The world around the Commodore 64

The Commodore 64 was simply incredible. It pushed limits, and defined what a home computer could do in the 80s; all at a very low price. It was a technological wonder, and captured the imagination, and hearts of an entire generation. Short of a cultural icon, the C64 cemented the role of home and personal computers in the US and many parts of the world.
As good as it was, let's be honest: The C64 peripherals that Commodore produced were somewhat terrible. Most seemed half baked products that were rushed. The companion 1541 drive was slow and unreliable, the datasette was a simple tape deck with no speaker, printers were clunky, light pens had the precision of a demolition mallet, power supplies caused interference and overheated, and... I could go on and on. I guess joysticks were OK, which was essential to Commodore's success. Luckily, software, in particular games, were just awesome.
Even while all these peripherals were so mediocre, we were infatuated with this machine, its graphics and sound. Nostalgia is all that is left today. Let's explore the world around the C64.

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Fast Load cartridges

This was an industry on its own. I dare to say there may have been more fast load cartridges than C64s. I double down that by saying that the total sales of fast load cartridges could match the GDP of some small countries...
The market was flooded with fast load cartridges and one of the first solid brand to established itself as a leader was the Epyx with the Epyx 64 Fastload Cartridge. Most cartridges operated the same way. They were designed to increase the speed at which software loaded from disk. The C64 disk controller, in combination with the 1541 drive were incredibly slow. Fastload cartridges solved this problem by providing a menu system and commands that allowed users to quickly load programs and games from disk. Fastload cartridges quickly became must-have accessories. At the same time, these cartridges basically destroyed any ambitions that the 1571 disk drive could have had being the preferred upgrade for C64 users.
From a technical perspective, Fastload cartridges worked by bypassing the Commodore 64's built-in disk drive controller and using a custom "high-speed" interface to read data from disk. The cartridge contained its own microcontroller, RAM, and interface hardware that provided a faster way to access disk data than the standard disk drive interface. When a Fastload cartridge was plugged into the Commodore 64, you would use a slighlty different set of commands. These commands would redirect disk I/O requests to its own interface hardware. This allowed the Fastload cartridge to read and write data from disk at a faster rate. For example, a “LOAD” would read 1 byte into a small cache, and then move it to memory, as opposed to 1 bit, the rate of the C64 disk drive controller, significantly reducing the amount of time it took to load programs and games. Plus, some error correction was eliminated (who cares? Right?). The Fastload cartridge also provided a menu system that allowed users to select programs and games from disk without having to enter commands (like load "*",8,1). This made it easier and more convenient to use disk-based software, especially for users who were not happy typing the C64's disk drive commands. Eventually some of these commands were presented as pull-down menus. As newer generations came along, Fastload cartridge also included RAM buffer, cache and logic were optimized, further reducing the time it took to load programs and games.
Other incarnations of fast load cartridges included screen capture, memory capture and anything that you could snapshot and place into RAM for later use. Some contain a reset button, that would simply restart the computer, as oppose to turning it off and on.
As mentioned earlier, fastload cartridges, with low prices, made future drives (i.e.: 1571) less attractive.

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Freeze Machine

Commodore 1541 Disk Drive, and all the other drives

The Commodore 1541 was one of the most popular accessories of the C64, at least in the US and Europe. In other countries the datasette or simple cassette tape decks were preferred due to their lower price. It used the popular 5 1/4-inch floppy disks and could store about 170 kilobytes of data (per side; more on this later).
In principle, the 1541 was a big deal because some other computers of the time used cassette tapes to load and save data and programs. The combination of tape decks, magnetic tapes and the mechanics of the decks and cassettes were a recipe for disaster. Obviously, the 1541 was faster than loading from tape, and provided random access. However, as a disk drive the 1541 was just terrible. It was awfully slow compared to any other disk drive, clunky, unreliable, and limited in every sense a disk drive could be. It suffered from all kinds of issues, including overheating, head miss-alignments, and weird power supply magnetic interference. Just to make it more painful, the 1541 was a single sided drive, and you would actually flip diskettes to use the opposite side. To make things even more painful, the disk controller on the C64 did not make it any favors: it read data at snail-pace. It seemed like while commodore put plenty of effort on its C64, it ran out of energy (or time) to develop a proper drive and controller. It was not until the 1571 that things got better. In the meantime, third parties came up with alternative solutions, such as the fast load cartridges.
In terms of design, the 1541 had a unique look with its beige color, little red and green LEDs, making it instantly recognizable. It was large and heavy, and if this is not enough you could recognize it by some of the noises it produced when loading or saving data. But again, who cares, we had a C64!

