Exploring the appearance of CRT televisions and monitors

There's a recurring school of thought that the best way to experience the visuals of pre-HD console and PC games is to play them on period-accurate CRT displays. CRT images have a characteristic rich colorful look, with soft warm scanlines and crisp phosphors, as well as zero (added) latency and unmatched motion characteristics, all which make CRTs so beloved by retro gamers. Here we will explore how TV/monitor construction and operation create the various features making up the CRT look.

Still images

Metroid Zero Mission running on mGBA Wii, played on a 480i Trinitron CRT in 263-line 240p. (If it were 262.5-line 480i, the FPS counter would be closer to 59.94.)
Metroid Zero Mission running on mGBA Wii, played on a 480i Trinitron CRT in 263-line 240p. (If it were 262.5-line 480i, the FPS counter would be closer to 59.94.)
EIA Resolution Chart with graduated vertical lines
EIA Resolution Chart with graduated vertical lines, used to measure the TVL of a monitor. (Source)
Photo of Monkey Boat from Super Monkey Ball 2 on a VGA CRT at 480p.
Photo of Monkey Boat from Super Monkey Ball 2, with deflicker manually disabled. This game looks beautiful with its rich water and lush environments. The fast motion and close-up camera (in gameplay) makes it work well with 480p scanlines.
Photo of Animal Crossing at 480p, with text visible on-screen
Photo of Animal Crossing at 480p. Deflicker is off and geometry has sharp vertical color transitions aligned to scanlines. 3D model textures (animals and trees out the window) are low-res and upscaled on screen, resulting in visible artifacts.

I'm not actually sure what type of monitor PC games from various eras (DOS through Windows XP) were meant to be seen on (eg. what dot pitch, beam sharpness, or maximum resolution); PC monitor resolutions have evolved substantially throughout the decades, while pre-HD consoles have universally targeted 15 KHz TVs. I'd appreciate input from someone who grew up in this era of PC gaming; contact me using my email address in the second line of this link.

An osu! background with an anime girl on pastel vaporwave colors, being displayed on my VGA monitor.

Anime-styled and vaporwave art looks beautiful on CRTs (both on TVs, low-res PC monitors, and hi-res like in this photo). Due to room light the black level is gray and saturation is reduced; this monitor had its scratched anti-glare filter removed using isopropyl alcohol, and glass stains removed using toothpaste, but the glass scratches remain. (Image source.)


Photo of a YouTube video being shown from a laptop to a 480i Trinitron CRT, with combing artifacts visible from a 1/30 second camera exposure.
Interlaced video is especially tricky to photograph. 1/30 second exposure (two fields long) shows full vertical resolution, but creates combing artifacts in moving parts of the image. (Video source)

I'm not actually sure why the solid white color has scanlines as well; perhaps I set up my laptop's 480i modelines wrong? I don't recall it looking this bad in person. My previous blog article explores what can go wrong with an improperly interlaced video signal.

Motion and latency

If you're interested in game (not just display) latency tuning, there's an interesting overview at "Latency mitigation strategies (by John Carmack)".

Visual demonstration of image persistence and CRT motion response at UFO Test.

Analog video

Note that I have less experience working with S-Video or composite video encoding, and generally run my game consoles in RGB or YCbCr (even though it's not period-correct for most pre-Dreamcast consoles).

Photo of SNES composite video being treated as luma and shown on a VGA CRT
Feeding 3-chip SNES composite video into the GBS-C's luma input, causing it to interpret chroma dots as luma patterns.

To me, it looks like the SNES's BA6592F composite encoder generates hard-edged chroma stripes rather than a sine wave. However I don't have an oscilloscope to inspect the image in detail, and was unable to find information online. I do know the NES generates hard-edged chroma stripes (source).

Building a setup

As for my personal setup, I mostly play GC/Wii games (more than earlier generations of consoles). I run my Wii at 480p with a lossless component cable, through a GBS-Control scaler, into a Gateway VX720 17-inch Diamondtron VGA monitor. This monitor is useful because it's relatively compact compared to large TVs and fits on my computer desk, has excellent geometry, no audible whine (31 KHz is ultrasonic), and is sharp enough to be used as a computer monitor. The downside of using this monitor with console games is that the phosphors are too fine to add texture, the image (electron beam focusing, scanline height) is too sharp to act as antialiasing like a real TV (so I have to simulate it with bilinear scaling to 960p), and it cannot display 240p games properly unless upscaled like you were displaying on a LCD.

Photo of The Wind Waker's title screen running on a VGA CRT
Photo of The Wind Waker running at 480p with visible scanlines on my VGA CRT. The title screen has no distance fog which would produce ugly aliasing. And scanline aliasing is actually less ugly in blurry photographs of the screen, than when looking at the razor-sharp scanlines in person.

Sometimes I also plug this monitor into my PC (RX 570 -> DP-to-VGA adapter) and use it as a second monitor, or for PC gaming. I bought this DP++-to-VGA dongle because I heard that DP-to-VGA dongles are less likely to have image quality problems than HDMI-to-VGA dongles. But I somewhat regret getting this, since most of my devices don't have DP ports so I can't use this dongle with any of my laptops (though my older laptops have native VGA output).

