Sunday, 28 August 2022

Dragon 32 (1982)

Introduced August 1982

By 1982 the home computer market in the UK was getting quite sophisticated with the BBC Micro, Sinclair ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64 all competing for attention. To compete with these three extremely capable systems you were going to need something very good indeed. The Dragon 32 was not that computer. Not by a long chalk. Yet somehow it managed to carve out a fairly respectable slice of the market for a couple of years, and it all started so promisingly.

Dragon 32

British toy firm Mettoy – manufacturer of Corgi Toys – had spotted that children were becoming increasingly interested in computers and decided to enter the market, creating a factory in Wales to build the Dragon. Mettoy knew a lot about marketing and distribution, and in particular it understood export markets. However, Mettoy got into technical difficulties and the Dragon Data business ended up under the control of the industrial giant GEC.

The Dragon 32 itself was based on a Motorola reference design and used their 6809E processor, rather than the more common Zilog Z80 or MOS 6502s that rivals used. The dragon wasn’t the only machine built to the same basic design – the TRS-80 Color Computer (CoCo) launched in the US two years earlier was very similar and was somewhat compatible when it came to software.

Making a sort-of-clone of a two-year old computer in 1982 – when technology was moving at a breath-taking rate – may not have been a great start, but the 6809E was a capable CPU, the machine was very well built and you could connect up joysticks, a printer and a decent monitor. RAM was 32KB, a so-so amount for the time (a later 64KB version, the Dragon 64 was launched not long after) and it had simple sound capabilities. The inbuilt Microsoft BASIC was pretty good to program, which was one of the main things people liked to do in those days. Software could be ported across from the CoCo with a few modifications.

Dragon 64 in use
Dragon 64 in use

On the more negative side – the graphics were terrible, especially when it came to the colour palettes. The Dragon was also incapable of displaying lowercase characters without modification, which limited its appeal as an educational or business computer, and you couldn’t easily mix text and graphics at the same time. Although the Dragon 32 was popular enough to have many best-selling games titles ported to it, the poor graphics meant that they didn’t look as good as games played on rival machines.

Overall it wasn’t a bad system, but it was up against more capable competition. It might have been a contender but by 1983 the home computer market was imploding, with an oversupply of systems, brutal price wars and a fragmented array of available systems that frankly needed shaking out. Dragon Data was one of the victims, going bust in 1984, but the assets being bought up by a Spanish company named Eurohard which sold the product line until 1987, when it too went bust.

Despite market failures, the Dragon 32 retains a following in the hobbyist market with many additional modifications including improved operating systems and peripherals, including modern add-ons such as memory card readers in lieu of tape or disk drives. Working systems can command prices in of a few hundred pounds, depending on condition and accessories.

Image credits:
Liftarn / Pixel8 via Wikimedia Commons – CC BY-SA 2.0
Rain Rabbit via Flickr - CC BY-NC 2.0

Wednesday, 24 August 2022

Commodore 64 (1982)

Released August 1982

This – ladies and gentlemen – is the big one as far as 8-bit computers go. The biggest-selling single model of computer of all time, and a system that had success worldwide and is still remembered fondly today. I give you… the Commodore 64.

Commodore 64 original "breadbin" case
Commodore 64 original "breadbin" case

At first glance, the C64 is difficult to tell apart from the previous year’s VIC-20 as it shipped in a near-identical case at first. Inside though this was a much more powerful machine, running on a MOS Technology 6510 CPU, essentially a custom version of the popular 6502. The “64” in the Commodore 64 name comes from the amount of available RAM. The C64 used clever paging techniques where the CPU can page between ROM and RAM and rearrange most of the computer’s internal memory map to maximise available memory. This sophisticated scheme gave programmers much more RAM to play with than the competition who mostly used a flat memory configuration where ROM and RAM had to share the same space.

Graphics were a huge improvement over the VIC-20, with 320 x 200 pixels in 16 colours plus sprites, controlled by the MOS VIC-II graphics processor. Another MOS chip, the 6581 sound generator, gave multichannel sound. There was a built-in joystick port. By default the C64 shipped with a tape drive, or you could add on an incredibly slow floppy disk or the IEEE 488 serial bus which also supported printing. The hardware was subject to constant revision which sometimes produced compatibility problems.

Software support was excellent, with around 10,000 titles produced during the lifetime of the machine. Initially some of this shipped on a ROM cartridge, but this had a limit of just 16Kb so eventually tape became more common for complex games. In terms of games, few platforms even game close to the C64.

Excellent software and hardware made it an attractive proposition, but Commodore were keen to make this as affordable as possible. The initial launch price of $595 continually dropped, reaching $300 by 1983 (with cheaper deals available if you shopped around), easily undercutting the Atari 400/800, Apple II and crucially the Texas Instruments TI-99/4A.

There was a lot of bad blood between Commodore and Texas Instruments... TI had nearly bankrupted Commodore in the 1970s during the pocket calculator wars. Commodore boss Jack Tramiel wanted revenge, firstly the low-end VIC-20 piled on the pressures and the price-cutting on the Commodore 64 forced Texas to sell their system at a huge loss in order to compete. Not only did this force Texas to crash out of the home computer market, but it also inadvertently started a huge shake-out in the home computer market too.

If you were a teenager in the UK at the time, you would probably have had endless playground arguments comparing the Commodore 64, Sinclair ZX Spectrum and BBC Microcomputer. The argument could never be won because – in retrospect – all three platforms were really good and had their own strengths and weaknesses… but try telling kids that.

Sales were strong throughout the 80s, but competition grew tougher. Commodore attempted to diversify the C64-based offerings, notably with the luggable Commodore SX-64 (the first colour portable computer), the wedgy Commodore 64C and Commodore 128 plus an unsuccessful attempt at a games console with the Commodore 64GS.

Commodore 64C in the "wedge" case
Commodore 64C in the "wedge" case

At least 12 million Commodore 64 units were shipped up until 1994, only stopping when Commodore folded that same year. Over 12 years of production, the C64 was a massively influential machine – even today. Modern clones such as The C64 carry the torch, or used systems can typically be had for a few hundred pounds. Alternatively there are software emulators available. There's no doubt that even 40 years after launch, the C64 still has its fans.

Image credits:
Evan-Amos via Wikimedia Commons – CC0
Bill Bertram via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY-SA 2.5