Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Marseille's mCable Gaming Edition: A Thorough Review of the Anti-Aliasing HDMI Cable

UPDATE (10/21/2017): A Redditor asked me to check how the mCable handled the WiiU's Wii Mode when set to 480p. The results were great. Photos of 480 mode have been added. They are listed as an update following the original Wii Analysis.

Preface:


The Box it Came In

When I was a kid, I used to imagine what the future would look like. Nothing too out there, just the usual stuff. One of the big things I remember looking forward to was the idea of the flat screen TV. When I finally got one, it was a pretty amazing moment. I came home from Costco, beaming obviously, with a brand new 20 inch Vizio. The resolution was 1080i/720p. It was only about 3 inches thick. Even back then, it was not top of the line, but I didn’t care. It was mine and I had bought it with my own money. I had officially entered the future.
A future that, as I soon learned, made the past look very ugly. The first thing I did when I got home was hook up my PS2 to the new Vizio. Right away I noticed a problem. The games looked terrible. This couldn’t be right, I thought. There needed to be something I could do to improve the picture. As the years went by, I purchased various products in the hopes that they would make my old games look good again. I had moderate successes but have never really been pleased with the solutions that I found.
Enter the mCable. After seeing a thread on Neogaf, I figured that this might be the silver bullet I had been waiting for. I searched online for reviews of the cable but found very few of them. Worse still, the ones that I did find (though well done) focused almost entirely on the benefits that one could get while playing current generation games. Nowhere did I see images of what the cable could do for PS2, or even PS3, games. It was clear that in order to get the information I was looking for, I was going to have to actually buy the expensive mCable for myself.
The following review is here to help add to the overall knowledge of what the cable is capable of. It is not as in-depth as something that would come from the brilliant minds at Digital Foundry, but I have done my best to craft a thorough exploration of the cable’s performance as it relates to a variety of titles from multiple generations.

This review was conducted using the following equipment:

1)      mCable Gaming Edition (the new black version available directly from Marseille’s Network Inc.’s  website)
2)      40 inch UHD TV – Samsung UN40JU7100 in Game Mode with post-processing options turned off.
3)      PS2 Slim hooked up via Official PS2 Component Cables.
4)      OSSC – Open Source Scan Converter used to help the PS2 output a 480 progressive HDMI signal. The OSSC was connected to the TV using the official PS3 HDMI cable and the mCable for comparison.
5)      WiiU hooked up with the official WiiU HDMI cable and the mCable for comparison.
6)      PS3 Slim (first revision) hooked up via the official PS3 HDMI cable and the mCable for comparison.
7)      Disney WOW Bluray Disc was used to calibrate the TV before testing the mCable to try and mitigate any drastic color, contrast, or brightness differences.
8)      Rock Band 3 for the PS3 for testing video delay.
9)      Samsung NX300 Camera w/16-50mm OIS lens was used to photograph the TV’s screen.
10)   Sega Nomad hooked up via OSSC and HD Retrovision Cables
11)   N64 w/ RGB mod hooked up via OSSC and HD Retrovision Cables

An analysis of each set of games will follow the included pictures. Each picture may be right-clicked in order to see a full-sized version. It should also be noted that the choice of games was very deliberate. I tried to include mostly “middle of the road graphics” titles. The mCable, after all, is most likely best suited for games that have not aged well.

The mCable:

                The mCable that I reviewed was purchased directly from Marseille’s website. It is the newer black gaming edition that seems to not yet be available from 3rd parties. The cable is available in 3 sizes. There is a 3-foot cable that is 120 dollars, the 6-foot cable is 130 dollars, and the 9-foot cable is 140 dollars. I purchased the 9 foot cable and after tax, I spent about 150 in total. Thankfully, the shipping was free.
                The cable comes in a nice box with a window flap. I wonder if that means that their hope is for this the cable to show up in stores. I hope it does. It’s a neat piece of tech. The cable itself seems to be well made and does not feel cheap. Installation is fairly easy. The cable comes with two ends which must be plugged into specific ports. Unlike traditional HDMI cables, there is a side specifically for your TV and for your output source. Other than that, there is also a USB cable attached to the TV side that must be plugged in to power the processor built into the cable. In short, set-up is a breeze.

