atomic_fungus (atomic_fungus) wrote,

The Good Old Days--load"blog",8,1

I was reading some stuff on-line about computers and was reminded how far the computer industry has advanced since I got my first computer.

The same as many folks my age, my first computer was a Commodore 64. At $200 in 1983 it was a hell of a buy; the Atari computers averaged about twice that, and the Apple ][+ was never less than about a thousand dollars.

When the C-64 first came out, it cost $600. Well, in January of 1983 that was already a bargain, especially for a computer which came with 64k (that's kilobytes for the younger readers) of RAM and a full-color display. It could use a television as a monitor, or you could buy a composite monitor from just about anyone. But the real attention-getter was the floppy drive.

In 1983, floppy drive mechanisms were not cheap. The floppy drive for the Apple ][+ cost $600, and the computer was virtually unusuable without one--99.997% of all Apple ][+ software came on floppy, at least in the US. The drives for the Atari computers ran around $400 or so, as I recall.

Commodore had already been making a floppy drive, the C-1540, for their earlier computers (including their Vic-20--more on that in a moment) so they didn't have to do much to make a floppy drive available for the C-64. They made a few minor changes to the firmware, changed the color of the case, and incremented the model number to C-1541. The drive debuted selling around $400, as I recall.

The Vic-20 donated its case and keyboard to the C-64, although--again--the colors were changed; and because of these similarities, a lot of the other tooling could be reset without major changes for production of the C-64. Prices on the C-64 and C-1541 dropped precipitously. I got my C-64 in the summer of 1983; and at that time, both computer and floppy drive could be had for $200 each.

In 1983 that was simply unprecedented: a fully-functional color computer with 64k of RAM and a floppy drive, for $400. There were other computers out there which were cheaper; but they skimped on RAM, typically only displayed black-and-white, and you used a cantankerous cassette tape deck to load and save programs and data.

The C-64 was a fairly powerful machine. First, the machine actually had a full 64k of RAM. The processor was a Motorola 6510, a version of their 6502 processor--which both the Atari computers, and the Apple ][+ used--and like the other 6502-based computers, its CPU ran at the blistering clock speed of 500 kilohertz (half a megahertz). It could only address 64k of memory, total, including RAM and ROM. The C-64 had 64k of physical RAM in it, and it had something like 24k of ROM; so the C-64 had the ability to bank-switch its memory. If you didn't need the C-64's ROM routines, the entire 64K of memory space was wide open for you.

Contrast that with the Apple ][, which came with 32k, was typically configured with 48k, and which lost some of that memory to AppleDOS.

The C-64 had a bunch of video game features, too--movable graphic blocks called sprites, which were easily programmable. Once you defined a sprite, you could put it anywhere on the screen you wanted to, and the hardware would worry about drawing the actual image. And of course the C-64 had the SID chip.

SID was a three-voice sound synthesizer. It was highly programmable, and it could even be used to modulate sounds from an external source; at a time when you had to buy a special sound card for your IBM PC or Apple ][, the C-64 came with one already installed, from the factory.

The C-64 had several different ports and slots that were of varying utility; there was a 300-baud modem available; the computer had ports for standard Atari-type game controllers. The Commodore serial port was used to interface the computer with its floppy drive (more on THAT in a moment) and other devices, like printers. The computer had a cartridge slot which could also be used for external expansion.

The Commodore serial port was versatile. By 1985 I had an Epson RX-80 printer connected to my C-64 using a "Centronics Adapter". The parallel port which has come to be known by an IEEE designation originated with a company called Centronics, and it was adopted by IBM (which renamed it the "IBM port" of course). The Centronics parallel port was extremely versatile. Rather than send data serially--one bit at a time--it sent an entire byte in one go, using eight data lines rather than one. But it also had a direction select line which allowed the thing to act as a bidirectional port. In other words, the thing could be used to interface all sorts of devices, not just printers!

But since the C-64's port was serial, a special adapter had to be used to convert the serial data stream into something the parallel printer could understand...and that "Centronics adapter" was it. It plugged into the back of the disk drive, and had another wire which plugged into the modem port--for power--and otherwise it was nearly invisible to me.

The C-1541 disk drive, however, was SLOW.

It wasn't the serial port's fault. It could handle the data. It was the drive firmware that was the problem. The C-1541 was just a slow floppy drive.

Most computers in the day had "dumb" floppy drives--the floppy controller was inside the computer, on an expansion card, and a ribbon cable carried instructions and data to and from the CPU. The C-1541, however, was a "smart" peripheral: it had its own CPU and memory...and it was possible to program that on-board computer with different software if one was technically savvy enough.

So, a couple of different companies came out with software which would speed up the floppy drive for the C-64, making it faster. As I recall you could even buy a PROM chip with the faster software already on them, so it would be faster from the moment you switched it on.

So, by June of 1983, you could buy a fully-featured and useful computer for $400, plus tax. The $200 price point resulted in an explosion of C-64 sales. Plenty of people bought the things. (But a lot of those computers ended up in closets; and for a while in the 1990s you could expect to find one if you went to a few garage sales.)

Commodore seriously underestimated demand for the floppy drives. There was a waiting list for them. As I recall, I ended up waiting a month for mine...and at that, I was lucky, as the shortage extended well past Christmas of that year.

These days, now, I look back and smile. The C-64 was a great computer for its time. But now I can run a program on this computer which emulates a C-64 in real time, right down to the sounds.

The things I can do with this computer would have boggled my mind in 1983. For one thing, the Internet had not yet been invented by Al Gore. snicker That is, the Internet was still the domain of the universities, the military, and the defense industry. The number of average computer users who even bothered with going on-line used bulletin board systems (BBSes) like Compuserve, BIX, and others, including a myriad of private BBSes. (AOL didn't exist yet.) Compuserve charged by the hour, and it wasn't cheap; the notion of unlimited access to an entire network of computers with free content was just unheard of.

In 1983 the standard for the audio CD was just being finalized, so of course the ability to produce an optical disk, made to order, whenever I want, would have seemed like black say nothing of the fact that I can also burn DVDs with this thing. (I knew recordable video disks of some kind were coming, some day, though.)

In an age when 1200-baud modems were fast and expensive, my broadband connection--downloading at an incredible 1.5 Mbps--would have made my head spin. It used to take hours just to download a 30k bitmap; the Web, as we know it now, would simply be impossible without fast modems and/or broadband.

But 23 years is about 12-18 "Moore generations". I don't really have a hard time accepting the notion that this computer is 4,000 times more powerful than my C-64 was. My old C-1541 floppy drive could store about 150k worth of programs and data. The floppy drive in this computer can store ten times that, and I don't use it because the capacity is too small. I use CD-Rs which store 650 MB, or DVD-Rs which store 4.7 GB.

This computer has 1,000 times the memory of my old C-64 on its video card, and at that it's obsolete. This computer has about fifteen thousand times the RAM that the C-64 had; and my on-line storage is about 160 GB at the moment. The clock speed of this computer is 2,000 times higher than it was in the C-64, and the CPU swallows data four bytes at a time rather than one, for an effective throughput some 8,000 times greater than the C-64 was capable of. These are numbers which would have staggered me back then.

And this computer is five years old. For about what my C-64 cost in 1983--in terms of the number of dollars, not the actual "adjusted-for-inflation" cost!--I can buy a computer which is much faster than this one is. Adjusted for inflation, though, that computer becomes ludicrously cheap: that $500 computer is, in 1983 dollars, $263. ($400 in 1983 dollars is $758 these days.)


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