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I've been giving a lot of thought to the early 8-bit home computers lately. Although our family bought the original 1977 Atari Heavy Sixer video-game console; for computers, I found myself drawn to the TRS-80. Its monochrome text display (...okay, I didn't know it was simply a black-and-white RCA television) seemed to make it more of a "real" computer than something you "hooked up to your television". But then again, the video-display terminal was at that time, still a relatively new development. I haven't been able to track down the price of a DEC VT52 computer terminal when it was introduced in 1975, but the 1980 price was still over $1,300. So in 1977, when Radio Shack and Commodore offered complete computer systems for under $1,000 including video monitors, it was quite remarkable.

I wandered into a computer store in early 1981 and the sales associate demonstrated how the Atari 800 could start a program instantly, like "Star Raiders" on cartridge, instead of having to wait for a slow floppy-drive or even slower cassette. Still, it made me wonder if an Atari computer wasn't so much a computer that used cartridges, as much as it was a cartridge-based video-game system that had a computer keyboard. Later that year, I visited that same store when the IBM 5150 "PC" came out, and noted that to put together a whole PC "system" - with floppy drives, monitor, keyboard, RAM, and power-supply (...yes, sold separately), you were looking at more like $4,000 (To be fair, Radio Shack's 1981 Model II "business computer" had a price tag close to that, and they offered a letter-quality daisy-wheel printer that cost almost $2,000 all by itself; pages 172-173).

I've been fooling around with the VICE Commodore emulator, as well as the C64 Forever free-version (...which appears to be an enhanced setup/front-end to VICE, with some bundled software titles). Again - it "feels" more like a game machine than an actual computer. That seems to be echoed in the decision to market the C64 Direct-to-TV as a joystick plug-and-play device for games, instead of something with a keyboard.

I feel a little bit sad that Commodore's 80-column 8-bit business machines never gained traction; I think they could have offered small-businesses computing power at half the price of what IBM and even the early PC clones provided, if they could have gotten the marketing right. But I can't feel too sad for the company that had the best-selling computer of all time in the C-64. Jack Tramiel is such a polarizing figure; I can't say whether he saved Atari or ruined it - or perhaps he was just trying to run it as best he could, while the world was moving on. Radio Shack computers suffered a similar fate and now the Radio Shack brand itself is on its last legs.

The irony is that I think the Coleco Adam could have been the most useful home computer of that era, if they hadn't failed in the execution. Having a letter-quality printer at the center of their strategy was actually brilliant in the argument for "this machine can help your kids with their homework". This was happening near the end of an era where there were girls at college supplementing their income by typing term papers for the guys, because typing "wasn't something that men did". Being a typist was a specialized skill. The typewriter wasn't nearly as forgiving as the word-processor and noticing a mistake in the middle of a typed-page meant doing the whole thing all over again.

I've been thinking about and working on this post over the course of hours and I've gone back and made revisions repeatedly - this would have been much more difficult if I had to resort to typing on a typewriter or writing it out long-hand. And without the Internet, and the AtariAge website, how would I share it? Another curiosity - or maybe an irony; the computer I'm using is hooked up to a TV... ...a 22" 1080p HDTV that I'm using for a monitor. And my primary use for this machine is entertainment; playing classic games via emulation, watching video content and social networking.

So it seems that I've come full-circle; I have a computer, in my home - a "home computer", that's hooked up to my TV. Through the magic of emulation, I can experience owning an entire collection of technology from the past; home computers, game consoles, coin-op arcade machines, and libraries of software that if tallied up at their original selling prices, would be worth tens of thousands of dollars. It's a nice escape from a world filled with violence, injustice, strife and unrest. I'd enjoy reading your thoughts on the matter...

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I think emulating computers is even more satisfying than game console emulation (though I do a lot of that too!) I have my old Mac which I love but it is so great being able to pull up a system on my current computer and do as I please. Plus with virtual file sharing, it's a lot less of a nuisance to move files between a classic system and a new system. With my actual Performa I have to use a virtual floppy drive with an SD card plugged into it, kind of a pain in the butt.

 

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Thinking about when I was a kid and how much I would have loved to have been able to pull up my school computer at home. Of course the school had nothing but Macs and that was what I used the most but at home we had a PC. PC had tons of games for it but I always wanted the Mac at home.

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I'm happy that i was old enough to enjoy the start of the 8 bit machines. It was so cool to go to friends and play their computer. Since there was a lot of choice, you came in touch with a lot of different systems. Not the borring stuff we have today, with pratically only one hardware platform, the x86 platform.

I do enjoy playing emulators, but i love the feel of the real stuff. Loading tapes and playing with floppy's. Or even typing in code to play on my zx81.

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I enjoy all vintage computers but I have a soft spot for the TRS-80 as well (and Radio Shack/Tandy computers in general, especially the Color Computer). Just the history of it, the milestone it represented, even the sort of sci-fi industrial look of it, like something Luke Skywalker would have had. And for some reason, there's nothing quite like successfully loading a game into it from a tape (maybe because it's a latter-day novelty; if I was around in the tape era and *had* to rely on them, I might feel differently). The games themselves are often at least neat to mess with, if nothing mind-blowing. I like that the TRS-80, like the Apple II and PET, is like a window into the pre-PC/home computer days of computing.

There's a lot to be said for emulation, but there's something about using the genuine article that emulation can't replace. Whether that alone is worth the investment in original hardware, peripherals, and software, is up to you. But I'm glad I've got my stuff. :-D

As for Jack Tramiel, he saved Atari...for a time. The consumer division of Atari was ruined under Warner before Tramiel came along; he got his Atari (really a new company formed by merging his own separate company with his acquisition of the old Atari Inc. consumer division, IIRC) back in the black within, like, two years. Without Tramiel we wouldn't have had the 7800, XEGS, Lynx, ST, XE, Falcon, Jaguar, and other latter-day Atari platforms. We wouldn't have had outstanding 2600 games like Solaris, Jr. Pac-Man, Secret Quest, or Radar Lock, or 5200 games like Gremlins, Rescue On Fractalus, or Ballblazer.

Throwing everything into the Jaguar proved fatal (wasn't one of his sons in charge by then anyway?), but whatever else can be said about Tramiel, we still got to play with a lot of cool stuff thanks to him.

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