Computers that changes everything

The computers that changed everything

The 80s were the renaissance era for the computer industry, and we were the artists! Whether you were a teen, and adult, or going through a midlife crisis, if you lived through the 80s, you know what a special time that was. I won't bore you with The Bangles and Duran Duran, the weird hair styles, fluo baggy pants, and all the other stuff we idolized. This is about the computers of the time, and why they were so magical. While obsolete, and sometimes forgotten, there was a time where these home computers were the cream of the crop, and made you feel like you were commanding the Apollo 11. Many of these computers set trends and defined what would follow. But more important, they defined many of us, and set direction to our life and careers. Take a look, and discover why many of us still feel captivated, and can't wake up from the 8-bit dream.

Sinclair ZX81
and Timex Sinclair 1000

Thank you, Sir Clive Sinclair. You brought home computers to a good portion of planet earth at a very affordable price. you will never be forgotten. Without you my life would have been different.
The Sinclair ZX81 was a home computer introduced in 1981 by Sinclair Research Ltd, following the ZX80. It was one of the first home computers to be widely available at a low cost (meaning $100.00-$150.00, so really low), and it was aimed at budget-conscious consumers, hobbyists, and really anyone who wanted to take a peek at personal computers, without having to sell a kidney. The ZX81 was very compact, square-looking and lightweight, with a simple membrane keyboard (truly horrible, but no one cared, you had a computer) and limited capabilities when compared to other home computers of the time. It had only 2KB of memory and could only display monochrome square-looking low-res graphics (yes, those characters that you see on the keyboard made the "ultra hi-def" graphics). Horrible indeed, but once again, you had a computer. Despite its limitations, the Sinclair ZX81 was very extremely popular, and achieve a real critical mass of users. The ZX81 was also known as the Timex Sinclair 1000 (US), and CZ 1000 (Latin America), Microdigital TK81 (Brasil), and many other cousins around the world. There were also many unlicensed clones. Different accessories were made for it, and with some patience, you could do a few cool things (cool meaning displaying low res moving graphics on the screen). There was also a decent library of games. It also had a loyal number of followers, who still reminiscence about it.
It was later discontinued and followed by the Sinclair ZX48 Spectrum. Today, the Sinclair ZX81 is remember with affection, and not because of its capabilities, but because it opened our minds to home computing.
Still in love with it? Learn more here. 

Learn More about the ZX81

Commodore 64

As the writing of this article, in 2023, there is still software being written for the C64 (by enthusiasts). There are competitions for game design, and most are focus on pushing the limits of the C64. You may also here, every so often, that someone figure out a clever PEEK/POKE memory address trick that does something unusual. In fact, that was the magic of the C64; it ended up being so much more capable than what it was originally thought. This was all the result of the ingenuity of enthusiast and developers coming up with all kinds clever coding and smart ways to deal with memory limitations, display graphics effects, and produce sounds; all beyond the documented specs. Perhaps we owe "crowdsourcing" to the C64. It was really a time of sharing and cooperation. You would buy books and shared info on local C64 get-togethers about programming techniques and tricks. All kinds of events and activities took place to help the C64 grow into the best-selling computer of all times.
Commodore released the C64 in 1982 and quickly became a hit, and eventually a cultural icon of the 1980s. The Commodore 64 was quickly known for its wide range of software, from games to education and some simple business applications. BBSSs services and the C64 were so symbiotic, and they really took home computing to the next level. It was truly a turning point in home computing.
The Commodore 64 was widely sold across the world, with estimates putting its total number of units at around 17 million. With fans in every corner of the planet, the Commodore 64 is considered one of the biggest classics of home computing.
Prices could go pretty high today, if you find one in good working condition. Take a trip to your local thrift store today!
See more about the C64 here. 

