Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The 8-bit Home Computer Bait and Switch

Back in the early 1980s, home video game consoles and home computers were competing for consumer dollars.  Home computers, Commodore's in particular were advertising that they could do so many more things than just play games, which they could do very well.  Dad could do the home finances, mom could keep her recipes, and the kids can learn with educational programs and write out their reports on a word processing program.  Thus the consumer saw home computers on retail shelves.  The most consumer friendly in terms of features and price included at first the Atari 400 and (barely) 800, the Commodore VIC-20 and 64, the TI 99/4A and the Tandy Color Computer.  Apple's expensive computers were mainstays of the hobbyists, educators and some small businesses, while IBM's even more expensive computers were almost exclusively purchased by business users and software development companies.

Even home consoles began getting into the act.  The Odyssey2 had a full set of keyboard keys.  The keyboard was a membrane keyboard and utterly useless for serious work.  The Intellivision and Colecovision and 5200 had numberpads.  Mattel developed two keyboard peripherals but failed to market them properly.  Mattel also released the underpowered Aquarius computer, which had little success.  The 2600 gave some lip service to programming by releasing a pair of programming controllers and a BASIC carrtridge.  The results were unimpressive due to the severe limitations of the 2600 hardware.  Coleco also released the Adam computer, which was a Colecovision upgraded with a keyboard and cassette drives.  It was not a success.

Unfortunately, the idea never of the all-in-one computing device quite meshed with the reality.  All of these systems were designed to display on home TVs.  None had an 80-column text mode, making it difficult for people to do serious word processing.  All IBM PCs had 80 column text and Apple's machines either had it built-in or was upgradeable.  The keyboards on many of these machines were far from typewriter quality, and none had a built-in numberpad.

Once the novelty of typing a book report wore off, little Johnny probably went back to handwriting them.  It must have been no joy to have to type a report on these mushy keyboards connected, via an RF switch, to a fuzzy TV.  As this took time, his work would probably have been relegated to the small secondary TV if the family had one.  Back in the early 80s, having two color TVs in an average American family was something of a luxury, so he would have to do his work on the smaller B&W TV.  Often this would occur on the kitchen table or on a small desk not designed for a computer.  Printing the thing in quality sufficiently legible for the teacher would often be a slow, noisy and frustrating effort with the dot matrix printers of the day.  If he got a disk read error or the power went out, his draft report would be gone in an instant!  Did I mention the slow speeds of the disk drives and tape drives available for the 8-bit machines?

Business software of any quality was slow to be released on these machines.  VisiCalc and WordStar were seldom seen.  RAM expansions beyond 48 or 64K was unsupported due to the lack of a standardized method   IBM's PCs could expand themselves naturally to 640KB, and once Lotus 1-2-3 became popular this became very important.  The Apple IIe could officially expand itself to 128K and unofficially (but simply) could enjoy much more RAM.

One great advantage that many of these computers had over IBM and Apple were in their graphics and sound capabilities.  Apple's graphics were born of the 70s and IBM's CGA didn't impress anyone. The Atari machines could produce 256 colors, and Commodore and Texas Instruments computers produced sixteen solid and distinct colors.  For arcade-like games, these machines also supported hardware sprites.  With these 8-bit CPUs, having hardware sprites really improved performance in games with moving objects on the screen compared with the more business oriented computers.

Another advantage was that these machines had sound chips built in.  The sounds of the arcades, including background noise, sound effects and short themes could be reproduced much better than the internal speaker of the IBM and Apple machines.  Lengthy music in computer games only became widespread in the late 80s, but music teaching and composing programs like Music Construction Set and Bank Street Music Writer were very popular.

Finally, these machines usually shared some peripheral compatibility.  The joysticks of the Atari 2600 worked in all Atari machines and in Commodore's VIC-20 and 64 and the TI 99/4A.  Except for the CoCo, which used analog joysticks, joysticks were a well-supported and easy to program for interface.  IBM and Apple did not release standard joysticks for most of their systems, and they were analog when most games released at that time preferred digital controls.

Even if the promise of the computer as a the universal appliance remained elusive, the more affordable computers were great for playing games.  Companies like Activision survived the home video game crash by turning their development efforts from video game consoles to computer systems.  Electronic Arts fully embraced the Atari 8-bit machines and later the Commodore 64 and were very successful.  Most companies had ports for most of their games for the Apple II, Atari 8-bit, Commodore 64, IBM PC, and later the Atari ST, Commodore Amiga and the Apple Macintosh.  In the United States, however, by the late 1980s all the game developers knew that the IBM would be the future and devoted their development efforts firmly or solely on that platform.


Raifield said...

The Atari 800XL had (I think) five different keyboards during the product's manufacturing life. The worst of the lot is a very spongy, barely tactile mush, but the best is fairly decent, pretty close to typing on a modern "soft" keyboard. Granted, the IBM Model F and Model M are far, far superior, but as you said, it was the lack of 80-column typing that really did the 8-bit systems in.

The Commodore 128 almost made it, but not quite. A sentence that pretty much describes Commodore altogether.

Juan Castro said...

Slight addendum: The Texas TI-99/4A used a very powerful 16-bit microprocessor, but the machine design was so insanely convoluted it had the performance of an 8-bit one. For one thing, it had only 256 bytes (!!!) of true RAM, the other 16KB being controlled by the video chip and only accessible to the CPU through a narrow straw.

And even so, it is a wonderfully fun machine to use, experiment and play with.

Juan Castro said...

Another thing: would you mind if I translated the entire text of this article into Portuguese and put it on our blog? (With credit and link back, of course.)

Great Hierophant said...

The same could be said of IBM's PC, which used an 8088 processor. The 8088 is 16-bit internally but uses an 8-bit wide data bus, giving performance closer to the other 8-bit systems of the time, especially with the simple graphics adapters available.

Great Hierophant said...

Sure, good luck.

Juan Castro said...

Online: http://www.retrocomputaria.com.br/plus/?p=6550

(For great fun, translate it into English with Google!)

Lisias said...

That's the funny part. :-)

The TI99 was REALLY a 16 bits computer inside the box. The 16/8 bits multiplexing was necessary only to hit the expansion bus.

But... The computer was designed to had that PEB as a necessary complement to "serious computing", and the main RAM was supposed to be found there. This should not be a problem because originally an 8 bit processador was intended to be used, but the time to market window was closing and TI decided to use a Mini Computer CPU they already had around.

That's the reason of the weird (by current standards) design: that little metal box is a Mini Computer shrinked down.

Great Hierophant said...

The comments to this article as translated on the Portuguese site points out one thing I completely overlooked, using these computers to learn about programming and game/application design.

Many game, application and OS designers across the world cut their teeth on these devices without ever having touched a mainframe or minicomputer. Learning BASIC was seen as something of a gateway to computer literacy, even if people today are considered computer literate if they can install and operate computer programs. Every 8-bit computer had a BASIC supplied with the system, and some versions were really primitive.

The BASIC interpreters of the time were generally sufficient for light text work and games, but serious graphics work required the use of a more powerful and faster language such as Pascal, Fortran, or Assembly language. Learning how to program in an advanced language and compile a program in it tended to separate the dabblers from the truly dedicated.

Anonymous said...

Atari 2600 joysticks will not work in the TI-99/4a without an adapter. The port was the same but it was wired differently.