Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Monochrome Experience - CGA, EGA and VGA

A few posts back, I discussed some of the notable features of the Monochrome Display Adapter and Hercules Graphics Card.  In this post, I intend to talk about monochrome graphics on other adapters of the time, namely CGA (and its derivatives Tandy and PCjr.), EGA and VGA.  All these adapters could support monochrome monitors, although they were at their best when connected to color displays.

CGA, Tandy & PCjr.

At first, if you wanted to connect a CGA card to a monochrome monitor, you typically would use a monochrome composite monitor.  The RCA jack on the CGA card would be used.  If you were really lacking for a monitor, a black and white monitor would do in a pinch, but you probably would have to run the composite output of the CGA card through an RF converter box.  The resulting graphics would be nowhere near as sharp as with a straight composite connection.  Lets start with our test images :

Space Quest II - 320x200x4c "RGB" Mode (Mode 4)
Space Quest II - 640x200xMono "Composite Color" Mode (Mode 6 with Composite Color bit set)
Monochrome computer monitors typically would offer a high-contrast color : white on black, green on black or amber on black.  Text was sharp at 40 columns and tolerable at 80 columns, especially when the screen size was 12" or less.  Since composite monitors (in North America) refreshed at 60Hz, there was less need for the long persistence phosphors (and resulting ghosting) that was seen on the 50Hz MDA monitor.

The Compaq Portable used a 9" green composite screen.  The IBM PC Portable used a 9" amber monochrome composite screen connected to a CGA card.  Even though the IBM machine is close to a clone of the Compaq machine (which in turn is a clone of the IBM PC), their monitors are quite different.  The IBM monitor is a bog-standard monochrome composite screen and connects with an internal version of the RCA jack on its CGA card.  For this reason, you will see jailbars on the screen as you would see them on a color screen because the of the NTSC color decoding.

The screen on the Compaq is quite interesting.  The Compaq's video adapter supports both MDA and CGA graphics, and in the 80x25 text mode will act like an MDA card, not a CGA card.  Snow be gone!  The display is a "dual-sync" display apparently capable of accepting both a 15KHz and 18KHz horizontal scan frequency signal.  Otherwise the card acts like a CGA card.  The input must be able to accept the TTL signals from the CGA card and convert them to grayscale.  The resulting image is much sharper than on the IBM card (especially in 640x200 graphics) and will not show jailbars.

Early IBM CGA cards had a very basic monochrome support capability through the composite connector.  Essentially there for the low intensity eight colors would transform into black, gray and white.  For the high intensity colors, the same pattern would be seen, slightly brighter.  Later CGA cards took hue into account when converting RGB colors into luminances, so that there would be a unique shade for each of the 16 colors.  Here is an approximation of how the test images would look with the IBM PC Portable's amber monochrome screen and the early and late CGA cards.

IBM PC Portable with Early CGA Card, 3 Intensities Available
IBM PC Portable with Late CGA Card, 4 Intensities Available (note extra detail on the broom)
CGA Mode 6 was a 640x200 monochrome mode, where the active pixel could be a color, but the background color would always be black.  Any of the 16 CGA colors could be used, but typically the color would be white/light gray or white/high intensity white.  The IBM PC BIOS did not support selecting the foreground color in this mode, to do this you had to use the Color Select register.  It was not typically used because most CGA games preferred the more colorful if lower resolution Modes 4 & 5.  Often, if you saw these graphics, it was intended for color composite graphics.  The Wizardry games have intentional support for this mode, as do other games like SimCity, which benefits more from a high resolution than colorful graphics.

When the Color Composite bit was set in the Mode Control register, on a color composite monitor, the mode would display artifact colors.  On an RGB or monochrome composite monitor, the color composite bit made no difference to the graphics in a real CGA card.

