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CRT TV for Retro Gaming – The Beauty, Buying, Repair & Despair

If you grew up in the 70s, 80s or 90s and enjoyed the delights of console / computer gaming – the sight of a CRT TV was a familiar one. To many of us who experienced the technology back in the day, it has been remembered for the curving square screen and bulging protruding back. Today they are sought after for their retro gaming prowess and distinct nostalgic qualities and I also began yearning for the authentic feeling that a CRT television can provide.

My bedroom setup when I was a teenager in the 1990s

I already own an OSSC upscaler, which I can plug my SCART, Component and VGA devices into to deliver RGB high quality signals from compatible retro gaming consoles and computers into a modern HDMI flat panel display.

An Open Source Scan Converter, often abbreviated as OSSC. It's a device used to convert older analog video signals from retro consoles (like composite, S-Video, SCART, or component video) to digital HDMI output. This allows classic video games to be played on modern displays with improved clarity and color accuracy. The OSSC works by line-doubling (or more) the original signal, significantly reducing input lag compared to traditional upscalers. This particular unit appears to have various inputs and outputs, switches, and an LCD screen, possibly for displaying the current input and resolution information. It's a favourite tool among retro gaming enthusiasts who want to preserve the look and feel of their old games on contemporary screens.
Open Source Scan Converter (OSSC)

The results are crystal clear, with every glorious pixel on full display and yet with all this high resolution precision, it isn’t really how you remember these fascinating gaming titles of the past.

Quackshot SEGA Mega Drive raw pixels

I have a lot of love for CRT TVs, now more than ever as I better appreciate their distinctive qualities and how they treat the display of retro gaming consoles and computers.

My bedroom in the early 2000s

There is a certain amount of irony here as when flat panel monitors and LCD TVs first came along, I was keen to upgrade. This was mostly driven by the new ‘HD’ formats 720p, 1080i and eventually 1080p. Laughably, it meant my first LCD TV like many others wasn’t actually native 720p. The Xbox 360 and PS3 mostly targeted 720p and the HDTV was instead 1366×768 resolution instead of the native 1280×720 you would expect for a 720p signal, but I digress…

My bedroom setup from the mid-2000s with my first LCD HDTV and Xbox 360

The benefits of using a CRT TV for retro gaming

For these reasons, enthusiasts often seek out CRT TVs for the most authentic retro gaming experience…

Virtually no Input Lag

The way CRT TVs work, there is virtually no input lag from the player selecting a button on the controller to the reaction appearing on the screen. Even to this day, this has made CRT TVs a perfect screen for speed runners and also for retro purists who are looking for the authentic reaction times they remember.

Scanlines

We often refer to older style graphics as ‘pixel art’, however the way we view these beautiful creations on modern displays is very different to what would have been the presentation back in the CRT TV era. For example, on modern displays and emulators through LCD monitors of the older-style graphics, you can actually see each individual square pixel of the artwork.

Streets of Rage 2 SEGA Mega Drive raw pixels

Although still very pleasing to the eye, on CRT TVs the image is built incorporating scanlines. This results in pixels blending in with each other with black lines in-between.

Artists would have allowed for scanlines and so their work would have been optimised for this technology of the day. This means again, for the purist representation of the artwork – CRT TVs have been perfect for these older titles.

Quackshot on the SEGA Mega Drive CRT TV close up

4:3 aspect ratio

Older CRT TVs traditionally supported only the 4:3 aspect ratio, what lazily can be referred to as the square format. Although not perfectly square of course, the 4:3 is far squarer than much newer CRT TVs that were designed with ‘widescreen’ in mind and modern flat panels that are mostly following 16:9 widescreen formats.

16:9 versus 4:3 aspect ratio – note 16:9 is much wider

Analog signal compatibility

Whether you are using SCART, Composite or RF – CRT TVs have been ideal for supporting these connection formats. This is handy as if your console or computer came with the original video and audio leads, the chances were very good for connecting them straightaway to your CRT TV without any additional modifications to your retro system. Modern televisions either don’t have these connections at all or their digital scaling (a process that takes a low resolution input and attempts to improve it on higher resolution displays) is very poor.

Condition of my collection of CRT TVs

I currently have 4 CRT televisions in my collection. A Panasonic 14”, two identical Panasonic 24” models and a 28” Toshiba. Each one of them has their charm, but also each of them has a problem…

The smallest of the bunch, the so called “portable” 14 inch has a slight flicker.

Each of the 24” Panasonic models has a slight tilt to the screen content, ironically one to the left and the other set is to the right.

The Toshiba 28” the picture is fairly dull and lacking its original vibrance. I would have hoped that at least one would be spot on, alas it seems that age has taken its toll.

Toshiba 28″ CRT TV

The 24” models I am quite confident I can have repaired and this is something I am actively working on by being in contact with a fairly local store, but the others may be more difficult. The store has already said sadly that the Toshiba 28″ dullness is unlikely to be repairable.

