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Commodore 64 And The Framemeister XRGB-Mini
by Taper/Triad

It's been more than 30 years since our beloved Commodore 64 hit the market. During all those years display technology has progressed and evolved into what most people couldn't even imagine in the early 80's. Large flat-screen HD TV's are commonplace, and the easiest way to find a CRT screen these days is to visit your local flea market or garbage dump.


This is not all good news though, especially not for us who favor hardware from the past. While most of us definitely prefer watching movies and television on those modern marvel displays, they are far from perfect when it comes to hooking up the old computers and consoles we love and care for. It's come to the point of being a real challenge to get a decent picture from our Commodore 64's on these modern TV sets.

Most of us, including myself, have several Commodore compatible monitors of different flavors in stock as well as a few old CRT TV's. There is no denying that our old 8-bit hardware simply look the best on CRT screens, for a number of reasons. But worn out monitors with more than 25 years under their belt are sadly reaching end of life. Sure, you can desolder and exchange capacitors to extend the life of monitors with various defects. However, when the flyback transformer decides to go bust it's unlikely you will be able to find a cheap and fitting replacement (not to mention finding someone who is comfortable exchanging a flyback in your old monitor in the first place).

While old CRT TV's still can be picked up cheaply second hand, you need to make sure you get one in good condition and stay away from the later 100Hz (or 120Hz in NTSC land) sets, that at least in some cases do too much digital fiddling with the video source.

So, why do our C64s look bad on most modern LCD/LED displays, a problem they share with many older consoles from the 8 and 16-bit era? Well, there are several reasons.

A Commodore 64 outputs what is called 288/50p (PAL) or 240/60p (NTSC) video, which basically is a non-standard signal, but still very common among old home computers and consoles. When we input this to a modern TV it will scale the picture to its native display, which today mostly means 1080p (1920x1080). Unfortunately most scalers built into your fancy HD TV's are worthless when it comes to scaling low resolution sources, resulting in weird artefacts and generally crappy picture quality. The sharpness only makes things worse in a world where no artefacts are mellowed out by the warm fuzziness of a CRT.

Many built-in scalers are also slow and add unacceptable lag (referred to as "input lag") when scaling the picture. You really don't want that when playing games and things should occur on screen at the same time as you pull your joystick.

How come built-in scalers in otherwise fine HD TV's are so bad then? Well, they are not all bad. It's just that in this modern day and age, scaling of "antique" video modes such as 288p is not really high on the priority list. Feed your HD TV a 720p signal instead and it will look fine. Even 576p sources are commonly scaled fine, but 5th generation consoles outputting 480p (or 480i) and our old 240p/288p machines will make the picture suffer.

Also, many modern TV's employ digital enhancements on the video source, that in some cases might look nice, but mostly looks like crap on our oldschool devices, and also adds to the previously mentioned input lag.

To add even more to these troubles, we can also conclude that inputs such as composit, S-video and euro-SCART (which can contain a composit or RGB signal) will not live forever. Even if most new HD TV's still provide such inputs, some cheaper sets more or less only offer HDMI and an RF-antenna input. Still, composit inputs will most probably survive the VGA input, which is already omitted from many modern TV's.

Luckily, my 40 inch Samsung LED TV still has all of the above inputs (although it does not support 50Hz over VGA, forcing me to run my Chameleon64 in 60Hz framerate with the bad tearing that goes with that), so while it's no problem hooking up a Commodore 64 or 128 to it physically, the result is less than pleasing. The scaler does a really bad job with the 288p source material. Examining the characters on the BASIC screen shows that some letters are really garbled. A Nintendo NES or other old videogames look pretty bad too, at least compared to running those old systems on a classic CRT.

So, how to remedy this? Well, of course you need to keep your old CRT displays alive as long as possible. You can't beat the picture quality of a CRT in good shape when fed from our old machines. The modern displays are simply not made with 288p/240p content in mind. But what if your last CRT breaks down, you have limited living space or you simply want to display your 8-bitter on something a bit larger than a 14" Commodore monitor or 28" CRT TV? Is there no solution?

