by Ian Matthews of Commodore.ca June 10 2003 – Revised January 13, 2008
On this page:
- Commodore 264 Family History
- Commodore 264 Family Manuals & Magazine Articles
- Commodore 264 Family Chronology
- Commodore 264 Family Photo Gallery
Commodore 264 History:
On January 13th 1984, just two days before his resignation as Commodore Business Machines‘ president, Jack Tramiel posed for photographers at the Consumer Electronics Show. He proudly displayed the latest Commodore home computers in his hands: the Commodore 264 and 364.
As with almost everything at Commodore, development of this new concept machine with very limited specifications had been ordered by Jack Tramiel himself. However, as the development cycle came to fruition it was clear that the engineers had developed a more powerful 64K computer that was right for the small office / home office market. Only the hobbled Commodore C16 / 116 (which received limited release) was what Jack had originally requested.
The 264 series were very interesting concept machines; they were to be customized much like new cars are today (2003):
…”The key area we’re emphasizing in software for the Commodore 264 is productivity, covering such areas as household management, word processing, calculation, business accounting and education,” said Sig Hartmann, president of Commodore Software…
…The machine is truly a more business-oriented computer with its optional built-in “integrating” software and “screen window” capability. Imagine working with a word processor and data base or electronic spread sheet simultaneously on the screen. This allows writing on the word processor while viewing data from the data base or spread sheet (i.e., addresses, recipes, dates to remember, inventory control data, financial analysis data, etc.).
With “integrating” software, data can be exchanged from one program to the other. Data from the data base or spread sheet easily can be inserted into a document on the word processor.
“The Commodore 264 is the first personal computer offering a selection of productivity software built into the machine,” said Hartmann. “In other words, by choosing a Commodore 264 with a particular software package built i, you can tailor the computer to your own needs.
“If you use your computer to do mostly word processing, you can buy the Commodore 264 ith professional word processing built in. If you need financial calculation, you can have a built-in electronic spreadsheet . . . plus . . . you can use standard software on cartridge, disk, or tape.”
The optional built-in software for the Commodore 264 also will be available on plug-in cartridge. For example, if the machine is purchased with a word processor built in and the owner later decides to purchase the electronic spread sheet, the spread sheet can be purchased on an add-on cartridge…
Compute! June 1984 – Click HERE for the complete text
In 1983, a new hire named Bil Herd was given the task of completing the project. During a 2003 interview with www.commodore.ca Bill detailed the wacky process in which he became the project manager. “TED as explained to me was to cost $49 and go up against Timex/Sinclair” (which sold for nearly $100 in 1983.) I started in the middle of the 116’s phase of the TED development, there was a design but no PCB’s, no chips yet. When I showed up they had me slated to work for Benny Pruden doing disk drive software but he was out that first week. I had wondered off to the hardware lab and had been exchanging information with the guy in charge of the TED who was about to leave, and by the time Benny got back I was more or less in charge of the TED project.”Herd said “In the days of $299 C64 this sounded like a good idea, and we didn’t want to be compatible, at some level of rationalization, with C64 as this WAS a different, uber-cheap little (machine)”
The Evolution of the MAX Machine?
When you talk to Commodore people about the MAX Machine, they think, stripped down Japanese C64 with bad keyboard. However, Michael Tomczyk, former assistant to Jack Tramiel (and self described product manager) still has (in 2004) an early MAX Machine prototype. You will be surprised at the specifications; “It was a small black machine that was going to revolutionize the home computing field. I had identified the four basic killer apps for home computing: word-processing, spreadsheets, database management, and graphics. All four apps were built into the HARDWARE of the MAX, along with a terrific 256 word speaking vocabulary (I researched and selected the words myself). We also planned to fix any bugs and provide software updates on a plug-in cartridge, a very elegant way to do upgrades that addressed the problem of having the software apps on chips in the motherboard.” Click HERE to go to our prototype page for more information.
The 264 line is now frequently referred to as the TED series because it used MOS’s interesting new 7360 “Text EDitor” or “TED” chip. Designed in 1983 by MOS Technologies Dave Diorio, the 7501 / 8501 CPU was a modified and much faster version of the MOS 6502 from 1976. It ran at 1.76Mhz while earlier MOS 6502 derivatives used the PET, VIC-20 and C64 ran at just less than 1Mhz. The difference between the 7501 and 8501 was they way they were produced but there is no performance or functionality changes.
Like the VIC-I chip used in the VIC-20, TED was both a graphics and sound chip:
While the TED could genuinely produce more colours the Commodore 64, importantly, it did not support Sprite graphics which was one of the things that made the C64 so wonderful to work with. It was capable of displaying 40×25 characters of text, 320×200 pixels of graphics, in 128 colours (including 8 shades of gray) by displaying 16 colors each with 8 luminance settings.
