Thursday, November 2, 2017

The Analogue Nt Mini - First Impressions


Last Thursday my Analogue Nt Mini finally arrived.  I had discussed this FPGA-based console from afar when it was first released early in the year, but had no opportunity to review one first-hand at the time.  I ordered my Nt Mini during the second run of pre-orders.  Analogue planned to ship the second batch in September, but late shipping from the factory and a surprise customs inspection later, it ended up shipping the Nt Mini in late October.  Having paid full price for an Nt Mini, $449, plus $37 in shipping, I intend to do a complete and thorough review of all the device's capabilities.  Let me start by giving my first impressions of this high end recreation of the Nintendo Entertainment System.



Anodized Aluminum Enclosure

The enclosure has a matte finish, so it does not collect fingerprints fingerprints.  Silver does not pick up dust like black.  It does not feel smooth like the anodized aluminum on other products like Apple iPads.  It feels more like a whetstone.

The dust flaps are made out of aluminum. On my unit, the dust flaps for the Famicom slot have a larger gap than NES slot.  This is noticeable when you look at the unit from an angle, not so much when you look at it heads down.  The front portion of the Famicom flap often does not spring back into the same position as rear portion, giving an even wider gap.

The bottom of console uses translucent plastic, possibly acrylic, and security screws.  There are no protection stickers to leave evidence that you have opened your console.  You can use a 2.5mm hex bit to unscrew the security screws.  The plastic can accrue fingerprints, so I would highly advise against using the Nt Mini to bludgeon someone else to death.

Controller Ports

True Nintendo connectors (from Nintendo controllers) have a loose connection in the port, the plugs can be pulled out very easily.  The plug is not ratting around in the port.  The 8bitdo Retro Receiver has a more snug fit.

The receiver for a NES Satellite and the plug for a NES Four Score will not fit in these ports, they are spaced too far apart.  The four controller ports replicate the functionality of these devices and will also allow you to use Famicom 3 and 4 player games, whereas the Satellite and Four Score would not.

Light guns can be plugged into the two controller ports on the left side.  You can use two light guns in this system for games that support it.  Baby Boomer and Chiller are the only known games that support a light gun in the first controller port.

There is a pinhole for the LED, which can change colors.  This LED by default will be a steady white when the console is ready to be used and repeating red when it is booting up, loading a core or upgrading the firmware.

8Bitdo Controller

One 8Bitdo N30 Controller and one Retro Receiver are included with every Nt Mini.  These controllers use bluetooth technology to communicate wirelessly.  Bluetooth allows you to use this controller with anything that supports a Bluetooth controller.  The controller which comes with the system has a very high build quality, face buttons have a responsive snap like a Nintendo NES Controller.  However, it is shaped like a NES controller, so those pointy corners will dig into your hands after a while.

The batteries can be recharged via USB cable with a micro connector for the controller.  A cable is included.  8Bitdo advertises 18 hours of battery life and a 1-2 hour recharge time.  You can use the controller while it is plugged in and recharging.

There are two LEDs on the top edge of the controller.  A solid blue LED shows that the device is paired.  The second light will show red for low battery, blinking green for charging and solid green when the battery is fully charged.

The controller weighs in at 2.7oz, which is slightly heavier than the official NES controller's 2.1oz.  The dimensions of the 8Bitdo controller are nearly exactly the same as the official NES controller.  The battery is rated at 3.7v, 480mA.  It's positive and negative wires need to be desoldered replace it.

The D-pad is pretty responsive, but not quite as responsive as a true Nintendo controller.  Also, you must take very good care not to wiggle the USB connector, because its support is less than solid on the PCB.  This review here is spot on in explaining these issues : https://aaltomies.wordpress.com/2014/10/17/review-of-the-month-8bitdo-nes30-controller/  I opened up my unit and do not recall seeing anything that would have addressed the issues from that three-year old review.

Pairing on the controller is done by holding the start button down for three seconds.  Conceivably you could hold down the start button in a game long enough to trigger pairing mode and lose input.  However, I cannot think of any 8-bit game that requires holding down the start button as opposed to pressing it.