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Commodore 1530 Datasette, and other cassette data recorders

The Commodore Datasette was nothing more than a tape deck (no speaker) that used audio cassettes to store and read data. And, when I say nothing more, I mean it; you could connect a tape deck to your Commodore 64. And you would do this with an inexpensive cable that you could get pretty much anywhere.
Using the datasette was a bit different from using a floppy disk drive, like the 1541. In addition to starting the load sequence of a program or data file by executing a command, you will add the extra step of making sure your tape is in the right place, and you will need to hit play (or record) at the right moment to either load or save data. It was a bit more cumbersome than using a floppy disk, but remember, it was also a lot cheaper.
Since you could use any cassette deck, the datasette faced "competition" on day 1. Basically why bother with a datasette when you could either buy a small tape deck, with a speaker, and a radio, for almost the same price... or just simply use any cheap cassette deck you may have sitting at home.
The important aspect of all this, is that Commodore 64 could interface with a tape deck or datasette which helped in making computing accessible to a wider range of people by lowering the overall entry price of the basic system.

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Commodore 1571 disk drive, and other more advanced drives.

The Commodore 1571 was a floppy disk drive that was released in the mid-1980s as an upgrade to the original Commodore 1541 floppy drive. In fact, the 1541 should have never existed, and the 1571 should have been the natural companion of the C64. But when you have a hot product like the commodore 64, you can get away with something like the 1541.
The 1571 was designed to work with the Commodore 64 and the Commodore 128 home computers and offered some improvements over the 1541, such as faster data transfer speeds and the ability to read and write both single-sided and double-sided floppy disks. More important, it did not suffer from reliability issues as the 1541.
In terms of appearance, the 1571 was slightly more compact and had a more streamlined design. In fact, it looked significantly more modern and stylish than the 1541. Despite these improvements, the 1571 was not as popular as the 1541. This was not because the 1541 was good, but for two other reasons. First, there were number of third-party drives that were better options, faster, and more reliable. Second, the market was flooded with the "fast load" cartridges that improved the performance of the 1541 and offer many other functionalities for a very low cost. The problem that the 1571 was meant to solve, was already partially solved, by a fraction of the cost of the 1571.
Compared to the original 1541, the 1571 was faster, more reliable, had better disk handling capabilities, and the built-in Disk Operating System was improved. By then commodore clean up its act with drives, and other Commodore drives came to the market that offered the similar capabilities as the 1571.

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Commodore 64 light pen and other sad attempts to draw on the C64

If you could pick one device for its "wow factor", this is the one. Light pens were inexpensive, and when the average (computer illiterate) human saw them in use, their jaws would drop. They were not precise, and to be honest not very useful. For the C64, particularly useless, considering no one was designing anything (except the girl in the photo). But still, the first time you saw them, they were out of a science fiction movie.
So, the Commodore Light Pen, like other light pens of the time, was just a pen-shaped device that users could point at the screen to interact with programs and games. It allowed users to draw (somewhat) and create graphics, play games, and interact with educational programs in a different and unique way. Certainly, it was an innovative device for its time, although the technology existed for ever (think about Nintendo duck hunt). While it was not the most popular accessory, the simple idea that you could have one made the C64 package more attractive.
In general Light Pens, were not very widely adopted. And, for those poor souls that did buy then, the excitement lasted just a few days, maybe hours. Light pens were also limited in terms of their compatibility with software, as much of the light pen software was designed to use their own light pens. Furthermore, most general software had no support for light pens.
It terms of technology, there was nothing new here. the Light Pen worked by detecting light from the computer screen and using that information to determine the position of the pen on the screen. This allowed users to draw, select options, and control games and other applications in a way that was similar to using a mouse. Most computers of the time had some implementation of a light pen. version. Precision-wise, it gets “zero stars” out of 5. It was just terrible. So, you could point and identify things, but there is no way you could use it to draw (except this girl, of course. I'm telling you right now, she did not draw that house). Other devices around the time came out, such as graphic tablets. Once again, they were nice, but not refined sufficiently. And there was little software available to do anything useful.

