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I was given an Xbox for Christmas, but I didn't have much desire to play it at home. So, I brought it up to the office and set it up at my desk. For the display, I used a 20 year old 14" NEC composite monitor. Some of you old C-64 and Apple II owners would recognize it. I routed the sound through the line-in on my PC, which allowed me to play using headphones, mix in WinAmp tunes, and hear my email notifications.
This was a great setup, which served me well for several weeks. Despite its aged and discolored appearance, the picture was still sharp and colorful on that little NEC. Unfortunately, I had forgotten how small 14" really was. Every day I looked at the giant 21" Nokia monitor that my PC is hooked to, and considered getting a VGA box so that I could play my Xbox on it.
Allow me a moment to pontificate a bit. An Xbox is, for all intents a purposes, a specialized Windows based PC. It uses modified GeForce display hardware. By all rights, it seems to me that with the right cable, an Xbox should be able to drive a VGA monitor without any converter at all. Alas, such a cable does not exist to my knowledge, so I'm stuck spending money and jumping through hoops to get my Xbox to play on my monitor. Yet another stupid decision Microsoft made regarding the Xbox, I suppose.
Obtaining my first VGA box was a bit of an adventure, but it would later prove to be the tip of the iceberg. First off, Hong Kong Toys does not accept credit cards, so you must pay either by Western Union or by direct bank transfer. On top of that, the people who emailed answers to my questions did not write English very clearly. Fortunately, everything worked out, and after a couple weeks my VGA box arrived in the mail.
If you look at the photo on their site, you can see a little wire and a plug hanging off of it. That, my friends, is the power supply that comes with the box. It plugs into a Playstation 2 memory card slot to provide the box with 6V of power. I did not happen to have a PS2 at my desk to act as this strange surrogate power supply. I do not, in fact, own a PS2 at all. Fortunately Stephen had a power adaptor from an old set of VR goggles that just so happened to output 6V. I used that and it worked great. The box had inputs for either composite or S-Video. I tried both connections and the S-Video definitely produced a nicer picture.
I was quite pleased with my investment. My friends and co-workers watched in bafflement as I played Halo and SSX Tricky on my computer monitor. (Though I think they were mostly baffled as to why I was playing Halo at all.) The picture was a little blurry, I'll admit, but I felt that it was an acceptable price to pay for removing an extra monitor from my desk, and just the "cool factor" of playing on a computer monitor.
George was a seething cauldron of jealousy. Well, sort of. He had no fewer than 4 game consoles at his desk, and a small television to play them on. He decided to jump on my bandwagon, and bought a VGA box of his own from Fry's. It was the Pelican Accessories Universal VGA Box. This one allows you to switch between 4 different composite inputs, and outputs a signal that can be displayed on a VGA monitor. This box does not support S-Video, but the picture quality of its composite signals was about equal to the picture quality of my S-Video converter. The only disadvantage was that his picture had curious vertical lines through it. Charlie later bought a Pelican box of his own. His did not produce the vertical lines in his picture like George's, so George's box may have been damaged or defective.
The Pelican VGA box seemed to be the better converter. For a little over $100, George and Charlie could switch between 4 consoles, and their picture quality was quite acceptable. My converter, in comparison, was cheaper at around $50 plus shipping, but had a slightly inferior picture, could not switch between multiple inputs, and did not come with its own power supply. Both converters offer a pass-through connection that allows you to plug your PC into the converter, so that you can switch between the PC or the console's display just by toggling the converter on and off.
George later ordered an iScan Pro. This is a fairly pricey converter, but it had a significant feature-- it could convert component video to VGA. Playing Maximo on his PS2 was simply amazing. Suddenly George had jumped from the novelty of displaying a mere composite picture on a computer monitor to displaying a very high quality image that looked every bit as good as a PC game. The picture was so sharp that we could make out individual pixels, and the colors were pleasantly vivid.
That should've been the end of the story, but it wasn't. My original experiment had triggered this entire series of events, yet I was left sitting with an inferior converter and picture. What had been really cool a couple days ago had now become a source of embarrassment. So I started poking around online for a new converter, one that could accept component video input. The first (and cheapest) one I found was this one by Audio Authority. We ordered one and I eagerly tried it out. We could not get a picture, but their web site clearly stated that it would allow you to display an Xbox image on a VGA monitor.
