Component video, to be completely technically accurate, can actually mean any video signal that has been split into two or more channels. By this definition, anything other than composite video could be described as component video. Of course, what most people mean when talking about component video output is the YPbPr component video standard that typically is transmitted by three RCA connectors. For the sake of preserving everyone’s sanity, when I talk about component video in this article, please assume I mean YPbPr unless I say otherwise.
YPbPr component video is a compressed RGB video standard that, unlike the popular RGB SCART standard, is common around the world and not just in Europe. Analogue component video was a forerunner to the now more common digital HDMI connections. There are several consoles that support it directly, but for the Gamecube, Xbox 1, PS2 and Wii, it is (usually) the best means of connecting the consoles. To understand why, we need to consider the differences between YPbPr Component video and the closest competing standard, RGB SCART. Before we get into that, lets have a look at the murky waters of that much hated video standard, composite.
Composite video, as you’re all probably aware, sends an entire video signal down one cable. This is of course very convenient, but the picture quality that you can expect from such a connection is very poor. The problem is that encoding all the information into one signal, and then decoding it again causes interference and signal loss. In order to minimize this, it is necessary to split the picture information up into several different signals. The popular S-Video connectors split the signal into two components and typically achieve a much better picture quality. Further gains in image quality can be achieved by splitting the signal into three or more discrete channels. For consumers this usually means either RGB (typically carried by SCART or VGA cables) or YPbPr (typically carried by component video cables or d-terminal cables).
Interestingly, since RGB SCART is an uncompressed video standard and component video typically isn’t, this means that theoretically RGB SCART can give a better picture than component video. Of course, the differences are going to be minimal, but even so, why not go with the best possible connection? The reason is down to the kinds of signal supported, specifically, 480p progressive scan. Without going into too many technicalities, progressive scan is highly desirable especially for video games. On any display that supports it, progressive scan will always give a better picture. On an LCD or Plasma screen, progressive scan makes a huge difference, not just to picture quality but to input lag times too.
Although RGB SCART cables are physically capable of handling progressive scan video, the RGB SCART standard neglected to include progressive scan images, meaning that virtually all SCART equipped equipment cannot handle progressive scan. Because progressive scan is so desirable and because the difference in image quality is so minimal between SCART and component, you should almost always choose component over SCART on any machine that supports progressive scan. The PS2 is the only possible exception to this, but we’ll come to that later.
240P and Component
Since, for reasons unknown, RGB SCART never caught on outside Europe, most of the HDTV sets available in America and Canada don’t come equipped with SCART sockets. Lots of the older games consoles (Playstation/Saturn era and earlier) support RGB but do not support component. For best results on any HDTV, retro consoles should ideally be connected with a 240p compatible upscaler. Not everyone has the budget for an expensive upscaler though, which makes component a compelling alternative. Because component is so much better than composite, many HDTV users stateside have taken to converting the output from their retro consoles from SCART to component. This can be done using any SCART to component transcoder. Typically these are available on E-bay at affordable prices. They work as you might expect. You feed in a RGB SCART signal in one end and get a component video signal out of the other. Keep in mind that the signal is not upscaled or otherwise processed, meaning from a retro console you will typically get a 240p image. Many TV sets don’t support 240p via component, meaning that you won’t get an image at all. Other sets support the signal as 480i, just like SCART equipped HDTV sets.
Component video over SCART
As I said in a recent blog post, it’s perfectly possible to route component video over SCART. This means that you can repurpose a SCART switch as a component video switch, for instance. To route component video through SCART, use an adapter like the one shown on the left here. Of course, this doesn’t convert component into RGB, but lots of video processors (DVDO Edge, Optoma Themescene, XRGB3 to name but three that are popular with videogamers) can actually handle both component and RGB SCART on the same inputs. On the XRGB3 it’s just a matter of choosing what type of signal is being fed in, while other processors will recognise the signal and switch automatically between the two. This is especially useful for the PS2, for example, where RGB seems to give a better picture but component is the only easy way to get 480p.
Remember that although you can route component through a SCART switch, the reverse is usually not true, you cannot route SCART through a component switch. Apart from the fact that RGB SCART has an extra wire for sync, even if you find some way to carry the sync signal, there usually isn’t enough bandwidth for the full range of RGB through a component switch, unless it’s designed for component and RGB.
Component video consoles
Although the current generation of consoles support component video, in most cases it’s better to use HDMI rather than component, unless your TV does not support it. The one exception to this might be where you want to capture video, but that’s a whole different article. For the following consoles, component video represents the best possible connection.
A significant amount of the Gamecubes NTSC back catalogue supports progressive scan when used with a Gamecube component cable. What’s more, the Gameboy player supports progressive scan too, making it the most accurate way to play Gameboy games on a big screen. Activating progressive scan on Gamecube titles is just a matter of holding down the red button on the controller when the game boots, then selecting the option from the menu. The biggest problem with component output on the Gamecube is the rarity of the component cables. Expect to pay up to $150 or more for a set.
The Playstation 2 has particularly noisy component video output, which means that if you’re not using progressive scan, it might be better to use RGB SCART instead. Ideally, you should send the component video signal down the SCART cable so you don’t need to keep swapping cables. You can then route it to a compatible video processor or use a SCART splitter to split the two types of signal out again. Only a handful of PS2 games natively support 480p, but many more can be forced to 480p by using homebrew software such as the GSM mode selector.
The Wii is a curious machine in many ways, its cheap and cheerful design has had a number of interesting side effects. The component video output is noticeably worse than that on the Gamecube, meaning most perfectionists still leave their Cube connected rather than rely on the Wii’s backward compatibility. There’s nothing really special you need to consider when hooking up the Wii’s component cables. Keep in mind that if you use the Virtual Console, you can toggle between 240p and 480i on some games, to do this, follow these steps:-
1. Start a Virtual Console game
2. Press the Home button to bring up the Home menu and then click on “Operations Manual”
3. Attach a Nunchuk controller to the Wii remote, if you don’t have one already attached
4. Press A+2+Z buttons simultaneously (A and 2 are on your Wii remote, Z on your Nunchuk)
5. You should hear a sound confirming that you’ve done this correctly. This should activate 480i mode for all compatible VC titles
6. To switch back to 240p mode for Virtual Console, follow the same steps as above, but press A+1+Z instead
Of course this is only really useful if you have a component compatible CRT.
With modifications, the Xbox can actually output VGA, however in practice the picture isn’t really any different to component. PAL Xbox’s will need to be modded, since the PAL dashboard doesn’t support component output. You will need an Xbox HDTV pack, again something you will probably need to go to E-bay for. However, it’s not as rare as the Gamecube component cable, fortunately.
Since Component Video doesn’t carry the HDCP copy protection scheme that HDMI does, it can be useful to use when you want to capture video from the Xbox 360 or PS3. HDMI gives a better picture however. There are capture solutions that will support HDMI, and devices like the HD-Fury can deal with any HDCP issues (for some reason the PS3 console turns on HDCP copy protection even during game play making it difficult to capture).