A way too long introduction to retro consoles, modern TVs and gameplay capture.
RGB recordings will give you the highest quality from your retro consoles. The Micomsoft SC-500N1, also sold as Startech PEXHDCAP, is one of the most interesting capture cards for this task. If you want to take the next step, an XRGB-mini Framemeister will allow you to play and capture your consoles in superb quality.
To learn more about SCART and how you can get RGB out of your consoles check Part I of Chasing Pixels.
The Micomsoft SC-500N1 PCIe capture card is a fantastic internal capture card that has excellent quality on its HDMI and component input. On top of that it has a VGA input that supports retro 15kHz signals at a wide range of refresh rates. The card is also sold for a very low price in Europe and North America under the Startech brand called PEXHDCAP. Reports by users have shown that the cards are indeed identical and share the same drivers. The HDMI input supports resolutions up to 720p60 and 1080p30. As a consequence you cannot capture consoles in 1080p as they run at 1080p60. Unlike some cheaper cards the SC-500N1 supports full-range and limited-range HDMI video. The card also has no problems with video signals that do not match the 59.94 Hz standard.
To use the full potential of this card for retro gaming you need a way to connect the SCART RGB output of the consoles to the DVI-I input of the capture card. The RGB signal of consoles uses composite video as sync information. But to capture RGB you need a clean sync signal that is stripped of the composite video. Sync information can be stripped with an LM1881 chip. Unless you want to build your own sync stripper you can get a pre-built Sync Strike from the German shop ArcadeForge. The Sync Strike accepts an RGB signal on its input and outputs the same RGB signal but with clean sync on its HD-15 ("VGA plug") output. The signal is not changed and can't be directly connected to the VGA port of most monitors, unless they support 15kHz signals. The power for the LM1881 chip is taken from pin 8 of the SCART plug. If the SCART signal doesn't carry power on pin 8 you can use an external 5V power supply and connect it to the screw terminal (the wire with grey stripes connects to ground on the Sync Strike). To connect the Sync Strike to the SC-500N1 capture card you can simply use the included VGA to DVI adapter. The audio can be connected with RCA cables from the Sync Strike to the analogue audio input on the component dongle of the card.
Once you've connected everything you can start recording footage either with the included software or any program that can use DirectShow sources like AmaRecTV. The preview window will behave like a windowed PC game, allowing you to play on the PC (with a minimal delay) and also hear the music through your PC. To record your gameplay you should use a lossless codec like Lagarith or the highly optimized H264 encoder x264vfw. The complete setup for this is explained in the Detailed Guide.
The resulting quality is very nice, but not without minor flaws. As the picture is recorded with a fixed horizontal resolution of 720 pixels there is a minor amount of horizontal blur. This is a flaw of the sampling process and inherent to any capture card that records at the original resolution. Why it happens and what you can do against it is explained in the Post Processing chapter. Another small problem with this setup is that the Sync Strike can add a minor amount of noise to the video if you power it through the screw terminal.
Component quality on the Micomsoft SC-500N1 is really detailed and has vibrant colors. Even small details get captured and there is very little color bleed. There are no issues at all. Even the letterboxed output from a PSP results in very high quality captures.
The XRGB-mini Framemeister is one of the easiest solutions to play and record retro consoles and at the same time it delivers the best quality for 240p consoles. Once you rewire or replace the RGB21 to 8-pin adapter with an adapter that accepts RGB SCART it becomes nearly plug-and-play. All you have to do is plug in your console and switch to the RGB input. There are some settings that should be adjusted that are explained on the guide page. The Framemeister shines with RGB input, but its other inputs are also above average quality. Plug in any of your consoles with either composite, S-Video, RGB or component and the Framemeister will convert it to an HDMI signal that can be captured with any HDMI capture device.
