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HDMI Upscalers
by Taper/Triad

In a previous issue, we published a review of the undisputed king of HDMI upscalers, the XRGB Framemeister Mini. However, currently a spanking new Framemeister sets you back somewhere between 300 and 350 euros, so no wonder sceners and retro-gamers alike are searching for more economical options. Question is if there are any cheaper devices that even comes close to the quality of the Framemeister? Keep reading and we'll try to figure out the answer...

There are surely no lack of different CVBS (composite) and S-video to HDMI upscalers out in the wild. I decided to pick up a bunch of them from Aliexpress as well as one from a different domestic supplier in Sweden, and after a few weeks they had all arrived in my mailbox.

Two of the devices ordered from Aliexpress turned out to be HDMI to AV converters and not the other way around. At first I thought I had made a mistake while ordering so I checked my order history, and it turned out that the sellers in their infinite wisdom had sent me the wrong products. Considering how cheap they were, I really couldn't be bothered to make a hassle about it. At least I was still left with four units to test.

One thing that must be stressed is that none of thetested devices can do 4:3 on their own. They will always display in 16:9, unlike the Framemeister where you can choose aspect ratio on the scaler itself. That means your television must support alteration of the aspect ratio on HDMI sources. Four of my five TV's can, while the fifth always force 16:9 for HDMI inputs.

It's not easy to obtain valid information on most of these cheap upscalers before buying and actually testing them. For instance, not all scalers support 240p (NTSC)/288p (PAL) as many need at least a 480i signal to work, which makes them useless for our purpose. Most sellers have no idea what 240p/288p is, so asking is hit and miss at best.

When testing video equipment, there is always subjectivity involved. For instance, what I might perceive as the correct colors on a C64 might not be the correct color for someone else. Also, testing input lag manually is of course a bit of a guessing game. However, whether a device does its job at all or not is quickly determined. I used the same C64C I usually have connected to my Framemeister, to easily make comparisons.

Without further delay, lets dig in and put the three super-low-budget contenders, and the one a tad more expensive (but still qualified as a budget alternative compared to the Framemeister) to the test!

Hknate AV to HDMI converter

This converter comes in a small black metal housing, not much bigger than a box of matches, weighing in at just 40 grams. Sadly, it does not handle S-video, so we are presented with three RCA jacks for CVBS and audio on one side, and a HDMI output on the other side.

According to the rather miniscule documentation provided, this upscaler normally doesn't need external power since its supposed to be energy-efficient, only drawing power from the connected inputs and outputs. However, it is still equipped with a mini USB input. As it turned out, external power was very much needed as the device was completely dead without it. So much for the reliability of the documentation...

Hooking up the cables and flipping the switch on the C64C gave me a sharp picture, but all in black and white (not grey-scale). Also, there didn't seem to be any sound. Tried a few power cycles of the C64 without any improvements before I noticed the little text displayed in the upper right corner for a second or two, saying SECAM. Great... the scaler obviously decided to treat my C64 as if it was a French mime-artist...

I removed the RCA cables from the unit, rebooted it and inserted them again, and then flipped on the C64. This time we got color and input signal detected as PAL. Also the sound was now present!

With color added, the picture was less sharp than before, but still rather decent. The jailbars were quite pronounced and almost looked more like some kind of ghosting, being quite wide horizontally, but at least they were far in between. The characters looked OK with just a very subtle jagginess to them, hard to even see if you didn't look closely.

As for image quality and keeping in mind it was just composite input, so far so good! But a major flaw soon made its presence known. The less content on screen and the more background in a single color shown, the more the dominant color pulsated, changing intensity constantly. It looked like someone was playing with the brightness knob back and forth, but as soon as more content filled the screen, the pulsating was gone.

This was however not the only major flaw. As soon as I ran some demos with either horizontal or vertical scrolling, a really bad stuttering occurred. Actually, it was worse than the occasional stutter, I'd say the whole screen was chopping ahead instead of scrolling. It was far too frequent to be blamed on the Commodore 64's refresh rate which isn't exactly 50hz, but just to be sure I connected up a Famicom clone to the scaler and yup - the choppiness was exactly the same.

It's not like it drops a frame now and then, its more like it constantly drops a whole bunch of frames. Hitting the information button on my TV gave me at least part of the answer to why this is. Even though the scaler detects PAL input, it still outputs in 1080p at 60hz. Epic fail, even though I'm pretty sure that is only half the explanation since the choppiness is so extreme...

