Atari 800 vs. Commodore 64 – The Brief Tale of Two 8-Bit Home Computers

The platforms would battle for dominance of the early 1980s North American home computer market, but there would be only one clear victor.

The Commodore 64, introduced at the 1982 Winter Consumer Electronics Show, was a significant improvement on the VIC-20, and would become the best-selling computer model of all time.

In early 1981, Commodore-subsidiary MOS Technology began work on graphics and sound chips for a next-generation video-game console called the Ultimax, thinking that was where the company’s future lay. However, after the chips were completed, several Commodore engineers disagreed with the project’s direction, insisting that the company should instead develop a successor to the VIC-20, Commodore’s low-cost computer, not a console.

Commodore CEO Jack Tramiel opted to go ahead with both projects, however he insisted the computer come with 64 kilobytes of RAM in order to make business applications more practical than they were on the memory-starved VIC-20. The new project was dubbed the VIC-40 but renamed the C64 in time for CES

The Commodore 64’s 40-column screen was much easier to read than the VIC-20’s. The VIC-II chip supported 320×200 monochrome and 160×200 multi-colour video modes, 16 colours and could manage 8 24×21 (or 12×21 colour) pixel sprites, – independent graphics objects – and detect collisions between them. The SID (Sound Interface Device) audio chip featured three oscillators that could choose from four different waveforms (sawtooth, pulse, triangle and noise.) It also had a hardware frequency filter and ADSR (attack, delay, sustain, release) volume envelopes and was very advanced for its time. The addition of 64 kilobytes of RAM also made more sophisticated, memory-intensive programs such as word processors and spreadsheets possible.   

The Commodore 64’s retail price was set at US$595, which was a substantial savings over other computer models available at the time. Commodore could afford to undercut its competitors as it was its own supplier for many of the 64’s components – MOS Technology manufactured the microchips as well as designing them –including the 6510 CPU (central processing unit). Because of this, it only cost Commodore an estimated US$135 to manufacture a 64.

Even at such a low price sales of the 64 were initially slow. Software publishers were not given any advanced access to the computer, and without backward compatibility with the VIC-20, the 64’s software catalogue was quite minimal. However, by mid-1983 a large quantity of software titles began to appear, and that, combined with a cut in the 64’s retail price to just US$300, caused the public to embrace it with gusto.

These sales were helped by Commodore’s arrangements with department and discount stores such as KMart, who sold the 64 through their electronics departments, a non-traditional sales channel for computers at that time. This put it in competition with contemporary video-game consoles which were largely technologically inferior, and the potential for productivity applications made the 64 an attractive choice for parents, especially after the 1983 video-game crash.

In fact, Commodore offered a $100 rebate to anyone who traded in a rival computer or video-game system, arguably contributing to the circumstances that led to the crash, and cementing home computers as the successors to video-game consoles until the late 1980s, when Nintendo would take back the crown. In the meantime the 64 would sell two million units for each of the years 1983 to 1986.

The Commodore 64 would get a facelift in 1986 with the 64C, a repackaging that brought its exterior design in line with its successor, the Commodore 128. In total, there were over ten million Commodore 64’s sold, outselling every other 8-bit competitor.

Commodore’s colourful founder and CEO Jack Tramiel was born in Poland and was sent to Auschwitz after the Germans invaded. He escaped execution after being selected to work in a labour camp, and was liberated by American soldiers in 1945. In 1947, he emigrated to the United States, and joined the army, where he learned how to repair office equipment including typewritersIn 1953 Tramiel worked as a taxi driver in order to buy a machine shop in the Bronx (New York) and open a typewriter repair business. He named it Commodore Portable Typewriter, a reference to his military history. 

Video-game maker Atari entered the home computer market in 1979, introducing two models at that year’s Consumer Electronics Show — the Atari 400 and the 800.

Originally conceived as a successor-console to the Atari 2600 (also known as the VCS), engineers began working on the project just after the VCS was released in late 1977. They developed an updated design that featured much-improved speed, graphics and sound. However, home computers were gaining in popularity, and then-Atari CEO Ray Kassar felt that Atari could easily compete against Apple in that market. Kassar directed the project to switch focus.

Atari management identified two potential ways the new product could be positioned: as a low-end entry-level game-console, and as a high-end home computer for business applications. In the end, they decided to go both ways: the Atari 400 with 8KB of memory and a “membrane” keyboard similar to the Odyssey2, and the 800, which could be expanded to 48K, had two cartridge slots, support for a colour monitor and a full typewriter-style keyboard. The 400 would be marketed as a children’s computer, and the 800 toward older students and parents.

Stringent FCC rules surrounding the emission of television signals in the late 1970s meant that in order to plug into a TV, the new computers had to be built like tanks, with a cast-aluminium shield surrounding the internal circuitry. Other computers had avoided this by requiring the use of external RF modulators or dedicated monitors, but Atari wanted “plug-and-play” simplicity for the end consumer, and monitor connectivity to be a selling point of the 800. This meant that they couldn’t have any part of the computer’s circuitry “exposed” outside the case, and so Atari had to develop a single connector through which peripherals – such as disk drives, modems and printers – could be “chained” together.

Atari wanted to ship Microsoft BASIC on an 8KB cartridge, but couldn’t make it fit, so they contracted Shepardson Microsystems (who created the DOS for the Apple II) who also couldn’t make it fit! Instead, they created a whole new BASIC specifically for Atari. This BASIC has a few quirks, such as that every string (a series of text characters) is an array, thus making working with actual arrays of strings a messy affair.

Although announced in early 1979, the 400 and 800 would not begin shipping until November that year, largely missing the Christmas shopping season. They were expensive to make and made little money for Atari, who would later redesign them as the cheaper-to-build XL series after the FCC relaxed its stringent radio-frequency emission rules, and Commodore emerged as a competitor.

The Commodore 64  originally started out its life in development  as a video-game console called the Ultimax. Once Commodore decided to “split” the project into two, development of the console arm continued as the Commodore Max Machine. A lower-budget “hybrid” console, the Max Machine was similar to the Atari 400 in that it had cost-reduced features such as a membrane keyboard and a much smaller amount of memory than the 64.

Launched in Japan in early 1982, Commodore promoted an upcoming North American release of the Max Machine – but it never happened, with Commodore, concerned by poor Japanese sales, deciding instead to keep the VIC-20 as its low-cost offering, and restrict the enhanced features provided by its new chips to the Commodore 64. Rest in peace, Max Machine, we hardly knew ye!

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