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?