This makes it easy to incorporate it into your gaming and capture / streaming setup, as it can be handled like a normal HD console. You can also use cheap lossless HDMI splitters instead of RGB splitters that are hard to find and lower the quality slightly. Like with any source, the quality you get depends on the type of capture card you have. A lossless capture card will result in higher quality and low delay on your PC while a capture device with onboard H264 encoder will have slightly lower quality due to the compression and colorspace conversion that is necessary for standard H264. By default the Framemeister will output at the same rate as the original console, but to enable support for TVs and capture cards that do not accept non-standard refresh rates it can be set to output at a fixed 60.00Hz.
Note: Currently the Framemeister outputs slightly wrong colors when it outputs in RGB. Especially green can appear overly bright and blend some shades together. This is not a huge issue, but in games that display a lot of green objects like the grass in Super Mario 64 it can be a problem. It is therefore recommended to set your Framemeister to output in the YCbCr color space until this issue is fixed.
Enough of the introduction, here are some examples on how your retro games can look with this awesome device. The first bunch of screenshots was taken with the Micomsoft SC-500N1 capture card at 720p with a lossless codec.
The next set of screenshots was taken with an Elgato HD USB2.0 capture device that uses an onboard H264 encoder. There is a very minor color bleed due to the colorspace conversion to YV12, but overall the quality is still great. On a Youtube video or Twitch stream it would be hard to spot a difference in quality between a capture device with onboard encoder and a lossless capture card that record the output of the Framemeister.
You can also view all screenshots on the gallery page.
Component quality on the Framemeister is nothing special. There are no major flaws, but the whole image appears rather soft. Good TVs can handle 480p component input as good as if not better than the Framemeister. For monitors without component input it is still a nice feature and you can also use the scanline overlay through the Framemeister.
As you should expect the composite quality shows the flaws of this signal type. However the Framemeister still makes it look decent and offers the same low latency and correct handling as with the other inputs. There are no annoying moving distortions on the sides of objects.
S-Video content looks good and there is only a low amount of color bleed. If you don't have RGB cables for your consoles you can play them without problems, but most people will upgrade to RGB after a while to use the full potential of the Framemeister.
Another popular solution to capture RGB consoles involves an RGB to component converter. CRTs with component input were not uncommon in North America. Users with such a TV can use a converter like the Kramer FC-4 or CYP CSY-2100 and a component splitter to play on their CRT TV and capture the video with a capture device that can capture low resolution component video. The conversion doesn't lower the quality by much, making this a relatively cheap solution for people who do not have easy access to RGB capable CRT TVs and who don't want to play looking at the preview window of the capture card.
The GBS-8220 scaler has been hyped a couple years ago in combination with the SLG 3000. It is an easy and cheap RGB scaler, but it has the problem that it handles 240p content as 480i. It also does not offer a clean 2x scaling, which will cause the scanlines from the SLG 3000 to be on the wrong lines for parts of the image. As this scaler has sold a lot of units and is still sold many people try to use it in their capture setup. If you have a PEXHDCAP you can skip the GBS-8220 and just connect the Sync Strike to the DVI input for better quality. Avoid this one.
Note: There is an alternative firmware for the GBS-8220 that improves its performance.
If you've got a Framemeister or an SLG 3000 you might have thought about capturing the gameplay with awesome scanlines. This is not a great idea. Scanlines only work when you can control the picture scaling. For Youtube videos or Twitch streams you have no control over the actualy scaling that the user sees. In many cases they won't watch on the source quality which ruins the scanlines from the start. But even on source quality it will often only look good if they are watching fullscreen on a 1080p monitor. If they are watching in normal windowed mode or if they have a screen with a different resolution the scanlines won't be spaced equally.
Another problem comes with the compression. Scanlines just don't compress well. Instead of adding something to your video you will lower the overall quality. Especially in motion and with darker games they can cause a really ugly mush. Pair that with the fact that the majority of people do not want to see scanlines and it should be clear that capturing scanlines is not a goal that should be pursued.