Well, it was fun while it lasted. Hey, my Apple IIc at least still has a composite TV out (and nothing else, as it happens). Photo: Daniel Höpfl.

It’s long been accepted tradition at VJ events: the lingua franca of video interconnects is good, old-fashioned analog S-Video and composite. Add an Edirol V-4 mixer, or seven, and you’re quickly mixing signal.

Now, before you start talking about how you always run in 1080p over DVI anyway, let’s stop and reflect on this for a moment. Analog video, like simply single-channel analog audio, is immensely flexible. You can route it into absurd DIY video mixers and effects. You can use vintage, gorgeous TV tubes instead of throwing them away and destroying the Earth. You can create routings that simply aren’t possible with digital signals. There are certainly ways of working around the problem, of course, but part of the reason it’s worth mentioning those is that progress alone, or tech snobbery shouldn’t be a reason to ignore the merits of stuff from the past. On the sound side, we threw out “inferior” analog synths, digital synths, 8-bit synths … hey, you know how that story ends. (Namely, you getting outbit on eBay on vintage equipment.)

It’s not always ideal to use relatively low-quality analog signals, but it’s great to have an option. And option has been what this has been about. On a lot of recent PCs, you have a dedicated VGA and S-Video jack. Some even have had triple-threat VGA plus VGA plus S-Video, and frankly, in reality that doesn’t actually take up much space on the chassis. The MacBook and MacBook Pro have traditionally been well served by their small army of dongles for each situation; Mac visualists are known to buy these the way some people buy Kleenex or lightbulbs, packing them in every bag and corner of their home.

But now, all of this is changing. The analog TV out is going the way of the gas lantern.

The Digital Transition (Again)

The problem is, of course, VJs and visualists live in an alternate reality from the rest of the marketplace. Aside from the occasional business traveler hooking up to a hotel TV, the rest of the planet stopped using these jacks long ago. And whether it’s a premium Apple or a white-label PC, pretty much all vendors aggressively attack every last ounce of weight and expense on laptops.

It’s the HD age, so S-Video/composite is out. D-Sub 15 connectors (commonly known as “VGA”) remain standard on a lot of machines, and incidentally, these are analog outputs — they just typically don’t carry TV output signal over them unless explicitly supported by a machine. But the digital outputs are tending toward one of three connectors: HDMI, DVI, and DisplayPort.

Meet DisplayPort

Dude, this format’s from Dell. But if that bothers you, don’t worry — Apple managed to change the connector, for reasons that aren’t immediately apparent.

DisplayPort is now a buzzword in Mac circles, but it’s actually been floating around the PC for some time. (Does that pattern sound familiar? Apple has been known in the past for more effectively promoting PC standards like USB than the PC makers are — thank Apple’s appetite for change.) In fact, the whole DisplayPort initiative was started by Dell way back in 2003. DisplayPort is now popping up on machines from Lenovo. Surprisingly, a lot of Dells don’t actually have it.

The good news about DisplayPort is that it’s a standard, and unlike HDMI, which in its most common implementation doesn’t support higher display resolutions, DisplayPort could stand in for DVI and HDMI and unite the world on one connector.

So all is progress, bring it on, right? Not so fast:

  • Theoretically DisplayPort can support analog connections, but so far I haven’t seen a single DisplayPort adapter that can support S-Video or composite output. If it’s really One Connector to Rule them All, and given how simple those signals are, why shouldn’t we get that support?
  • Apple has screwed things up a bit here. The DisplayPort is already a tiny connector, and the whole point is that it’s supposed to be a standard physical connection as well as standardized signal. But Apple went with their own, apparently proprietary and certainly non-standard Mini DisplayPort connector on the MacBook and MacBook Pro. Result: only Apple’s connectors work, at least for the forseeable future.
  • We’re not really making progress here. DisplayPort doesn’t do anything previous formats could do, it’s actually throwing out previous “standards” in favor of another “standard,” and in the end this seems to be about us buying still more cables.

Apple wins the most annoyance points here. Did they pick their special connector because it’s symmetrical and pretty and the standard one isn’t? I wouldn’t be surprised.

