Understand the video options that your system does and does not support.
If you read [Hack #38] , you already know that I’m a bit of a home theater nut. One of the coolest things about setting up a great-sounding home theater is that it makes an excellent gaming rig at the same time. The same is true for improving your video system. Buying the right monitor and adjusting it for the best performance for movies will also give you the greatest gaming experience possible. In this hack, I will discuss how to adjust your monitor for the highest performance and the best way to hook up the consoles that you own.
Whether you are ready to hook up a brand new set or are taking a courageous wait-and-see approach, here’s how to prep your current display for an optimum gaming experience. I’ll first talk about each of the big three consoles, then show you how to optimize your television settings.
This is the most basic video connection and comes standard on all consoles today. Composite video is a combination all of the video signals produced by the video source. A single cable, usually terminated by a yellow RCA connector carries this signal to your TV. Filters inside your television separate the different parts of the signal, but even high-end TV comb filters can’t match the video quality of the other superior connection types. Composite cable connections are very basic. Avoid them, especially for detail-intensive games.
The name S-Video (or Split Video) comes about because there are two parts to an S-Video signal: luminance (or brightness, designated as Y) and chrominance (Color, designated as C). Because there are two parts, there are two small cables inside a single S-Video cable. An S-Video connection bypasses your television’s comb filter that would otherwise separate these signals, in turn degrading the picture. The biggest visual payoff is in improved edge-definition, an especially big benefit for detailed games.
A video signal is actually made up of three parts, the luminance (brightness) and two subcomponents of chrominance (color), red and blue. The luminance channel carries the third color, green. Separating the video signal into its three component parts enhances detail and increases color saturation to realistic levels that S-Video alone cannot achieve. Component video has become the de facto standard for DVD and high-definition video. Also, component video allows the transfer of a progressive-scan signal. To be clear, you must have a component video cable connection to display 480P (progressive scan) and higher resolution signals.
An interlaced video signal draws one half of the frame in 1/60th of a second (the odd lines of a frame), then goes back to draw the in-between even lines in the next 1/60th of a second, completing a full frame in 1/30th of a second. This produces one full frame 60 times per second, or 30 frames per second using interlaced video, but separates each frame into two different parts. Drawing a picture in this half-and-half way produces a noticeable flicker and is generally inferior to a progressively scanned picture.
Progressive-scan video draws a full frame from top to bottom in one pass, every 1/30th of a second. This one-pass drawing tends to look smoother and contains fewer artifacts, especially at lower resolutions. This is the way your computer produces its picture and the reason why it looks so smooth and solid in comparison to a standard analog television.
Some high-definition screens now have a widescreen shape, or aspect ratio, of 16:9. Aspect ratio is the relationship of the monitor’s width to its height. Older, square-shaped TVs have a 4:3 aspect ratio. This ratio can also be expressed as a whole number, as in 1.33 to 1 (4:3) or 1.78 to 1 (16:9).
There is more to HDTV than I can cover here, but high-definition games begin and end with the 720p and 1080i (interlaced scan) formats. The generally accepted definition of a high-definition-quality picture is that it generates over one million pixels per frame. Conversely, 480i is essentially the theoretical upper limit of older televisions’ (NTSC) capabilities; today this is standard-definition TV.
The 480p format falls somewhere in between these two categories. You’ll sometimes hear it referred to as enhanced definition or EDTV. Note that some 480p signals are meant for display on a 4:3 TV, and some are optimized for a 16:9 aspect ratio widescreen television.
Widescreen 480i and 480p signals are called anamorphic video. You can tell if a DVD or game has been optimized for a widescreen television if it says “enhanced for widescreen TVs” or “anamorphic video” on the rear of the software package. Sometimes games are marked “high definition/480p.” While this may not be true in the strictest technical sense, it generally means that the game plays at an EDTV resolution and is also anamorphically enhanced for 16:9 widescreen TVs.
One of the best resources on the Web is the High Definition Games Database (http://hdgames.net/) enthusiasts site. Game review sites frequently regurgitate misinformation fed to them by the game developers concerning the HD capabilities of new titles. Often they report that games support progressive scan, high-definition capabilities, and 16:9 modes, but those features often fall under the twin knives of budget and time pressures. Hdgames.net is an open forum for gamers to post whether these features are actually present in shipped products.
Enough theory. Remember how television and output standards move fast? This is apparent when you consider how every console handles things a little bit differently.