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Light Pen


The Commodore 64 was fantastic, mainly because of it video, graphics and sound capabilities. Everyone says so. But it had limitations. Apparently, some people were not aware of these limitations. Cheers to them! The most common reaction when someone sees GEOS running for the first time on a C64 is: “How is it even possible?" Indeed, with 64K, this was an amazing feat!
If you see GEOS today, you will think it is a joke; or the Fisher-Price version of MS Windows for 2-year-olds. It's primitive and basic. Back then, it was a marvel. And, if it would have been released earlier, say at the time the C64 was released; and maybe as a package with the C64 and a mouse, this could have changed destiny: today's Mac, would be GEOS machine.
So, on to it now: If you are one of those very optimistic people that watched "War Games" at the time and thought you would use a Commodore 64 to hack the NORAD, or the CIA, and start a nuclear war, you also probably bought GEOS for the Commodore 64 thinking you could do productive work. Don't get me wrong. It was great, but it was quite limited. The Commodore 64 was not meant to run a GUI, at least with 64K. Just think about the memory consumed by the graphics display and the code. Plus, you have the programs to run on top of that. I give credit to the developers. In a parallel universe, this could have killed the Mac, perhaps even Windows?

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The world of printing on a C64

The problem here was not really the printer: if you bought a Commodore 64 with any expectations of doing anything that could be considered business or professional printing, you were either high on some 80's "happy" mushroom, or recently had a lobotomy performed by B.A. Baracus (A-team fictional character). This was not the system to do graphic design, photo editing, or even word processing. With 64K, there was not way to produce software that would make this machine do anything that would be printable. The Commodore 64 was good for one thing: gaming. Anything else, you needed another machine.
The Commodore 802 and 803 were as good as any other dot matrix printer of the time: moderately priced, somewhat reliable, and cheap on a "per-page" basis, (no ink cartridges back then). They probably work fine most of the time, or at least we think they worked fined; just consider that most people only used it a few times before giving up on their ambitions of publishing a book or writing the local community newspaper. In the end, at most, a few devoted souls ended up printing invitations to their 5-year old's birthday parties, and perhaps a "Lost Puppy" sign.
The 802/3 used a standard 9-pin dot matrix printhead. In that sense, it was a step up from the earlier printers, with slightly faster print speeds and improved graphics capabilities. But it was nothing special. On its external design and looks, they were ahead of Apple on being minimalistic with the interface; they just put one button: "Paper Advance". Anything else you could possibly need to do, good luck. Once again here, the problem was not necessarily the printer.
To keep things interesting, for those who really wanted to print, you could improve on graphics printing capabilities, fonts, and even have a print buffer, by adding external printer interfaces. Once again this was the 80s, and things were not that straight forward.

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Commodore REU, and many other memory expansion modules.