According to the documentation this upscaler "employs 10 bit maximal 162MSPS sampling, black/white level expansion, color transition improvement, dynamic range expansion blue stretch, auto detect and auto-convert to 1080p output. Making the video come alive, delivering the sharpest, most realistic HD visuals available". Sounds good, eh? Too bad the guy who wrote the documentation obviously never bothered to test the device...

Considering the choppiness I decided not to test the unit regarding lag. Nobody in their right mind would want to play a game with all the stuttering going on anyway. All in all, this device is a bit of a lost possibility. Solving the pulsating colors and the extreme choppiness, the displayed picture would be fully acceptable for a composite signal. Now, it's unusable.

Packaging: 2/10
Flimsy and cheap box

Documentation: 1/10
A lot of superlatives that cannot be backed up by the unit.

Build Quality: 2/10
Nothing wrong with the metal housing, but detecting my PAL source as SECAM now and then doesn't scream internal quality.

Features: 1/10
CVBS in, button to switch between 720p and 1080p output.

Picture Quality: 1.5/10
For CVBS - not that bad for still pictures, but the pulsating colors and the extreme choppiness on movements totally ruins it.

Price: 10 euros

Value: 2/10
...and I might be nice here...

HDV-M600 Mini AV to HDMI Scaler 720P/1080P

Delivered in a premium packaging consisting of a ziplock bag, the HDV-M600 is a small rectangular black box with four cables attached to it; 3 x female RCA and 1 x female S-video. This sets it apart from all the other upscalers I have seen, which have input ports and not cables hanging out. Two ports are available on the box itself though, one for HDMI output and one for power input (an older styled USB mini cable, which is bundled with the converter). The converter can supposedly do 1080p/50hz as well as 720p/50hz output.

The miniscule documentation consists of a four-page booklet where only two pages are informative. The documentation mentions that the device handles both PAL and NTSC, and mentions 480i which instantly raises concerns that this converter will not like a 240p/288p signal. That information was of course not available upon purchase.

After connecting the power and hooking up all the cables, it was time for the first tests of this device via S-video - with low expectations.

Flipping the powerswitch on the C64, and oh thehorrorbegan. I have seriously never seen a worse picture from a C64 in my life. Using RF and a broken antenna cable would look better than this. First, the colors are all wrong. The Cyberpunx RetroReplay startup screen is supposed to be white text on dark blue background but it displays as light grey on some kind of washed out blue instead. In addition, all characters appear jagged and look really awful!

Evidently, this converter treats 288p as 480i and is useless with a C64. Also, now and then parts of the picture starts "bending" to the left, resembling to a problem with the horizontal hold on a CRT screen. In addition, sync is lost quite often which gives you a completely black screen until sync is found again. The closest way I can describe the video quality is to imagine a broken Spectrum 48K tripping on LSD while being hooked up to a TV using a steel-wire...

After resisting to tear my eyes out with my bare hands, I calmed down and decided to brace myself and give the converter a final test using the CVBS inputs instead.

Amusingly, the HDV-M600 actually performs better using composite than it does with S-video. With better, I mean that we are now almost on par with using RF via a bad antenna cable. Everything is still jagged and the colors are still off, but not by as much as when using S-video. This time you can at least make an educated guess and come to the conclusion that whatever you are looking at was produced by a C64. For some reason it does not loose sync either. The picture is still unbearably bad, though.

So, is there nothing positive to say about this scaler? Well, there is no noticeable stuttering when things scroll on screen. That is, when you can actually make out the screen to see the scrolling in the first place... No matter how bad the internal scaler in your TV is, it is likely better than this. So, if your TV has composite or Scart inputs (which you can feed with S-video), there is no point at all in buying this upscaler. If your TV only has HDMI, there is still no point in buying this device as you wont stand five minutes of the on-screen garbage.

I decided not to bother doing any kind of assessment regarding input lag on this unit, as its unusable whether lag is acceptable or not.

Packaging: 0/10
An unbranded ziplock bag... very classy.

Documentation: 2/10
Four miniscule pages, of which two contains information.

Build Quality: 2/10
Not too crazy about the attached input cables, but other than that, it doesn't feel worse than most plastic boxes.

