Last Updated on March 24, 2023 by Dave Farquhar
Connecting an Apple II to a modern or modern-ish television is easier than getting a good picture from it. Connecting an Apple II to a 1980s TV is trickier. Here’s how to connect an Apple II to a TV, and some tips for improving the picture.
Apple II computers, from the original 1977 model all the way up to the 16-bit Apple IIgs have an RCA jack supplying standard composite output. This plugs into the composite video jack on a relatively modern TV just like a game console–just ignore the sound inputs, and be prepared to have to adjust the picture for the best quality.
Modern televisions as color composite monitors
Newer televisions with color composite inputs work well as substitutes for composite monitors on other systems, but the results don’t always translate to the Apple II. The signal is higher quality than the modulated RF signal and you get much less interference, but the Apple II’s composite signal is different enough from a VCR or game system to confuse some TVs.
To connect it, simply plug an RCA video cable between the RCA connector on the back of your Apple II and the composite input on your TV. The video input is usually yellow. Then switch your TV to its composite input. Ignore the red and yellow sound connectors since the Apple II has a built-in speaker.
I like televisions as composite monitors because then I can connect an Apple II, C-64, or even a Tandy 1000 to the composite input and an RF-only system, like a Tandy Color Computer or Atari 2600, to the RF input, and let the TV-turned-monitor do double duty.
What to do if your Apple II displays poorly on your TV
I tried my Apple IIc on a couple of different small CRT TVs. It worked, but the display looked terrible, with way too many color artifacts. Apple’s composite signal is a bit of a hack, and it confuses some displays. The better of the two CRT TVs I tried has several presets, like modern LCD TVs do. I found setting the TV to its movie setting gave the best picture. I suggest trying that one since I found that preset worked for me, but your TV may have different settings that may give better results.
If your TV doesn’t have presets, try adjusting whatever settings you can, including brightness and contrast, to improve the picture as much as you can. And on a modern HDTV, be sure to set your TV to 4:3 aspect ratio.
The problems with TVs lead some Apple enthusiasts recommend seeking out Apple monitors, even if they’re hard to find. But I can confirm Commodore monitors like the 1702 work well with an Apple II with just a bit of adjustment of the horizontal and vertical position with the front knobs. If you have a Commodore display already or can get one, give it a try.
If you need to make due with a TV, I find I prefer a CRT for graphics but an LCD or LED TV for text. My Apple IIc’s text looks amazing on my LG 20-inch LED TV. So for Infocom games, you might want to use a flat-panel TV, but connect it to your CRT to play Ultima or King’s Quest.
Apple II computers and televisions
I rarely saw Apple II computers connected to televisions, if I ever did. I always saw them connected to monitors. Monochrome monitors, usually, because Apple color monitors were expensive. And in the 1980s, monochrome monitors were popular for “serious” computing like word processing, because green or amber screens were supposed to be easier on your eyes. In the CRT days, maybe they were.
Typically, in school computer labs, a select few machines had color monitors and the majority had monochrome monitors. If you got to class first, you could choose a color-equipped machine. The laggards got the monochrome machines.
If color composite Apple monitors seem rare today, that’s why. You can use another brand of color composite monitor and it will probably work. But those aren’t always easy to find either. So we’re back to televisions making sense as an Apple II monitor again. And a 19-inch or even 15-inch display would have been luxurious compared to 1980s 13-inch displays. The picture quality may not be ideal for text, but will fare better for games. And chances are you’re more interested in playing old games on the original hardware than in running Visicalc.
Apple and the FCC
Televisions in the 1970s and 80s didn’t have composite inputs. As VCRs became popular in the late 1980s, you started to see composite inputs, but generally on more expensive TVs. That’s why other 8-bit computers had RF outputs that displayed on channel 3 or 4. Apple omitted an RF modulator from the Apple II because it feared its RF modulator wouldn’t pass the FCC.
So instead of redesigning it, Apple gave the design to a third party, M&R Enterprises of Sunnyvale, CA, to manufacture and sell. Dealers could then bundle the two items together. This sidestepped the problem. And the photos I see of Apple II computers from the late 70s and early 80s suggests a number of people did use small TVs as a display, but the picture quality wasn’t as good. Marty Spergel, the owner of M&R, estimates his company sold 400,000 units under the name Sup’R’Mod.
If you find a Sup’R’Mod inside an Apple II or II plus, it’s an aftermarket add-on, but it was a popular one.
Modern substitutes for a vintage RF modulator
Finding a vintage Sup’R’Mod RF modulator made by M&R will be difficult, and it’s not really practical on a compact Apple IIc. If you need a cheap, easily available and convenient substitute, you can use a modern RF modulator intended for connecting DVD players to older TV sets. These were common in the early 2000s, so used ones cost less than $10. Just connect the RCA connector to the yellow RCA video input on the RF modulator, and connect the antenna connector to the antenna input on the TV, and tune the TV to channel 3. Ignore the red and yellow sound inputs.
A modern RF modulator won’t be period correct, but one very common supplier of them was Radio Shack, a familiar name to any vintage computing enthusiast. If you can score a Radio Shack-branded RF modulator, it will at least look the part.
David Farquhar is a computer security professional, entrepreneur, and author. He started his career as a part-time computer technician in 1994, worked his way up to system administrator by 1997, and has specialized in vulnerability management since 2013. He invests in real estate on the side and his hobbies include O gauge trains, baseball cards, and retro computers and video games. A University of Missouri graduate, he holds CISSP and Security+ certifications. He lives in St. Louis with his family.