Saturday, May 20, 2023


The perception of the Commodore Plus/4 computer is of an aberration that was dead upon arrival in 1984, putting off software developers by being incompatible with the more capable and cheaper Commodore 64, being saddled with built-in productivity programs that were not useful enough, and having graphics capabilities that were not fully utilised by games developers for decades. It became our family’s first computer, but was swiftly replaced by the more widely-supported Acorn Electron [link].


The Plus/4 had been conceived as part of an effort to fill two gaps in Commodore’s product range: low-cost computers mainly used for gaming, like Sinclair’s ZX81 and ZX Spectrum, and business-oriented machines. Commodore did have the VIC-20 to represent the former category, but used more integrated circuit chips than the Sinclair computers, and the more seriously-minded PET had already been withdrawn in 1982. To that end, one chip would be designed to reduce costs by handling video, sound and keyboard input, along with memory refresh and interval timing. 


The MOS Technology 7360/8360 was known as the “Text Editing Device”, shortened to TED, and while its it could produce multiple graphic modes and up to 121 colours, outstripping most 8-bit machines, hardware sprite capability was left out as it was not required for running forty-column text-based business programs, and only two channels of square-wave sound were provided for the same reason – this was still one channel more than the initial ZX Spectrum, and two more than the ZX81, and sprites could still be generated for games using software.


To that end, the Commodore 116 would be the entry-level model with 16K RAM and a $49 price, followed by the business-oriented 264, with 64K RAM and a $100 price, and a larger 364 that would have an extra numeric keypad and a voice synthesiser. The 264 and 364 had ROM sockets that would be filled by chips containing programs you specified at purchase, which gave me the impression that, with the low cost of the machine, you could retain a number of them for different purposes, like one containing an advanced word processor, or another as a software development kit, swapping them out as needed.


Having a separate ecosystem was almost commonplace in 1984 – Commodore’s PET, VIC-20 and 64 were incompatible with each other, and Tandy’s various TRS-80 ranges, including the Colour Computers and Model 100 pocket-sized machines, were all distinct. However, they all had the support of the manufacturers behind them, but the TED-based machines did not have this. With Commodore’s founder Jack Tramiel leaving the company ahead of its going on sale, the computers were left to the company’s marketing department to package and sell the machines. At the same time, the business computer market was to be taken over by the growing number of IBM-compatible PCs, built using off-the-shelf parts and operating systems, mostly compatible with each other through competing with one system.


The 364 never appeared, and the 116 was produced in small numbers, and sold mostly in Europe, its place taken by the Commodore 16, using a Commodore 64 case and keyboard and selling at twice the price. The 264 was renamed the “Plus/4” to indicate the filling of its two vacant chip sockets with a built-in, cut-down word processor, spreadsheet, database and paint program – while a cassette data recorder was made for it and the Commodore 16, the Plus/4 could only save work from its built-in programs to a disc drive. The Plus/4 sold for $299, more than the Commodore 64, and was gone after a couple of years.


I wish we kept hold of our Plus/4, but we did not know the new games that would be made for it in the decades since by its dedicated following, but it wasn’t there when it was needed. Commodore experienced the same issue with the Amiga 1000 the following year, but the potential for that 16-bit computer was, thankfully, realised far more quickly.

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