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Spending some time with the THEC64 Mini


OLD CS1

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I pre-ordered my The C64 Mini from WalMart and it arrived on October 9, which I picked up a mere six hours before the store closed in preparation for Hurricane Michael which would arrive the next day. As a result, my time with the new goody was pushed back over a week.

 

But I have now had a chance to spend a few hours every day or so for the past week and a-half and am happy to present the results of my fun and hard work putting this all together.

 

 

 

 

(User @wongojack has a great post with some tips for sourcing and managing disk files here.)

 

The Dressing

 

With many things, the packaging is the first and most important part of a product on a shelf since it more often than not what the prospective buyer see first in the store, and what the buyer sees first when it arrives in a plain brown box.

 

 

 

 

 

Eh, not too shabby on the shelf.

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Then comes the obligatory un-boxing. (Quick aside, these photos are places two-by-two, so you may need want to widen your window or set your zoom so save you scrolling so much -- provided you can still read the text.)

 

First sitting on my flux-stained soldering bench. It did not occur to me until later I should be doing this without the board in place. (I am not professional reviewer, after all, and I hope that fact also wins me forgiveness for the color and lighting imbalances in the photos.) Here you can see the intact seal on the box to validate this is, indeed, a virgin product.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Break the seal and open 'er up, nice and gently, now.

 
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Nice packaging on the shelf, and the inside does not disappoint, either. Not quite the "Welcome to the World of Commodore" to level-up to a Mac or my old Sony Ericsson boxes, but still teases a little more as to the wonders which wait within.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
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Pay dirt and, again, not too shabby. Presentation here is clean and crisp, and the extra mile of clear plastic protection to ensure there are no scuffs or marks as the "product may settle during transport." Little I hate more than spending a pretty penny on something cool to find it has box bruising.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
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But, like so many good products -- the printer or scanner lacking a USB cable, for instance -- the package complete with quality HDMI and USB cable does not contain a USB power adapter, quality or otherwise. Now, while the argument may go, "everyone has one or two laying about," my counter is far too many are cheap and may not stand up the voltage to the power draw, or may even reference ground signals right to your outlet power thanks to cheap design. For the $79 price tag I would think including a manufacturer-approved power supply would be a given.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
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USB power source notwithstanding, it does come with a nice-looking Commodore-esque instruction manual.

 
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Under the Dressing

 

Past the outer layers is the first opportunity to observe the superficial presentation of the product body. First and foremost is enumerating ports and how to actually use the device.

 

Simplicity is the key, with HDMI video output, micro-USB for power, two ports to accept accessories via USB, and one button to turn it on. Note the USB ports are upside-down due to the internal mounting of the system board.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Closer examination of the detail and the best thing I can say is, wow. It is obvious a good amount of thought went into this design. Without calipers one can quickly determine this is a near-exact replica of our beloved brown bread-bin beast, right down to the texture of the clamshell.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The correctly sized badge with product-specific design, and the brightness of the LED bolster the relationship to the original.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The keyboard looks near-perfect except for the glaring omission of the print screening on the key fronts -- no special characters nor even-number F-keys. But, the impersonation of the original is so good that, especially out of the corner of the eye, THEC64 Mini is easily mistaken for the old gal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
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In the Living Room

 

Having taken in the sights of the new lady in then out of the dressing and assessed how to play, the next logical step is to evaluate the play. I suspect the majority of those who will bring her into their home are not too concerned about her language skills, so I mainly focused on game-play and accommodation thus.

 

First thing to address is the joystick. I have never been a fan of the Competition Pro, though it apparently has an almost cult-like following. As the design of the C64 Mini is closely linked to this rather crafty eight-button rendition of the classic, I am stuck using it to some degree rather than my preferred Atari CX-40 style of joystick.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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In testing I was happy to find my trust old Gravis Gamepad Pro works perfectly fine for games. As indicated in the documentation, the start button acts as the menu button and other buttons simply fire. The arcade-style controller for my NeoGeo X Gold which works perfectly with Windows does not work here. When two joysticks are connected the C64 Mini does a really smart thing: whichever joystick is used to navigate the menu becomes the primary joystick which is always Joystick 2. More about that below.

 

The Games She Plays

 

The C64 Mini comes loaded with 64 games listed on the official website and includes manuals for each. Suffice to say, there is a mix of games in the North American release which may or may not be recognized by U.S. players. I do not see this as a problem, really, as you will get games you like, love, and new ones to try out.

