The Competition, Part 1

In the late 1970s, when the personal computer revolution was taking off, there were a large number of platforms all vying for consumer acceptance. Each company had their proponents and critics. Consider today’s Mac vs PC wars fought out in television ads and blog sites, and then multiply that by twenty or more, and you have the environment of the day. In that day it was fought out in advertising, in the early magazines, in small user groups, and in computer store show rooms. This was the pre-IBM PC era, but the post-Altair-built-it-yourself era. Computers had begun to be simple enough to purchase, plug in, and start to use, but were still far from easy to manage.

I have written extensively about the computer platform I knew the best, the Apple II series. I have not really ever commented on any of the other available non-Apple computers of the day, and how they differed from the Apple II. With most of them I did not have more than a passing acquaintance, perhaps trying them out in a store. What I have failed to do in the past was to discuss how these products compared and contrasted with the brainchild of Woz and Jobs.

Between 1977 and 1982, several important computer platforms were launched that each had an impact on the early home computer landscape. Many offered features that were missing from the Apple II series, and deserve a brief profile here.

The year 1977 saw the release of three important computer platforms: The Commodore PET, the Apple II, and the Radio Shack TRS-80 came out, all within a month or two of each other. In 1979, Atari released its home computers. Commodore came out with the VIC-20 in 1980 and the Commodore 64 in 1982. I am specifically choosing to NOT discuss the IBM PC (other than in passing), as it was actually the introduction of the new generation and style of personal computers.

The Commodore PET

Commodore’s original entry into the home computer market was a neck and neck race with Apple and Radio Shack. They won the race and were the first to market in this second generation of home computers (the first generation being the single-board kits like the Altair 8800 and the Apple-1). The Commodore PET 2001 was available in April 1977 at the First West Coast Computer Faire, and was given greater exposure at the June 1977 Consumer Electronics Show. It was sold in various evolved versions up through 1986. The original PET was sold as 4K ($595) and 8K models ($795), and displayed text on a 25 line by 40 character built-in screen. It did not offer color output, and did not have dot-addressible graphics; however, it used a graphics character set known as “PETSCII” (an extension of the 1963 definition of the ASCII character set). To make it easier to enter these characters, they were included on keys on the keyboard, along with the standard alphabet characters. Additionally, the PET supported both upper and lowercase characters. Although the character set was ROM based, it was possible to define other character sets in memory and use them instead of the default set.

Commodore PET 2001
Commodore PET 2001 (Photo credit: OldComputers.net)

The PET had no speaker, so no sound capabilities were available. It used a keyboard more typical of a calculator than a computer or teletype, which made it very compact, but also made it very difficult to touch-type. In its all-in-one case containing the monitor there was also a built-in cassette drive. Later revisions of the PET eliminated the calculator-style “chicklet” keyboard in favor of a full stroke keyboard; to make space for this, it was necessary to remove the cassette drive and make it external.

One of the later revisions of this computer, the PET 4000 series, came with a larger monitor, and RAM expandable up to 96K. The CBM (Commodore Business Machine) 8000 series offered a full 25 rows by 80 columns of text. This came at the expense of compatibility problems with older PET software that expected a 40 column screen.

Advantages:

  • low cost
  • upper and lower case text display
  • the ability to create and display alternate character sets
  • a well-designed cassette system for data storage

Disadvantages:

  • limited expandability
  • no dot graphics
  • no color
  • no sound
[1]

Radio Shack TRS-80

Two months after the first Apple II computers were shipped to customers, the TRS-80 was announced in August 1977, and was available soon afterwards. It sold through January 1981, when the Model II was released. The original computer, later known as the Model I, came with 4K of RAM and 4K of ROM, a keyboard, monochrome monitor and cassette drive for data storage, all for $599. The demand for this computer was far in excess of Tandy’s expectations, and the company had problems supplying the 10,000 orders they received in just the first month of sales.

Radio Shack TRS-80
Radio Shack TRS-80 (Photo credit: OldComputers.net)

Soon after its release, the TRS-80 Level II became available, which supported a 16K expansion system for $299, including a numeric keypad. It supported expanded controllers for managing two cassette drives at a time, as well as a disk controller. By 1978, Shugart disk drives became available, offering 80K of storage for $500. The significant popularity of the TRS-80 was certainly influenced by the widespread exposure and availability in the numerous Radio Shack stores across the U.S.

The computer offered Microsoft BASIC in ROM, displayed text in 16 lines by 64 characters, and graphics (lo-res style blocks) in 48 by 128 resolution. TRS-80 cassette storage offered named files, and its disk BASIC offered sophisticated data management of not just text but also encoded numeric data.

Advantages:

  • low cost
  • sophisticated data storage, for both cassette and disk

Disadvantages:

  • monochrome display
  • no sound
  • minimal graphics capabilities
[2]

Atari 400/800

This successors to the famous Atari Video Computer System (later renamed the Atari 2600) was designed to be very game capable, but also functioned as a true home computer. The Atari 400 and Atari 800 were introduced as a pair, and sold from 1979 until May 1983. The Atari 400 ($550) had a flat, membrane keyboard, marketed as easy to clean up from spills (more suitable for children to use). It came with only 8K of RAM, was non-expandable, and was focused somewhat more on the use of game cartridges. The Atari 800 ($999) had a full stroke keyboard, started at 8K of RAM, but was expandable to 48K. It also took cartridges, but was more useful for programming that was the 400. The Atari 800 also offered four internal expansion slots, and two cartridge slots. Its output was either RGB or RF output for a television.

