Back in the 1980s and 1990s, home computers didn’t rely on dedicated monitors to display operating systems, applications and games. In those days, things were far simpler. Instead of paying extra for a monitor, the majority of home computer and console owners were happy to use their televisions. It might seem odd now, but 30 years ago people thought little of ignoring TV programs to play video games.
For some, the situation hasn’t changed all that much, with games consoles often connected to the family TV. But as far as computers go, the PC model of a dedicated monitor was eventually widely adopted. It would be unusual to see a home PC connected to a television, even if it isn’t impossible.
If you think about it though, the option to connect to different types of display unit is pretty flexible. This must surely have been in the minds of the Raspberry Pi developers when they were deciding upon how their users might use the computer. Despite its modest dimensions, the Raspberry Pi supports three methods of visual output, enough to cover pretty much any domestic display unit.
What The Developers Say…
When I spoke to Raspberry Pi Foundation co-founder Eben Upton recently, he explained that the stripped down computer was borne from the spirit of the 8-bit era.
“It’s a very cheap Linux PC, device in the spirit of the 1980s, a device which turns your TV into a computer, plug in to TV, plug a mouse and a keyboard in, give it some power and some kind of storage, an operating system and you’ve got a PC.”
Three different connections are supported from the Raspberry Pi – HDMI, VGA and RCA. Yet the device only has two connections, HDMI and RCA – so what is going on? How do you connect a Raspberry Pi TV display?
It’s Got HDMI!
One of the most exciting things about the Raspberry Pi is that it comes equipped with a HDMI connector, meaning that anyone with a HDMI-compatible TV (which is the majority of people in North America and Europe) can easily connect the device to their living room television with an inexpensive cable.
Of course these days, many families have televisions in ancillary rooms and bedrooms, many of which are flat screen devices usually equipped with a HDMI connector.
Along with the SD card and power supply, the HDMI cable is one of the most important pieces of equipment that you can use with your Raspberry Pi, which means that in theory you can connect it to a wide selection of televisions and even modern desktop computer monitors.
Sadly, not all televisions and monitors have HDMI connectors.
Using a HDMI To VGA Adaptor
In the event that your chosen display unit doesn’t have an HDMI connector, the first thing you should do is check whether or not it has a VGA connector – the D-shaped connector that has been commonly found on computer monitors for the past 20-plus years. If your monitor is VGA-compatible, then all you will need is a HDMI to VGA adaptor in order to use your Raspberry Pi with that device or cable type.
You will also need to make a small change to the config.txt file that Raspberry Pi uses when it boots.
Using a memory card reader on your desktop computer, insert the Raspberry Pi SD card and open config.txt in your preferred text editor.
Look for the following lines:
Both options need to be enabled, which you can do by removing the hash symbol and saving. These options enable VGA output through an HDMI adaptor and sets the screen resolution to a low 640 x 480.
If you want a higher resolution Raspberry Pi TV display, remove the hash symbols from the following lines:
You will also need to edit these two lines, changing hdmi_group to 2 and hdmi_mode to 16. Remember to save your changes before safely removing and replacing in your Raspberry Pi.
Display Output Using RCA
A third option for displaying output on the Raspberry Pi exists – the RCA connector. This is found on the opposite side of the device to the HDMI port, just next to the audio port.
Using a standard RCA cable you can connect your Raspberry Pi to any compatible TV or monitor (the vast majority of those produced in the last 25 years), although note that as soon as an HDMI cable is connected the Pi will switch to that output.
Depending on your screen resolution, you may need to alter the way in which the Raspberry Pi displays windows. This will affect you if the monitor has a low resolution, but by changing the overscan settings in config.txt you can configure the video output to suit your monitor.
The Raspberry Pi continues to be a remarkably flexible device, surprising users in so many different ways. I had mine for several weeks before I discovered the RCA port (to be honest, I was too busy playing with operating systems and software) and the news that HDMI to VGA adaptors can also be used is just another reason for anyone who doesn’t already own the Raspberry Pi to head out and buy one.
For more about the Raspberry Pi, please see our Unofficial Tutorial.