 

Navigating the menu system is easy, painless, and intuitive, and navigating once inside a game is simple, too. Pressing the menu button on the joystick brings up the in-game control menu to save/load a saved game state, call up the virtual keyboard, or exit the game.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In-game control menu

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The system provides four save slots for each game. The virtual keyboard is another clever feature which slides in from the right-side of the screen, pushing the video over to the left, taking advantage of the space "wasted" by a square video display view in widescreen. It is responsive and does not take terribly long to type in what you might need in a game, though I would not recommend this over a real keyboard for programming in BASIC. Several of the red buttons are given functions in the virtual keyboard, such as SPACE, ENTER, and backspace/delete, while the menu button hides the virtual keyboard. The keyboard is divided into three blocks of alphanumeric keys, symbols, and special and function keys, with a red button to jump between these blocks. Much quicker than pressing the joystick a million times to get to that odd key. My only lament regarding the virtual keyboard is the special buttons for ENTER and SPACE are not activated until opening the virtual keyboard.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THEC64 MIni virtual keyboard. (AA editor lacks a way to align text around a graphic.)



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I started with the most recent firmware release to date, v1.1.4, available from the website update section. Firmware updates are ridiculously simple to apply when needed, and this update includes the File Loader, a promised addition to allow easier running of games from a USB flash drive. File Loader is accessible via the icon which looks like a USB stick in the icon dock at the bottom of the screen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Menu icon dock: screen settings, about, settings, and file loader.

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As the system is built from Vice, confirmed by scrolling through the licensing information which apparently comprises a bulk portion of the 3.5MB firmware image, one would and can expect vast compatibility for games and programs.

 

The File Loader is compatible with D64, G64, D71, and D81 disk images, T64 and TAP tape images, PRG and P00 program files, and CRT cartridge files. My testing included D64, G64, T64, and PRG files with minimal fuss and no incompatibilities.

 

The system has, by default, disk acceleration which makes loading games much faster than in real life. This can be turned off for compatibility purposes. The acceleration also appears to have influence on tape loading. I did not test for compatibility with commercial tapes and fast-load tapes as I am unfamiliar with this facet of Commodore life. The single T64 image tested was Laser Strike, a COMPUTE! Magazine type-in BASIC program, which loads and runs with no problems.

 

More Than Just a Pretty Face

 

Indeed, the File Loader has a lot more features under the hood as explained on the website. I will not be delving into the deep details of the extremely powerful CJM files which allow detailed configuration right down to the special buttons. In fact, I only investigated this as I was having problems with some programs running at all. Ballblazer, a G64, would not load at all, nor would Ghosts 'n Goblins Arcade or several of the demos on D64.

 

File names on the USB stick can include settings options which are demarcated by a "_" as the end of the filename, before the extension. For example, to get Ballblazer to load I renamed Ballblazer [NTSC].G64 to Ballblazer [NTSC]_AD.G64 to activate "accurate drive" mode and it fired up and played like a champ. Accurate drive mode is exactly as it sounds: an accurate emulation of the 1541 disk drive to support programs which rely upon its functionality. Enabling accurate drive mode also enables a flickering floppy icon in the upper-right of the screen to show when the "drive" is being accessed.

 

Demos which would not function properly were fixed with the "TP" option to set PAL mode. PAL mode also fixed Frogger Arcade Edition and allows for the excellent Yoomp! Video captures indicate the output changes to 50Hz when in PAL mode.

 

Lastly, the C64 Mini assigns the primary joystick as port 2. Familiar to all of us is the frustration of single-player games which eschew this standard. Welcome the "J1" option which changes the primary joystick to port 1, which then resolved problems with those games which expect a joystick in port 1, like Blackhawk, Arkanoid, Satan's Hollow, and others.

 

Thus, after making the necessary filename changes with the "AD", "TP", or "J1" options I happily found myself with a full complement of usable games and demos on my USB stick.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rather than lengthen this entry even more with videos, check them out in my gallery dedicated to the THEC64 Mini, recorded with video in "Pixel Perfect" mode.

 

The only major shortfall I see off the bat with the File Loader is it only supports a single disk at a time. This means you will not be playing the eight-sided adventure of Pool of Radiance or the flippy Last Ninja. You need a keyboard for the latter, anyway, but we have that covered below. Swapping disks is currently possible, as detailed in the troubleshooting section, but doing so requires loading games via BASIC and using a special disk image naming scheme and game saves. A better method is promised for a future firmware update:

Retro Games said:

As with all other aspects of loading programs, this will be significantly improved with our advanced loader.

 

I hope to see a "swap disk" option in the in-game menu which would then lead to the File Loader to select the next disk.

