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Classic Macintosh Video Signals Demystified, Designing a Mac-to-VGA Adapter with LM1881

In the late 1980s When Apple released its first Macintosh models supporting external color monitors, the company made some design choices that continue to cause trouble even today. Computers like the Macintosh IIci supported 640 x 480 video resolution, the same resolution as the VGA standard that was common in the PC world, but they used a different physical connector for the monitor cable, a different vertical refresh rate, and a different method of encoding sync information. It’s those sync differences that have proven to be most problematic over the years. Let’s look at what all is required to use my Macintosh IIci with a modern LCD monitor. Grab some coffee and get comfortable, because this will be a long one.

The classic Macintosh video connector is a DB-15, with two rows of pins. The correct name for this is actually DA-15, but nearly everybody calls it DB-15 and we’ll follow that convention. The VGA connector is a DE-15 with three rows of pins. This is sometimes called HD-15 owing to its “high density” arrangement of pins. Despite the physical differences, the video signals on the two connectors are mostly the same: (pinout data from sfiera)

This difference in physical connectors is fairly easy to solve with an adapter. During the 1990s and 2000s you could find a Mac-to-VGA adapter at any computer store. Today they’re more rare, but still available from surplus electronic suppliers or eBay.

Signals and Sync

A very brief primer on video signal formats: A video signal is composed of a series of lines, organized into frames. The lines are output from the video hardware one by one, at a fixed rate, and the timing of each line is indicated with an HSYNC pulse from the video hardware. After all the lines in a frame have been output, there’s a VSYNC pulse before the start of the next frame. The monitor needs these sync pulses to keep its display operating in lockstep with the video signal.

The 640 x 480 VGA standard uses 60 frames per second – its vertical refresh rate is 60 Hz. But Apple chose a 67 Hz refresh rate for its 640 x 480 video format (actually 66.666666…), which could be argued is slightly better than 60 Hz because the higher rate results in reduced flickering on CRTs. The difference is negligible, however, and the 67 Hz rate only serves to complicate things. Fortunately most modern moderns support a fairly wide range of vertical refresh rates, where a range like 50-75 Hz is common. This means that the 67 Hz refresh rate usually isn’t a problem. If you know of a counter-example, please tell me.

What about those sync signals? In the VGA standard, HSYNC and VSYNC are provided as separate input signals on VGA pins 13 and 14. It’s nice and simple, end of story. But in the classic Macintosh video world, sync is… complicated. There’s a fair amount of misunderstanding and myth about this topic floating around the web, so I’m here to explain the truth. From the table above we can see that the Mac has outputs for HSYNC and VSYNC, but also for CSYNC composite sync (HSYNC xor VSYNC). Many people have also heard about sync on green, where composite sync is mixed directly into the green video channel. So what exactly is the Mac video sync standard? Does it output separate HSYNC and VSYNC, or CSYNC, or sync on green?

The answer is yes, the Mac generates all of those sync standards at different times, depending on what type of monitor it thinks is connected. But it doesn’t generate all of them all of the time. The video hardware checks the voltages on the connector’s three sense pins, which form a 3-bit monitor ID for the connected monitor type. If it’s a supported monitor type, the video hardware configures itself for an appropriate output signal and sync method. If it’s not a supported monitor type, the video hardware shuts off and outputs nothing.”

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