Friday, July 27, 2018

Product Review Potpourri

In today's blog entry I will review three inexpensive products for your retro gaming consoles.  If you are interested in getting HDMI-only consoles to play on a CRT, splitting HDMI signals for capturing and playing without copy protection and a name-brand NES to Famicom converter, read on.

Rankie HDMI to VGA Adapter with 3.5mm Audio Port

Courtesy of Amazon 
I own a VGA CRT and I wish to play my HDMI-only (Super Nt) or HDMI-preferred (Nt Mini) consoles on it.  I have read that HDMI to VGA adapters can output quality video to such displays with minimal to no latency.

The monitor I own is a KDS VS-7p, a 17" CRT that can display a maximum resolution of 1280x1024.  However, the monitor is a tad fuzzy at that resolution and its recommended resolution is 1024x768.  Like most VGA monitors, it requires a 31KHz horizontal scan frequency in order to display anything.  My Nt Mini can output an RGB signal, but it is only 15.75KHz.

This adapter will convert HDMI digital to analog video and audio (output via HD-15 and 3.5mm audio jack, respectively) for output to any display with a VGA input.  While many LCD displays have VGA inputs, my primary reason for acquiring this adapter is to use it on CRTs.  Both the Nt Mini and Super Nt work with it, but due to the display resolution limitations of the monitor, it will only display the Analogue consoles consistently using the 480p mode.  The adapter may allow the Super Nt to work with older DVI-I monitors which do not like the HDMI packets being sent by the Super Nt (which unlike the Nt Mini has no DVI mode).

Just like old times, except for the inaccuracies and stuff
In the 480p mode of the Nt Mini and Super Nt, the monitor thinks it is receiving a 640x480 resolution picture from the adapter.  The pixels generated by the Nt Mini and Super Nt are resized to fit in a 640x480 frame.  In other words, if you use the 2x scale to give yourself a 512x480 resolution, that will be surrounded on the left and right sides by borders.  My monitor will easily stretch that resolution vertically to fill the screen, but cannot fill the screen horizontally.  You can use the scalers, but you will no longer have evenly-sized pixels.  To get a more proportional image, you will need to put up with sizeable borders on all four sides of the picture.  It reminds me of how SNES9x and ZSNES looked fifteen years ago when I used a VGA CRT regularly.

I have found that the Super Nt's interpolation functions do not look right with a CRT.  Moreover, even a VGA screen can generate scanlines, so the Nt Mini and Super Nt's scanline options are not likely to look right even to the extent scanlines look good in 480p.  Unfortunately most HDMI to VGA adapters operate on the limited RGB color space, so they will crush blacks and have non-ideal contrast.  I can mitigate this by using the Limited RGB option in the Super Nt but the Nt Mini does not have that option.  I also think that boosting the gamma to 1.20 on the Super Nt will help with those darker games like Super Metroid.  There is a similar but slightly more expensive adapter which does not crush blacks :

I tried the manual latency tests in the SNES 240p Test Suite and the average scores seemed to be in line with the scores I would get on an original system with a standard definition TV.  My conclusion is that this adapter does not add appreciable lag to the experience.  For that reason, it may prove a viable lag-free solution for HDMI devices that can output 480p as I wondered in the blog entry immediately preceding the last (not accounting for any built-in latency from a device like the RetroN 5).

While this converter does not come with a 5V USB power brick, for $8.99 the converter is well worth it :

Neoteck 1X2 2 Way HDMI Splitter

Courtesy of Amazon
Playing games and recording playthroughs is something I'd like to do more of, but my capture card and OBS' preview window do add lag and lead sometimes to dropped/skipped frames.  Moreover, capturing losslessly or close to it will often make games unplayable due to the amount of lag added while the computer is working furiously to compress large amounts of data in realtime.  So I wanted a solution which would allow me to play a game with minimal lag and record at the same time.

Enter the HDMI splitter.  This device takes one HDMI input and duplicates it with two outputs.  You will need two to three HDMI cables to use the device at its full potential.  The recommendations for my consoles suggested using a powered splitter.

The reason I bought this particular splitter was more for the principle of its ability to strip or bypass HDCP copy protection embedded in an HDMI signal.  I own a PlayStation 3 console, and that console inserts HDCP into the HDMI signal.  You cannot disable it, so if you wish to stream the PS3 in HD, officially you must use the analog component cable and you will be limited to 1080i.  However, certain powered splitters will allow you to stream PS3 game content by stripping or not honoring HDCP.  Not all splitters can do this and some have been updated to honor HDCP, so you have to look for recent reviews to find one that does.

This device had those recent reviews regarding PS3 stripping, but of course no one tested it with the Nt Mini or Super Nt, so it was a bit of a gamble.  Nt Mini and Super Nt compatibility turned out to be a non-issue.  PS3 capturing proved a bit tricky.  Movies would display, even Blu-ray, as would a PlayStation (One) game run on the PS3.  However, when I tried a PS3 game, my capture card would not display the game.

I wondered if my splitter was faulty and at one point I saw corrupted video when inserting and removing HDMI cables with the power adapter not plugged in.  I learned my lesson, never use the splitter without the power supply plugged in.  The splitter will run hot as it is working.  Note that the splitter does not come with a 5V USB power converter brick.

Eventually I figured out my problem, the game I was using to test the capturing, The Elder Scrolls V : Skyrim, only runs in 720p.  Once I set my capture card's resolution to 720p, I got my picture.  Everything else was running in 1080p, so I would be able to see that with my capture card set to capture 1080p.  The majority of PS3 games do not support 1080p, but a digital capture will produce a cleaner signal and a more compressible image than an analog capture on most capture devices.

Like the VGA to HDMI adapter, this adapter seems to add minimal, if any latency.  I do not know if lag would be noticeable if both were being used at the same time.  It takes a lot less CPU power to losslessly compress 480p than 1080p.