 

I will not go over the built-in games any more than to say they play well and the ones I recognize play just as well and are still just as fun as in the old days, or just as frustrating in regard to Coil Cop. At least two of the included games are obviously modified for the C64 Mini. Specifically, Cybernoid has been updated to remove the option to use the keyboard as a controller:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Original release on the left, showing options 2 and 3 for keyboard controls, C64Mini release on the right missing these options.

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The website also notes other games may have been modified to fit the new form-factor, but the modifications do not substantially alter or affect game-play.

 

Accessorizing

 

I tested a few different USB sticks, ranging from really old Sandisk 1GB sticks, a 4GB promotional key-shaped stick, a 128GB Samsung USB3 nano, and finally resting on a Sandisk 32GB nano. All worked perfectly fine with no hiccups.

 

The manual indicates that if you need more than two USB devices you should use a self-powered USB hub. Sage advice, though I did not follow it. I used an inexpensive Manhattan 4-port USB2 mini-hub to connect a standard Logitech keyboard, the THEC64 joystick, and a often a second controller. This worked fine and I give more details below on the power draw. Make certain that your hub is plugged in before applying power or it may not be recognized.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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While disappointed, I was not surprised to find this configuration would not work:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

XU1541 USB to CBM serial with a 1541-II disk drive... no worky, but perhaps one day?

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Power

 

Since the C64 Mini comes without a manufacturer-approved USB power source, we are left to experiment with our own. I have a two-port USB power supply built into a three-outlet station which powered this just fine. So well, in fact, I also used the other USB port to power a 5-inch monitor, the Eyoyo S501H. Together idle, the pair draw around 430mA, and when playing I would see jumps up to 560mA, most of the delta drawn by the monitor speaker.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Having an all USB-powered portable Commodore 64 in enticing, and the low power draw means a good battery pack should be fine. I pulled out my Anker PowerCore 26800 three-outlet 26,800mAh power pack and gave them a whirl, the monitor plugged in directly so I could monitor the C64 Mini and its accessories alone. Great success! So what about other battery packs? I happen to have a few clearance USB batteries to try out. These held up, as well, with the only one to not dip below 5V being the cheapest of them all. Impressive, even if the smaller packs will be far more short-lived at a rated capacity of 2200mAh and a measured capacity of around 1750mAh.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Anker running a game of Space Taxi

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The best and worst voltage levels from the Anker while in use, the C64 Mini measured alone

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The cheap-o USB battery packs get to play, too.



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What's in the Box?!

 

This part is just pictures of the inside of the C64 Mini. Noteworthy points are the three large metal weights to give it a little heft. These are Bucky Ball confirmed to be magnetic but not magnetized.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I suspect the chip under the metal heatsink is the SOC. The case is well-enclosed with minimal ventilation so I thought to get some temperature measurements going from idle into starting an FLI demo (which ostensibly would draw more resources from the emulation.) The chip never measured any hotter than the 114 degree reading in open air, but I suspect it does not get much hotter when assembled.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lowest and highest temperature readings

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One last point before closing out is a photo of what happened when I connected the C64 Mini to a monitor via an HDMI-to-DVI cable. What happened here?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Conclusion

 

I have not been kind to this product which I expected to capitalize on the nostalgia set aflame by devices like the Atari Flashback and Nintendo's recently-released NES Classic Mini. And the hipsters who have no connection at all to a major centerpiece of my youth.

 

I like to think I am a big boy and able to admit when I may have been mistaken, even through a large bite of crow. This may very well be that situation. I have made posts here at AtariAge and a couple of tech forums disparaging the mere inception of this device for various reasons, but primarily my disgust at how many vultures have picked through the rotting remains of a beloved machine.

 

Having gotten my grubby hands on it and given it a good once-over I see its place. Given the right purposes, I see it making a handy option for toting around versus a full system. This is very much a nice combination of accurate-enough emulation and portability, and the ease of switching to support PAL-only games and demos is an immeasurable bonus. The native HDMI output, as with retro systems offering the same, is perfect for resolving the "240p problem" with modern displays.

 

Given its physical appearance and attention to detail, accuracy of emulation, expansion capabilities, commitment to continued improvement of the firmware, the effort exerted to license games: I admit the THEC64 Mini is a pleasant surprise.

 

Now, about that full-sized thingie.

 

 

EDIT: As promised, I have included the programs and demos I used for testing, plus a few others I did not include in the videos.

 

THEC64MINI_Tests.zip

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Excellent review! I too was skeptical about it when they announced it but was so happy once I played it. I use mine all of the time and love it!

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Wongojack made a greatly helpful post about finding and managing disk files, which I have put into the blog post above.

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