Vintage tech: Looking back at the Commodore 64

Vintage tech: Looking back at the Commodore 64

News this week that the Commodore 64 is turning 30 makes us feel old. Really old. So what was so special about it?

[It's the 30th anniversary of the Commodore 64 this week - news that has made more than a few of us here in the PC & Tech Authority office feel their age. In memory of the machine, we decided to repost this story below, first published in February 2010.]

What made the Commodore 64 so special? It wasn't Commodore's first machine, but for many a child of the 1980s, the Commodore 64 still holds a special place in their hearts

Just look at it. Is that not a thing of design beauty? Well, OK, no, not much.It's brown and... brown. Or in some later revisions, more grey and... grey.

It's a very 1980s style computer design, however, which is exactly what Commodore wanted and needed in the competitive market of the early to mid-1980s. The Commodore 64 was priced aggressively (for its time) and was a true mass-market computer well into the era where a computer in every home was a novelty idea, not a near reality.

By any measure, a wildly successful machine: the Commodore 64
The Commodore 64: the 64K limit led to wonderfully optimised game code. (Picture credit: Bill Bertram)

Key stats:
It's not terribly fast: The MOS 6510 processor at the heart of the Commodore 64 only just clocked in at over 1.02MHz, and that was only the NTSC version. The Australian PAL C64 did everything it had to do at a sedate (by today's standards) 0.985Mhz. To give that some perspective, the current crop of processors in, say, a slow plodding netbook tend to clock in one thousand six hundred times faster.

The sound chip was (and is) a revelation
The C64 may have been built and sold as cheaply as possible, but not every corner was one that was cut. Arguably the most enduring part of the Commodore 64's hardware design was the much loved SID sound chip, a sound synthesiser that not only started the digital composing career of folks such as Rob Hubbard but endured well past the sales life of the C64 into the music demo and mashup scenes of today.

Ask anyone who owned a C64 what you really needed for the C64 and the answer was invariably "patience". Tape loading software (whether a word processor or BC Bill) was a lengthy and often fraught with disaster affair. Or you could (as many did) just pop in the International Soccer cartridge into the back of the C64 for the millionth time.

The 1541 disk drive helped speed load times up a significant amount, but under-supply and the cheap nature of tapes meant that plenty of C64 software still sold on tape.

You can identify yourself as a true child of the 1980s if you can quickly (and without checking) remember how to turn the 170kb single sided floppies into double sided ones. Answer at the bottom for those who don't know.*

Why was it relevant?
Because by any significant measure, it was wildly successful. Only the Apple II sold in similar (but never quite as many) quantities, and the C64 was a lot less expensive to buy.

It's also where a lot of programmers and sound designers cut their teeth in early programming, and especially in optimising code. When you've only got 64K to play with, you make every bit count. This led to some wonderfully optimised code, and stellar games such as Wizball, The Last Ninja, Summer Games and International Karate, as well as some hopelessly optimistic releases that were never likely to be very good -- such as Street Fighter II.

What's it worth?
eBay listings for C64s tend to go for between $50-$200, depending on the condition of the machine and whether you want bundled games and critically the box and instructions.

If you're an iPhone owner, an officially licensed Commodore 64 emulator is available for $5.99, with game packs made available for purchase on a regular basis. Other emulators exist for PC, Mac and Linux platforms, although the legality of software on those is dubious at best.

The C64 lives on, on your iPhone (Picture credit: Alex Kidman)
The C64 lives on, on your iPhone (Picture credit: Alex Kidman)

* Single sided floppies for the C64 (and indeed many 5.25" disk systems of the day) could have their capacity doubled with application of a hole punch to the disk. No, we're not kidding. Who said hacking had to be software only?

Read our short histories of these other classic systems:

The VIC-20

The Apple II

The Atari 400

The ZX Spectrum

The Amstrad CPC

The Nintendo Entertainment System



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