Features: 3/10
CVBS and S-video input. Switch between 720p50hz and 1080p50hz, but who cares when it looks like shit either way.

Picture Quality: 0/10 for S-video and 1/10 for CVBS.

Price: 13 euros

Value: 1/10
...and totally not worth it.

Generic S-Video and AV to HDMI, sold under different names such as Neet and Monoprice

This upscaler is delivered in a proper box and housed in a black plastic case with rounded edges, a bit larger than the size of a pack of cigarettes. It features a HDMI pass-through, CVBS and S-video input on one side, and HDMI out and power in on the other side. The bundled 2A power supply did not fit my power sockets, but I had a fitting replacement laying around.

This device was extremely hard to get to function at all. First it didn't want to produce any picture on my Luxor 55" LED TV, nor a smaller 42" Samsung display. My 12" Denver accepted it right away, though. I later discovered that simply unplugging the HDMI cable between the unit and the TV and reconnecting it again gave me a picture on all TV sets. Just power-cycling the device did not help at all, which is a bit weird.

Secondly, it took quite some fiddling before it accepted any in-signal as well. I had pushed the 720p/1080p button and input-select button numerous times, as well as power-cycling the thing a few times and it still didn't want to work with the C64C, just giving me a black picture. I then tested feeding it with my Nintendo Wii (no picture here either, but sound was coming through), original X-Box (produced a decent picture straight up) and one of those joysticks with built in games (based on some famicon-in-a-chip solution) which gave me a picture but just in black and white. Sometimes the picture rolled around vertically as well, but restarting the connected hardware always fixed that, and it never occurred outside initial power up of the connected hardware.

Without shutting off the device in between, I disconnected the Famicom clone and connected the C64C and now I got a picture. Almost like magic... This time, I started out by testing CVBS input first (simply because that was what I was using when finally getting it to display something at all).

The picture in composite mode is comparable to the one produced by the HDV-M600 Mini. Text on screen is less jagged on this unit, but jailbars are very evident and fills more or less the whole screen. As with the HDV-M600, some colors in CVBS mode are a bit off, but still recognisable.

This is not a picture you want to sit around and watch for long, that's for sure. However, unlike the HDV-M600 this scaler seem to handle 240p, we don't have some of the really weird issues as we did with the previous device.

Switching to S-video and naturally my hopes were not that high, but I was actually a bit surprised on the positive side when the picture appeared. At first glance the picture produced was almost on par with the more expensive Goobay upscaler (more on that later), but with the jailbars being a bit more pronounced.

The colors are good and feel genuine. Looking at the characters on the AR start screen they look OK, although white chars on the dark blue background looks a bit too "smooth", almost like a light-version of setting Scale2x as render filter in the Vice video settings, but not quite as pronounced.

Curiously, light blue chars on dark blue background doesn't suffer from that effect. The blinking cursor displayed a flaw - as the square appears it adds some ghost pixels just below itself which then disappears, displaying a normal cursor until it blinks away, and then repeats like that with each blink. This happens all the time with all changing objects on screen, but my description of this problem sounds a bit worse than it actually is. However, the closer to the display you are, the more evident it gets.

So, what about scrolling and screens with lots of action and movement? Sadly, this upscaler stutters from time to time. It's like it looses a couple of frames every now and then, which results in a smooth scrolling screen suddenly bumping. At first I thought this might be because of the C64 not having exactly 50hz refresh rate which might confuse the scaler, but that was not it, the stuttering happens too seldom for that to be the reason. It almost feels like the device suddenly has too much to do and decides to ignore updating a few frames before catching up again.

As this product produced a viewable picture, I went ahead and did some tests regarding lag. Now, I must confess I am not the most sensitive person when it comes to lag, but I played a few games and tried to pay close attention to the action on screen and how it correlated with the joystick movements.

I also typed in a quick basic program that did nothing more than waiting for a keyboard keypress and then increased the screen and border color. As far as I can tell, this device doesn't introduce lag enough for me to notice it.

To sum things up, if using S-video with this upscaler the result is viewable. Using it to watch demos or play games at a distance works, but the closer you get the more annoyed you will be by the imperfections. The most annoying thing is getting the device to work in the first place. Kindly put, it is more flaky than you would expect from any commercial product.

Packaging: 6/10
Proper and nice looking box.

Documentation: 2/10
There is more info on the backside of the box than in the so-called manual.

