The Commodore 64 is 30
The most successful 8-bit micro ever
Commodore took the wraps off the Commodore 64, one of two immediate follow-ups to its popular Vic-20 home computer, 30 years ago this week.
The 64 made its public debut at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), though it wouldn't go into production until later in the year before going on sale in the US market in August. It didn't make it across the Atlantic until late Autumn.
The original 'breadbox' Commodore 64 design
Back then, I was a young lad eagerly awaiting the 64 my folks had ordered as a Christmas prezzie from a local reseller. But supply was so constrained, we were told we might not get the machine until the new year. Unwilling to wait until 1983, I chose a Dragon 32 instead.
Had I hung on, I'd have received a machine that, like the Dragon, had a full-sized keyboard and was also somewhat cheaper than a BBC Micro. But, unlike either the Beeb or the Dragon, the 64 couldn't use a standard domestic cassette player for storage - you had to buy Commodore's own tape deck, with a proprietary connector, adding to the cost.
However, with its squat design taken from the 1981-launched Vic-20, its keys bedecked with graphics symbols - even playing card suits - as well as alphanumeric characters, and its right-hand row of four function keys, the 64 arguably looked much more how a computer should look than many of its rivals.
Inside, Commodore had packed a 6510 processor, an updated version of MOS Technology's popular 6502, the chip used in the Vic-20, the BBC Micro and many others. In the UK, the 6510 was clocked at 985KHz, though the US version apparently ran at over 1MHz - assuming Commodore wasn't just rounding up 0.985MHz over there.
The Commodore's first, brief Vic-20 colour scheme, was quickly dropped in favour of the grey look (top). Note the different '64' logo and location
As the computer's name suggested, it had 64KB of memory, though only 38KB of that was available to Basic, which was stored on a 20KB Rom chip and copied into the main memory when the 64 was booted. The remainder of the memory map was used by the system.
The sprite stuff
The 64's graphics were handled by a Vic-II chip capable of reproducing 16 foreground and eight background colours. More importantly for an ever-more game-crazy potential audience, the chip could maintain up to eight 24 x 21-pixel sprites - 12 x 21 in graphics modes sporting more than two colours - moving them smoothly around the screen and automatically ensuring they were drawn correctly over the background.
Many 64 owners spent hours upon hours hand-coding sprite data using Poke commands to try the technology out. The manual had a set they could enter by hand.
The Vic (Video Interface Chip) core would support separate 40 columns by 25 rows text and bitmapped graphics modes, the latter running at 300 x 200 or 160 x 200. It also contained circuitry for bit-level scrolling.
Commodore pitched the 64's sprite handling hard, the key feature, it said, of the machine's superior graphics capabilities. The 64 was good at sound too, with a MOS Technology Sid (Sound Interface Device) chip capable of maintaining and mixing three separate sound channels, with four waveform options per channel and an eight-octave voice capacity.
The 64 gained these graphics and sound chips from a failed Commodore project, the Max. MOS Tech, which was owned by Commodore, began developing the 5µm Vic-II and Sid chips during 1981 while the parent company was pushing the Vic-20. That machine was selling very well over here but particularly in the States, so Commodore decided to use the new MOS chips in a machine intended to be a low-cost games machine that would enter the market below the Vic.
The result was the Max, a machine designed in Japan and sporting a flatter look than the Vic and an odd, moulded-metal keyboard reminiscent of the controllers bundled with the 1979 Intellivision games console system. Not that the keyboard would get heavy use. The Max was intended to be more games console than computer. It didn't even feature built-in Basic. The programming language and all the Max's games would be loaded through plug-in Rom cartridges.
Too soon: Commodore's Max
Initially aimed at the Japanese market, the Max was also earmarked for the US and Germany. It was briefly considered for the UK too, here named the Vic-10 and pitched to take on the likes of the low-cost ZX81. The Vic-10 even appeared in a number of UK retailers' brochures and in mail-order catalogues - which is where I first saw it - but would never ship over here, and may never have appeared in the US and Germany either.
However, the Max did launch in Japan, early in 1982. But it didn't survive long there, and was killed off within the year. By then, the Commodore 64 was in production and seemed to company bosses to pave the way for more lucrative computing markets.