CGA Mode 5 was a 320x200 color mode on an RGBI monitor, which a palette of cyan, red and white (intensity selectable).  On a composite monitor, whether color or monochrome, it displayed 2-3 (early CGA) or 4 (late CGA) shades of intensity, no color.  Mode 5 would typically be supported as an option if the game supported Mode 4 color graphics or Mode 6 color composite graphics or Tandy/EGA/MCGA/VGA.

Eventually, there would be monochrome TTL monitors that would accept a CGA signal.  In this case, the monitor converts RGBI into intensities of one color. Early LCDs were also monochrome devices, and brightness levels for each individual pixel were usually limited to on and off, although the IBM PC Convertible did advertise three levels of brightness for the CGA 4-color graphics modes.  The PC Convertible's LCD had a native resolution of 640x200 and stretched 320x200 graphics modes horizontally by two.  The aspect ratio would seem wrong except for applications intended for the Convertible's screen (typically from IBM).  Here are approximations of how the test graphics would look on the Convertible's LCD screen :

640x200xMono Color Composite Mode (Mode 6 with Composite Color bit set)

320x200x4 RGB Mode (Mode 4)
Tandy and PCjr always displayed 16 intensities of one color when displayed on a monochrome composite monitor.  It looks something like this :


IBM's EGA card could be connected to a color RGBI TTL monitor like the 5153 and support 8x8 text (Modes 0/1 and 2/3) and  color 200 line modes (Modes 4, 5, 6, D & E).  It could also a high resolution 6-bit RGB TTL monitor like the 5154 and support 8x14 text, color 200 and 350 line graphics modes (mode 10).  Finally, it could be connected to a monochrome TTL monitor like the 5151 and support text at 9x16 (Mode 7) just like an MDA card, and additionally supported a 640x350 line monochrome graphics mode (Mode F).  A real MDA monitor must be connected to use Mode F, which was similar to the Hercules Graphics in that it allowed each pixel to be turned on or off.  It did not work in the same way as Hercules, and far fewer games supported it.  While Hercules graphics were 720x348 pixels, usually only 640 horizontal pixels were actively used in Hercules as it was much easier to convert from 320 pixel graphics modes, so Hercules did not often have an advantage in resolution.  However, since IBM derived the graphics mode from the text mode, each individual pixel can be made to blink or display in intense video.  I do not know of any game which may have supported this functionality.  Mode F is the only graphics mode supported when the EGA is connected to an MDA monitor.

Microsoft Flight Simulator 3 - 640x350x16c Mode 10
Microsoft Flight Simulator 3 - 640x350xMono Mode 0F
In order to use an MDA monitor with an EGA card, the dipswitches or jumpers on the card must be set correctly.  Switch 3 must be ON, switches 2 & 4 must be OFF.  The EGA card, when connected to an MDA monitor, can be used with a CGA or a secondary EGA card connected to a color monitor.

Even though EGA can be connected to an MDA monitor and at first glance look identical to the MDA's text mode, using unusual text character attributes can show differences compared to the MDA.  This can be seen in 101 Monochrome Mazes, a game IBM released strictly for the MDA.  When you run this game on an EGA or VGA card, you will not see exactly the same "graphics".  This game uses text attributes that fall outside the canonical 16 IBM valid MDA attribute choices for the EGA and VGA.  Compare the following :

101 Monochrome Mazes MDA

101 Monochrome Mazes EGA/VGA

When IBM released its PS/2 computers, it advertised monochrome analog high scan-rate monitors like the 8503 alongside more expensive RGB color analog high scan-rate (VGA) 8512 or 8513 monitors.  Systems with built in monitors like the PS/2 Model 25 could be ordered with a monochrome or color monitor.  The price difference was several hundred dollars at the beginning, so monochrome monitors were much more attractive for certain business and educational purchasers.

IBM's early VGA monitors designated four pins in the HD-15 VGA monitor connector to inform the card whether it was a mono or a color monitor.  Three of the bits would inform the VGA whether a monochrome monitor, a color monitor or an 8514 monitor was being used.  Later, these bits would be reused.  A real IBM monochrome monitor and VGA would output pixel information on the green pin only.