Build Quality: 3/10
Housed in a run of the mill plastic box.

Features: 3/10
720p/1080p output and input select to choose between S-video and CVBS.

Picture Quality: 1/10 for CVBS and 4/10 for S-video.

Price: 33 euros

Value: 4/10
Would have been a point higher if it had been working without having to mess about.

Goobay AVS 41

This upscaler comes in a very nice package with a big colourful box and a proper instruction booklet. Although not as detailed as I would want it, the documentation is still miles ahead of the other tested units. The AVS 41 is the largest device of the bunch, but still only half as big as a Framemeister.

It's housed in a sturdy, black metal casing with three RCA jacks for CVBS and audio, one S-video jack, HDMI out and power input located on the back. On the front, we have three LED's indicating power on, CVBS and S-video input, as well as a button used for switching between the two incoming video modes. A power supply is provided in the package.

The Goobay can't output 1080p, but just 720p. In practice, this should have no impact on the picture quality, I doubt there are any modern TV's out there that can't upscale 720p to its native resolution in good quality.

I started out testing the composite input, which left me unimpressed. There is quite a bit of jailbars and ghosting visible. Looking closely, it's almost like there is a tiny chessboard pattern over the whole screen. However, the colors look good and there is zero stuttering or choppiness on scrolling content, which is a big relief.

While the Framemeister does a decent job with a composit signal from a C64, it's very evident that you should not use the CVBS input at all with these cheaper converters. Still, this upscaler does a much better job than the other budget scalers when using composite, but S-video is of course always preferred no matter what scaler you plan on using.

Moving on to S-video input, the jailbars are still present but not even close to the amount displayed when using CVBS. The same goes for the ghosting, most of it is now gone. The colors look great and vibrant. The quality of the picture exceeds my expectations this time around.

However, one of the flaws also noticed on the generic-upscaler reviewed above is present on this device as well, which again is most easily observed by checking out the blinking cursor on the C64 start screen. As the cursor is blinking, you can see some ghost-pixels beneath it.

Watching closely in for example a platform game such as Sam's Journey, the effect can be observed as well when jumping around on the screen in high speed. Checking the background just around Sam, there is a slight shudder following him around.

Again, I must stress that while this is not good, it's actually nowhere near as irritating as it might sound. If you display the C64 on a large display, it's unlikely you are sitting close enough to the screen to see the problem, or at least be disturbed by it.

Actually, I've seen a similiar artifact before on the Gonbees 8220 upscaler (CGA/EGA/YUV to VGA, or in simplified terms RGB 15khz to VGA) that is widely used among arcade gamers who want to use flatscreens when their old CRT's break down. Also some Amiga people are known to use this solution, and you can observe a similar problem with it. The Gonbees can not be used with CVBS or S-video so it's not usable for our purposes, but the comparison is interesting.

The Goobay AVS 41 is by far the most expensive of the budget converters tested here, retailing at about 100 euros. However, from time to time it's on sale and you can pick it up for about 35 euros! At that price, it's definitely worth its money considering the performance you get. I might have accepted a price as high as 70-80 euros for this upscaler, but I do not think its worth a 100 euro-bucks, so if you are interested in this unit, keep your eyes open for price changes!

While not performing as good as the Framemeister, and lacking all advanced options and settings of it's big brother, the Goobay AVS 41 will likely satisfy you, keeping its price point in mind.

Packaging: 8/10
Proper and study retail box.

Documentation: 5/10
At least a few pages of good information, even if some technical details are lacking.

Build Quality: 9/10
Sturdy metal box, looks good, works every time.

Features: 4/10
Only 720p output, but button for input select to choose between S-video and CVBS, and LEDs to show what source you have active.

Picture Quality: 3/10 for CVBS and 6.5/10 for S-video.

Price: 35 euros (on sale).

Value: 7/10
OK for the right price!


After testing these four cheap scalers, I have two conclusions. First, if you have the money - buy a Framemeister and don't look back. It blows each and every budget scaler out of the water, period.

However, if you feel you can't justify the cost of a Framemeister, and perhaps you are using a CRT as primary display and just want something that can do a decent job upscaling to a flatscreen for occasional use, the Goobay AVS 41 passed the exam and should be regarded as an OK buy. At least if you find it for a good price. As for the other scalers tested - avoid!


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