Over the course of its 12 years on the market, Commodore released a number of Commodore 64 models. The computer’s capability changed very little over time, but the technology did. The world changed a lot between 1982 and 1994, and that gave Commodore some opportunities to lower costs, chase other market segments, or both.
Here’s an overview of the various Commodore 64 models that hit the market over the machine’s long life.
The Commodore 64 breadbin
When most people think of a Commodore 64, it’s usually the breadbin they picture. It’s not quite as big and tall as a real bread bin, but it does look more like a bread bin than a modern computer. The 64 inherited this look from the VIC-20. In 1980, it would have been very difficult to make a self-contained computer with a full-travel keyboard any smaller. By 1982, Commodore probably could have. But from a cost perspective, it made more sense to adapt the VIC-20 design. Commodore was trying to make the cheapest 64K computer it could.
The 64 was big, blocky, and dark beige, a color we now call RAL1019. RAL1019 is a warm, neutral color that doesn’t clash with much of anything and that psychologically tends to exude safety. Similar colors have been popular for home interior walls for more than a century for that reason. The keys on the keyboard were a dark brown, a fairly close match for the electrical outlets in houses before cream-colored outlets and switches came into vogue. Conscious or not, the 64 looked like an early 1980s home.
The very earliest breadbins had a silver label across the top and a stylized “64” by the power LED. Hobbyists call these silver-label 64s. They are rare and valuable.
The common garden-variety breadbin has a rainbow label across the top that says “Commodore 64” and a power indicator next to the power LED. Commodore made these from 1983 to 1986, during peak popularity. There might be 10 million or more of this type in existence.
The Commodore 64C
In 1986, Commodore did a hardware refresh. The previous year, Commodore released the 128 and Amiga, both of which sported a more professional look. They didn’t exactly look like PC clones, but Commodore stole the cream color and some of the design cues from the burgeoning PC market. Commodore redesigned the 64’s case into a sleeker wedge shape. Commodore moved the label to the lower right. It read, “Commodore 64 Personal Computer.” The box said Commodore 64C, but the computer itself omitted the “C” designation.
Cost reductions over time
As time wore on, Commodore altered the 64C. The easiest variation to spot is the keyboard. Early 64Cs had the graphics symbols on the front of the keys, just like the breadbin 64s. Later 64Cs put the graphics symbols on the top of the keys, just underneath the letters.
Internally, the newer 64C had some changes as well. In the mid 1980s, Commodore Semiconductor Group updated its manufacturing process, moving from an antiquated 1970s process called MOS to a slightly less antiquated process called HMOS. Like Intel process shrinks of today, this let them get more chips out of each wafer, cutting costs. The HMOS process allowed them to make the chips more cheaply, and it also let them combine some of the 64’s chips into a smaller number of chips and reduce the size of the motherboard. These newer 64s tend to be a bit more reliable than the early ones, as they run cooler. You can tell the difference by looking through the cartridge/expansion port. If you see a fuse running sideways, parallel to the expansion port, it’s the old motherboard with the 6581 SID and the rest of the early chipset. If the fuse runs perpendicular to the expansion port, it’s the new board with the 8580 SID and the rest of the HMOS chipset.
Commodore made another variant late in life. Instead of screws, it had plastic clips to hold it together.
Commodore did mix and match parts, so the graphics on the key tops isn’t a guarantee there’s a newer model board inside. But it’s more likely. That said, from 1992 to 1994, Commodore assembled 64s from whatever parts it had. What those machines contained and where the parts came from is anyone’s guess.
Minor Commodore 64 models
Besides the common 64 and 64C, Commodore made a few other models of the 64, to try to capture other market niches. Most of these less common Commodore 64 models are collectible today.
The MAX machine
The Commodore MAX machine, or Unimax, was a game console version of the 64, only sold in Japan in 1982. It came out a few months before the 64.
It used the same chips as the 64 and a membrane keyboard but only had 2.5K of RAM inside. Commodore mentioned it in the 64 user manual, but never released it in the United States. The 64 was compatible with the few MAX cartridges it released, though the compatibility didn’t go both ways due to the MAX’s limited memory.
Commodore had difficulty keeping up with the 64’s demand, so it made more sense to use the chips to produce full-blown 64s. This may have been a bit of a missed opportunity. If Commodore had had the capacity to produce and sell the machines side by side, the MAX machine might have changed the game console market in the early 1980s. We’ll never know.
The PET 64/Educator 64
For a time, Commodore sold a small number of 64s in PET-style cases with an integrated monochrome monitor. Although it looked like a PET, it did have a C-64 motherboard inside. Although they were rumored to be old PET cases, the top was plastic, not metal like the older PETs.
The integrated PET-style form factor was more convenient for schools and made the computer much harder to steal. Commodore’s public domain educational software referenced these machines, though they were always rare. The 64 was less popular in schools than the Apple II, as Commodore wasn’t as aggressive with its educational pricing as Apple.
Different sources put production years at 1982, 1983, and 1984. The July 9, 1984 issue of Infoworld announced it and many Educator 64s have 1984 chips in them. So it’s likely the 1984 year is correct.
Commodore still had some on hand in 1985. When Commodore went to CES in Las Vegas, their engineers found their hotel reservations had been cancelled, possibly by Atari employees. They used some Educator 64s to bribe hotel employees to keep someone from cancelling their reservations again.
