16-Bitters of the Mid Eighties

By 1985, the 8-bit microprocessor had already been outdated for quite some years. Motorola had launched its beautifully-designed 68000 back in 1979, Intel had delivered the more conservative 8086 a year earlier and by 1985, the British even had the first ARM processor ready for launch. The 8-bit home computer market ended just as abruptly as the business computing world of CP/M and S-100 buses came to an end. In the world of business computing, what followed was an (at first sight) dreary period of standardisation around the IBM PC, a really subpar hardware design that nevertheless set a standard out of which most modern PC's have evolved. The IBM PC may have been a sad starting point for that standardisation, but it was dictated by the credibility of IBM as the "Big Blue" master of computing. In the decade that followed its introduction in 1981, business computing presented the world with not much more than the same MS-DOS command line, executed by ever-faster hardware. Only in the mid '90s did standard PCs catch up with the much more innovative developments elsewhere in the 16-bit computer universe, and largely eclipsed the remaining hold-outs. But during this gap-period of, roughly, 1985 to 1993, the last generation of non-standard, "go-it-alone" computers appeared.​

To return to the PC/XT 286: although priced below the PC/AT, it was slightly faster than the AT because it did not need wait states for its RAM. From now on, IBM would need to compete on performance - something new to the old oligopolist of mainframe computing. The PC/XT 286 has some redeeming factors, though: it sports IBM's lovely clickety-clack keyboard, it is of course built solidly and if you half-close your eyes, you realise that this is the machine IBM should have introduced half a decade earlier to begin with. ​

IBM PC-XT 286

This machine - also known as the 5162 - was introduced a whopping five years after the original IBM PC and is the first IBM PC that a self-respecting collector can show without embarrassement. The machine is best presented by explaining why the original IBM PC and PC/AT were so awful.

  • The IBM PC was designed hastily, and although the 8086 was a proper 16 bit processor, IBM chose to use its cost-reduced 8088 sibling. It worked as a 16-bit processor internally, but only had an 8-bit data path to the outside world, losing most of the speed advantage of 16-bit processing power. The 8088 allowed software to think in 16-bit terms, but was a true dog in performance. A properly designed Z80 CP/M computer had no trouble keeping up with the first IBM PCs. A 68000 computer effortlessly ran circles around the 8088.
  • Then, in 1984, IBM used the new 80286 in its PC/AT. Inconveniently, a proper 80286 came close to the processing power of some expensive IBM minicomputers - and thus came the first moment in microcomputer history where marketing deemed a machine too fast. The AT got a reduced clock speed of 6MHz and used 1 wait state so some production cost could be shaved off.

Apple Macintosh Plus

Under development for many years, the first 128K Mac was finally introduced in January 1984. No bigger paradigm shift has ever hit the computer market. It was the first mainstream computer to introduce windows, mice and GUIs to the public. It may have borrowed much from Xerox's PARC research center and its 1973 Alto; it was preceeded by the Lisa too; but it was nevertheless the Mac that brought these concepts home.

 

It had a fast 68000 processor, but the rest of its hardware specs did not impress quite as much as its concept did. A meagre 128K RAM crippled its potential and made the machine obsolete rather quickly. Oh, and having a mouse does not mean you do not need cursor keys. That however, is all easy to say with hindsight. In 1984, simplicity made it affordable (affordable for Apple to produce, not necessarily affordable for you to buy).

 

I chose a Macintosh Plus for my collection. Identical to the original Mac 128 in appearance, it offers 1-4MB of RAM plus a decent SCSI interface for a hard disk. Boot it up with a 1984 Mac System 2.0 Disk, and you understand how radical the original Mac was: a full GUI OS contained in 127K of code on the disk, plus 64K of ROM. 70K was what it took to store MacWrite, a more than decent word processor.

Apparently, this is all it takes to make a friendly, productive microcomputer. So what are the other 4,194,304 kilobytes in your Windows PC doing exactly? Tight coding was what the first Mac was all about - very visible now that the source code for QuickDraw is made public. Boot the Mac Plus with System 6 (1988-90) afterwards, and you can see how that original Mac evolved into a smooth, sophisticated computing environment that may eat as much as 1-4MB of RAM, but is equally astonishing given it all zips along smoothly on just a 8Mhz 68000.

Atari ST

The Atari ST was an amazing machine when it came out. It had a very simple hardware design. What you got was the powerful 68000 processor, lots of RAM, a superbly crisp B/W monitor and not much else. With that simplicity, it's the opposite of the Amiga, the other great 68000 home computer. The Amiga added a complex multi-tasking OS, while the ST has a derivative of CP/M and a simple windowing front-end, GEM. For me, the ST is the winner. Simplicity works...