This splitter cost me all of $9.99 on Amazon, so it is definitely recommended :

Sample Capture from PS3
Cyber Gadget NES Cartridge Converter for Retro Freak

Courtesy of play-asia

The Famicom and AV Famicom have their good qualities as far as gaming systems go.  The Famicom was the first iteration of the Nintendo 8-bit home console and has a microphone function missing on later devices.  The AV Famicom has the best composite picture quality of any of these systems.  These systems take 60-pin cartridges, but we Westerners had the NES and its 72-pin cartridges.  We need cartridge converters, and the ones available aren't the greatest.

When I saw some people talking about the Cyber Gadget converter, I was intrigued.  The Retro Freak is like the RetroN 5, an ARM-based system running emulators, some of them in a license violating manner like the RetroN 5.  I certainly do not approve of or condone that kind of behavior and would not purchase either one of these devices even if they were in compliance with the license. The Retro Freak has a 60-pin slot for Famicom cartridges, which is understandable because it has been released by a Japanese company.  Apparently there was enough interest, probably from overseas buyers, to support Cyber Gadget designing a 72-pin adapter for its emulator box.

Since the emulator box works by dumping ROMs, the converter must work generally with 60-pin consoles.  A few reviews online confirmed it worked in an AV Famicom, so I decided to take the plunge by buying one from
$27.89 and twenty-one suspense-filled days later (it was shipped from Hong Kong and I had never ordered from play-asia before), it arrived.

My first impressions of the Cyber Gadget converter were favorable.  The box it comes in is professionally made and while virtually all the text is completely in Japanese, there is enough visual information to show you how to work the device.  The plastic shell of the converter is of a very good quality, unlike the cheap stuff you typically get for around the same price with other converters.  It fit my official Nintendo cartridges and unlicensed Tengen cartridges.  It worked with my Famicom and AV Famicom without needing to wiggle the converter to make proper contact or worrying that the device would damage the console's cartridge connector because the PCB was too thick.

Do you like my "top loader"?
Aesthetically, the most important issue is handled properly by the Cyber Gadget converter, NES cartridges inserted into it face the label forward.  Some converters have the NES cartridge label face away from the player.  The color of the converter's plastic is not the same shade as the gray of my AV Famicom, but I will let that pass because it was made for the Retro Freak.  The cartridge "cradle", that plastic which surrounds the bottom portion of the NES cartridge, was a very good idea because it can help protect your game from crashing if a stiff breeze pushes your cartridge too far forward or back with other converters.  The bottom of the craddle does not quite rest on the plastic of a Famicom or AV Famicom, but that could be remedied with a piece of cardboard or something similar if you wanted.  On the Famicom the adapter is wide enough that it will cause the controllers to flange outward if they are in their cradles.  

Most 72-pin to 60-pin converters have issues with the following cartridges : NES PowerPak, After Burner, Gauntlet, Rad Racer 2, Castlevania 3, Uncharted Waters, Bandit Kings of Ancient China, Laser Invasion, Romance of the Three Kingdoms II, Nobunaga's Ambition II, Gemfire.  This is because they join together a pair of pins (NES pins 57 & 58, Famicom pins 48 & 49) that are usually joined together on most cartridges but not on these ones.  The Cyber Gadget works with all of them because it keeps the pins separate.  

Additionally, most converters join pins 45 & 46 together because NES cartridges never came with expansion audio.  However, the NES PowerPak and EverDrive N8 NES are 72-pin flash carts which do support expansion audio.  In the Cyber Gadget converter, these pins are not joined together at the pins but are jumpered by a zero-Ohm resistor.  It is much easier to modify the Cyber Gadget converter to accept expansion audio from the PowerPak or EverDrive than any other converter.  If you do that you must remove the 1K Ohm pull-down resistor.

Possibilities, possibilities...
Finally, the 72-pin cartridge connector on the Cyber Gadget is tight without being a death grip.  You will probably have better luck removing the converter from the console first than trying to remove the cartridge from the converter while it is still inserted into a Famicom.  Most clean cartridges will connect first time.  I was less than pleased with what appeared to be a lot of solder paste residue around the contacts where the 72-pin connector is soldered to the PCB, a generous amount of isoprophyl alcohol and scrubbing with a tooth brush was required to remove it.

If this device has a flaw which may prevent it from being anointed as the perfect 72-pin to 60-pin converter, it is the 72-pin connector.  The issue is that the connector does not make good contact with the pins of my "green stripe" cartridge and thus rarely works with them.  See here for a visual example of the problem :  My older no-name converter makes better contact with the recessed green stripe pins, probably because its cartridge connector is slightly taller.  A Game Genie's connector would also work better.  The green stripe issue only became widely known recently with the release of the RetroUSB AVS.  Unfortunately, many games manufactured during the height of the NES era, 1988-90, may come with green stripe connectors.  If this issue does not affect you, then I highly recommend this product for your Famicom, Twin Famicom or AV Famicom.


  1. I'll give that converter a shot when/if it becomes available at play asia.

  2. I've got one of these connectors now, along with another you recommended and the appropriate mods to that older one to let it work correctly.

    I MUCH prefer the Cyber Gadget one, with the exception of it's issues with games like, say, Tetris. I hope they have another go at this one. A couple of small revisions and it will be perfect. Adjust those pins, and slim down the casing by a couple millimeters (it isn't a perfect fit in any case, it's just a tad wider than it needs to be to fit NES carts). I would also go with "Famicom white" for the case color personally,or NES gray. One or the other. Maybe they could work in a switch for the expansion audio, but honestly I use the Famicom version of the N8 Everdrive for all my custom ROM purposes, so personally I wouldn't need that.