VGA used an 18-bit color  palette, with 6-bits for red, 6-bits for green and 6-bits for blue.  Each pixel on the screen could be set to any of 256 colors from the 18-bit palette.  When the monitor informs the card that it is a mono card, the VGA will convert the 18-bit color value into a 6-bit grayscale value by color summing the R, G and B values.  In this manner, 64 intensities of the monitor color could be displayed using the 256 color graphics mode 13.  In other modes, which support no more than 16 colors on screen at any one time, up to 16 grayscale shades would be available from the 64 that the monochrome monitor and the VGA could display.

Conquests of the Longbow - 320x200x256c Mode 13 Color
Conquests of the Longbow - 320x200x"256c"Mode 13 Grayscale
By the late 80s and early 90s, monochrome plasma displays were common on laptops, and this design allowed them to give some definition to what would otherwise have been color graphics.  However, this display technology was somewhat limited, as the gas plasma display in the IBM PS/2 Model P70 (a luggable) could only manage 16 shades of the orange color of that display.  In 320x200, IBM would selectively dither a 2x2 block of pixels (remember that the display stretches 320x200 to 640x400) to simulate the 64 intensities that should be available.

Some VGA games, including many of Sierra's SCI engine adventure games, had a driver which Sierra claimed would allow for up to 256 shades of "gray".  This was nonsense, the hardware was limited to 64 shades of gray due to the 6-bits per color regardless of being displayed on a monochrome or color VGA monitor.  This driver would show the same graphics whether used on a color or a monochrome VGA monitor.  However, the advantage to using this driver on a monochrome monitor is that by using only the grayscale options in the full VGA color palette, Sierra could ensure a good representation of the color graphics in grayscale and need not subject its color graphics to the VGA conversion formula.

Nonetheless, Sierra's driver did a very good job of preserving the detail of the color graphics for those forced to use color screens.   Pinball Fantasies also supported a "mono" graphics display setting, using up to 64 grayscale shades in the Mode X modes it supports, 320x240 amd 360x350.

Pinball Fantasies - 320x240x256c Mode X Color
Pinball Fantasies - 320x240x"256c" Mode X Grayscale (note the loss of detail on the table art)


  1. Monochrome (even color CGA and EGA) were always a joke for us coming from the 8bit commodore 64/128 and the 16-bit Amigas...

    At the time most PCs had awful, ugly CGA screens with "beeps", we played 16-color games on the c64 and edited 4096 color bitmaps in HAM mode on the Amiga. :)

    IMHO, the PC only made itself a nice gaming platform in the ages of 486s and color SVGA displays. Games like DOOM and Wing Commander made the PC a decent gaming platform...


  2. +1. I mostly agree although I had a soft spot for the Tandy's PCjr-esque modes and sound chip.

  3. I was indeed forutnate enough to have first play-ed SQ2 on an Acer 710 w/ a three-way adapter (my favorite of course) this adapter, as you likely know, could toggle between CGA, Hercules, or Plantronics. I find that the Hercules best embodied SQ1 & SQ2 in amber monochrome (as per the Acer's preference) compared to standard CGA. I have noticed that the Acer preferred Test Drive in standard CGA conversely. I am quite proud that this machine was quite so discerning as too choose the superior monochrome mode; depending the the application, seeing as this machine was brushed off as pedestrian at the time.

  4. The game "Armor Alley" support EGA mode 0F.



  6. I have a PC clone with CGA/MDA on the motherboard and only a DB-9 pin connector.

    I would like to connect this computer to a composite video 1v peak-to-peak CCTV monitor. I think there is a SIMPLE lead I can make up. I know that I do NOT need a scan converter, just combine R-G-B to become mono/white to display on a simple MONO monitor.

    Can anyone give me the right answer or sell me a lead?

    Stephen in UK.

  7. Turn your monitor into a monochrome one of yesteryear: