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

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