The 50/60Hz Question

This ought to interest anyone from Europe, but our American readers may want to read too, just to see how lucky you guys are...


Oberon: Okay. I'm fed up now.

What with, I hear you ask? The television. I'm fed up with my television.

Why this might not strike you as surprising, given some of the 'entertainment' commonly broadcast by the less scrupulous of channels, it's not the content I'm annoyed with. It's the actual TV itself. You see, the UK is a little different from the USA in quite a few respects, and our television standard is one of these. While Americans use the NTSC (National Television Standards Commitee) standard to display images on-screen, over here in Blighty we use a system called PAL (Phase Alternating Lines).

NTSC displays images at virtually 60Hz. In other words, every second the screen is refreshed 59.999 (recurring) times. Each frame contains a total of 525 lines (each line being 1 pixel thick). PAL, on the other hand, is a 50Hz system (hence this article's title), but has frames with 625 lines. These differences pose a number of interesting problems when it comes to transferring video products from one market to another.

Back in the 1980s and early 90s, a TV set was either PAL or NTSC. (Unless you happened to live in either France, or the Eastern Bloc, in which case you used a varient of PAL, dubbed SECAM). Trying to play an NTSC videotape on a PAL TV would lead to the picture being in black and white (as the two standards also displayed colours differently) and with huge black borders at the top and bottom. The borders appeared as there was simply no information on the NTSC frames to fill those extra 100 lines, so the TV would simply leave them black.

Of course, when a video or DVD is released they are remade so that they play correctly on PAL sets - otherwise a lot of consumers would be asking nasty questions. (Unless it was a really old film, in which case we have to let them off for not colouring it). But games companies are lazy, and so the problems continue. When a videogame is released over here, it will frequently be exactly the same code as the other releases. Code designed for an NTSC TV.

Although games do appear in colour, there are still horrible, horrible black borders around games. This seems to affect some systems more than others; while Nintendo's consoles display a large amount of border, Sega's machines typically show much less, and often include just a smidge more code in order to colour these borders. (With the simplicity of the graphics on consoles such as the Master System, this meant that sometimes they appeared to vanish completely)

Another problem soon becomes apparent to anyone who happens to play imported consoles. For some mysterious reason, a PAL game will often seem to be rather slow. Music which formerly was fast and energetic becomes lethargic, while Sonic doesn't seem quite so nippy anymore. Here that little matter of playing in 50 or 60Hz becomes truly apparent. Unless the game has been re-written to take note of the fact that the screen refreshes slower, the game will chug on at a good 17% less speed than on its native American counterpart. Unfair play, surely?

The problem stems from the fact that every console manufacturer and virtually every games development studio is based either in the USA or Japan - both NTSC territories. As such they are unaffected by the slowdown that us Europeans must live with. Until recently there has been little to no action on their part to let us play at the 'proper' speed, and so we've had to live with sub-standard games. (Of course, if the USA happened to be PAL, there would be uproar at getting such an 'inferior' product.)

However, things are beginning to change. If one simply checks online, one can find detailed explainations of the motherboards of old consoles, providing the information needed to convince one that they run at 60Hz. A quick solder job can soon produce amazing results, allowing for games to be played properly for a change. Some go as far as to build switches into their console's casing, allowing one to slow down or speed up as they see fit.

Recently the console manufacturers themselves are doing the job for us. If you have a Sega Dreamcast or a Nintendo Gamecube, chances are you'll have heard of the ability to change some or all games into 60Hz mode when playing. To do this on a Dreamcast game, simply power it up as normal - most games feature a menu at the beginning asking you to choose the framerate between 50 or 60Hz. 'Cube gamers need to hold down "B" while the Gamecube logo appears onto screen - the game should ask whether you want to play in 60Hz.

This gives us some hope - as more TV sets appear in the UK capable of switching between modes (and beware - some do not, especially older sets), more companies should start releasing switchable or even native 50Hz games. Maybe I won't have to rant any more when the next generation of consoles hits the market?

Well, I can dream, can't I?