On the audio side, it had two tone oscillators which produced two voices. The 7360 gave you the option to hear “two tones”, or “one tone + one noise”.
The 264 family had seemingly needless hardware complexities. On the plus side, Commodore 64 drives and printers were compatible because 264’s also used Commodores IEC Serial Bus. Monitor and RF Modulator TV connectors were also the same on both products. Further, Commodore 1531 ‘datasets’ originally designed for the VIC-20 and common to the C64 would connect to these new machines with the aid of an adaptor.
Commodore completed design and started a small production run of 1551 floppy drives which transmitted data four times as fast as a notoriously slow Commodore 1541 floppy. Its speed came from being connected to the Expansion Port rather than the more traditional Serial Port.
On the negative side, Commodore produced only one joystick that would function on a 264. The cartridge slot was brand new so C64 cartridges could not be inserted and because of the series very low sales volumes of 264’s, there were only four cartridges ever produced for the 264 series.
Commodore / Microsoft Basic 3.5 was a much improved version over its Basic 2.0 predecessor used in Commodore 64’s. I am all but certain Commodore never released (even on prototype / demo machines) Basic 3.0 which has always puzzled me. Perhaps they wanted to indicate that 3.5 was just a little bit less than the Basic 4.0 being used in much more expensive Commodore PET / CBM-II machines of the day.
Basic 3.5 came with 50 extra commands including such crazy features as disk instructions like DSAVE, DLOAD. A user could actually gain peripheral access using common sense syntax rather than the near hieroglyphics required on a 64. Graphics commands like, CIRCLE and BOX made it much easier for developers to create on screen images without extensive use of memory PEEKs and POKEs. Basic 3.5 was truly a major improvement.
None of the 264 line (116, 232, 264, 364) actually shipped with the custom software option that Commodore had promised. Instead the Plus/4 was born when the 264 design was married to a ROM containing TRI-Micro’s “3 Plus 1” integrated software. The original 232, 264 and 364 prototypes were abandoned in landfills like so many other Commodore development machines. “3 Plus 1” meant:
a Word Processor
a Spread Sheet
a Data-Base, and
a Graphing program
all in one easy to access package. This software was installed on a ROM chip and the programs could be started by simply pressing one of four buttons located just above the main keyboard. Integrated software allowed for “Windowing”, in which you could basically Copy and Paste (very limited) amounts of data between programs. I have played with it extensively and thought it was pretty damn cool for its time.
Commodore had to remove some of the original 3+1 features to make the program fit into a 32K ROM but Tri-Micro offered diskette-based upgrade called “Plus/Extra” which re-added features like double / triple-line spacing and print preview.
The idea was fantastic: putting what is today (2003) considered to be core software onto a ROM was almost revolutionary in 1984. The ability to load frequently used programs almost instantly at the simple touch of a button must have seemed very attractive on paper. The problem was quality.
The word processor would only handle an embarrassingly small 99 lines of text! The Graphing program was quite limited and really only useful as an extension of the Spread Sheet. The database or “File Manager” as Commodore promoted it, was slow and not useful for much more than recipes. But most problematic was the overall quality of the software code; it was terribly unstable and just not ‘ready for prime time’.
There were many different TED, Plus/4, 264 Models to choose from:
The Retail Environment The c16, 116 and Plus/4 were sold through department stores, just like its predecessors. Because these products were competing for floor space with the massively successful Commodore 64, they did not receive the same scale distribution scale.
What Went Wrong?
In the end, the 264 family became a shining symbol of Commodore’s mismanagement after Jacks exit. These products were ill-conceived, half engineered, hyped, officially announced and then plowed into landfills. One thing Commodore did well with the “TED” series was to colour them black, so they were correctly dressed for their own funerals. All of that being said, there were five primary factors working against these machines:
Very Poor Timing: They 64 was unexpectedly selling faster than Commodore could make them. This lead to two serious problems:
Commodore management was not keen to rock the boat and introduce what might end up being competition for its star C64 even if they were in theory targeted at different markets;
Commodore had no unused physical capacity to build the machines. Irving Gould said “…the 264, this new microcomputer is planned to be introduced in a year and time when our capacity permits both a continuing increase in Commodore 64 production as well as large-scale production of the 264”Compute June 1984 . Commodore had a strict rule about maintaining their vertical integration so contracting out more capacity would not have even been discussed.
The hodge podge of peripherals used on the 264 was needless confusing as described in the hardware section above. Many believe that Commodore was simply trying to squeeze customers into buying new devices.
The rapidly increasing amount of software for the C64 would not function on a 264 because they used slightly different processors with different memory addressing schemes. Only the most simple software coded in BASIC would function on both systems.