According to the website, the cable offers the following improvements:

·         Contextual anti-aliasing: removes jaggies without noticeable blur.

·          Contrast and detail enhancement: increase perception of depth, sharpness and contrast.

·         High frame rate support: support frame rates up to 1080p120.

·         Sub-1ms lag: game at your dreamed speed.

Display Lag:

                Though I know it’s not the best way to test video lag, the only option I have available is Rock Band 3’s calibration screen. The official guitar actually has auto-calibration tools, but they don’t seem to play nice with my 4K TV + Soundbar combination. I think it’s because the TV has its own audio delay setting and it’s conflicting with Rock Band 3’s calibration system. In order to get this to work, I had to use the calibration’s manual mode while having my TV’s audio delay set to zero. Afterwards, I turned the audio delay on my TV back on and then manually added the extra delay back into Rock Band 3. I know, it’s hardly ideal, but at least it gives a very general look at what kind of video lag we might be seeing.
                With all that said, according to Rock Band 3, the video delay I’m getting from the TV via the PS3 and the official PS3 HDMI cable is approximately 60ms. While using the mCable, the video delay is approximately 70ms. So, there is a 10ms difference based on my very basic test.

Color, Brightness, and Contrast:

                As stated in the equipment section, I used Disney’s Wow disc to calibrate my TV after plugging in the mCable. This was done to mitigate any color/brightness/contrast correction that the cable might introduce. Boosting contrast is a usually a cheap way to make an image appear to be more crisp and it’s really for the best if this kind of effect is minimized.
                There are likely to still be some variations, but I tried my best to eliminate these changes in order to provide for a more fair comparison of what the mCable is really doing. One last variable to consider is that the camera I used was in auto-mode and the camera itself introduced adjustments to the images. Obviously, the off-screen photographs will never accurately recreate the image quality that one would see in person.
                With all that out of the way, let’s look at what the mCable is capable of.

Scaling and Anti-Aliasing:

                I’ve seen some confusion around whether or not the mCable will scale video content and my tests have given me a pretty conclusive answer. Yes, it will. In most cases, the cable took input signals and output them to my TV as 1080 60p regardless of the incoming resolutions. That said, using non-standard resolutions on the OSSC did cause the cable to error up. It would be wise to stick to 480p, 720p, and 1080p signals. Interestingly though, when the PS2 via the OSSC sent out either a 480i signal or a native 480p signal (on games with progressive scan support), the mCable did not seem to enable any post-processing effects and left the image looking as it would have with a normal HDMI cable. When the OSSC deinterlaced the PS2’s 480i signal, though, and sent it out as 480p w/ bob deinterlacing, the mCable worked just fine. Needless to say, there is definitely some wonkiness to be discovered. On the whole, though, the mCable did just fine with most anything I threw at it.
                The anti-aliasing provided by the cable works. Sometimes it works really well. Sometimes it looks terrible. What it seems to do is to blur the edges around polygons. This blurring is able to easily handle very fine aliasing but seems to struggle when it comes to more pronounced aliasing. For certain games, those with high resolution but poor built-in anti-aliasing, the cable does a phenomenal job of cleaning up the image. For games with more pronounced aliasing, the cable still does a decent job at minimizing the amount of jagginess in the picture.
                Coupled with the anti-aliasing, the cable also blurs and sharpens the image as a whole. This blurring/sharpening is probably necessary to retain a crisp image. The effect reminds me of the kind of over the top DNR (dynamic noise reduction) you see in some older blurays. There is an almost watercolor/oil painting/waxy look to the processed image. To be clear, this is not a desirable effect. Depending on the title, sometimes the effect seems very heavily applied and sometimes very lightly applied. The sticking point, I think, for the use of this cable lies in the question of what looks better. Does the heavily processed waxy image look good? Most of the time, no. Does it, however, look better than the unprocessed image? Most of the time, yes. Certain titles and consoles fair poorly with the effect, and we’ll get to that later, but the cable usually provides a more pleasing, albeit over-processed, image.

