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May 8, 2015

Those Hideous Colors

Filed under: Main — admin @ 12:01 am

The original IBM PC features two graphics options: monochrome, which was just text, and CGA. Most people opted for monochrome, which was fine for business purposes. For CGA, you had to purchase the Color Graphics Adapter (CGA) for an extra $600. Oh, and you had to buy a color monitor; a 15-inch model would set you back another $800.

The resolution on the CGA setup was pitiful when compared with what’s available today. The “high” resolution was 640-by-400 pixels, although you could see only two colors: black and white.

The common lower resolution offered 320-by-200 pixels with four colors, shown in Figure 1. I call these the hideous colors: white, cyan, magenta, and black.

Figure 1. The Hideous colors.

Figure 1. The Hideous colors.

The CGA also offered a color text mode. In that mode, you could see up to 16 different colors for text background and foreground, which was pretty cool. Otherwise, the adapter shifted between the different modes: text, high resolution, and low resolution.

Most games ran in low resolution. People wanted color! Remember that the Apple II and Commodore 64 systems of the day ran with glorious multi-color graphics. In fact, if you wanted to play games on a personal computer, you’d get one of those systems and not pay way-too-much for a PC.

I had a PC back then and purchased the CGA along with a very expensive color monitor. One game I played frequently was Lode Runner. It’s an excellent game, but I recall growing so wearing of the terrible graphics and horrid color choices.

Figure 2 shows an actual screenshot of the game at the default resolution, 320-by-200. See how gross it looks?

Figure 2. The  Lode Runner game at typical CGA resolution.

Figure 2. The Lode Runner game at typical CGA resolution.

Other graphics modes were available with the CGA, including one with more colors but very low resolution. That’s the trade-off in old PC graphics: You could have high resolution or more colors, but not both.

The CGA standard competed with a bunch of independent standards, but eventually it was superseded by the EGA standard. Then came the very popular VGA. Then came a whole lotta acronyms that few people bothered to memorize and only the nerds know by heart.

In an odd twist, today’s PC graphics are dictated more by the monitor than the adapter. Most computer graphics adapters can pump out very high resolutions and plenty of colors. They can drive larger and larger monitors, so when people get a new monitor they look at its potential resolution, not the capabilities of the graphics hardware. Such considerations would seem peculiar to a PC user in the 1980s.

At least more colors are available than the original, horrid four.


  1. For my generation the fact that you plug your home computer into a TV rather than a monitor was the norm, Monitors I remember were clunky things that got in the way. Commonly I would watch TV while waiting for a game on tape to load… The only 8 Bits I can remember that used monitors heavily (in the UK) were the Amstrad CPC range mostly as the power supply was buried in the monitor and the only way over powering it was to plug it in to the monitor. A friend who had one also had the TV adaptor for it which converted the RGB digital signals to UHF and gave you a separate power supply. Odd really!

    Comment by glennp — May 8, 2015 @ 8:21 am

  2. When you plugged IBM CGA output into a TV set, you could actually see more colors. I never did that — used the “composite” signal. But yet it was an option, even for IBM “business” computers.

    For a home system, of course: you used a TV as output. I remember using my mom’s C64 with a color TV set. It was okay, but the refresh rate on a TV is awful (well, here in the States). My eyeballs would frazzle. The expensive IBM color monitor I purchased was better on the eyes.

    Comment by admin — May 8, 2015 @ 10:32 am

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