Feeds

The toy of tech: The Mattel Aquarius 30 years on

'A machine so cheesy, they should have supplied rubber gloves to wear while using it.'

High performance access to file storage

Disappointing reception

The “system for the 70s” had other failings. “To say that the Aquarius possesses editing facilities is really stretching the definition to its limits. You have a delete key which can be used in immediate and program mode to delete one character at a time... If you want to edit a line which is already in the computer’s memory you’re out of luck.” The manual, revealed Palmer, suggested you simply re-type the line.

Add the £30 Expander to give the Aquarius a decent - and competitive - amount of memory and you still ended up with a computer that was £10 more costly than the 16KB Spectrum but without the Sinclair machine’s “wealth of independent peripherals and cheap software”, noted Practical Computing.

Mattel Aquarius

Cheaper: the Aquarius drops to 60 quid

“I was disappointed with the Aquarius,” Personal Computing Today’s Palmer concluded. “I cannot see it competing with the Spectrum or even the Oric as a programmer’s machine. Like the TI-99/4A it really comes into its own when being used with pre-programmed cartridges.” In short, little more than a videogames console - the Intellivision with a keyboard.

Mattel executives seem to have come to the same conclusion - and were stung by the Aquarius’ generally uncomplimentary critical reception on both sides of the Atlantic. The company was also then struggling with group losses of $156.1 million, with the computer and videogame side of the business pulling down the rest thanks to a loss of $166.7 million, all in the six months to 1 July 1983, the period covering the Aquarius’ development and US release. Mattel’s regular dividend payments were threatened.

In early July, Mattel laid off 260 of its Electronics division’s employees and then 400 more in August - together 37 per cent of the Mattel workforce. Among them was a small team working on the Intellivision IV, a gaming system based on the Motorola 68000 processor later set to make a mark in the Apple Mac, the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga. By this point, the Intellivision IV had been in the lab for more than a year.

Mattel wants out

Mattel threw out Electronics’ management, too. Division president Josh Denham was replaced by Mack Morris, who decided Electronics’ future lay in games software not the hardware they would be played on. It wasn’t the strategy to turn the business around, and Mattel Electronics as an entity didn’t survive for much longer. Mattel shut it down on 20 January 1984.

Meanwhile, the Aquarius’ $160 US release price wasn’t pulling in the punters. It was higher than either the Vic-20 or the TI-99/4A could be had for at the time. So the company quietly called it a day in October 1983. Development work on future peripherals had already stopped. Mattel handed the Aquarius - along with the branding rights and a licence to sell Mattel’s games software - back to Radofin with a view to being out of the home computer hardware business by Christmas.

“The deal we have done with Mattel means that they will bring the price down [to £59.95] and then, at some point, we will take over supplying dealers directly,” Radofin MD Alan Leboff told Popular Computing Weekly. “We hope the price drop will have a dramatic effect on sales.” Cartridge and peripheral prices were cut too.

The reduction certainly helped reverse an abrupt sales decline that began at the end of October after the Mattel pull-out news broke, and sales started to rise again through the rest of 1983. But they never lifted the Aquarius above 13th place in the Top 20 Home Micro chart of the time, a peak it reached in October 1983.

Mattel Aquarius

The Expander with modules
Source: Griffin

Still, in December 1983 Radofin bullishly announced the Aquarius II would be out in January 1984 and be followed in April by the Aquarius III, a machine it was working on in the labs when Mattel first came knocking on its door. Neither computer ever made it to market in volume, though some Aquarius IIs did find their way into consumers’ hands. Personal Computer News took a look at it in June 1984 ahead of its forecast September release - by then it was up against the likes of Amstrad.

PCN’s David Guest reckoned the new machine was much more of a programmer’s box than its predecessor had been, but the graphics remained poor - even with the extra commands included in the Extended version of Microsoft BASIC, among them the editing tools absent from the original.

The £129, 36KB machine may have made it to market - it’s listed in Your Computer’s October 1984 autumn micro round-up, as is the £50 Aquarius - but with the caution: “Limited software availability likely to be a problem.”

Longeivity too: both were absent from the list a year later. ®

High performance access to file storage

More from The Register

next story
Report: Apple seeking to raise iPhone 6 price by a HUNDRED BUCKS
'Well, that 5c experiment didn't go so well – let's try the other direction'
Microsoft lobs pre-release Windows Phone 8.1 at devs who dare
App makers can load it before anyone else, but if they do they're stuck with it
Samsung Galaxy S5 fingerprint scanner hacked in just 4 DAYS
Sammy's newbie cooked slower than iPhone, also costs more to build
Feast your PUNY eyes on highest resolution phone display EVER
Too much pixel dust for your strained eyeballs to handle
Zucker punched: Google gobbles Facebook-wooed Titan Aerospace
Up, up and away in my beautiful balloon flying broadband-bot
Nvidia gamers hit trifecta with driver, optimizer, and mobile upgrades
Li'l Shield moves up to Android 4.4.2 KitKat, GameStream comes to notebooks
AMD unveils Godzilla's graphics card – 'the world's fastest, period'
The Radeon R9 295X2: Water-cooled, 5,632 stream processors, 11.5TFLOPS
Sony battery recall as VAIO goes out with a bang, not a whimper
The perils of having Panasonic as a partner
NORKS' own smartmobe pegged as Chinese landfill Android
Fake kit in the hermit kingdom? That's just Kim Jong-un-believable!
prev story

Whitepapers

Securing web applications made simple and scalable
In this whitepaper learn how automated security testing can provide a simple and scalable way to protect your web applications.
Five 3D headsets to be won!
We were so impressed by the Durovis Dive headset we’ve asked the company to give some away to Reg readers.
HP ArcSight ESM solution helps Finansbank
Based on their experience using HP ArcSight Enterprise Security Manager for IT security operations, Finansbank moved to HP ArcSight ESM for fraud management.
The benefits of software based PBX
Why you should break free from your proprietary PBX and how to leverage your existing server hardware.
Mobile application security study
Download this report to see the alarming realities regarding the sheer number of applications vulnerable to attack, as well as the most common and easily addressable vulnerability errors.