I’m a Mac, I’m a PC, S-Video is Dead

Let me be clear: this isn’t a Mac problem. It’s a problem for everybody. S-Video jacks are vanishing fast. They’re still turning up in curious places, like the Toshiba Qosmio gaming laptop introduced as recently as this summer. But you can bet odds are increasing you won’t get one of these ports. Each platform has problems of its own. On the Mac, you now can’t hook up anything anywhere without an associated dongle. On the PC, the confusion over just which connection people should be using leaves you with lots of laptops with VGA and HDMI but no DVI, meaning you may need something as involved as an ExpressCard docking station just to hook up a high-resolution monitor via DVI. (Fortunately, there are such things from Targus, laptop vendors, and others, and I suppose it’s at least good news if you like docking stations.)

Anyway, it’s obvious that we need two courses of action:

1. If you do wind up with one of these machines, it’s going to be worth picking up a scan converter so that you’re prepared for every output scenario.
2. If you’re running a live visual event, you can’t assume everyone will be able to output S-Vid/composite. I’m planning to travel with a scan converter, a long VGA run, and my collection of old Mac dongles so I can save everyone’s day. Hey, highly paid DJs turn up at major festivals and then start panicking because they want to plug in their cheap laptop headphone out and didn’t bring any cables at all…

Naturally, the Edirol V-8 just got a whole lot more appealing. The only problem: there’s no real advantage to using its VGA connectors, and you can’t actually mix two D-Sub-fed inputs at the same time.

There’s a good discussion on the Apple forums about the whole picture, and if you scroll down you’ll see an in-depth hands-on regarding one solution. Not coincidentally, you’ll notice a lot of discussion comes from VJs.
Mini DisplayPort to Composite/ S-Video?? [Apple Support Discussions]

Ladies and gentlemen, the future! Well, at least it works. Apple support forum member Lougle posts this image from a hands-on review. It doesn’t quite jive with the aesthetics of Apple’s pretty new machine, but in a pinch, it gives you oldschool analog output.

The product in question: the PC to Video EZ, which lists for just US$49.99. (Yes, I suspect the pricier options may be higher-quality, but it looks like it works, at least!)

Lest you just think I’m whining, though, it deserves to be said: progress in this industry often simply isn’t. And I don’t just want to grumble about the “good old days.” I think it’d be great to see some real progress — perhaps an ExpressCard with integrated scan converter for input and output and a multi-connector hydra for connections in both directions? And isn’t it time we got a proper VGA mixer (which is, note, an analog format) that costs less than an automobile and/or wasn’t lame? Surely the technology culture that has traveled to the moon and made inkjet printers cost less than the paper they print on is capable of this, right?

And surely I’m not the only one who wants to go spend some time mixing old-fashioned analog video outputs from iPods and DIY circuit-bent generators after looking at this landscape?

  • http://www.quasimondo.com Mario Klingemann

    Wasn't the purpose of removing all analog outputs to make sure that DRM can be enforced in the future? No more ripping of DVDs via some sneaky analog tricks?

  • Graham T

    "Mac visualists are known to buy these the way some people buy Kleenex or lightbulbs, packing them in every bag and corner of their home."

    Haha that is so me!

  • http://sleepytom.co.uk sleepytom

    Its a good thing really :)

    TBH Svideo out of the mac / pc has never been very good quality video (i'm not talking about the limitation of PAL/NTSC i'm saying that the svideo provided from many computers has been a poor quality video signal often suffering from underscan issues and out of range voltages) A good quality scanconverter can provide a much nicer quality of output for people who still mix analogue SD video.

    Scanconverters do offer other advantages too – video outputs can be sized an aligned properly so mixing video from 2 scanconverters you can have the images centred and aligned on top of one another allowing the use of content which is actively designed to be composited as layers! Good scanconverters allow their outputs to be genlocked for glitch free switching on matrix switchers.

    Also the reduction of availability of svideo out on laptops increases the pressure on hardware manufacturers to produce an affordable solution for DVI mixing. In the last couple of years we've seen the price of HD/SDI mixers fall dramatically to the point where the cheaper models are under 5 grand, technically making a DVI mixer at these prices is more than possible – we just need the manufacturers to see the market. VJs are notoriously a bunch of cheapskates and the falling price of analogue mixers has exasperated these issues (when i started VJing you could not by a video mixer for less than £1500 – these days you can get a choice of mixers with 1/3rd of that money) People perceive the vixid as expensive when in reality it's really cheap for the range of options it gives. Get rid of svideo outputs and people might consider a £3000 DVI mixer as being very good value for money. If they still have the option to use svideo and a £400 mixer then they will probably not stump up for the digital option despite it's obvious quality advantages.

    I dunno progress toward better quality has to be a good thing. SVideo output from computers is pretty shocking and I for one don't mourn its passing.

