Graphics cards are something you mainly associate with PCs. There, the range ranges from built-in, perfectly OK diton for mainly work, to full-scale ray-tracing monsters that push the game development (and wallet) to the max and are widely used today to mine cryptocurrency. Consoles have the advantage (and disadvantage) of being locked into a hardware set, which is safer and easier for developers to guarantee the same experience for everyone – but which also makes them age much faster. With a very successful Kickstarter campaign behind it, the French wanted Marseille Inc turn that concept upside down and give us an external graphics processor in the form of an HDMI dongle called mClassic; which promises better and more high-resolution graphics. But is that so? And how big will be the benefit for different formats? senses dives deep into technology and provides answers!
mClassic is exemplary easy to get started with, genuine plug’n play. It does not require any technical knowledge or installation of any software, but only with two cables and running. An HDMI dongle (the processor itself), an extension (to be able to connect to the cover behind the Switch’s narrow dock) and a USB cable that draws power (1W) from your console (or from an external source if your console does not have available USB -port). The dongle can be set in three modes – off (pure pass through), on (green light, for modern games in 16: 9 format with upscaling, Anti-Alias and Sharpness) and retro mode (blue light) which is optimized for 4 : 3 and old, retro consoles with 480p or higher resolution (which adds at least one element, but more on that later).
The technology works so that the dongle reads in the current sent via HDMI and in some cases scales up the resolution, boosts the colors and softens the edges via intelligent Anti-Aliasing (AA). If you recognize the concept, mClassic has previously been released as a pure HDMI cable (mCable), but this is a newer and updated version that provides higher resolution (and also can be easily turned on and off without switching on and off). With a price tag of a juicy SEK 1,200 – a third of a new game console – sp, the question becomes, however, how big a difference does it make and for whom?
Game format that lifts with mClassic
mClassic has the ability to take 480p, 720p @ 60fps and 1080p @ 60fps and scale both of these to 1440p (the old HDMI cable managed “only” 1080p). So it is – despite the marketing material – not genuine 4K we are talking about here (2160p) – maybe it will come in a future version? It’s a bit tricky with the concept of upscaling versus Native (real) resolution, slightly simplified, so it is the case that most image sources today have extremely competent upscaling built in (otherwise you would not get an image that covers the entire surface), but at the same time it is so that signals with real resolution require less “magic” on the processor’s side and always give a sharper and more detailed image in the end (try adding sharpness or details via the TV’s settings and you will see what we mean – it will be mostly noise, digital artifacts and often inferior image). mClassic ger 1080p or 1440p depending on your image source and the result is really a lift on a format like Nintendo Switch. The games become more colorful, the lines and edges more comfortable (thanks to AA) and the sharpness also gets a welcome adjustment. However, no miracles are performed – there is no difference between night and day, but there is is still noticeable when you turn the processor on and off and have a good image source for games. For us, who have been waiting a long time for a “Switch Pro”, this will be a welcome boost along the way. Many Switch games do not have built-in support for AA directly from the developers, so here mClassic can actually lift everything properly – two brilliant examples are the equally brilliant Mario Odyssey and Mario Kart 8 Deluxewhich almost feels like a little “next-gen” with mClassic connected!
However, it is on the retro side that mClassic really shines! The big challenge there is HDMI ports. These are available in not-too-retro formats such as Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and Wii U, but it gets worse generations before, where connections like SCART, S-video and RCA were dominant 20 years ago. We took the opportunity to start our old, beloved SEGA Dreamcast, which we first thought to open and solder to insert HDMI connection, but discovered that a converter box from SCART to HDMI actually worked well. Since the Dreamcast only runs 480p (“Ugly HD”, as we used to call it), the lift here is really fun and to see the image rush forward at 60 fps with clearly more vibrant colors, sharper details and greatly improved shark tooth patterns in thin lines were a pure pleasure! The same goes for Game Cube, PS2 and actually Xbox (the original). It is these retro players who will absolutely enjoy mClassic!
What not to expect from mClassic
Despite its specs, mClassic has some technical limitations. First and foremost, it only supports bandwidth in HDMI 1.4, so it can handle a maximum of 4: 2: 0 (not full RGB) and thus not HDR, which means that the dynamic color format disappears on consoles such as PS4, Xbox One and later formats. There will undoubtedly be a buyback in terms of color management on a modern image source, even with mClassic’s treatment (a work-around for HDCP 2.2 is available, but requires even more equipment). Running the dongle with formats that themselves support true 4K and have their own handling of graphics enhancement (such as PS4 Pro and Xbox One X) becomes almost counterproductive, as mClassic in principle does not add any clear, visible improvement for these formats – but instead risks hampering color management and the image update. And next-gen we should not even go into. Even if mClassic can handle up to 1440p with some image sources, it will usually be 1080p (Full HD) at most and it will be a direct purchase from the resolution and graphics management your console already has.
And even though mClassic can handle, but not scale up to, a 4K signal, it can only handle it up to 30 Hz (as well as 24 and 25 Hz, which is mostly film and TV formats that are already scaled up well by modern UHD players and TVs?), Something that can be a bottleneck for titles that, for example, run scalable resolution up to 4K at 60 fps.
One thing to keep in mind for retro gaming with mClassic is that, as I said, it scales up from 480p and 720p and thrives best with the former. Older consoles (generation 5 and back), such as Mega Drive, PSX, Saturn – can only handle around 240p so there you will also need to add a line doubler to get a picture (required to merge and assemble the picture progressively in 480p, something that can be a tangible investment of an additional SEK 1,500-2,000).
The further back in time we go, the more complicated and more and more a question of taste it becomes – you who have tested the mini-consoles of NES, SNES and Mega Drive know that you can quite aggressively “improve” the image no matter how much in their emulators , in fact, to the point that the game no longer even looks or feels like the same, old, nostalgic memory. We do not lack scanlines, for example, but we also do not want the exaggerated, ultra-sharp, flattened pastel version that some settings provide. This becomes more crucial the further back you go in the collection (and the older the memory gets). On formats like PS2, Dreamcast and Wii, we think mClassic basically just lifts everything, we go even further back so we risk distorting the feeling too much (but we dive deeper into it when we look at Amiga 500 Mini later this spring).
For image- and quality-conscious users, mClassic is a really nice and well-built small HDMI dongle with built-in graphics processor, which will delight Switch and retro players. SEK 1,200 is, however, a considerable investment, almost the cost of half a console today and the lift is only worth it in some cases – in other formats it hardly does any good at all (on the contrary). If you not run Switch or selected retro consoles (generation 6) the value therefore becomes doubtful. But for those of us who want to breathe new life into current Switch games (while waiting for a Switch 2 / Pro) and love retro games, mClassic feels like a given recommendation, which we will have the opportunity to return to in several tests in the future!
Wendros sent review copies of mClassic. Distributors of material have no editorial influence on our tests, but you readers and consumers are the ones we write independently for.