I called Audio Authority's tech support line. They were very friendly, and probably would've been very helpful, except that I was ignorant of key knowledge necessary to operate their converter properly. I am not a videophile-- up until this point I had never heard of "progressive video," so when he told me I needed to set my Xbox to progressive output in the dashboard, I had no idea what he was talking about. I looked through all the Xbox video settings, and found nothing of use. I checked the Xbox owners' manual and again I didn't see anything about progressive video. So I thanked the nice tech support man, whom I thought was off his rocker, and returned the box. (Knowing what I know now, the Audio Authority converter probably works splendidly, so my apologies to them. My ignorance got the best of me that day. More on this in a moment.)
Next I tried a slightly more expensive converter. When I hooked it up, it too failed to work. That's when I finally started doing a little more research on the net. What I learned was that most video game consoles, by default, output an interlaced video signal that contains 480 horizontal lines of resolution. This type of signal is referred to as 480i. Computer monitors, and some high end HD televisions display what is called a progressive video signal, designated at 480p.
What I found online was that I needed to set my Xbox to a 480p signal. Everything I read repeated that this was done in the dashboard, but I had no idea where this crazy option was hidden. Something clicked, though, when George tried out my converter on his own system. He was already using component output from his Xbox using his iScan Pro. When he tried out my converter, he went to the menus and set his Xbox to display 480p. It was then that I realized that that option is only offered when you are using the component AV cable on the Xbox. Since I was still using the S-Video cable at my desk, I never saw the 480p menu option.
The sad thing, though, was that there was still no picture. The Xbox only offers the 480p option when the component cable is connected, but when I was using the component cable, I had no picture. So, I reconnected the converter at my own desk, and blindly set my Xbox to 480p. (I later learned that the Y component cable can be plugged into a composite converter to get a picture, but I didn't know that at the time, so I just navigated the menus by sound alone.) Even after the Xbox was set to 480p, though, there was no picture. Was I to be defeated at every turn? Key Digital's site assured me over and over that this converter could be used with an Xbox! Finally, on a hunch, I popped a game disc into the drive. My eyes lit up when my Xbox finally came to life on my monitor with one of the best pictures I've ever seen. The picture quality put even George's iScan Pro to shame. We are talkin' sharp here.
This meant the Xbox dashboard uses a 480i signal even when you have the display set to 480p. Thanks Microsoft, I can never see the dashboard without much cable-yanking and hassle. But if you think that sounds stupid, read on. Charlie uses a Gamecube at his desk. After seeing the picture I was getting, he decided to get the same converter, since the Gamecube offers 480p also. But while 480p is set by the OS on the Xbox, and works for all games, progressive video is set entirely by the software on a Gamecube. He has to boot up the Gamecube while holding a button on his gamepad. If the game happens to support 480p (and not all do), then a little prompt appears asking if he wants the game to run using progressive video. Bear in mind that this prompt appears on an interlaced screen, which means you can't see it if you're using a component converter.
So Charlie and I are once again ahead of George in the game. His iScan Pro apparently cannot accept progressive input, since it is designed solely to convert interlaced input to progressive output. This is great for the PS2, which cannot output progressive video, but it means that his Xbox and Gamecube images suffer for it. This bothers him, I can tell. Will George try to one-up us again? All we can do is wait and see.
P.S. Charlie asked me to make a brief mention of KVM switch boxes. You see, unlike the Pelican and Hong Kong Toys converters, the component converters we are using do not have a pass-through connection for your PC video. This means that if you wish to avoid the hassle of swapping cables when you want to switch between your PC and console video, then you will need a monitor switch box of some sort. I tried a couple different brands, but this seems to be a case of "you get what you pay for." The cheaper switch boxes cause some image ghosting and blurriness. We finally settled on the Master View CS-104U. This KVM switch, though a tad expensive at about $150, provides a crystal-clear picture, and even comes with all the cables you need.