller ports have a Grip of Death.

According to kevtris, Analogue Nt ordered 400 Hi-Def NES boards.  This will help the Hi-Def NES reach more people through the Analogue Nt and fund further batches of Hi-Def NES boards for people who want to mod their Nintendo-made systems.

HDMI Analogue Nt or Analog RGB Video Analogue Nt

At the end of August people are finally starting to get their HDMI Analogue Nts.  However, if they were expecting a Swiss army knife of NES video, they are going to wind up disappointed.  Analog video output, RGB, Component, S-Video and Composite Video are all disabled with an HDMI upgrade installed.  I suspect that there are no NESRGB boards in these units.  Kevtris indicated that his board could work in conjunction with the NESRGB board, but it required non-trivial modifications to the NESRGB board. He had not fully tested the pair and may not be very interested in doing so. Analogue Interactive apparently decided not to risk an incompatibility, so they disabled the NESRGB functionality when the HDMI upgrade is installed.  I would not be surprised if they removed the NESRGB board entirely, because they indicate that either type of Analogue Nt could be sent back to them for an upgrade.

The original composite video signal is still available when the HDMI cable is not plugged in.  Analogue Nt has offered to make that an output option for anyone who wishes to return their console for the modification.

HDMI Teething Issues

When the HDMI enabled Analogue Nts began shipping to customers in later August, there have been a few reports of teething problems.  The biggest confirmed issue is that Castlevania 3 and some other MMC5 games will not work in the HDMI version.  Laser Invasion works fine and that was the game kevtris used to test.  Very recently, there has been a workaround by using a CV3 plugged into a Game Genie.  Also, the HDMI Analogue Nts will reset if the TV is shut off.  The HiDef NES mod inside the Analogue Nt HDMI version should be fixable with a firmware update, but the buyers of the HDMI were not made aware that the board could possibly have bugs.  Also, while updating the firmware is easy with a PowerPak, not everyone has one of those.  They may have to wait for Analogue Interactive to ship them a cartridge with a firmware update.  [update: HiDefNES Update V2.25 fixes these issues and other bugs]

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