Some favourite 8-bit home computers

The early 80s were the dawn of the Home Computer: affordable for normal families, and sold to parents like my dad, in the hope their offspring would pick up some useful future-proof skills (Dad was right on this point). Soon, home computers were actually no less powerful than the CP/M business machines. In terms of graphics, they left the old CP/M business dino's in the dust. The main thing they lacked (generally speaking) was a proper 80 column screen and thus, they left young owners like me with an inferiority complex: my C64 didn't look like a 'Pro' computer. That was what set me off on my old computer collection in the late 80s. I wanted to master Real Systems, not toys! But with hindsight, the early 8 bit home computers were pretty much state-of-the-art technology...

Radio Shack TRS-80 Model I

Home computing started on June 10th, 1977, the day the first Apple II was sold. But on August 3rd, Tandy/Radio Shack's move was announced: the TRS-80 Model I. Not sold out of a garage by two unkown guys but a computer from a large consumer electronics firm, mass-marketed to normal people. Computing had gone mainstream! Tandy's expectations were modest, to sell maybe 3,000 of them. And if it would turn out to be unsaleable, the company decided they'd still make a nice item to show in their stores. Things turned out differently. Tandy sold over 250,000 Model I's over the following years, truly starting the home computer era.

The original 'Level I' Model I had a 1.7Mhz Z80, 4K RAM and primitive Basic. But exchanging RAM/ROM with higher-capacity chips quickly made a Level II version with nice Basic and 16K RAM. An Expansion Interface added RAM up to 48K, plus interfaces for disk drives, printers and serial devices, bringing the Model I up to the specs of pretty serious business machines. Alas, it also gave the Model I a reputation for poor engineering - Trash-80 was the connoiseur's pronunciation. The problem was that a ribbon cable carried the microprocessor bus signals, unbuffered, over a flimsy card-edge connector to the extra RAM chips in the EI. That was asking for trouble; or at least, asking for owners to be careful.

It was easy for other home computer owners to laugh at the Model I five years later. And for twice the price, the first Apple II owners indeed got the superior machine. But wait: a 64 columns screen and cheap disk drives quickly spawned a pretty decent operating system and good applications.

TRS-80 Model 1 Computer

The truth of the Model I was much more positive. It offered a fantastic learning experience to owners. They were more or less forced by the machine's imperfections to cut some motherboard traces, add some patch wires in the pursuit of DIY upgrades like lowercase characters, or double-density disk controllers. It is safe to say that your kid would probably learn much more from owning a Trash-80 than from owning an Apple II. And in the process, transform his cheap computer into a pretty compelling platform that may not have color or sound - but run sophisticated business software better than a 1982 Commodore 64 did...

Commodore VIC-20 Home Computer

VIC-20

What can you say about the VIC? Commodore was already a dominant player in the late seventies, but the 1980 VIC-20 was probably the first mass-market home computer - for adventurous early adopters. The previous Commodores, like the PET, had a much smaller audience, but the VIC-20 was the machine that brought computing into the living room - or the kids' bedroom if parents properly understood their geeky offspring. In truth, though, the VIC is rather awful to use thanks to its blurry 22-character screen. Admittedly, that is a huge step up from a 4-digit hex display, but well below the minimum requirements of all but the most determined home users.  ​

Commodore 64C Home Computer
Commodore 64 Home Computer

Commodore 64

The C-64 shows just how much progress the industry made in the two years after the VIC. It was introduced in 1982, but the last C-64 rolled off the production line a full twelve years later. Its hardware is nothing short of impressive for its time: 64K Ram, the VIC-II graphics chip and the SID synthesizer-on-a-chip made this a media center, nothing less.

Well, slightly less. Because Commodore did not have the time (and the great Jack Tramiel probably did not want to spend the money either) to develop decent operating software for the C64, it was stuck with the very poor Basic v2.0 from the VIC-20, and had catastrophically flawed floppy disk drivers in its Kernal.

In 2000 or so, I bought back the type of setup I had in 1983: Old-style C64, 1541 disk drive, C2N tape deck and obviously a KCS Power Cartridge. You absolutely need either a Final Cartridge, Power Cartridge or Jiffy DOS. They transform the C64 by speeding up the disk drive eightfold, and sometimes offer a 6510 monitor to hack around with as well.

New hardware development pushes the C-64 even further. An SD2IEC provides mass storage, and the Commodore Flyer brings the C-64 online in a very sensible manner. Is the C-64 the ultimate home computer? Who can say, it is simply the home computer.​​​

Commodore 128D Home Computer

Commodore 128D

A strange, late arrival on the 8-bit scene. The C128 was three computers in one: it had a C-64 mode, a much more modern but much less used C128 mode all of its own, and an even less-used Z80 coprocessor that offered CP/M. The 128D offered 'professional' looks as well. But it came too late, the Amiga's and Atari ST's were just around the corner. Today, you can look at the C128 in two ways: be intrigued by the amount of nice 8-bit stuff in the box (Z80, 6502/8510, decent 80 column video, lots of RAM) or be annoyed by how it didn't quite come together perfectly (CP/M runs very slow, the few 128-mode applications don't really do the hardware justice). But in the end, this is just a very likeable machine. If progress had stopped in 1985, we'd have done beautiful things on this hardware platform.​

Apple IIe

Back in its day, I was not rich enough to deal with Apple's premium pricing policy. So it took until 2012 before I finally bought my first Apple IIe. And only then realised how good this computer really was, easily spanning the gap between business and home computers. It's not in the Commodore 64 category at all, really.