Atari 400
Atari 400 (Photo credit: OldComputers.net)

The text display was similar to the Apple II, at 24 lines by 40 characters, but with the additional feature of being able to display that text in color. It featured exceptional graphics and multiple graphics modes. It also included support for sprites (called “player-missile graphics” on the Atari), in which the hardware managed graphics that could move independently of other graphics on a background. Additionally, the Atari offered sound in four voices, covering 3.5 octaves.

Atari 800
Atari 800 (Photo credit: OldComputers.net)

By 1983, Atari was releasing additional models of their home computer, with models such as the 1200XL, 600XL, 800XL. However, continued price pressures from Commodore made it hard for Atari to continue to compete. Despite further entries in the market, by the late 1980s Atari was no longer a significant player.

Advantages:

  • low cost
  • color text
  • high quality graphics
  • good sound

Disadvantages:

  • limited expansion options
  • inability to display higher-density text
  • difficult to create commercial games due to Atari rules

[3],[4]

Commodore VIC-20

First introduced in Japan as the VIC-1001, the VIC-20 was released in the U.S. in June 1980, and produced until 1984. It was very inexpensive, selling at only $299, and offered a color display, BASIC in ROM, and had 5K of RAM (expandable to 40K with an add-on RAM cartridge). Text display was very low density, 23 rows by only 22 columns, although the text could be displayed in different foreground and background colors. Graphics resolution was also somewhat coarse, 176 by 184. The VIC-20 was primarily designed to use a standard television via an RF modulator, though a color monitor could also be used. It enjoyed widespread popularity due to its low selling price, and its availability in multiple types of retail stores across the world.

Commodore VIC-20
Commodore VIC-20 (Photo credit: OldComputers.net)

Advantages:

  • lowercase text
  • color text (8 foreground, 8 background)
  • text-graphics characters
  • hi-res and block graphics
  • more accurate cassette control
  • sophisticated sound
  • full-stroke keyboard

Disadvantages:

  • small memory (unless you used the 32K RAM expansion cartridge)
  • inability to display higher-density text
  • limited disk operating system
  • did not have graphics sprites
[5]

Commodore 64

Commodore released this computer in January 1982, and continued to sell it until the company went into bankruptcy in April 1994. It holds the record for the best selling single model of personal computer of all time, over 17 million units sold during its run. Its initial price was $595, and it was available everywhere. Between 1983 and 1986 it held 30 to 40% of the entire personal computer market, outselling everything else.

Commodore 64
Commodore 64 (Photo credit: OldComputers.net)

Using the same compact form factor of the VIC-20, the Commodore 64 came with 64K of RAM, and had 20K of ROM, running a 6510 microprocessor (a modification of the 6502). It accomplished its RAM and ROM combination through bank switching, much as the Apple II did with its 16K language card. It displayed text in 25 rows by 40 columns, much as the Commodore PET had done, but could do this in sixteen colors. It also offered 320 by 200 graphics, and offered eight sprites, which could move independently on the background.

Another feature of the C64 that made it stand out in its time was its 3-voice synthesizer, which covered eight octaves and offered multiple ways of manipulating the sound. If Commodore had named its computers the way Apple chose to do a few years later, it could have named this computer the “Commodore PET GS”, due to its advanced graphics and sound capabilities.

Like the VIC-20, the Commodore 64 could be plugged into a standard television, although it looked much better on an NTSC monitor, using an S-video connector.

Aggressive pricing by Commodore of the Commodore 64 and VIC-20 in 1983 contributed to the videogame crash of 1983, ultimately forcing Texas Instruments (and its TI-99/4A) out of the market. By the late 1980s, the C64 sold in some places for as little as $100. It was so popular in the UK and Europe that what finally brought its production to an end was the bankruptcy of Commodore in 1994. By that time, it cost more to build the C64’s disk drive than it did to make the C64 itself.

Advantages:

  • low cost
  • graphics sprites
  • 3-voice synthesizer music
  • S-video output
  • had more and better games than even the Nintendo NES

Disadvantages

  • inability to display higher-density text
  • limited expansion options
[6]

What’s Next?

The next post will do some comparison of similarities and differences between these computers and the Apple II.

  1. [1]Commodore PET, Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commodore_PET
  2. [2]Goldklang, Ira. “Ira Goldklang’s TRS-80 Revived Site”, http://www.trs-80.com/wordpress/trs-80-computer-line/model-i/
  3. [3]OldComputers.net http://oldcomputers.net/atari800.html
  4. [4]Atari 8-bit family, Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atari_8-bit_family
  5. [5]Commodore VIC-20, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commodore_VIC-20
  6. [6]Commodore 64, Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commodore_64

One Reply to “The Competition, Part 1”

  1. Wow! I had a TRS-80 when I was a kid, and then moved into my first Apple. I’d never really thought about the advantages/disadvantages to each machine, as at the time, it was whatever I could get mom and dad to buy for me. Great trip down computational memory lane here, and thanks for the pros/cons of each machine.

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