N64 Game:

                I don’t have much in the way of N64 games, but the one that I tested was fed through to the OSSC using HD Retrovision’s SNES cables. The game was output using the 240p X2 mode. The pair of photos is as follows:

1)      N64 to OSSC to HDMI
2)      N64 to OSSC to mCable

HDMI

mCable

N64 Analysis:

                What else can be expected? The N64 may have looked okay in its day. Some even think it looked great. The unfortunate truth today, however, is that it simply puts out an ugly smeary image. The mCable’s post-processing effects do little to soften the blow.

Genesis Games:

                The Genesis games were played off of a Sega Nomad and connected to the OSSC using HD Retrovision’s Genesis cables. The OSSC output the games using the 240p X2 and X3 modes. Sadly, the mCable didn’t support the X3 240p mode so it was only tested with the X2 mode. The trios of photos are presented in the following order:

1)      Sega Nomad to OSSC w/X2 240p to HDMI
2)      Sega Nomad to OSSC w/X3 240p to HDMI
3)      Sega Nomad to OSSC w/X2 240p to mCable        

240p X2 HDMI

240p X3 HDMI

240p X2 mCable

240p X2 HDMI

240p X3 HDMI

240p X2 mCable


240p X2 HDMI

240p 3X HDMI


240p 2X mCable

Genesis Analysis:

                Unlike the N64, the Genesis can still push out a nice clean signal when given the right cables. Unfortunately, the OSSC only serves to degrade the quality of the 16-bit pixel art. The OSSC’s line triple mode is clearly the way to go with older 2D sprite-based titles.

PSX Games:

The Playstation games were all tested using the PS3’s backwards compatibility. The games were photographed in both 480p and 1080p modes. I honestly don’t remember which ones are which because, for most games, the difference was negligible. I even tested the image quality using the PS2’s emulation and the results were similarly disappointing. Each pair of photos is presented in the following order:

1)      PS3 to HDMI
2)      PS3 to mCable

HDMI

mCable
HDMI

mCable

HDMI

mCable

HDMI

mCable

PSX Analysis:

                Like the two before it, this one is a bust. The mCable ruins the picture quality of sprite-based titles and does very little to improve the quality of the polygon-based titles. For Playstation One titles, you’re better off just upscaling with the PS3 and leaving the mCable elsewhere. That said, even the subpar performance of the mCable is better than the PS3’s terrible PSOne “Smoothing” option. Never ever turn that on.

PS2 Games:

                The PS2 games were all tested by having the PS2 output via official PS2 component cables. The cables were plugged into the OSSC which digitized the 480i signal and sent out a progressive 480 signal with “bob” deinterlacing. Each pair of photos is presented in the following order:

1)      Component to OSSC to HDMI
2)      Component to OSSC to mCable
  
HDMI

mCable 

HDMI

mCable

HDMI

mCable

HDMI

mCable

HDMI

mCable

HDMI

mCable

HDMI

mCable

PS2 Analysis:

                We finally start to see some silver linings with the mCable. The mCable does a decent job at smoothing out a few rough edges. A lot of minor aliasing is corrected and the odd waxy look that is added is not particularly worse looking than the signal that we were originally getting from the PS2. The only downside with this is that the marginal improvement comes at a pretty high cost since the only way to make use of it is by having the mCable plugged into a device that will convert the PS2’s 480i signal to 480p. If PS2 games are your priority, I believe that most people would recommend the XRGB Mini Framemeister. If, however, you already have an OSSC and are getting the mCable for a separate reason, the marginal improvement on PS2 titles is a nice bonus.

