2019-11-13

GBA IPS

There’s been an explosion in the variety of screens available for retro handhelds. Here’s a handful of the most interesting:

The FunnyPlaying IPS screen for the GBA was top of my list to try out. Fitting the screen is supposedly trickier than the 101 mod that I managed to screw up so I decided that this time I’d get a premodded console.

I have a few sources for GBA hardware:

  • RetroModding (expensive but reliable)
  • God of Gaming (cheaper and, for me at least, reliable)
  • eBay (cheaper still but you takes your chances)
  • AliExpress (really cheap but you takes your chances and it takes a month to ship from China)

RetroModding currently charge almost 50% more than God of Gaming for an IPS GBA. Both use the improved second version of the IPS adapter cable that fixes the diagonal screen tearing problem experienced by the first. On eBay and AliExpress it’s hard to tell which version of the adapter cable the modder used. I didn’t want to end up with a v1 by mistake so I procrastinated until God of Gaming had a Halloween sale.

It’s a beautiful screen. I’d include a photo but they really don’t do it justice. As you’d expect from a modern screen, the physical pixels in the display are too small to be individually discernable. It has four times the pixel density of the 101 screen yet it has almost the same physical dimensions. It upscales the GBA’s output at an exact 4:1 ratio so that the image isn’t stretched or distorted. The screen is bright and vibrant, and it is evenly lit across its entire surface. I haven’t noticed any of the ghosting and interlacing that plague the 101 screen. Now that 101 screens are becoming scarcer and more expensive, the IPS screen is a cheaper alternative.

Nothing is perfect, especially when modifying old consoles with new parts, and the IPS screen is no exception.

Most significantly, the screen drops a frame every 1.5s or so. I’d guess that this is the price paid in order to eliminate the tearing that affected v1 of the adapter cable. I’d further guess that the root cause is a mismatch between the refresh rates of the console and the screen. It isn’t terribly noticeable in games like Mario World that don’t scroll smoothly, but in horizontally-scrolling areas in the Castlevania games it is painfully obvious.

Secondly, the IPS screen causes the already noisy GBA audio hardware to buzz more loudly than the 101 screen. It’s possible that this is an issue solely with my console; it’s hard to tell exactly where the fault lies with modified and refurbished equipment.

Thirdly, the crispness of the screen makes it very easy to see the pixels in the upscaled image that the GBA is pushing to the screen. If you’ve ever seen an SD UI running on an HD laptop screen you’ll have a good idea of what to expect. It exposes the low resolution of GBA games as effectively as the aging tech in the 101 screen hides it. Sometimes the crisp image can accentuate a game’s graphics, but it can also ruin tricks like dithering.

Lastly - and only allegedly, as I haven’t tested this out for myself yet - the IPS screen has higher power requirements than the 101 screen and reduces battery life.

Which would I choose? The IPS screen is clearly superior in terms of price, brightness, resolution, and definition, but the jarring frame drop problem is hard to overlook. Nintendo shipped the original GBA with a screen that was mostly impossible to see, but I doubt even they would have used a screen that dropped frames.