VGA output for the dsPIC33 VDC

Sunday, 25th July 2010

I have spent quite a while working on different projects that generate PAL video signals in software. This may seem a bit odd if you consider the fact that I don't own a TV, so tend to rely on a video capture card or VGA box to see the output of these projects on a computer monitor — something I do have a fair number of.

This reliance on another piece of technology between my project and the display device is not something I'm too keen on, so have spent some time adding native 640×480 60Hz VGA output to my dsPIC33 video display controller.

VGA monitor showing the output of the dsPIC33 VDC

Another advantage of using a VGA monitor directly is that individual pixels are shown very crisply, unlike my video capture card or VGA box which tend to blur the image horizontally. This is shown in the zoomed in part of the above photo.

Generating a video signal for a VGA monitor is easier than generating a composite video signal for a PAL TV, as there are distinct pins for the image data, horizontal sync and vertical sync. One problem I did have, however, is with the length of the vertical sync pulse. I started with a very brief pulse (the same duration as the horizontal sync pulse) which worked fine with my old analogue CRT monitors but didn't work at all with my modern LCD monitor. The documentation I was using for timing information indicated that there were "two scanlines" for vertical sync so I extended the pulse to last for those two frames, which worked on the LCD but didn't on the CRTs. My final compromise has been to assert the vertical sync pin for the duration of a single scanline, which seems to work on all of my monitors.

dsPIC33 VDC on a breadboard

When connected to a TV two microcontroller pins are used to drive a single load (composite input). When connected to a VGA monitor, however, a single microcontroller pin is used to drive three loads (red, green and blue inputs). I thought it prudent to check the datasheet for the dsPIC before connecting this increased load to the output pin where I was surprised to discover that the maximum source or sink current for each output pin is a measly 4mA — not even enough to drive an LED! I have added a buffer to each video output pin to protect the dsPIC — any buffer capable of sourcing up to 30mA or so should be sufficient (I'm using a 74F125, which can be seen in the bottom right of the above photo). I had previously been occasionally using the video output pins as inputs to check if there is a load on the output or not (such a load would indicate whether a TV or VGA monitor is plugged in or not) but I can no longer do this with the external buffer IC so have had to revise the circuit somewhat. Updated source code featuring the new VGA output code and an accompanying schematic are available for those who are interested!

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