PS3 Games:

                The PS3 games were all tested by having the PS3 connected via the official PS3 HDMI cable. The PS3’s output was set to 1080p however most PS3 games will only output a 720p image. The only game tested that outputs in 1080p is Lego Star Wars the Complete Saga. Each pair of photos is presented in the following order:

1)      HDMI cable
2)      mCable

HDMI

mCable

HDMI

mCable

HDMI

mCable

HDMI

mCable

HDMI

mCable

HDMI

mCable

HDMI

mCable

PS3 Analysis:

                It’s really shocking how poorly some PS3 games have aged. I was disheartened when I saw how ugly Lords of Shadow, Infamous, and Ratchet and Clank had become since the first time I experienced them. What I remembered as being pristine had become grainy, pixelated, and soft. Thankfully, the PS3 is where the mCable really started to shine. Ratchet and Clank, Lego Star Wars, and Last of Us saw very little improvement, but Lords of Shadow and Infamous were revelatory. The mCable saved the image quality of those two titles. Lastly, Assassin’s Creed Rogue, which was always the ugliest game ever, remained just as ugly using the mCable.
               
Wii Games:

                Wii games were tested using the WiiU’s Wii Mode. They were tested in 1080p only. There are 2 photos for each Wii game. They are presented in the following order:

1)      1080p HDMI
2)      1080p mCable

HDMI

mCable

HDMI

mCable


Wii Analysis:

There was not much of a change in the Wii software. There was some minor jaggedness in the image that was reduced, but on the whole, the differences were nothing spectacular. I think I would use the mCable with the Wii in the future, but only because it's already hooked up that way and it would be a hassle to reconnect anything right now.


Wii Games (10/21/2017) UPDATE:

The same games were re-tested under new conditions. The WiiU is still outputting via HDMI, but it is now set to 480p instead of 1080p. The mCable photos are in 1080p due to the mCable’s scaling. The photos are shown in the following order:

1)      480p HDMI
2)      1080p mCable

HDMI

mCable

HDMI

mCable

WiiGames Analysis (10/21/2017) UPDATE:


                Simply amazing. It’s nice to see the mCable doing some heavy lifting here with the Wii titles. Tatsunoko vs. Capcom no longer looks as jagged and messy as before. Lots of aliasing has been minimized and there’s an added sharpness to the overall image. Likewise, the changes in Skyward Sword are just as positive. It’s a shame that changing the resolution for just the Wii mode isn’t an option on the WiiU, but with results like these, it is clearly worth it to go through the annoying menu system in order to play your Wii titles at their best. 

WiiU games:

                WiiU games were tested while the system was set to output 1080p. Each pair of photos is presented in the following order:

1)      HDMI
2)      mCable

HDMI

mCable

HDMI

mCable

WiiU Analysis:

                Much of what I saw with the PS3 titles was replicated here with the WiiU titles. They both looked amazing with the use of the mCable. Lego City Undercover, in particular, almost looked like a Remastered version of the same title. It’s hard to see it in the picture, but when it was in motion, it was something special.

Final Thoughts:

                It’s an expensive cable. Does it work? Yeah, it does. Does it work well? For certain machines and titles, it’s a game changer. Is it worth the money? That’s a tough one. If you’re a big fan of the PS3/WiiU/Xbox360 generation, and you still like to go back and play those old titles, then you might want to consider picking up Marseille’s Gaming Edition mCable. That said, if you don’t mind the way those games currently look, then you might not really need one. It’s a really tough product to recommend. Even when it’s at its best, the post-processing effects that it uses could prove to be divisive. Whether the oil pastel look, minus the aliasing, is preferable to the alternative is very much a matter of personal preference and if the look doesn’t appeal to you or turns you off then there’s not much sense in ever considering an mCable purchase.
                For what it’s worth, even though I very much mind the oil pastel look, I mind the grainy/blurry/aliased look of the standard output much more. I am glad I purchased the cable and I will most likely continue to use it with my PS2, WiiU, and PS3.