Learn More about the C64

Tandy TRS-80

The idea that at some point in time Radio Shack was a cool place to buy electronics is difficult to process for many today. And the idea that Radio Shack made computers is even more difficult to assimilate for those born after the year 2000. But they did, and they came up with the TRS-80, which was quite refined for the time.
The TRS-80, also known as the Tandy Radio Shack TRS-80, was one of the first mass-marketed personal computers. Most likely, you would have gone to the Radio Shack store (albeit other retailers had it), and you really wanted to get it from Radio Shack itself, almost like going to the Apple store today. Let's make it clear, going to the Radio Shack store back then was like going to an amusement park. They had all kinds of gadgets, toys, audio, video, and of course computers. More fun than Apple store for sure.
Let's get back on track. The TRS-80 was introduced in 1977 by Tandy Corporation, a subsidiary of Radio Shack, and became one of the best-selling computers of its time. The TRS-80 was aimed at the home market and was known for its affordability and ease of use, which made it accessible to a wider audience. When you look at it, it was very nicely packaged (see images), and Radio Shack had all kinds of peripherals to hook up to it. If you set it up right, this looked like a personal computer that would sit in an office or a research lab.
There were many models produced. The original design was built around the popular Z80 processor (same as the Sinclair ZX81 and many computers of the time) and had a rudimentary version of the BASIC programming language, but good enough for anyone to write and run their own programs (making it interesting to many who wanted to dive into programming).
Radio Shack built a significant number of accessories and peripherals around the TRS-80, which really enhanced its capabilities. Monitors, cassette tape decks, disk drives, modems, voice synthesizer, and printers, plenty of printers were available from Radio Shack. While the initial target was home computing, the TRS-80 proved it could be used in small business settings and was lightly adopted in the corporate world. It was also used in schools, and for simple home productivity tasks, and was often credited with contributing with the popularization of home computers and helping to establish the personal computer market. Meaning, it could have been Apple; honestly it could, it had a very reputable name. there was plenty of support, and the machine was technically capable.
There was, however something about it. Actually, there was something missing; in other words, there was nothing really special about it. It was good. And that is it. It was not a C64, with flashy graphics, it was not an inexpensive Spectrum, it just did not have anything magical. Basically, it was a nice computer, but you could not fall in love with it; it was dull. Dull as any other appliance you had a home. It was missing that special sauce.
So, that's it for the TRS80, in the end it was not that exciting. And to be honest, Radio Shack did not play their cards well either, from a business perspective. The rest, you already know. Sad.
Wanna know more about the TRS-80? Follow this link.

Learn More about the TRS80

Amstrad CPC-464

I will just start this review by saying this computer is as good as it looks, and it looks freaking awesome! That keyboard and cassette deck rocks!
If you were in the US in the 80s, you probably did not hear about the Amstrad CPC-464. You were probably too busy with your Commodore 64, or maybe a PC or MAC. But in Europe, Amstrad was a big deal.
It is quite unfair to say that it was designed to compete against the C64 or the Spectrum, as it was usually presented. It was built to be a great personal computer on its own, and it could have been the C64 of its time, it was just a matter of timing (more than anything), geography and luck.
In all honesty, the CPC 464 was way better than the Commodore 64 and Commodore 128. If indeed, it was built to compete against those two, it would have won without a doubt. First, it looked great; way better on the C64 and the C128. It was an all in-one-computer where the keyboard, which was pretty good, and the cassette tape deck were in one piece. It also came with a monitor (monochrome or color). You'll get all this for under £199.00 (UK). Yes. This was the best deal around. And it's not all just about looks. The CPC 464 running a Z80 at 4MHz, and could display 80 columns, had a max resolution of 640 by 200 resolution and a maximum of 27 colors (obviously you could not run all these at the max at the same time). Sound was also great with three separate audio channels. Plenty of software too.
And now you may be scratching your head… you thought the Commodore 64 was the best thing ever. Well, I am pretty sure that if you did not know the Amstrad CPC-464 you were wondering why included it in this article. And now you know.
Amstrad came up with many models after the CPC-464. All of them were great, with improved capabilities, graphics, sound memory, better storage devices and they could run CP/M. the Amstrad CPC line was way ahead of its competition and gave you a lot of bang for the buck.
Wanna know more about the CPC-464? Follow this link.