A dealer in Michigan, Micro Computer Services, sold them via mail and phone order in the back pages of magazines like Run from 1986-1988. The ads sold them as refurbs. The ads’ longevity suggests Commodore may have done multiple production runs. Or perhaps the machines were just incredibly unpopular and it took years to sell through the inventory, however limited.
Some of these machines said “PET 64” on the label and some said “Educator 64.” Sometimes they omitted the SID chip. Some even had a modified ROM that called the machine a PET 4064, rather than a Commodore 64.
The SX-64 and DX-64
In 1983-84, Commodore sold a briefcase-shaped portable 64 containing a disk drive and five-inch color monitor. Originally dubbed the “Executive 64,” Commodore renamed it the SX-64. This was the standard for portable computers in the pre-laptop days.
Commodore also planned a dual drive version called the DX-64. Exactly how many real DX-64s exist is controversial. A determined hobbyist can stuff the parts of a 1541 drive into the empty bay and turn an SX-64 into a DX-64. It was the first color portable computer ever released. The SX-64 didn’t sell especially well, so Commodore never followed up by producing the DX-64 in quantity.
The SX-64 was popular with user groups due to its portability, but lack of business-oriented software kept it from becoming popular with traveling executives, who were Commodore’s original target audience. Most executives preferred a Compaq, or at least something that ran CP/M like a Kaypro or Osborne.
The Aldi 64
In 1987, Commodore produced a special low-cost 64 for Aldi, the German discount grocery store. The Aldi 64 features a breadbin-style case, a 64C keyboard, and a cost-reduced 64C motherboard that later ended up in regular 64C computers.
It allowed Commodore to use up some old cases and experiment with a cost-reduced board. It appears Commodore didn’t sell these exclusively to Aldi in Germany, as they seem to have ended up in some other discounters’ hands too, but more of these hybrids ended up in Aldi than anywhere else.
In 1990, Commodore experimented again with a 64-based cartridge game console, hoping to compete with Nintendo. It was just a 64 motherboard stuffed into a console-like case, so it was a bit of a kludge. Since most of the 64’s best games came on disk or tape, the 64GS didn’t fare well.
Fewer than 20,000 units sold, and only in Europe. Eventually Commodore disassembled the unsold inventory (around 60,000 units) and put the motherboards in 64 cases. The 64GS wasn’t Commodore’s worst idea, but it definitely arrived way too late. And game systems based directly on home computer technology tended not to fare too well. Atari’s XEGS wasn’t terribly successful either.
I think I know why. Console history is littered with also-rans. Some of the also-rans had better technology than the successful ones. But the also-rans didn’t have a franchise like Mario or Sonic. The 64 had hundreds of great games, but it’s hard to name a single must-have game exclusive to the platform, especially one on cartridge.
The Commodore 64G resembles the Aldi 64. It has a breadbin-style case, only in the lighter color of a 64C. The choice was curious, as the color indicates it was special production. There must have been a cost advantage
It also has a 64C motherboard, many of which were salvaged from unsold 64GS consoles. The keyboard varied, as Commodore used whatever it had on hand. Commodore assembled them in Germany for the European market, so they aren’t especially rare in Europe, but not many made it to the United States. The sticker on the bottom indicates the model number of 64G.
The 64G case was made of a cheap and brittle plastic. The overall machine has a reputation for being very fragile and cheaply made. Since this machine’s main intent was to convert unsold inventory into quick cash flow, Commodore did what it could to keep costs down. It’s not one of the more highly regarded Commodore 64 models, and it’s less rare than many of the others, but finding one in nice condition could be a bigger challenge, and it’s certainly less common than a regular 64 or 64C.
Drean of Argentina
Drean, a maker of home appliances in Argentina, licensed the rights to assemble Commodore computers in Argentina. This gave Commodore a way into the South American market that otherwise would have been too costly to enter due to import taxes. The Drean computers came in standard 64 and 64c configurations, but also in Aldi-like and 64G-like configurations. The case labels say “Drean Commodore 64.”
The Drean computers weren’t clones, as they had standard Commodore motherboards inside.
Why no clones?
The topic of Drean brings up a good point. There were IBM PC clones and Apple II clones. Why no Commodore 64 clones? Cloning the VIC-II and SID chips without infringing on patents, achieving 100% compatibility, and beating Commodore on price was too much to ask. The CPU and I/O chips were proprietary as well, but cloning them wouldn’t have been as difficult to do. The sound and video chips were showstoppers.
Aftermarket 64C-style cases
In 1986, Micro Accessories of South Australia released a 64c-style slimline case for 64 owners who wanted to update their machines to match the new peripherals. Various distributors in North America and Europe imported these cases and sold them. In the United States, they cost about $35. Several things distinguish these from 64c cases. The vents in the back don’t extend across the full length of the machine, the power LED is still on the right hand side, and the words “Commodore 64” don’t appear anywhere on the case.
If you find a 64c that doesn’t look quite right and has an original dark brown keyboard, it’s a breadbin in an Australian replacement case.
In September 2014, the 64C case tooling resurfaced. Soon after, the new owner produced a batch of cases in white, blue, red, and clear plastic. The tooling soon changed hands again and that owner produced cases in the original 64C color, the original breadbin color, black, and a two-tone SX-64 design. If you find a genuine-looking 64C in a color Commodore never made, that’s why.