Additionally, my monitor doesn't broadcast EDID data when its front power switch is turned off (I power it down when not in use to reduce CRT wear). And when my DP++-to-VGA adapter's VGA output is unplugged or EDID is missing, the adapter identifies itself as an "unrecognized but present output" rather than no device at all, so powering on the monitor doesn't cause the PC to recognize the adapter as a newly plugged-in monitor. So for my computer to properly recognize my monitor, I have to first power on the monitor and plug in its VGA cable to the dongle, then plug the dongle into the DP port (and if it's already plugged in, squeeze the DP latch and unplug the dongle first).

Photo of my CRT being used as a second monitor in KiCad, to show two PCBs at once.
Photo of my CRT being used as a second monitor in KiCad, to show two PCBs at once.

I used to have a 24-inch flat-screen Trinitron SDTV given to me by another person. Unfortunately, the screen geometry linearity was poor due to high deflection angles (objects were wider in the left and right of the screen, causing scrolling 2D games to warp and distort unnaturally), and the image had wide pincushion at the top of the screen. Additionally, the TV only ran at 15 KHz and did not support 480p from my Wii (480p improves fine detail in fast or vertical motion), and produced a high-pitched whine (which was painfully loud for the first 30 minutes after powering on). To block out the whine, I had to wear closed-back headphones and/or put layers of sound-muffling clothing around the TV's side vents, and set up a forced-air cooling fan to replace the obstructed air circulation. I ended up giving the TV away for free (after two potential buyers on Facebook Marketplace ghosted me).

Sadly it's now common for eBay and Marketplace sellers to offer CRT TVs and monitors at absurdly inflated prices, waiting for an uninformed or desperate buyer to pay hundreds of dollars for a PVM or average VGA monitor, or thousands for BVMs and widescreen PC monitors. Most of these listings sit for months on end with no buyers, only serving to clog up search results if you're looking for a CRT (whereas the good deals disappear fast). If you live in the US, I'd advise you to look out for the occasional "free TV" Craigslist/Marketplace listings (and mythical "free VGA monitor" offers), or see if any electronics recyclers will sell their CRTs to you at a reasonable price ($40 for a 17 inch VGA isn't a small amount of money to drop, but it's downright generous compared to the average eBay scalper).

The HD era

Were Wii games designed to be displayed on CRT or LCD?

I'd say a mix of both. The Wii offers both 480i SDTV output (for CRTs and LCDs, through the pack-in composite video cable) and 480p EDTV output (better for LCDs, but you had to buy a higher-quality component cable). Unfortunately 480p-compatible CRT TVs were rare and far between. Additionally 480p doesn't actually take advantage of the full resolution of 720p/1080p LCD TVs, resulting in a blurry image on-screen (but fortunately free of composite and interlacing artifacts, and deinterlacing latency on some TVs).

Did anyone commonly have 480p LCD EDTVs, or were they a rare transitional stage of television with little uptake? My family jumped straight from CRT (technically rear projection) to a 1080p HDTV. And some people online have called EDTVs awful; I suppose considering the black levels, color gamut, and response times of LCD computer monitors around 2006, people without EDTVs didn't miss out on much. I kinda want a CRT 480p EDTV like a Panasonic Tau, but they're quite rare and sell for hundreds of dollars.

Early Wii games were built to output in both 4:3 and 16:9, adjusting the camera width and HUD to match. I think System Menu actually looks better in 4:3, since the channel icons mostly add empty featureless left/right borders when expanded to 16:9. Some later games (NSMB Wii, Skyward Sword) only display in 16:9, adding a letterbox if the Wii is configured to play in 4:3. Interestingly, in NSMBW playing in 4:3 saves two seconds in one scrolling cutscene, because the game objects are actually loaded underneath the letter box, and appear "on screen" sooner, cutting the cutscene short (video).

Anime catgirl Tsumikitty at 240p.
Anime catgirl Tsumikitty at 240p.
Photo of Windows XP on a VGA CRT, with 11 Internet Explorer toolbars, two search engine change popups, Bonzi Buddy, and DrWindows installed
I miss Windows XP.

Moving my 1000hz gaming mouse cursor on a Windows XP machine hooked up to a CRT feels like the cursor is anticipating my thoughts and movements, not just responding to them.

Close-up shot of 480p scanlines in Super Monkey Ball 2.
480p scanlines in Super Monkey Ball 2, showing minor convergence errors.
Photo of Stray running at 1280x1024 on a VGA CRT
Stray on CRT, vsynced to 85 Hz felt beautifully fluid and responsive, like the screen was a window into another world.
My cat Moomoo looking at Skyward Sword on my VGA CRT
hi moomoo
The Wind Waker, Tower of the Gods at 480p with deflicker off.
The Wind Waker, Tower of the Gods at 480p with deflicker off.
Photo of SNES controller connected to a Wii's GameCube ports playing SMW2
My SNES-to-GC controller project was cool, and I love this picture I took. Sadly the GC+ I used added over 20 ms of input latency due to a firmware bug (on top of Snes9x RX adding 1 frame of latency), making games unresponsive to play.

This blog post was edited on 2023-03-11 to fix information about TVL.