In comes the Framemeister XRGB-Mini upscaler from Micomsoft! Could this be the solution we are looking for? This upscaler unit is probably the only contender to a real CRT, at least unless you want to dive into the world of industrial upscalers that aren't made for consumer use. Then again the Framemeister isn't really made for the average consumer either, but is rather aimed at enthusiasts such as ourselves.

The Framemeister is an external upscaler with extra features, especially useful for lowres video sources such as 288p/240p and very popular among console enthusiasts who enjoy various classic 8-bit and 16-bit systems. Of course, it can also do wonders with 480p/480i video and higher resolutions, but that is beyond the scope of this article as we will concentrate on the usefulness together with our 8-bit Commodores. For those interested in what the Framemeister can do with other systems, including Amiga computers, consult the list of links at the end of this article.

The Framemeister is contained in a rather small and slim plastic housing with some LED-lights on the front and buttons on the top. Also on the front we have a proprietary mini-DIN connector where you connect adapter cables (like the mini-DIN to JAP21 SCART cable that comes bundled with the device, but you can buy a mini-DIN to Euro SCART cable instead which will be more useful for those outside Japan), a composite video-in RCA connector and two RCA audio-in connectors, as well as an S-Video input.



On the back, we have two HDMI inputs (which can be used as plain HDMI pass-through, or you can use them to apply Framemeister effects just as with the other inputs, although this probably has limited uses for most people) and a D-Terminal connector. The D-Terminal connector is common only in Japan, and can be used for component video input, in which case you need a D-Terminal to component cable. Also on the back of the unit we have the HDMI output port that we connect to our modern display, as well as a USB port and a mini-SD slot - both used to perform firmware upgrades.

In the box we also find a remote, sadly with only Japanese text printed above the keys. Luckily there is a translation table available online, and after a while you remember the most important keys by heart anyway. The on-screen menus are in English as long as you have the right firmware flashed. Japanese language can be selected too.

Enough talk about the physical appearance of the device, it's time to put the Framemeister to the test! Let us use the Framemeister to scale our 288p source material to a fitting resolution instead of letting the bad internal scaler in your modern TV handle the task!

As you all know there is no RGB video output from the C64, so the best quality provided for us is S-Video. After a bit of searching for my C64 to S-video cable in a far too messy computer-room I hooked up my first test machine, a Commodore 128, to the Framemeister which in turn was connected to my 40" Samsung LED TV via HDMI.

A blue screen appeared, but not the blue screen I was expecting. Rather, a blue screen with the text "No Source". After a little while I realized I had to choose S-Video as input source on the remote (the documentation provided in Japanese didn't help much), and then the familiar blue screen from the C64 appeared instead.

Now we have a totally different picture on display! Gone is the terrible scaling that my Samsung TV provide when I connect the C128 directly to it. Instead we have a proper picture, and of course we set the Framemeister to present it in glorious 4:3 letterbox aspect ratio (most HD TV's will not accept 4:3 aspect ratio on HDMI sources, but that is no problem since the Framemeister solve that problem for us by applying the correct aspect ratio before outputting the video to the TV).

After this promising start the disappointment came when I tested running a demo. When the first scroller appeared, I saw that the dreadful tearing effect was present too, really ruining the experience. Luckily, it was just me who missed a setting. The S-Video input was auto-detected as 50Hz while the HDMI output was set to 60Hz, causing the mismatch. Changing HDMI output to 50Hz and everything ran very smooth. It was even better than I expected, as I suspected that a minor tearing effect would still remain as the C64 outputs a non-standard 50.12Hz refresh rate. I guess the Framemeister does some magic somehow, because I can't spot even the slightest tearing on my equipment.