  • Wuzzle

    VJ's are notoriously cheap because for the most part, we are lucky if we get paid for our gigs ;) Perhaps we need an open source hardware mixer revolt…

  • http://www.jaymis.com Jaymis

    @Sleepytom: Do you have any suggestions for reasonable, affordable scan converters? I definitely agree with the underscan/quality issues on many computer outputs – it's a real pain to mix sources when one of them has a black box around it :)

  • http://createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    @sleepytom: generally, I agree, except I wonder if we're really making progress.

    Apple switched from one connector to another connector that does exactly the same thing, functionally, and *lacks* integrated digital+analog capability (or so I can tell).

    DisplayPort would be a great common standard, except it's not a common standard. Most PCs are shipping with HDMI+VGA, and Apple is doing its own connector for DisplayPort.

    You see the problem.

    And as a separate issue, I think there is a place for mixing analog signals. That said, I agree absolutely — doing it properly with a scan converter == a good idea!

    What do you use in your own work, out of curiosity?

    How hard would it be to spec out an open source scan converter / mixer, I wonder?

  • http://www.accentfeed.blogspot.com Miguex

    wow..
    Thanks so much for this!
    now I have a response on how can I "modify" my new mbp back into a laptop made for professionals.

    Look at all those adaptors and connections! What happen with the days when apple made things simple? what happened with the days of "plug and play?, I can understand new technologies are coming but not supporting industry standards is incredible to me.

  • http://createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    Well, in fairness, Miguex, the idea of DisplayPort is to fix exactly that problem. The only issue: no analog (again, as near as I can tell), *and* Apple using a different version of the port. ;)

  • mzo

    Considering the iPod video output switched around the cables on the standard composite + RCA a/v cable so that you HAD to buy apple's cable for absolutely no reason at all, there is no doubt in my mind that apple changed the standard specifically so you had to buy their product. There was no logical reason whatsoever for the ipod output switcharoo so I can't imagine there is for this either. I love apple over dell any day, but apple really needs to stop this kind of behavior, it's so microsoft!

    I'm glad my macbook pro is the generation right before this newer one :D

    *strokes the two firewire ports*

  • http://sleepytom.co.uk sleepytom

    Well apple are well known for this kind of crappy abuse of standards – they will happily steal from the world of opensource / open standards and then make a small modification and say its their own product / idea.

    But beyond apple (there is a world beyond apple – not that you'd believe it listening to some VJs!) having a standards based connector is a good idea – the point that everyone seems to of missed is that displayport isn't an apple idea nor a dell idea it was invented as an open standard by VESA. As such it should be supported simple because it is a real effort to end the madness of having so many different connectors for essentially the same signals. (but apple have immediately fucked it for everybody – thanks guys!)

    Re: what do i do – these days i use the svideo out on my dell :) hahaha! but I also have a good collection of scanconverters at my disposal – Currently my favorite scanconverters in aproximate order of cost are
    TVOne Corrioscan
    Focus TView Pro
    Sony DSC-1024g
    Folsom Image Pro

    the folsom is an awesome bit of kit but costs several thousand pounds – TVOne are the best best for new scanconverters – they are reasonably priced and have extremely good support (UK company which still makes stuff in the UK!) The scanconverter in the V8 is also quite good. Extron also make some good scanconverters.

    Really you need to budget £300 for a decent scanconverter – at which point i'd suggest finding the money to get a V8 rather than a scanconverter. Unless you get lucky on ebay where their are good bargains to be had – try vjstore.org/scanconverters.php :)

  • http://www.heart2beat.com vjwunderkind

    and here's the reason why FIREWIRE disappeared from the MBs:
    http://blog.wired.com/gadgets/2008/10/engineer-la

  • http://beatfix.com beatfix

    Agh, so painful. I have been desperately trying to retire my scan converters for years now, yet I am constantly thwarted.

    This could end up being the single biggest factor in my next laptop purchase.

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  • http://elevated.tv elevated.tv

    thanks for this great overview on the current state of video connectivity. I was pretty bent upon seeing Apple's newest MBPs, but after a bit of research into the design considerations (thanks vjwunderkind) I've also settled for keeping the scan converters around as part of the kit. I use the PC to video EZ pictured above, and while a bit janky, it gets the job done.

  • http://www.7pc.de Philipp

    Thanks for summing up. It sux, right, but even worse are the shops that sell Mini Displayport->DVI-I connectors @amazon and other places. hose are not DVI-I. tested #fail.