I originally bought an Atari 1040 ST in 1987, but in my collection now is an Atari Mega ST, which was my choice after the first ST died from excess working hours. The Mega ST is pretty much the same in terms of specs. It only adds a graphics chip (the Blitter) that does nothing at all. But, the Mega ST has a great keyboard, looks 'really professional', and is the machine of preference for many ST enthusiasts. I've added a SCSI hard disk, which is a separate box. The design philosophy of the Mega ST was to stack up peripherals in identical-sized cases, much as Hi-Fi components were. Not a bad idea.

Amiga 1000


When this machine appeared on the cover of Byte in 1985, it blew my mind. When it came out though, it was way out of reach. And also, the cheaper Atari ST had something the Amiga sorely missed: a perfectly sharp (albeit B/W) monitor. So it took until 2001 until I got around to buying the Amiga 1000 I had once craved for.

The Amiga, it pains me to admit, is superior by far to the Atari ST due to its graphics chips and the AmigaOS which has a pedigree worth Googling. The original Amiga 1000, though, suffered from overstretch - the colour monitor lacked the crispness of Macs and STs, making it look more like a home computer (shudder). The OS was stunning, but really only came to its own on later, more powerful machines. The A2000 was designed by Commodore's German offices, and it shows a huge departure from the A1000 in external design philosophy. This is not a consumer apparatus but a hacker's machine. The later Amiga 3000 and 4000 offered the power to make the AmigaOS truly shine... but for me, the 1000 is the unrequited love of my youth so that's why it has a place in my collection.

Apple Macintosh Quadra 700

The original 1984 Mac - much like the first Amiga - was a stunning innovation but lacked the horsepower to really deliver on its promise. That changed with the Mac Plus and a hard drive. But who could afford it? Despite my dislike of Apple's 'ambitious pricing' policies, I was a huge fan of the original ('68k') Macs, but all I could get as a student was the Atari ST. Nevertheless, soon a Mac emulator called Spectre was able to turn the ST into a useful Mac clone, and that opened up the world of Macintosh for me. Mac software was so cool, so slick... I became a registered Apple developer, still using the Atari's Mac emulator, and at university, I made my money that way. Such a pity that the 'Think C' debugger didn't work on the emulator though... Imagine writing full-blown Mac applications and never being able to use the debugger!
 

Scarcity makes hungry men. I've owned many Macs over the years - for a long time, second-hand Macs were cheap as dirt. After pruning my collection in 2004, and some inevitable regrowth afterwards, I now have 7 or so. The favourite is the Quadra 700. It looks like the original Mac II I once had,but with a 68040, it is one of the most powerful 68k Macs. These later 68k Macs demonstrate where its competitors lost the plot. Apple kept an incredibly rapid pace of innovation all through the late 80s where the Amiga (and even more so, the ST) just didn't keep up.

The importance of the Macintosh in the late 80s cannot be overstated. For many years, the chasm between dull MS-DOS command lines and the smooth Mac world was huge. It is hard to explain how far ahead the Macs were in the late 80s, early 90s. Any other computer from that era would feel like a throwback to the stone age for a modern PC user. But he'd feel right at home with the Mac - maybe just wondering why his web browser rendered so slowly.

Epilogue

The PC Compatible world slowly caught up with the innovative 16-bitters. Around the time Windows 3.1 was introduced in 1992, it was already clear that standard business machines were no longer lagging in hardware terms. The R&D power of Intel was too much for Motorola, and the last generations of its 680x0 line were simply not able to keep up. The Atari ST died of neglect long before, the Amiga met the same fate and although Apple was still way ahead in terms of its 'user experience', in 1992 it made two strategic mistakes. On the hardware side, the mistake (with hindsight) was to jump from the Motorola 680x0 to the Power PC processors developed initially by an alliance of Apple, Motorola and IBM: even together, they did not have the capability to keep up with Intel. More crucial was Apple's complacency in updating its MacOS. In 1990, it was still as beautiful on the outside as it had always been, but the underlying architecture was now outdated. It used cooperative multitasking, to name but one shortcoming. And with the arrival of Windows NT in 1993 at the latest, Apple found itself on the trailing edge of operating system development. It took Apple until 2001 to come up with OSX...

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Recommended:

Gigatron - the computer without a microprocessor!

This is a personal web site. Although a real effort was made to trace owners of all illustrations used on the site, please let me know through the Contacts page if you feel that any materials infringe on copyrights or Fair Use. I would like to thank www.old-computers.com and www.oldcomputers.net for the kind permission for the use of some of their pictures.

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