Examining the picture more closely, I could see that there were some jailbars present. They were more visible on certain color combinations, like yellow text on red background. The jailbars seemed fewer than on my 1084 monitor, but sharper and thus more annoying. Of course the Framemeister is not to blame (nor my old 1084 monitor), it just turns the analogue video signal from my C128 into a digital signal, and if jailbars are present, they get displayed too.

There are several image modes you can try on the Framemeister; Standard, Game1, Game2, Natural, Anime and Meister. When selecting the Game1 mode (which turns on the built in low-pass filter), the jailbars more or less disappear. Apparently using the lowpass filter results in detail loss on analogue sources, but jailbars is one detail I gladly loose and I can't see any other downsides to using his mode together with a C64/C128.

It is a well-known fact that the C128 has a rather noisy video output, so while being content with the overall picture quality I was still curious if it could get even better. Time to exchange the C128 with a C64c instead.

Hooking up the C64c, the jailbars were totally gone in Game1 mode, and very faint in other modes. The colors seemed a bit more vibrant too, although you can do a lot of colortweaking with the Framemeister so bland colors are not a problem. You can change brightness, gamma, contrast, hue and saturation. If you input via RGB (obviously not for our C64s) you can also change the colorleveles for each RGB color. I quite like my colors bleeding which was easy to set up, others might prefer a more conservative color setting.

So far I had been outputting 1080p to my HD TV (which is it's native resolution), but I was eager on testing some of the other available output modes too. You can choose from a whole range of different resolutions and refresh rates. Supported outputs are 480/60p, 720/60p, 1080/60i, 1080/60p, 576/50p, 720/50p, 1080/50i and 1080/50p.

But why would you ever want to output something else than your displays native resolution, you might ask? Well, those of you who want to enable scanline emulation on the Framemeister have a good reason. As it turns out, scanlines do not work with 1080p output. You can enable them, but it doesn't look good. This is a known bug, but only the future will tell if a firmware upgrade comes along and fix this or not.

So if you want scanline emulation, you need to choose 720p or 576p output instead. This means that your TV will need to do some scaling too (at least if it's a native 1080p display), but normally this is not a problem as modern TV's usually have no problem scaling more modern content such as 720p to 1080p.

Note that the Framemeister wiki is clearly wrong on this topic, stating that 576p is the ONLY output that works correctly with a PAL C64 and that the other modes produce a "squashed" picture. I suspect the Framemeister wiki has picked up this faulty information from a site called videogameperfection.com, which is otherwise interesting but in this case totally wrong.

Videogameperfection.com show screenshots from the C64 game LED Storm and state that it looks good at 576p but squashed in other modes. Problem with this info is that the "squashed" look is exactly how the game is supposed to look, while the 576p image shown is vertically stretched and thus wrong.

The reality is that 720p and 576p output both works just fine aspect-wise, IF your modern 1080p display can handle the upscaling. A few displays have a problem to correctly scale 576p to 1080p, making the image appear vertically stretched. It seems like the guy at Videogameperfection.com used one of those displays and simply decided that he liked that look better than what it's really supposed to look like...

In some cases you might have to play with your TV's settings a bit to make sure that it doesn't stretch the picture to 1080 pixels instead of displaying the correct number of vertical pixels when letting the Framemeister feed it with 576p or 720p. This is most probably the problem encountered by that previously mentioned site.

Feeding a modern display with 720p from the Framemeister should normally not be a problem, so I would go with that when having scanlines enabled. Without scanlines, 1080p output is the way to go (of course assuming your display is true HD that support 1080p).

Let's continue to talk a bit about the emulated scanlines. When you enable them the picture is supposed to resemble more to the look of a classic CRT. In a way that is correct. The "sharpness" (in lack of a better word) does not stand out quite as much, and you get a little bit of that warm "fuzzy" feeling that a CRT with scanlines provides. However, I wouldn't say the result is exactly as on a CRT. I like to believe that I have no major problem spotting that it's not a real CRT when concentrating on the picture. That does not mean it's bad to enable the scanlines, it does look nice in its own way.