Learn More about the CPC646

Sinclair ZX Spectrum
and Timex Sinclair 2068

If the US had the Commodore 64, Europe had the Spectrum. Although a little unfair to say so because the C64 is the best-selling computer ever. Still, this little black rectangular shaped computer was a big hit!
The Spectrum had big shoes to fill. Its predecessor, the ZX81 (above), was an incredible success. The Spectrum is one of the best "PART IIs" ever. It was introduced in 1982 by Sinclair Research Ltd. While technically it was not that advanced (identical CPU to the ZX81, but clocked faster), it was the ideal successor of the ZX81. It was affordable and offered what everyone who had a ZX81 wanted: color and sound, plus some extra memory. It success was not only guaranteed when released, it was also instantaneous. The Spectrum was the natural path to follow for all ZX81 users, who by the time, were a loyal cult. Price wise, there was no real competition. No one could offer anything even similar for the price. This made it extremely popular worldwide.
The Spectrum was great just out of the box, but I still have not addressed the best part. Home computers were "happening". This was not a fad. The market was more mature. Everywhere you look there was a fan club or a local group meeting to discuss new software and hardware. Enthusiasts and hobbyist were excited and spent endless hours looking at technical manuals and thinking about what’s next. At the same time, many small businesses were formed to supply the much desire new accessories and peripherals for the Spectrum. Many publications in the form of books and magazines were available describing technical details and the latest trends. Overall, there was a thriving community, which did not exist just a few years before. And all this created an endless assortment of peripherals and software. And soon your Spectrum has not alone anymore.
There was so much stuff you could connect to it. Take a look at all its peripherals here!

Learn More about the ZX Spectrum

Commodore Amiga 500

The one statement you will hear repeatedly about the Amiga is that is was way ahead of its time. I remember the faces of my friends, who had PCs and MACs, or still were running the C64s, when the saw what my Amiga 500, with the 512Kb upgrade (for a total of 1Mb), could do. If the Tandy TRS80 did not have any magic, this one had all of it. Sadly, Commodore was the most miss-managed company in the world, and the Amiga died, and with that, all my teenage dreams.
So, let's talk about it. The Amiga family, developed by Commodore, was born with the A1000, released in 1985. When launched, it was unprecedented. It became immediately known for its advanced multimedia, video, graphics, and sound, and was used for a variety of purposes, including gaming, video and audio production, and graphic design. It was equally good at all these things. Yes, there were other computers and tech that could do the same, but not at the same price. Then the Amiga 500 came in 1987, and you could do pretty much all this for $699 (launch). It was really the best way to follow up to the success of the C64. The Amiga was known for its custom chips, which enabled it to perform graphics, sound, and animation tasks far (meaning really far) beyond the capabilities of its competitors. The entire Amiga line was also popular among hobbyists, sound engineers, animators, artists, gamers, and developers, who wrote a large number of software applications and games for the platform. And the Amiga 500 was used in many professional environments, for real stuff. It was a machine that went way beyond the title of home computer.
Sadly, the Amiga died due to poor business decisions from Commodore. It took years for other computers to catch up to what the Amiga could do. Years, as in a decade, many would say. It has remained a cult classic among retro computing enthusiasts. Today, you can find clubs with members who proudly display their machines. Further, there is home-made hardware and a few commercially made accessories that you can still buy today. The Amiga will never die, especially in my heart.
Want some more? Follow this link!

Learn More about the Amiga 500


When you realized that IBM, the company that was constantly being accused of creating monopolies and controlling markets, introduced a computer that was made from off-the-shelf components, and the OS and software were all made by third parties, you may think, they were not that evil after all. Of course, they were not planning on having the half the planet copy their design and architecture.
When the IBM PC XT was introduced in 1983 it made a statement. The statement was directed to corporate America. It said: Buy me now, or fall behind forever. Clearly, the IBM PC XT was aimed at business users and was designed to be used as a general-purpose personal computer for office productivity, data processing, and other business-related tasks. This was not intended to be a home or gaming computer. Little they knew they were laying the foundation for the most popular computer platform in the world. The IBM PC XT success could be attributed to many factors including its expandability, and the unlimited number of peripherals you could connect via its very friendly and open architecture (once again IBM made this computer with off the shelf components, and with the idea of expandability). Furthermore, plenty of software applications were available, and a real solid software industry developed around it, creating what would eventually become today's PC standard.
The PC XT architecture prevailed, with clones developing and evolving fast. Eventually IBM faded, and Dell, Compaq, HP, Micron, and a large number of PC manufacturers came into play. While IBM eventually left the PC market, it defined an entire computer architecture, which still lives today: The PC is the dominant personal computer platform in the world. Needless to say, the whole gaming industry is also dominated by PCs. I thought I would never say this, but thank you IBM (although this was not your intention, you made a great contribution). 


Apple Macintosh

No need to say much here. Two dominant architectures exists in the world today: Mac and PC. They both evolved, and you can say that there is not much left of the original Mac technology or the (IBM) PC, but the name. Still, Apple is the same company, and they survived many storms. Steve Jobs was around for a good portion of all that, and while you may love him, or hate him, it was always his vision. When you think about it, Apple is the only company mentioned in this article that still exists, at least as a personal computer manufacturer.