Retro Receiver

The Retro Receiver has a red pairing button, a blue LED indicating the pairing status and a micro USB connector.  It can support the whole line of 8Bitdo controllers, the Switch Joy-cons, the Switch Pro Controller, Wii U Pro Controller, the Wii Remote and Wii MotionPlus, PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4 Controllers.  In other words, if the controller uses Bluetooth and was not intended for a Microsoft console, your chances of using it are probably very good.

Bluetooth brings additional latency over wired controllers or the AVS Wireless Controller from RetroUSB.  Pairing can take several seconds when the console or the Retro Receiver is plugged in.  Two Retro Receivers can interfere with each other in the first and second controller ports due to their proximity.  Many games will read controller port 2 in controller port 4 with the Famicom 4-player Adapter being used, which can mitigate the issue.  Responsiveness can be effected by heavy use of the 2.4GHz band and low battery.

Special Retro Receiver firmware is recommended for Retro Receivers not bundled with the Nt Mini.  You can download it from Analogue's support page here : https://support.analogue.co/hc/en-us/articles/115001657087-Using-the-Retro-Receiver-for-NES-with-the-Nt-mini  The firmware will optimize your receiver's button mapping.  The ideal mapping for the Retro Receiver and 8Bitdo controller, in my opinion, is to designate Y as B and B as A.  Some gamers, like my friend Kosmic Stardust, may prefer keeping the B and A functions on this controller mapped to the physical B and A buttons, but when there is an Y and X button, I prefer the SNES style arrangement.

Although it may appear obvious, I could not find instructions on how to update your Retro Receiver firmware anywhere on 8Bitdo's site.  You must plug the Retro Receiver into your PC with a USB cable, run the update executable, then follow the on-screen instructions.

Rear & Side Ports

"HD" port is an unlabeled (and unauthorized) HDMI port.  The Nt Mini's video is either digital or analog, it cannot display both at the same time.  HDMI support is present for 480p, 720p and 1080p at 50Hz and 60Hz.  The EDID function built into most modern displays should inform the Nt Mini which of these resolutions and refresh rates it supports.

The HD-15 port carries all analog video signals.  Cables for Composite & S-Video and Component Video or BNC are available inexpensively from Monoprice.  SCART cables for RGB Video should be purchased from here for a first run unit : http://retrocables.es/tienda/index.php?id_product=55&controller=product&id_lang=1  This cable uses the USB port to provide +5v to tell some TVs to accept RGB instead of Composite video.  The second run units do not require the USB plug, they have +5v through a 180ohm on the HD-15 port on pin 9.  Instructions on how to modify a SCART cable can be found here : https://support.analogue.co/hc/en-us/articles/115000923948-Using-Analog-Video-output-with-the-Nt-mini  Note that the guide was not updated to indicate the new signal on pin 9.  The addition of this signal is the only functional difference between first and second run Nt Mini units.

The HD-15 can only output 240p/15KHz, even though component video supports 480p and 720p.  My VGA monitor will not accept the 240p signal.  One reporter indicated that an HDMI to VGA adapter worked well.

The RCA connectors carry mono or stereo audio.  They are active even when HD video is being displayed.  By not carrying the audio with the SCART connector, audio  "buzz" interference can be minimized or avoided.  The buzz is especially noticeable when there is a bright white screen on dispaly.

The microphone port recreates the important part of the functionality of the Famicom Controller II Microphone.  The Nt Mini will convert analog sound picked up by the microphone into a digital input for games that support it like The Legend of Zelda and Palutena no Kagami, but it will not mix the microphone input with the audio output like a real Famicom.  The microphone feature worked fine with the CT329  condenser microphone that came with a Sound Blaster 16 I purchased new in box ten years ago.

The Famicom Expansion Port used here is a standard DA-15 connector.  Original Nintendo Famicom Expansion Ports use a deeper connector than this one, so your controller's plug will stick out a little by comparison.

The power connector is a standard barrel connector.  The power supply is +12v, 1A, center tip positive.  The Nt Mini comes with a power adapter with four interchangeable plug adapters, Types A, C, G and I.  A NES or Sega Master System/Genesis Model 1 power supply will fit in this socket, but never use them.  The NES power supply only provides AC and the Genesis power supply had the wrong tip polarity.

The USB port can be used to charge an 8bitdo controller or for SCART detection, see above.

The Power button is shaped like a NES controller button, but has an A molded in the middle.  Holding it turns the console on and off, pressing it when on causes the console to reset.  This is useful for original cartridge games like The Legend of Zelda which require you to hold the reset button as you turn the power off.