 

The original Apple II of 1977 was in many ways the first home computer, but at the time, it easily crossed over to also being a business machine. That was thanks to its expansion slots - sorely missing in the Commodores or Ataris. And it was thanks to Visicalc: the first spreadsheet. The Apple got disk drives in 1978, and the non-standard, cheap-but-smart way they are interfaced to the Apple is worth googling on. By 1980, the Apple IIplus was a mixed bag: it had the expansion slots with which the Apple II design could be made up-to-date - but it took an almighty investment to expand it to the level of a then-professional-grade machine. You want lower case letters too? It can be done, but that's not to say it's there out of the box... 

​The Apple IIe was released in 1983. It lacked the refined graphics of the Commodore 64 (it had pretty much the same graphics as the 1977 Apple II, not so hot anymore in 1983). It had no sound hardware other than a little speaker you could bit-bang into playing sounds. But what it lacked in entertainment circuitry, it more than made up for by having the very same 7 hardware expansion slots, fitted with crisp 80-column cards, memory expansion boards, and lots of general goodness supported by a decent operating system (ProDOS).

Apple IIe Computer

It's fair to say that after 1980, the Apple II was a success despite Apple. The company lost its way with the disastrous Apple ///, and the IIe was seen as just a cash cow. The new Apple II ProDOS operating system is the one good thing that came out of Apple's years of development work spent on the Apple ///.

Despite the company's half-hearted backing, the Apple II scene is still vibrant. I recently added the brilliant CFFA 3000, a modern mass storage device that offers virtual floppy disks plus hard disk partitions - and overnight, 20 years too late, the Apple IIe has become my favourite.

It remains hard to judge the Apple II, placed in its time. In 1978, it was way ahead with graphics that did still look OK even half a decade later. It had a genius floppy disk system that was cheap and top notch but was never really updated. So, in 1982, the IIplus was lagging behind the competition in sophistication - but still remained a good choice, because it was such a practical machine. By 1984, the IIe was even more practical but the cost involved in setting up a decently equipped IIe was obscene. I guess that today, it's like driving a classic Jaguar. It may not have been a financially rational buy when new, but you appreciate the pedigree and the quality. ​​

Apple IIe Computer (2)
ZX Spectrum +3 Home Computer
Sinclair ZX Spectrum Home Computer
Sinclair ZX81 Home Computer

Sinclair ZX-81

So - if Apples are the equivalent of Jaguar cars, then Sinclair is the equivalent of the Mini. Sir Clive did the British nation a huge favour by designing his range of cheap-but-cheerful micros. At a time when US microcomputers were unaffordable to many (thanks to exchanges rates at the time, as well as generally lower incomes in Europe), it was Sir Clive who brought computing to the masses in the UK and elsewhere in Europe. The ZX-81 cost 50-70 pounds when it was introduced in 1981and the fact that it was a fully functioning micro containing just four chips makes it an epic design in microcomputing history. It also looked cute, very cute. But switch it on and it offered a pretty spartan environment: 1K of RAM and a 24-character screen plus a membrane keyboard. Nevertheless, this machine offered more value for money than anything else on offer, ever. ​

Sinclair Spectrum

The ZX Spectrum, introduced in 1982, inherited the cuteness of the ZX-81 but also its cheap-is-good-enough design. By 1982, the Commodore 64 set the standard and the Spectrum failed it. Except that the Spectrum was a whole lot cheaper than the C64, of course, and value-for-money wise the Spectrum was hard to beat for some time.

Sinclair offered Microdrives (cute little tape cartridges) as mass storage and the design history of them (worth Googling) epitomises the Sinclair way. Nevertheless, the Spectrum was affordable home computing technology and it educated a generation of Europeans - including those behind the Iron Curtain as the Speccy was widely cloned there.

The ZX Spectrum +3 was the last Spectrum, built under Amstrad's ownership of the Spectrum brand. Although it has a good array of ports (even RS-232 and Centronics), it still feels cheapish. Amstrad, of course, is well-known for its 3" disk fetish and the +3 duly sports a 3" disk drive. I guess I can't only have favourites in my computer collection. Nevertheless, some interesting new hardware development is worth looking at - compact flash storage and updated operating systems mean that - especially - the ZX Spectrum +3 has good hacker potential.

