What was the most popular Commodore 64 monitor? What’s the best one today? Those aren’t quite as straightforward questions as they might seem. While there are a small number of clear-cut favorites, the truth is there were lots of different monitors C-64 users used in the 80s. And there are lots of options today too.
The “proper,” period-correct monitor for a Commodore 64 is the brown 1701 or 1702 for the breadbin-style C-64, or the beige 1802 for the streamlined C-64C. But there were lots of other third-party monitors, and many people used television sets.
Let’s get one thing out of the way first. There are plenty of canonical lists of Commodore monitors out there, and they are long lists indeed. Commodore was notorious for releasing a monitor, then replacing it with something functionally identical that looked completely different within a few months. And what Commodore sold in Europe or Australia wasn’t necessarily identical to what Commodore sold in North America.
Most of the monitors on those lists had composite inputs, so they’ll work with a C-64. They’ll work fine today. But that doesn’t mean they’re what people used in 1989. While a Commodore 1084 will indeed work just fine with a C-64, that monitor cost $300 in the late 1980s, about as much as a 64 and a 1541 put together. The 1084 had an RGBI input so it would work with a C-128 or a CGA-equipped PC clone, and an RGBA input for an Amiga. The 64 couldn’t use any of those connections. The 1084 was marketed to C-128 and Amiga owners. The only reason for a C-64 owner to buy a 1084 or equivalent was if they thought they’d be upgrading to a 128, Amiga, or PC fairly soon.
C-64 owners who bought Commodore monitors tended to buy the 1701 or 1702 monitor prior to 1986, and the 1802 monitor after 1986. These monitors cost $100 less than whatever Commodore’s flavor-of-the-week RGBI/RGBA monitor was, which was much more in line with the 64’s pricing. People who bought their C-64s from dealers who carried Commodore monitors were more likely to buy those.
C-64 owners had other options too. More on that in a minute.
The Commodore 1701 and 1702
I’ve written about the 1701 and 1702 before. They’re great monitors. They were durable, so many of them survive today. That’s one reason why they’re fairly common. Commodore sold a lot of them, but they’re also the Commodore monitor that was least likely to break and end up discarded at some point. Many 1701s and 1702s spent the second half of the 90s connected to game consoles, while the C-64 it was purchased with languished in a box in the attic.
The Commodore 1802
The 1802 is the monitor no one seems to remember. Introduced in 1986 alongside the 64C and 1541C, it was functionally equivalent to the 1702 but matched the revised 1986 styling. But unlike the 1702, which was made by JVC, the 1802s were made by Goldstar and Daewoo. They were cheaper than the JVC-manufactured 1702, but they didn’t seem to be as good. Not as many 1802s sold as 1702s, and a smaller percentage of them survived.
If you want a period-correct Commodore display to go with a 64C, the 1802 is ideal. If you can find one.
The Commodore 1902, 2002, and 1084 series
The Commodore 1902 was introduced with the Commodore 128. Since the 128 had both composite and RGB outputs, the 1902 had both types. For that reason, a 1902 works just fine with a 64 too. But it wasn’t a common pairinge in the 1980s.
Around 1986, Commodore decided having a universal monitor might encourage people to upgrade more quickly. So they released the 2002, which had composite, RGBI, and RGBA inputs so it would work with every computer Commodore sold. This monitor, made by Fujitsu, was short-lived. Commodore replaced it with the 1084, initially made by Philips. This confused people, so when Commodore changed suppliers again, it kept the 1084 number regardless of who was making the monitor that week.
These are great monitors for retro computing, as they work with the VIC, 64 and 128, CGA-equipped PCs, and Tandy 1000 computers. The 1084 and 2002 will work with all of that plus an Amiga, Atari ST, and Apple IIGS. They’re not the most period-correct option, but they look the part and their versatility is hard to beat.
Retailers liked the versatility the 1084 offered. But they wanted it with someone else’s name on it.
Third-party monitors for the Commodore 64
The problem for Commodore was that while the majority of 64 owners bought a 1541 disk drive, they were much less likely to buy a matching monitor. This was a problem that Commodore VP Clive Smith recognized in 1985. In a confidential strategic planning memo to CEO Marshall Smith and Chairman Irving Gould, he observed that a larger percentage of Apple owners bought first-party peripherals, which he attributed to Apple’s industrial design.
But another contributing factor may have been Commodore’s retailers. Retailers like Sears and Montgomery Ward often bundled Commodore computers with third-party monitors. Magnavox or Zenith were common choices. Some years they had their own store brand. The margins may have been higher on these monitors. But they could also sell the same monitor with an Atari computer or Apple II clone, and reduce the number of SKUs they had to carry. For example, in 1985, Sears sold a Commodore 1702 monitor. But after 1986, they switched to their own house-brand monitor.
This also means that if you can find a 1980s composite monitor, or even a dual composite/RGB monitor, made by any major brand but especially a brand like Zenith or Magnavox, you’ll have a setup completely representative of what the major department stores used to push in their Christmas catalogs during that era. Your stuff won’t all match. But the major retailers didn’t want to sell matched sets.
Televisions as monitors
The problem with this strategy was the monitors the retailers chose often sold for $249 or even $299. Those RGB connections the C-64 didn’t need raised the cost. Meanwhile, the same stores usually carried a 13-inch television for under $200. That’s what my dad bought instead. Televisions make a better C-64 monitor today than they did then, because composite inputs have been standard equipment on them for about 25 years now.
Even if you eventually want to get a period-correct monitor, a CRT television is an excellent stand in until you can find what you want. You should be able to find one in a matter of days, and it won’t cost much.
An LCD Commodore 64 monitor
If you want an LCD display, most any small LCD TV, especially if you can find one with a 4:3 form factor, will make an adequate monitor for a C-64. It will be better in some applications than others. For fast-paced games I definitely prefer my CRT. But for strategy-type games, I like an LCD. I really like my Dell 2001FP, which has composite and S-Video inputs and can also sync down to 15 KHz, so it’s a good, versatile monitor for lots of retro systems and its 20-inch size would have been positively luxurious in the 80s. The 2001FP isn’t the easiest monitor to find anymore, as it’s now a good decade and a half old now itself. But they can turn up at thrift stores and estate sales. Always, always give any large 4:3 monitor you see a close look.
Another reason that Apple had more success selling their own monitors is that the system was more expensive. So were Apple’s monitors, but Apple buyers were less price sensitive, and stores that sold Apple were delighted to sell those profitable monitors.
Not all LCD TVs have composite inputs now; some newer models have gone HDMI-only. If you’re buying one for retrocomputing, choose carefully. But if you get it wrong or already have an unsuitable TV, you can buy composite to HDMI converters from Amazon for $15 that work as well as the one in most TVs, or spend $35 to $40 for fancier models that does a slightly better job of it.
Some also have S-video inputs, which is handy if you also have an Atari computer in your collection — but it’s over the later S-video connector so you’ll need a converter cable. (It’s a different cable from the one you used with a vintage Atari monitor; those split the signal from the Atari into separate luminance and chrominance RCA plugs.) You will also need that cable if you have a TV with an S-video jack.