So, what's the story? After the Apple II and its incredible success, the folks at Cupertino needed a sequel to follow. Steve Jobs had a few projects running in the background, but none of them were real commercially successes (lots of upgraded version of the Apple II and the Apple Lisa). And then, the Mac came by. In a way, the recipe was the same as in the Apple II: Make a very friendly package that could appeal a very wide audience. No new technology, but what he was selling was very neatly presented. It was not meant to compete against PCs. It was just going to be the next home computer for everybody. And it was, mainly because it looked like an approachable piece of electronics.
Initially it did not have a niche, a focus. It looked great, worked fine, and did everything a computer was supposed to do. But the software was not there, and there was no real justification for it. Eventually, Apple’s implementation of their graphical user interface (GUI) with a mouse, made it attractive to educators and graphic designers. It later became the choice of all artists, who perceived themselves as computer illiterate, and needed an easy computer. In the end it became known as a computer easy enough anyone could use it, as opposed to PCs. Yes, I know: There were other computers that could do the same, and probably better. But once again Apple knew how to market, and to be honest the Apple Mac looked great. I just want to change the subject for a moment and say that McDonalds burgers are not the best either, but the sell the most! Just a thought. 

MSX Computers

And here we have something that is a little different. This is not actually a computer, but an architecture, even better: a standard; that was being pushed by Microsoft and the ASCII Corp (a Japanese company closely associated with Microsoft and MS-BASIC distribution in Japan). So just to get you the right historical context remember that PC's were booming in the 80s. While IBM developed the original PC, clones were popping up in every corner, and Microsoft was the one who was really profiting from this, by selling MS-DOS to everyone. Meaning, they were the first ones to really capitalize on the PC standard. So basically, they decided that they wanted to come up with a home computer standard, and license it.
MSX, Microsoft eXtended, should have taken over the entire market. It was designed on an open architecture with off the shelf components, except for a custom-made Microsoft engine chip, think of it as a BIOS. Graphics, video, and sound capabilities were not exceptional but actually comparable to the Commodore 64 and other computers of the time. It was announced in Japan, where most licensing agreements were made. Promotion was also quite heavy in Asia. At the time of launch Microsoft and ASCII had multiple manufacturers signed up, some of which were top brands: Canon, Yamaha, Toshiba, Casio, Sony, Mitsubishi, Sanyo, etc.
The computer was successful in Asia, many countries in Europe and Latin America. It was also adopted in some of the Middle east and Eastern European countries. All manufacturers were coming up with quality peripherals, so options for expansion were endless and good, in particular when you realize that these Japanese companies had money and know-how to produce.
But somehow it never catchup in the US; marketing was limited. It seems like Microsoft though it would catch up just like the clones did, but the Commodore 64 was getting all the attention back then. In the end, PCs would dominate, but there was no market for MS home computers. In a way, regardless of the MSX success, or failure, Microsoft always wins. 

JVC and Sony

Apple II

Thank you Steve Wozniak. You are wonderful human being.
It's up for debate, but the Apple II may have influenced the industry more than the iPhone. Yes, I know that there are more iPhones in the world than Apple IIs. But just think about it: While it was not the most advance computer of the time, it made computers a household item. It was because of the Apple II that computers were made into consumer electronics. The Apple II was not the first home computer, nor the best. But it was presented to the world in a very friendly package, and it announced itself as something anyone could have. And unlike the TRS80, it was exciting.
So, on with the history. The Apple II, which followed the first Apple, was really a series of home computers, introduced in 1977. It was one of the first successful mass-produced computers and help in defining the term "home computer". The Apple II was known for its user-friendly design, which made it easier to use than other computers of the time, and for its expandability, which allowed users to add peripherals and software applications as their needs evolved. You just needed to open the hood and hook up components, of which there were plenty. It was the definition of modular, and expandable, and this was key to its success. The Apple II was used for a wide variety of purposes, including education, gaming, and some home productivity. Apple strategically captured the educational market, with Apple IIs in many schools in the US. Over the course of its production, which lasted until 1993 (that would be 16 years), several models of the Apple II were released, including the Apple II+, the Apple IIc, the Apple IIe, etc.
I could safely say today that in the US there are plenty of Apple IIs sitting in garages and collecting dust next to old magazines, appliances, tools, etc. 

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