Reduction in Power:
Relative to the then hugely popular Commodore 64, the 264 family did not support Sprite Graphics and only supported two voice sound. The C16, 116 and 232 models had just 16K and 32K of memory respectively. These machines were excellent upgrades for the 5K VIC-20 but the VIC had been discontinued for a reason.
Because Commodore waffled on how to handle custom software ROM’s precious ‘time to market’ was extended and dealers became frustrated. “…The fact the 264 can be purchased in different configurations is another sore spot with market analysts. They believe this feature will force retailers to stock various versions of the system, overloading their inventories. It is unknown how Commodore will handle this problem…” Compute June 1984. In the end Commodore resolved the problem by not offering custom software ROMs at all. The Plus/4 was produced with TRI-Micro’s 3 PLUS 1 ROMs only and C16 / 116 had nothing!
Although this would not be known to new consumers in 1984/5, the 264 series frequently had problems with its TED video / audio chip and sometimes the MOS 7501 CPU. If your machine does not boot, one of these two chips is likely the cause. Unfortunately there are precious few spare parts and most people simply scavenge chips from other 264 series machines.
I have yet to find a single review of the 116 keyboard that states it was anything better than abysmal to use. Apparently it was exceptionally soft and almost impossible to “touch type” on. To make matters worse, very early models did not even have a SHIFT LOCK key.
To top all this off, TRI-Micro’s 3 Plus 1 software is best described as barely stable.
Commodore 264 Plus/4 Summary
In 2005 Bil Herd told Commodore.ca, “After Jack left the layers of middle management had their way, from the God awful software, to the price, to even making it talk. (It was a real pleasure to meet the guys who did the TI Speak and Spell which was truly revolutionary in those days, I had a lot of respect for them and got along well). So I guess the TED project was badly engineered as stated on your site, but I can say the engineering itself was good”
Most observers, believe that 264 machines (not the 116’s) performed above average for their day. However they did fail in the marketplace and if that failure has to be attributed to a single factor, it was the lack of software compatibility with the Commodore 64. Commodore stated that in excess of 90% of C64 software could be easily ported to the 264, but why would developers put in that effort for a computer with such poor sales and why would consumers want to buy their C64 applications again?
Given the option of a Plus/4 and a C64, which would you buy?
Commodore 264 Plus/4 Magazine Articles
- Commodore 264 364 Early Review from 1984 TPUG Transactor
- Commodore 264 364 Announcement
- Commodore Plus/4 Quick Overview Page 1 2 3
- Commodore Plus/4 and C16: Disappointingly Mediocre
Commodore 264 Plus/4 Manuals
- Commodore Basic 3.5 Manual (not on this site)
- Commodore Plus/4 Troubleshooting (applies to c16 116 and others)
- Commodore 264 Expansion Ports
- Commodore 16 & Plus 4 Memory Maps Page 1 2 3
- Commodore Plus4, C16, B Series, 1541 & 8050 Bits Page 1 2
- Commodore IEC Serial Manual (not on this site)
Commodore 264 Plus/4 Videos
|Plus/4, 128 & Prototypes by Bil Hurd & Dave Haynie||Interview||2005||36:00||12MB||9MB||54MB|
|Commodore Plus/4 Sold at Toys-R-Us||TV||1985||0:27||.4MB||.3MB||.8MB|
Commodore 264 Family Chronology
January 13th – Commodore shows off prototype 264 and 364 at CES and indicates they should be in production by June
January – Rumors of the cheaper 16K model abound at CES but no product is shown
April – Irving Gould says that the C64 line is taking most of Commodore’s capacity and that the 264 line will not be produced until in can be done in volume
June – Commodore announces and shows off the Commodore 16 at the summer CES as “The Learning Machine”
June – Commodore announces the 264 will be renamed PLUS/4 and will ship exclusively with Tri-Micro’s “3 Plus 1” integrated software package
December – The 16K version called the Commodore 116 is for sale (at least in Germany) and had been apparently designed in Japan as a hacked down 264 rather than a built up C16, the year previous.
September – Plus/4 was in full liquidation were selling for a mere $79.
In its short life Commodore had manufactured approximately 400,000 Plus/4’s, of which only about 150,000 were sold in the United States. Presuming half as many in Canada and Mexico, leaves about 175,000 or so sold in Europe and Australia.
( http://www.stormpages.com/plus4/tm/trimicro.htm )
Commodore 264 Plus/4 Photo Gallery
NOTE: Commodore.ca would like to thank Bil Herd, [email protected], [email protected], [email protected] and [email protected]. all which were very helpful in providing information and / or graphics for this page 🙂
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