The SD card on the left side is officially used for firmware updates, loading custom NES palettes, playing NSF files and loading LED flashing profiles.  Palettes are used for the HDMI, RGB and Component video output, they are not used for S-Video and Composite video.  The NES composite signal generated by the Nt Mini has all the quirks of the composite signal generated by the original consoles, the 3-line staircasing of color graphics on edges, the odd diagonal artifacts, the dot crawl of even frames being one pixel shorter than odd frames.  The NES S-Video signal is essentially the signal that a NES generates inside its PPU before mixing the chroma and luma, so you no longer have the staircasing effect or the diagonal artifacts but the dot crawl of the extra pixel is still present to some degree.  RGB and Component keep the extra pixel but apply it to colors definied by an RGB color palettes instead of the NTSC color burst phase-shifted, amplitude modulated square waves and luma signals that the original PPU generates.

Cartridge Slots

The slots have a snug fit, more snug than a Famicom/AV Famicom or NES Top Loader, but do not have a death grip associated with cheap clones.  The connectors may be less tolerant of dirty cartridge pins, so have a bottle of isoprophyl alcohol handy.  I use MG Chemicals 99.9% pure anhydrous isoprophyl alcohol and it works beautifully.

The Famicom connector will route external audio from a Famicom cartridge to an Analog to Digital Converter and mix the audio with digitally generated audio from the Nt Mini's FPGA and then to the HDMI connector.  The mixed audio will go through a Digital to Analog Converter and then through the RCA connectors.  The NES connector will not route external audio, which is an issue only with an NES PowerPak and EverDrive N8 NES.  If for some reason you wanted to fix this, you could open up your Nt Mini and solder a wire from NES pin 51 (typically) to Famicom pin 46, but you would almost certainly void your warranty.

One issue that has plagued the RetroUSB AVS, the closest competitor to the Nt Mini in terms of features, functionality and build quality, is that its NES connector had a very hard time reading NES cartridges with the "green stripe".  These cartridges have shorter pins on one side, but the original NES cartridge connector has pins that make contact further up on the cartridge pins than some generic 72-pin connectors.  I tried a cartridge with the green stripe I had (Air Fortress) and it worked fine the first time.  I would cautiously conclude that the Nt Mini does not have this issue.

The Famicom Disk System's RAM Adapter fits and works well in the Famicom slot.  Avoid touching the front of the RAM Adapter when playing a game, it can tip forward a little and possibly ruin your game.  I do not know for sure if other Famicom expansion devices that use the cartridge slot like the StudyBox, the Karaoke Studio, the Datach Joint ROM System or the Famicom Modem will fit given the curves of the Nt Mini's enclosure.

One complaint about the original Nt was that it could scratch or shave off plastic from original cartridges.  The Nt Mini has more clearance around each edge so this should not occur unless you are careless. 

The Menu

When you turn on the system on for the first time, wait for the LED to turn white and you will see the Analogue logo followed by the menu.  The menu is navigated only by the first controller.  It can be navigated by an original NES controller or an 8Bitdo controller, the buttons arrangement of the 8Bitdo controller is acknowledged but the extra buttons are not functional in the menu.

The menu by default is set to have button B select or confirm and button A to cancel or go up a menu.  You can change this via the Swap Buttons options.  I hated this on the EverDrives and I am glad that the option is available here from day one.  As of the latest official firmware, v2.3, the root menu has the following items :

Run Cartridge
Cheat Codes
NSF Player
Settings
Power Off

Run Cartridge is fairly obvious, and Cheat Codes allows you to input up to six Game Genie codes.  The codes can be six or eight characters in length.  NSF Player will bring you to file browser if you have an SD card inserted.  The file browser does not necessarily open folders instantaneously.  The more files in the folder, the longer it will take to load.  The browser will automatically alphabetize your files, but you can also do this via a Windows utility like Drive Sort.