BBC Model B Home Computer

BBC Model B

Built by Acorn Computers of the UK, this wonderful micro won the BBC’s tender for an educational, all-purpose microcomputer. Introduced in late 1981, its specifications were impressive. It also was the exact opposite to the Sinclairs: solid build quality, lots of interfaces, a wonderfully complex-but-elegant electronic design, plus a decent keyboard. And thus, alas, rather expensive to produce. It ended up in practically every British school in the mid 80s, but private buyers were fewer: you had to be well-off or be quite a serious hobbyist to consider the Beeb. But you got value for money. Twice as fast as any other home micro (a 2Mhz 6502!), it also sported an impressive range of interfaces including the Tube, a coprocessor connector. In theory, the Beeb’s expansion options were pretty much unlimited. At the time though, given the cost of things to plug in to all these interfaces, they remained sadly underutilised.

The real charm of this machine lies elsewhere. First, it had four plug-in 16K EPROM sockets, which offered a brilliant way of adding software at a time when disk drives were generally unaffordable. Using bank switching, these eproms were fluently integrated by the Beeb’s operating system - either as ROM drives or as operating system extensions. People quickly discovered how to add 16 banks instead of 4, and how to make them into RAM, ROM or NVRAM. As a consequence, the Beeb is heavily geared towards this type of storage, and it gives the computer a unique feel – it is built around an entirely different concept than the standard paradigm of (MS-DOS, or CP/M) floppy disk operating systems. It was probably the last machine to explore such different concepts… for present-day users, a real rethink is required to ‘get’ the computer, but it works wonderfully well.
The second charm of this machine was BBC Basic. It got immediate recognition for being the best Basic, but it takes practical exposure before you fully realise the full scope of this. It is radical! For one thing, BBC Basic has an assembler fully integrated into it. Yes, you can write a blend of basic and assembly just like that.
The Beeb is a wonderful monument to British ingenuity. Different from anything else, but purposely so. As a vintage computing collectible, it is very desirable. For about 50 pounds, you can add a massive amount of ‘sideways’ RAM/ROM expansion plus a CF card as mass storage. And with that, it provides possibly the best platform to explore top quality vintage software, and a close-to-the machine programming environment. The Beeb, thus, is still an educational marvel – you wonder if the Raspberry Pi can exceed it in educational value...

The Beeb has left a highly significant legacy: Acorn planned a successor machine, and for that, came up with the ARM processor. It was first tested on the venerable Beeb, through the co-processor Tube interface. Fast forward to 2013, and it is this processor's great-grandchild that powers the smartphone device in your pocket.

 

Epilogue

This page does not do justice to all the home micros around. The Atari 800 was way ahead of the VIC-20 (but also way ahead in what it did to your bank account). And dozens of lesser-known but innovative machines vied for market share, but generally did their owners a disfavour: out of the mainstream, good software quickly became scarce and no matter how nice the hardware, it's useless without software. Keep in mind, this comment is not about the existence of good software, but about the availability of it. Availability, most of the time, meant making illegal copies from friends nearby. Obscure machines did have one advantage: you had to write your own software because you didn't have any friends to swap disks with... Thus, owners of 'minority machines' tended to learn more, play less. Some of these machines are really missing from my collection. Notably, the Tandy Color Computer 3. Its 6809 was by far the best 8-bit microprocessor; its OS/9 operating system the most powerful OS on any 8-bit machine. But around the time of the CoCo3's introduction, in 1986, the closing bell had rung for 8-bit home computers. The arrival of cheap 68000 machines changed the world almost overnight.

Philips NMS-8255 MSX Computer

Philips NMS-5255

American home computers were pretty much the market leaders, with Sinclair and a smattering of smaller European firms taking dominant positions in specific markets. Needless to say, the Japanese consumer electronics firms were not best pleased with that state of affairs. In their home market, they had very interesting machines - but these generally did not even reach other markets. They did what everyone has done since MITS wanted Basic for its machine in 1975: like Apple (AppleSoft Basic), like Commodore (what did you think their Basic was built on?), like most everyone else, they called Microsoft. People may think Microsoft rose to prominence with MS-DOS, but that's a bad mistake!

Anyway, the Japanese set up a consortium, Philips of the Netherlands joined, and together they licensed not only Microsoft Basic, but in fact a whole underlying operating system - MSX DOS - which was remarkably compatible with CP/M. The first generation of MSX home computers competed with the Commodore-64, mostly unsuccessful. But later models, like the Philips 5255, were impressive machines: Z80, 128K RAM, 2 720K floppy disks, 80 column colour video.

In some markets, these later MSX machines took the role of the Apple II in the US: serious user base, expanding a competent machine to something that crossed over into business computing. But these MSX-2 machines arrived at the scene too late. The Gringo's were now selling 68000-type machines... Still, the MSX scene is very much alive to this day. I upgraded my 5255 with a SD/MMC reader built by Spanish MSX hero Leonardo Padial Ortiz to get mass storage and virtual floppy drives. Especially in Holland, 5255's are dime-a-dozen and the best value for money in Z80 computing.

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Recommended:

Gigatron - the computer without a microprocessor!