The PS2 is a little dated and out of fashion, but I still dig Sony’s mullet approach to connectivity, with business in front and party in the back. There are a ton of connections right on the unit: Toslink audio, USB, IEEE 1394 FireWire, and the hard-drive bay. Sony’s hairdressers have been busy though, chopping off overgrown locks and shaping new sideburns as it has matured through several version changes. There are three versions of the PS2, each with significantly different video capabilities. The easiest way to determine the version that you own is to check the model number on the back:
The earliest versions of the PS2 don’t play DVDs in 480p progressive-scan mode, nor do they play 480p games. The highest-grade supported video signal is 480i interlaced mode.
The second version of the PS2 produces progressive video (480p) output on supported games. It doesn’t support DVD movies, however. The R version is the Limited Edition of the PS2 in white, blue, silver, yellow, and red. As a mnemonic device, remember that if your PS2 doesn’t match a Model T, you can game with 480p.
The latest and greatest version of the PS2 includes several design changes. It adds 480p support for movies and drops FireWire support. In addition to being 30% quieter, it has increased DVD capability and allows gamers to play DVD-R, DVD-RW, R+, and RW+ discs on their systems for the very first time.
Sadly, Sony has chosen the path of the other consoles when it comes to video; you can upgrade your video connection only by purchasing a different proprietary cable. The standard video connection is composite video (the yellow RCA connector). Now you need to find which aftermarket video connection to purchase. The three most important considerations are what kind of video connections you have on your TV, which model of PS2 you have, and whether you’ll use your PS2 as a DVD player.
Knowing these three things, you can make a shrewd decision. First, all three versions support aftermarket S-Video and component video connectors. Before you run out and buy that expensive component video cable, remember that most users run a first-generation PS2 where component video is overkill. In 480i mode, there really isn’t much of a case for components, but S-Video over the standard composite cable will make a visible difference. If you have a spare S-Video slot on the TV, you’ll be glad that you made the investment.
The same is true for the second-gen PS2 as well. So few 480p PS2 games exist (and 720p/1080i ones really don’t exist) that such a high-end purchase has no payoff. If you are considering the expensive Monster Cable GameLink 400, use the money to purchase a decent progressive-scan DVD player instead.
If you end up with the upcoming third-generation PS2, its integrated IR receiver and 480p DVD capabilities might just convince you to use it as an all-in-one game/DVD player. At this point, buy the component video cable to take advantage of these features. However, note that the previous generations’ DVD video playback quality was extremely poor, even compared to the most modest standalone DVD players. Without seeing the quality for yourself first, I’d caution you against buying a third-generation PS2 expressly for DVD movie viewing.
There are only a handful of 480p games on the PS2. Because the graphics engine is a bit older, the quality is a toss-up between 480p and 480i. In fact, several sources state that 480p actually looks worse than 480i on some games. Support is so limited thus far that you usually must hold a certain combination of buttons on the controller to unlock the 480p mode upon booting. Check your game’s manual to find out how to turn on these modes —and off if you don’t think they make an improvement.
You can take your thinking caps off now. The Xbox is a no-brainer. If your TV supports component video, pull the trigger right now and buy the Microsoft HD expansion pack or an aftermarket component video cable such as the Monster Cable GameLink 400. You’ll need either one to hook up the digital-audio signal anyway, so it’s well worth the investment.
The Xbox doesn’t support 480p for DVD movies, but games have the star treatment; most are available in 480p these days. More importantly, some are even available in high-definition 720p and 1080i formats. These formats produce extremely rich resolutions on a high-definition set that make for completely immersive gaming. If you have an older analog TV, I suggest using the Monster Cable GameLink 300 S-Video cable. You can still attach their digital-audio kit to this video cable system. Strangely enough, Microsoft’s own HD expansion kit includes only component video, not S-Video output, so you’ll need the Monster kit to add digital audio to an analog display.
Here’s the sticky part about some high-definition Xbox titles: some fully support 16:9 aspect ratios and some don’t. That is, some games play in HD mode in an anamorphic widescreen and will fill your screen, but some will place a 4:3 frame inside a 16:9 picture, nullifying the widescreen effect completely. If you prefer a full-framed widescreen game, switch off the 720p and 1080i modes in your Xbox menu. Your game will play in 480p 16:9 mode instead.
The GameCube supports 480p for progressive-scan-capable standard-definition and high-definition televisions. To achieve this, you must purchase and install the Official Component Video Cable from Nintendo. If you don’t have a progressive-scan TV, I also recommend the Official Nintendo S-Video cable, because it is affordable and a solid performer.
By the way, if you have the component cables hooked up, turn on progressive mode by holding down the B button while your system starts. Then select the progressive mode in the menu.