The NSF Player will give you a visual display of the music being played back.  You will see horizontal bars typically representing frequency, a cursor indicating volume and a little picture on the side indicating the shape of the waveform in many instances.  Each of the four duty cycle settings of the internal pulse channels has a different graphics tile.  The noise channel will show whether the short or the long noise period is being used.  The triangle channel does not change since there are no setting for the triangle that shape its basic waveform.  The PCM channel is represented by a pair of numbers representing the sample address and sample length.  If pure 7-bit PCM is playing, the screen will freeze.  The pulse channels graphic tiles for the MMC5 and VRC6 expansion chips will also change according to their duty cycles.

Board Quality

The Analogue Nt Mini's PCB is a six-layer board.  This gives four planes for signals and a plane for power and ground.  Six layer boards provide superior EMI performance to four layer boards, which may be found in lesser designs.  The PCB also has nine 8-bit transceivers to translate 5v and 3.3v logic signals.  Unlike transceivers on other products, these transceivers have both 5v and 3.3v inputs, giving a superior translation to transceivers powered solely by 3.3v.  Essentially the board design is the gold standard of how an FPGA console should be designed.

The Video & Audio

These settings practically deserve a blog post on their own.  The NES is a 240p system with a resolution of 256x240 and the Nt mini does an integer scale of 2x to 480p, 3x to 720p and 4x to 1080p.  All video is generated digitally and output as sharp as your display can manage.  1080p can also do 4.5x and a cropped 5x.  A cropped 5x image gives you an effective 256x216 image, but you can shift the image upward or downward to avoid cropping vital information.  Many games do not update tiles in those areas on the assumption that the player would not see their sloppiness through the plastic frame over the glass tube's edges.  This is what you can see at a 5x scale :


The image can be stretched horizontally from a narrow 4x to stretch all the way to fit a 16:9 screen at a 7.5x scale at 1080p.  At 720p the horizontal resolution can scale from 3x to 5x to fill the screen.  At 480x your only options are a horizontal scale of 2x-2.5x.  This stretching can occur in very small increments, but it is best to use integer scaling factors to avoid pixel shimmering.

The Nt Mini can crop up to 32 pixels on each side of the image, which when done judiciously can help to eliminate unsightly artifacts that are seen when the NES scrolls.  It supports hq2x, hq3x, hq4x, scale2x, scale3x and x-ray for scaling options if you like to soften the hard edges of the pixels.  X-ray essentially turns the image into inverted grayscale, but kevtris implemented it because it took up virtually no resources on the FPGA.  Scanlines of varying density can be implemented can be implemented for every 2, 3, 4 or 5 scaled lines, depending on how prominent they

As has been mentioned before, the Nt Mini slows the NES down from 60.0988Hz to 60Hz in HDMI mode.  This is to ensure compatibility with the widest variety of displays.  Many displays will not take a 60.0988Hz signal.  The Open Source Scan Converter by contrast converts analog to digital signals but does not use a frame buffer to adjust the frame rate, leading to compatibility issues with displays.  The audio's pitch is mathematically affected slightly, but by a degree that can be discerned by human ears.  The Nt Mini outputs video in 24-bit RGB, the equivalent of a 4:4:4 color matrix.  The audio is piped through at 16-bit/48KHz.   The Nt Mini supports RGB, Component, S-Video and composite video, and that video comes through at 60.0988Hz and the pitch of the audio is not affected at all.

The Nt Mini can simulate the expansion audio of the Famicom Disk System, the Nintendo MMC5 chip, the Sunsoft 5B chip, the Konami VRC6 and VRC7 chips, the Namco 163 chip.  You can adjust the relative volume of the individual NES audio channels (pulse 1, pulse 2, triangle, noise, DPCM), the MMC5 channels (pulse 1, pulse 2 and PCM), VRC6 (pulse 1, pulse 2 and sawtooth) Sunsoft 5B, Namco 163, FDS, and VRC7 (a six channel chip) split into two halves.  Similarly, you can pan each channel left or right, giving you a far more refined control over your stereo-izing efforts than the old NES stereo audio mod (pulse channels to one speaker, triangle, noise & DPCM to other speaker) ever did.

Next Time

This part mainly covers the features of the Nt Mini with the default firmware provided by Analogue.  In the next part, I will begin to explore the features provided by the jailbreak firmware developed by kevtris.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Nice! Do you think you could test games (with various cores) which are considered to be problematic for emulators?

Great Hierophant said...

It is coming, be patient.

Anonymous said...

> I would highly advise against using the Nt Mini to bludgeon someone else to death
xDDDDDDDDD