Over time technology has progressed, every new games console is more powerful, built with better graphics and alongside that, TV's have kept pace moving from analogue signals to almost lossless digital. In over 40 years of games console history starting with the Magnavox Odyssey up to the Nintendo Switch there have been a confusing array of differing video cables and connections.
Below we'll take a look at the most common cables, explaining the differences and give you a good idea of the best options for hooking up your beloved retro console to your fancy high definition TV.
RF Aerial Cable
In the early days the RF cable was the most popular with console makers with Atari, Super Nintendo and Sega Master System all coming with an RF cable as standard. Usually including a little switch splitter box so that you could plug both your TV aerial and console into the same TV aerial port.
RF stands for Radio Frequency and is an analogue system that is still compatible with TVs today. Most TV's still have dual analogue / digital tuners despite the analogue TV signal being switched off in the UK. While switch splitter boxes are hard to come by now, RF cables are still available and you can connect your retro console direct into the TV aerial port, select analogue tuning on your set and as long as your NES or other console is powered up, auto scan until your TV finds the right channel.
Atari 2600 Jr, Atari 7800, Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, Sega Master System 1 & 2, Mega Drive 1, NES, Super NES.
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In the late nineties, early noughties Compositve RCA cables become the norm but each console manufacturer developed their own mutli-out port, Nintendo had the same port across SNES, N64 & Gamecube, Playstation had their own different multi-out port on the PS1, PS2 & PS3 and Sega just did something different on every console with Mega Drive, Saturn and Dreamcast all having slightly different ports.
Composite video (one channel) is an analog video transmission that carries standard definition video typically at 480i or 576i resolution. Typically using RCA phono jacks to connect to TVs
The various consoles all maintained the same composite connections though comprising of three cables terminating in phono jacks. Yellow carrying an analogue video signal and red and white splitting audio into left and right . At the time the majority of TVs had colour coordinated inputs that were nice and easy to match up to, with the alternative option of a scart adapter block to convert the RCA to scart.
Now however TV makers have been slowly retiring composite inputs, with recent TV's produced without a scart socket and no RCA. Although some component connections are backwards compatible with RCA, as long as your TV ports say "component / AV in" or have a "Y/Video" label over the green component input you are safe.
Sega Mega Drive, Mega Drive 2, Saturn, Dreamcast, Super NES, N64, Gamecube, PS1, PS One, PS2, PS3, Xbox, Xbox 360, Wii, Wii U
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While no consoles were released with a Scart lead, most thae came with composite cables included a scart adapter block that converted the cable for scart sockets and scart cables became a popular aftermarket addition for a more convenient solution.
Scart is a 21 pin connector that carries video and stereo sound and is an analogue connection that only supports standard definition. But not all scarts are created equal, standard scart which is effectively still a composite signal but in a handier connection. Then there is RGB scart which produces a higher quality picture as the Red, Green and Blue video components are carried separately. Many but not all consoles support RGB, the UK PAL version of the N64 and PS1 for example don't come RGB ready.
Sega Mega Drive, Mega Drive 2, Saturn, Dreamcast, Super NES, N64, Gamecube, PS1, PS One, PS2, PS3, Wii, Wii U Xbox, Xbox 360,
The Xbox 360 was about one of the only games consoles to include a component AV cable in the box. This still remains a popular connection thanks it's support for high definition signals despite being an analogue cable, and aftermarket component cables being widely available for most modern consoles including the Wii, the PS2-PS3, and Xbox to Xbox 360.
Component AV AKA YPbPr is similar to RGB in that component AV splits the video signal into three, being carried over a green (Y), blue (Pb) and red (Pr) cable with a further two cables for red and white splitting audio into left and right. This analogue cable is generally capable of delivery high definition video up to 1080i which enables component to produce a superior picture than either RF or composite cables. Whilst component AV has now been superseded by HDMI, the majority of modern TVs still have component connections making it great for HD gaming for consoles like the PS2, Wii and first Xbox 360 which don't have a HDMI out port.
Gamecube, PS2, PS3, Wii, Wii U Xbox, Xbox 360,
HDMI is the current modern standard with the PS4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch all only coming with a HDMI cable and is compatible with Wii U (not Wii), PS3 and all but the first generation Xbox 360 series.
HDMI which means High Definition Multimedia Interface is a 19 pin connector, and saw the change from analogue to digital signals for both video and audio, as well as including two-way signals bringing an element of cross controlling so for example your turning on your PS4 also switches on your TV etc. HDMI cables now carry a digitial audio signal which is surround sound compatible and previously this would only have been possible with a separate optical audio cable.
PS3, PS4, Wii U, Xbox 360, Xbox One
HDMI Upscalers & AV to HDMI Converters
With modern TV's slowly doing away with the older connections it can be difficult to connect your retro console on your HD TV, and if your TV doesn't have a composite or component input then you may think you're in trouble.
An AV to HDMI converter takes an analogue AV signal and converts it into a digital signal that is then output via a HDMI port. It's worth noting that the output will only ever be as good as the console so you wont get PS4 quality graphics but it will be a big improvement from the old RF or composite alone. This is a great way to connect retro consoles and are compatible with most from including Mega Drives, N64, Gamecube, PS1 etc.
Sega Mega Drive, Mega Drive 2, Saturn, Dreamcast, Super NES, N64, Gamecube, PS1, PS One, PS2, Xbox, Wii,
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