The downsides of owning a CRT TV for retro gaming

While CRT TVs are often praised for their suitability for retro gaming, they do also have some notable downsides:

Size and weight

Depending on the screen size, even relatively small 14″ displays can be fairly bulky as all of these televisions have a protruding rear to accommodate the tube. Move your way up to the 24″ and greater screen sizes and suddenly the amount of space you need and the weight of it for moving suddenly becomes quite an issue.

CRT TV protruding rear

Maintenance burden and risk

Alas CRT televisions are considered ‘vintage’ by the vast majority of TV repair shops. Getting the parts is not exactly straightforward and the individuals with the knowledge to repair them quickly are disappearing into retirement. It’s certainly not advisable to open up a CRT TV either without expertise as inside is a high voltage setup that if handled incorrectly can cause serious harm, or even worse!

Image Burn-in

Persistent images on the screen can be left behind on a CRT TV if you are not careful. There are many examples I have seen where the on-screen display green text has been left on and as a result the text is forever visible even when the text has been turned off.

Lack of digital connectivity

HDMI is a step too far for the vast majority CRT TVs. The digital connection wasn’t even available on the earlier flat panel televisions and unfortunately if you wish to connect one of the ‘mini’ consoles or a Rapsberry Pi – it’s not exactly plug and play.

Finding the best CRT TV for retro gaming

There are very clear avenues here for finding a retro gaming television:

CRT TV from a family member or friend

If you are lucky, one of your family members or friends already have one and in fact one of the models I own was only found by posting a message on my Facebook profile asking if anyone had one to sell and within minutes I had my first offer. This is a great place to start as you have more time to test the quality as well as know the previous owner for that added trust.

CRT TV through word of mouth

Secondly there are also those who are advertising on various platforms or even by word of mouth that they are selling or even chucking away their CRT TV to make space. The details can be basic on first inspection and often you have to be quick to pick something up before its either gone or sadly made its way to the skip.

Purchasing a CRT TV online

Thirdly of course are the more serious sellers, who see the retro gaming market as something to take advantage of. So many CRT TVs are now sold as “perfect for retro gaming” and in truth it is far more complex than that depending on your needs and also gives them confidence to expect a ridiculous price for the item – sometimes in the hundreds of pounds.

In my own experience, here are a few questions you should ask yourself when looking for a CRT TV?

Do I need a CRT TV with 60Hz?

If you live in the UK like I do, 60Hz will allow many compatible consoles like the SEGA Dreamcast, Microsoft Xbox, PlayStation 2 and others to take advantage of the smoother performance this can provide with compatible titles. If you have imported any of your computers or have modded your console such as the SEGA Mega Drive, SEGA Saturn and others – then they can also take advantage of 60Hz bringing the same benefits.

Sadly PAL region (UK and more) games weren’t always optimised for 50Hz, which often left black borders at the top and bottom of the screen with slower music playback and performance. This really is dependent on the console and title, but certainly for newer retro consoles, 60Hz is recommended.

Which CRT TV screen size?

Really, it is less about screen size and more about space! The main enemy of the CRT TV is its bulging posterior and of course I mean the large rear bump that houses the CRT itself. On newer CRT TVs, they can be more compact, however in general you need to allow quite a bit of space to fit one of these screens into your living space. Measuring your available space and the size of the CRT TV is absolutely essential!

If you wish to use a desk for your retro computing, a what would have been considered “portable” 14 or 15″ CRT TV will most likely be large enough before the space requirement becomes too much.

I find 24″ is a nice size for retro console gaming as the screen size versus rear bulge is just about manageable. Anything larger then, as you would imagine, you need one heck of a corner or wall space available to use. They can quickly dominate a room all to themselves, so be considerate to anyone else using the same room as they might not have the same retro nostalgic sentiment you have. May take some explaining!

Mono or stereo speakers?

For the majority of smaller screen sizes around the 14″ size, a mono speaker (1 channel of sound) is usually all you will get. Even the headphones port on them will also be delivered in mono sound. Larger screens have larger cases and will usually include stereo speakers for the left and right channels of sound. Personally I love the stereo experience for the wider sound it provides, but on desks if you can, hook up external speakers wherever its possible. Many retro computers have a stereo output for sound, separate from the video outputs, so this is a nice option to use here.

What is RGB and do I need it?

RGB is a method of transmitting video signals using separate channels for Red, Green and Blue. For those lucky enough to have compatible gaming hardware and a CRT TV that supported RGB, the image quality of the format was far clearer and higher quality than other formats.

Atari 520 STfm RGB output to 14″ CRT TV

For me, the SCART connecter was fantastic in the UK as it has the capacity to incorporate RGB signals too. Finding a CRT TV with RGB can be tricky though, so finding the model number of the TV for sale is crucial so you can then research from the original manual. The manuals can often be found online, although some sites try and charge you for the honour. Free alternatives are usually available too. RGB is certainly a recommended feature.

Do I need a CRT TV with a SCART socket?

Any retro gaming console or computer you buy is unlikely to come with a SCART cable as often gamers would have used whatever came with the console or computer originally. Many of my own computers and consoles, I have since purchased a compatible SCART cable so I can fully utilise RGB via the SCART connector on my CRT TV. Thankfully SCART was very popular in the United Kingdom!