Well. Here we have something that was built with the best intentions. The Commodore REU, or RAM Expansion Unit, allowed Commodore 64 and Commodore 128 users to upgrade memory to 256K and 512K, which made it possible to run larger and more complex programs, such as GEOS. There were a few variations of this device, including the 1700 and the 1750. They required external power to run.
There was one problem though. There were not a lot of programs requiring more than 64K to run; and having the extra memory did not necessarily improve performance. Developers packed all the functionality to run in 64K. Remember the larger part of the user-base for the C64 were playing games.
Productivity software was the exception. But there were very few users that chose the C64 as a business machine. So here you ended up with a chicken and egg problem. Unless a killer app requiring more memory would come along, one being so desirable that would make the C64 user-base buy the REU en-mass, there were not enough REU out there to justify the cost of making the software that used more memory. In addition, this memory modules did not do much in terms of improving video, graphics, or sound; there was not much use for them. Another point against these is that C64 users were already quite used to load games in parts, from diskettes, as opposed to load everything to memory once; so 64K seemed OK.
The exception here was GEOS, and it could certainly have benefited from these.

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RAM expansion

Commodore 80-Column Card Module

There was a family of peripherals for the Commodore 64 that increased text resolution, and made it look like a IBM PC XT, or other fancy PC of the time. 80-column cards contained memory and hardware that enabled the Commodore 64 to display 80 characters per line, rather than the standard 40 characters.
Now, you still had the same resolution pixel-wise. And most users connected the C64 to a TV via RF. Basically, what I am trying to say here is that this peripheral was very likely responsible for lots of headaches. Actual headaches, like the ones you need to take Tylenol or Motrin to remediate. You cannot look at 80-column text on an old CRT television. You just can't. You will need a lobotomy soon after (go find B. A. Baracus).
Also, the same comment applies here as for the printers and memory expansion modules just before: you really wanted to do some business / professional work on a C64? And the big question was which software would be compatible and take advantage of 80 columns?

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ZX Spectrum

C64 Hard Drives

The C64 was announced in 1982 and soon after it was available for sale worldwide. When you look at most of the promotional material, through its life, the C64 would be displayed with its companion drive, the 1541, or datasette is some countries, and a TV or monitor. Some game or application would be running on the screen, usually with a lot of color and graphics. The selling point: its video and sound capabilities. At the time, no one was thinking about a hard drive. In fact, when you look at the official Commodore 64 catalogs there is no mention of a hard drive. In my research I did find limited evidence of Commodore re-purposing the C9060 drive for the C64, but it was seldom advertised and potentially sold for a very limited time for the C64. The 9060 was a 5Mb SCSI hard disk that require an adaptor to be connected to the C64. By the time Commodore was able to repurpose, certify and build the adaptor the drive for the C64, it was a little bit too late, and some other more capable competitors were available.
But again, it seems like no one was initially thinking about an HD for the C64.It was just meant to be a fun, games machine. Commodore was not as ambitious as they should have been.
The story would have been different if the C64 was packaged with a RAM expansion kit, an HD, mouse, and GEOS. But then you would have bought a different computer all together.
The other question to ask is: Was there and OS to drive these drives?

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Hard Drive Advantage

Voice Samplers and Synthesizers

It is not that difficult to explain the fascination that people had with light pens, voice samplers, sound synthesizers and video capturing devices. In a way, these were the early steps towards multimedia computing. On the Commodore 64, sampling was mediocre at best. It was the same for all the computers of the era. There is so much you can do with a 6502 processor and 64K of memory, so any sample will sound robotic at best. Wisely enough, the companies selling these devices realized there was something else you could do with these devices: If you did not need to play back, then you could just sample at a very low rate and keep the sound wave for later comparison. Now you have a voice recognition device that can take orders and execute code (if the sound wave matches). And you were clever enough to pick the right samples, and have a little bit of imagination, you could pretend that your C64 understood what you were saying. The C64 was an early AI!
On the other hand, voice synthesizers were a popular trinket of the time. You could have them into flavors: some that just playback prerecorded words, and other that will actually generate phonetic sounds. Quality on these was directly proportional to the amount of memory and playback rate that they offered. If you really wanted to experience the future, and have Siri, and Alexa at home 40 years early, you could have hooked up your Commodore 64 to a relay switch, take voice commands from you sampler, respond with a synthesized voice, and activate the relay switch to… turn on the light, maybe?

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ZX Printer

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