on Feb 16, 2009
So many people responded with questions the last time I talked about my setup that I thought I’d come back and try to cover this more fully. I realize there is a bit of a dorky “let me show you my room” vibe going on here, but lots of people seem interested in this idea of plugging consoles into a PC. Like installing Windows on a Mac, this is an amusing form of sacrilege.
Once again, here is the setup:
|In an effort to head off the various “What is that X in the picture:|
1) The “console keyboard” is just a plain old wireless keyboard. The receiver is tucked behind the wall of consoles where it can be plugged into either the PS3 or Xbox as needed.
2) The “switch” is a simple little A/V selector, similar to this one.
3) Sorry about the open curtain, which creates the unwanted light-bloom effect. We’ve been living in this pure white void for a few years now, because the property values are crazy low. Downside: The back yard is an endless expanse of white light without form or substance, which makes it hard to play baseball.
4) The green vessel in the middle is my now-standard dispenser for brain fuel.
5) Yes, that is a mini-fridge on the right. I hasten to add that it contains only water bottles and not food. Having food that close would lead to there being a lot more Shamus around here.
All of the consoles feed into the switch, which in turn feeds into my TV Tuner card, which lets me play in window on my PC. A TV tuner card is – as the name suggests – a card with some standard television inputs on it. You plug your console, cable TV, antenna, DVD player, VCR, or what-have-you into the card, then run the accompanying program and the resulting signal ends up in a window on the desktop. Or you can go fullscreen if you’re into the whole “immersion” thing. (And speaking of plugging in a DVD player: I’m always worried that on some level the problems I have are the result of some half-assed DRM getting in the way. Recording the footage of your Grand Theft Auto IV jumps is indistinguishable from pirating DVDs from a technological standpoint. It’s all the same connectors, the only difference is the nature of the data.)
Many people made suggestions along the lines of getting another monitor just for the consoles or somesuch, but remember that the entire point of my setup is so that I can do clean screengrabs of console games in order to supply my webcomic. Plugging the console directly into a television or monitor would surely improve the picture quality, at the expense of defeating the entire purpose of the setup. I don’t care how nice the TV is, taking pictures of a screen using a digital camera is never going to work.
The most common question from readers is, “What TV Tuner card do you use?” I’m afraid my answer wouldn’t be very useful to you, since:
- It’s about three years old now, which is several millennia in the lifecycle of stuff like this. (Clarification: I have owned it for about three years, and it was being discontinued when I bought it. It’s anyone’s guess how old the thing really is, in a technological sense.) The cards that replaced my card have long since been replaced, yea, even unto the third generation. Ergo, it is no longer available, anywhere.
- It’s not very good. There are many faults and drawbacks I’ll outline below, and I’m wary of buying a new one for fear that I’ll end up with some thing that is, for my purposes, even worse.
- The software that came with it is horrible.
- It doesn’t support HDTV, HDMI, or any of that other fancy-pants high-res stuff.
- Even if all of the above weren’t true, I can’t rightly remember the make or model. It came in one of those boxes that was designed to contain one of several different products, and I’ve long since forgotten which one mine is.
So if you’re really interested in this exciting world of playing a console game piped through your PC, I can’t really advise you on what to get. But I can give you a heads up on some of the drawbacks. I can’t lead you to victory, but I can let you know what it will feel like to lose.
I’ve only recently discovered that there is a small degree of visual lag. I have been attributing my quick time event headaches to my declining reflexes, but it turns out that the TV tuner card is also a contributing factor. The various mini-games in Fable 2 provided fairly conclusive proof of this. The more difficult ones have a moving white dot that takes about one second to move along its path, and I have to hit the button while the dot is about 1/3 to 1/4 of the path away from its target. Making a very rough guess, I’d say I’m dealing with somewhere between 150 and 250 milliseconds of lag. That’s short enough to be hard to detect in normal circumstances, but long enough to make twitch situations a great deal more challenging.
The white dot moves back and forth along the curving path. The object is to hit a button to make it stop within the green region.
The edges of stuff on screen are sort of “jaggy”. This might be a problem inherent to taking an analog TV signal and converting it to digital, or it might just mean that my TV tuner card sucks. In any case, this really limits what I can do with screenshots if I don’t want them to look like they were saved with the JPG compression set to “annihilate”.
This is a zoomed-in view of a bit of the interface in WiiFit. Note that I saved this in .PNG, so all of the distortion you see is present in all of the raw screencaps I take.
If I could get rid of this distortion, it would greatly increase what I could do with the screenshots I get, which would make producing the comic a whole lot easier.
The software that came with my TV tuner card is a sad little thing called “EZ View”. If you’ve ever seen a computer that came pre-loaded with barely functional shovelware with misspelled names like “SuperNice Foto Edit Master” and “X-tra Media Organizer PRO” then you know the sort of software “engineering” I’m talking about here. It uses an unintuitive and overly elaborate skinned interface, behind which is a clunky and feature-poor program.
The TV tuner card often smears frames together, possibly as a result in differences in framerate between what the console is putting out and what the card itself wants to use. This is only slightly noticeable when I’m just playing, but the problem becomes very obvious when I start looking a individual frames.
Using composite input will simply blend two frames together. This makes it look blurry or (in the case of stuff that’s moving really fast on screen) like a double image. If I use S-Video, the differences between frames will appear on every other line, so that fast-moving items will be wreathed in scanlines. If the camera itself is panning over a scene, then it’s almost impossible to get a clean grab.
Lost Audio Channel
This is actually a perfectly reasonable and solvable problem, it’s just annoying. The TV tuner card I have is only interested in video, and the problem of getting the audio side of things working is left as an exercise for the end user. Coming out of the console you’ll generally have a yellow cable (the video) and two audio cables (the red and white cables). The yellow goes directly into the TV tuner card, and the other two go… where? I could hook them up to external speakers, but then I’d need yet another set of speakers, and if I took in-game video it wouldn’t have the audio. The better solution is to feed them into the line-in or microphone jack on the PC. Except the connectors are all wrong.
I have a little adapter that turns a single RCA connector into the familiar TRS connector, which then gets plugged into the microphone input on my computer. But this is a 1-to1 conversion. I can either have the left channel or the right one, but not both. I’ve sat down a couple of times to search around for a better solution, but it’s hard to find the right plugs in all the right genders where they don’t price-gouge you by an order of magnitude or insist that you buy ten at a time. I haven’t fixed this yet because, in the end, this is a boring shopping problem and not an interesting technological one.
I’m interested in getting a new TV tuner card that supports some sort of HD input. For those who have emailed me for advice along these lines: I’m just as lost as you are. The features that are crucial to gamers (no DRM, low latency) don’t even get a mention in the features list of most cards. An overwhelming majority of users seem to be using these things to turn their PC into a TiVo. Some cards offload a lot of the work onto the CPU. Other cards (like mine) manage to run without putting a dent in system performance. There is no real way to evaluate any of the above pitfalls until you have the thing plugged into your machine.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.