SCART inputs, EXT. 1 showing it has RGB capability

Therefore for the best quality of the original image from the console or computer, I would recommend a CRT TV with a SCART input.

Should I get help carrying the CRT TV?

Certainly consider the weight as they are extremely heavy on the larger screen sizes in particular. The weight of a 65″ OLED is nothing compared to the back breaking weight of a 28″ CRT TV. It is clearly a two man job for the larger sizes and on my most recent purchase, I hired a local Leicester Man and Van moving service so I didn’t risk my own back in the process.

My Toshiba 2837DB CRT TV on its way to my home

Fixing and repairing a CRT TV for retro gaming

Let’s get straight to the point here. Trying to fix a CRT television yourself can be dangerous without some expert knowledge. Sadly, a lot of that expertise is disappearing and although YouTube videos with the best intentions show you many ways of ridding yourself of some of the more basic issues of a CRT display, the fact remains you should be extremely cautious.

CRT televisions operate at very high voltages, around 20,000 – 30,000 volts. Contact with these parts inside the TV can lead to severe electric shocks! The CRT is also a vacuum surrounded by glass. If this is damaged in any way, it can crack and implode. There are also toxic materials and the one area that gets the most exposure within guides is the electrical charge that can be stored for very long periods even after the TV is switched off. Yet another chance of an electric shock!

A frequent recommendation online is to use the hidden service menu, which an engineer could have originally used. If you have the original TV remote, this is much easier and on occasion it uses one of the unique functions on the original remote to trigger the service menu display. If your screen has a tilt or similar issue where the display is slightly bowed, some of the more feature rich service menus will allow you to tweak away to fix or at least get close to a more perfect uniform display. If your TV doesn’t have these options though, it’s another repair that is required inside the TV. You can even within these same service menus make matters much worse so certainly don’t tweak every value, find the service manuals online and review discussion forums for advice.

You can of course look online for a local technician who has the skills to safely open up, operate and hopefully repair your TV. I tried this recently for the Toshiba CRT TV and the phone call I received from them, although appreciated, wasn’t exactly what I wanted to hear either. The website mentioned CRT TV repair, this is why I approached them using their online contact form, but the website looked quite old and maybe it hadn’t been updated in a while. A few hours later a kind gentleman gave me a call back and the conversations went along the lines of…

I’m sorry the person who worked for us who dealt with CRTs passed away many many years ago. We haven’t been asked to look at a CRT TV for years. It’s likely with the problems you describe that the tube would need replacing and it would be almost impossible to find the parts. My advice to you would be to upgrade your TV.

Local television repair store

That last part, the recommendation to ‘upgrade’ my TV made me smile. I have modern OLED TVs that isn’t the problem, I desire some CRT TV retro goodness! It did however with one short phone call put clearly in perspective the challenge ahead. My chances of fixing this problem was looking far more remote now and my heart sunk a little as a result.

Not all is lost though and I have found another store that ‘may’ be able to help to a certain extent, however you should certainly understand the challenges ahead if a CRT TV is still your aspiration. Even if yours is working now, fixes later are only going to get even harder as time progresses. Not only that, I may need to take the larger CRT TV sets to the store and due to their weight not something I am particularly looking forward to.

Conclusion

Although there are solutions to provide a CRT TV-like experience on modern flat panel displays, you just can’t beat the authentic and nostalgic qualities of this classic screen technology. You will need a fair bit of energy and dare I say luck in finding the right screen that will function best for your needs. The risks are pretty high in terms of reliability and finding the right model that is compatible with the retro gaming consoles or computers you wish to connect to it.

Virtua Fighter 2 SEGA Saturn on a 14″ CRT TV

Although my personal experience dealing with CRT TVs most recently has been a mixed bag of excitement with a pinch of disappointment, I am still pleased I own a little collection of them for my retro gaming pursuits. It provides real insights into the original artwork and its desired presentation of older games, that if you just connected to your modern flat panel display with some of the cheaper HDMI convertor options available would be represented in a very different manner not true to the original intent of the artist.

I hope my experience of CRT Televisions for retro gaming has at least given you an idea of what is involved, so you can make a decision on whether to go down this route yourself. There is certainly a marvellous wonder element with the technology that is hard to match and even its downsides add to its magic and fascination, but do tread carefully. It’s a rocky road, but maybe that in itself is part of the appeal too.

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James Woodcock

James is a Freelance Journalist, Copywriter, Author, Blogger & Podcaster specialising in gaming, gadgets and technology, both retro and modern. Ever since he experienced the first controllable pixel movement on the television screen, he has been entranced by the possibilities and rewarding entertainment value generated from these metal and plastic boxes of delight. Writing hundreds of articles, including commentary and reviews on various gaming platforms, whilst also interviewing well-known industry figures for popular online publications. Creator of the ScummVM Music Enhancement Project and host of the Game & Gadget Podcast. View his portfolio for more information.

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