Building the Vic-40
During the development of the Max, Robert Russell, who had overseen the creation of the Vic-20, and Al Charpentier, the Commodore home computer's hardware engineer, were able to persuade Commodore CEO Jack Tramiel to allow them to develop a more advanced successor to the Vic-20. That way, Commodore's home computing fortunes would not rest solely on the Vic-20 and the still unproven games console.
Commodore business men: CEO Jack Tramiel (left) and marketing chief Michael Tomczyk (right)
Source: Michael Tomczyk 
Tramiel agreed, and the team began work on what was initially called the Vic-40. They were helped by Bob Yannes, who was by then finishing off the Sid chip over at MOS.
Tramiel told the Vic-40 team the machine must be completed by the first weekend in January 1982, to allow him to announce it at CES, and this they achieved, producing four prototypes with the components available to them.
Tramiel had stipulated that the machine must contain 64KB of memory, more than the 5KB the Vic-20 shipped with and more than the 32-48KB being sported by more recent home computers. Ram was expensive and though prices were coming down, Commodore would have to wait until later in the year for the economics to be right for it to ship at the $595 price point pledged by Tramiel in January.
The Commodore 64 advantages... according to Commodore
The 64 would be priced at £299 when it was released in the UK.
By the time Commodore's new machine went on sale, it cost more than twice what a Vic-20 would have set you back. Yet it was a hit and, according to some estimates, more than 16m units would be sold globally, making it one of the most successful home computers of its time - if not the most popular.
However, Commodore never lost its willingness to consider designing machines for specific markets, as it had tried with the Max. That computer was a failure, and Commodore's other efforts would largely fail too.
In 1984, Commodore launched the Plus/4, a cut-down version of the 64 pitched at the small office/home office market and pre-loaded with four productivity apps - word processor, spreadsheet, database and graphing - hence the name. In the States, at least, the 64 had always been pitched against the more business-centric Apple II than against entertainment-oriented home computers like the Tandy Color Computer.
Commodore also released an Osborne One -esque portable version of 64, the SX64 during that year. It featured a built-in colour display, making it the first ever portable colour computer - though, at 10.5kg, a better description of the machine would be 'luggable'. Again, it was hoped the machine would appeal to the business community in the same way Commodore's pioneering Pet had during the late 1970s.
Awaiting the Amiga
Neither the SX64 nor the Plus/4 sold at all well and, less than a year old, were canned in 1985, the year Commodore followed up the 64 with a 128KB version. The 128 would last as long as the 64 - it would be four more years before they finally went out of production, in 1989.
By the time of the 128's release in 1985, the 64 had gained a slimmer, more wedge-like design that would inspire the look of the most popular version of the Amiga, which had been in development during 1982 after the 64's announcement, though not at Commodore. The slimmer 64 was called the 64C, and it contained more up-to-date versions of the original 64's key Vic and Sid chips.
The first Amiga was also released in 1985, by which time it had been acquired by Commodore, a year after a prototype was unveiled at CES 1984 by founding manufacturer Amiga Corporation.
First Amiga then Commodore's Amiga 1000
If the 64 came to an end in 1989, its name did not. The following year, Commodore unveiled the Commodore 64 Games System, a C4C-derived console designed to take the computer's plug-in games cartridges - essentially what the Max/Vic-10 had been planned to be all those years before.
By 1990, though, Nintendo and Sega had shown there was now a market for consoles - the Nintendo Entertainment System launched in 1983, the year after the Max and the 64 - and Commodore decided to have another go.
It also decided in 1990 that there was room for a new 64-style machine in the space between the Games System and the Amiga, and a prototype Commodore 65 - aka the C64DX - was built but rejected by Commodore's management. Jack Tramiel had long since quit Commodore in January 1984, and the company was now being run by Irving Gold, who felt that some kind of bridge between the 64 world and the new Amiga era, the role the 65 was intended to fulfill, was unnecessary after all.
The 65 project was spiked. Commodore itself would not survive much longer. It declared bankruptcy in April 1994. ®