Beside scaling to different resolutions, outputting video and audio to HDMI, adding optional scanlines and playing with colors, there are a few more things the Framemeister can do. Among those you can add sharpness, but for me the standard setting was the best. Adding sharpness did not improve the picture but rather the opposite. Other systems might benefit from this setting, though.

There are also zoom settings you can play with. For instance, if you are playing a C64 game which does not utilize the borders, you could zoom in and omit the border from the picture. Again this is not something I will use, for me it just looks weird.

Another feature which is more of a novelty than useful, but still rather amusing, is the retro mode. This mode, available in three flavours, will darken the edges of the screen to simulate an old worn out CRT with uneven brightness. Perhaps a future firmware could add optional screen burn-ins too (giggle)?

Also, the Framemeister is extremely fast and will add virtually no inputlag. Believe me, your TV is way slower at upscaling a 288p image than the Framemeister is when doing the same job! Even if you let the Framemeister output 720p to your 1080p set, the combined inputlag from the Frameister and your TV upscaling from 720p to 1080p will likely be less than letting your TV handle the whole upscaling process.

I also tested the Framemeister on my Benq W1070 projector, and it performed equally well there. Natively, the Benq w1070 does an awful job upscaling the C64 output. It kind of looks like if you had enabled "Scale2x" in Vice, but with added artefacts to go with it. Using the Framemeister, we get the picture we want.

After testing the Framemeister, I realize that old systems can look good on modern HD displays. It will not replace my CRT screens though, they have a softer image that I really love, but this is the second best thing for sure. I will never connect one of my Commodore 64's to a HD TV again without this device sitting in between.

There is one thing the Framemeister can't help us with, though. I have noticed that on plasma and LCD/LED displays as well as HD projectors with a C64 or other machine connected, brightness can vary depending on the content being displayed. Basically a very bright (think white) object on screen can influence darker colors nearby, making them brighter too. This can be seen on some CRT screens too, but the effect is much more subtle on them. After playing with various settings on my Benq W1070 I noticed that the cinema mode removed most of this problem, while I could not get rid of it on my Samsung TV, despite playing a lot with different menu settings. As said, this problem has nothing to do with the Framemeister.

An additional thing that should be mentioned especially for those who plan to use their Framemeister with other platforms than the C64/C128 is that it's a bit slow when switching between progressive and interlace modes. It takes about five seconds, which can be annoying in software which often switch between these modes on for example the Amiga. This is not something that you will need to worry about with the C64, though (don't mix this up with displaying interlaced images on the C64, which has nothing to do with the video output itself).

If you have read this far you might be interested getting a Framemeister yourself. So, what does this baby cost and where can you buy one? Unfortunately it's rather expensive and it's not available in every street corner either. It costs about 260 euros from Solaris Japan where most people not living in Asia seem to pick them up. Also, you need to buy a european power supply for it as well, or a stepdown converter if you want to be able to use the included 110V Japanese power supply.

You might also want to buy additional cables, like the mini-DIN to Euro SCART and/or D-Terminal to component which adds a bit to the cost. For connecting your C64/128 in the best possible way you should get a C64 to S-Video cable.

Another option is to buy a Framemeister on Ebay, as they are listed there from various importers all the time. The price is about the same as from Solaris Japan, though.

Personally I was lucky and bought mine second hand from a console freak in need of quick cash, so I picked it up for considerably less including a european power supply and some additional cables.

It's up to you if you feel this device is worth the money but it really impressed me quality wise, even if there are some annoying bugs that we can only hope gets fixed in due time with firmware updates. If you have other older systems that can share the Framemeister with your C64s, it might be easier to motivate purchasing one. Also remember that the quality that the Framemeister puts out of course depends on the video quality the source machine inputs to it. As we all know, video quality varies greatly between different C64s.

Below is a list of interesting links for those who want to obtain even more information about the Framemeister:
TAPER/TRIAD

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