Looking at the Commodore 64 vs Amiga seems a little odd, at least to me. After all, the machines were never intended to be rivals. The Amiga was supposed to succeed the 64. Commodore bought Amiga because they couldn’t make a 64 successor on their own, so they intended for the Amiga to replace it. It didn’t fully succeed, and maybe that’s why the comparison is still interesting.
Looking back, the machines may seem similar today. But in 1985 they sure didn’t.
Today we have multi-core computers that run at multiple gigahertz and have 8, 16, or even 32 gigabytes of RAM. In comparison, a C-64 running at 1 MHz with 64 kilobytes of RAM seems quaint. An Amiga running at 7 MHz with 256 kilobytes of RAM or even a megabyte also seems quaint. We can barely see the difference. But in 1985, the difference was so big it was hard to describe.
I’ll try to illustrate it by comparing computers to cars. If the Commodore 64 was the Ford Model T, then the Amiga was the first example of something resembling a modern automobile.
The big thing the Amiga offered that the 64 didn’t was multitasking. Like a computer of today, you could have your word processor and your spreadsheet running at the same time. You could print from your word processor and switch over to the spreadsheet and enter more data. You could switch to the word processor if the spreadsheet was busy calculating something. The only limit was the amount of memory you had. Amigas with multiple megabytes of memory could do a surprising amount even by 1990s standards. It really was modern computing in the mid 1980s. The only thing missing was the Internet.
The 64 didn’t multitask. It did one process at a time and it had a slow disk drive. It caught plenty of attention in 1982 because it had color and sound and good-for-the-time graphics capabilities and 64K of memory for $600. But it really was just a 1970s computer with 1980s graphics and sound bolted on.
Graphics and sound
In 1985, the Amiga had the best graphics available on the market. It also had the best sound available. The same was true of the 64 in 1982. After the Amiga came around, the 64 still had better than average graphics and sound. Both the Amiga and Atari ST beat it in both categories, so it fought off the Atari XL/XE series for third place. It wasn’t until 1986 or 1987 that Macs and PCs started getting graphics capabilities that were in this league, and it came at a much higher price.
The 64 held its own here. But the Amiga was so good, it improved everyone else’s graphics. Publishers would develop graphics on the Amiga and then have the Amiga downscale it to other machines.
Here’s why both machines faded away though. In 1987, the competition started to catch up. By around 1990, their prices started getting competitive. By 1992, they were cheaper, or at least PCs were. And by 1994 it was all over.
The Amiga was fast. It had a 7 MHz CPU, but it had tons of coprocessing so that CPU didn’t have to work as hard. When emulating a Mac, an Amiga ran a good 10-15 percent faster than the real thing, thanks in part to all of that coprocessing.
The 64 was a lot of things but it was never fast. Commodore had to make some compromises to hit the $600 price point in 1982, and undoing those compromises after prices dropped would have come at the cost of compatibility. In 1982, that seemed reasonable. Commodore had no idea people would still be buying 64s in 1985, let alone 1993.
The maximum amount of memory you could put in an Amiga varied. Theoretically, 68000-based Amigas maxed out at an unusual 10 megabytes (2 megabytes of chip RAM, which the CPU and custom chips all shared, and 8 megabytes of fast RAM, which only the CPU could use). Later Amigas with full 32-bit processors could address a theoretical maximum of 1.5-1.75 gigabytes, depending on what other else was in the machine. In practice, Amigas with even 16 megabytes of RAM were rare. In the early 1990s, PCs with 16 megabytes of RAM were powerhouses, and the Amiga OS was more efficient than the PC operating systems it competed with, so many Amiga power users were happy with modest amounts of memory.
The 64 wasn’t nearly as generous. Its 6510 CPU, a derivative of the 6502, could only address 64K of memory at a time. Commodore released a 256K RAM expansion unit for it in 1986, and later another company released a memory expansion device that could take up to 16 megabytes of RAM. But in practice, expanded 64s were pretty rare. Most software assumed a lowest-common-denominator configuration, so the majority of users stuck with a 64 and a single disk drive.
Initially, Amigas didn’t come with hard drives as standard hardware, but as software grew more demanding, hard drives became more common. Later Amigas did come with them.
Hard drives for the 64 were always rare. In the mid 1980s, a 20 megabyte hard drive plus the host interface to connect it cost around $1,000, which was a lot for a $200 computer. Someone who had $1,200 to spend was more likely to buy a $1,000 PC/XT clone and put a $200 hard drive in it. Over time, hard drives for the 64 got cheaper, but never fell much below $600.
Most people who could afford a hard drive for a 64 found it made more sense to buy a PC or an Amiga and keep the 64 as a second computer. There was a lot more software to take advantage of a decked out PC or Amiga setup, and having two computers reduced the fights for computer time.
Commodore sold 5-6 million Amigas. They didn’t sell them to 5-6 million different people. A lot of us had more than one. In the mid 1980s, Commodore sold 3 million 64s a year. So the Amiga never lived up to the 64’s popularity. Not by a long shot. Nobody knows for certain how many 64s Commodore sold, but most estimates run between 20 and 25 million. By modern standards that isn’t a lot, but remember, it took Compaq 4 ½ years to sell its first million computers and nobody complained.
The 64 had one of the largest software libraries of its era, somewhere around 10,000 titles. Not only could I have never afforded every 64 title available, I couldn’t have afforded to buy enough blank disks to pirate all of the titles available.
The Amiga library was far, far less, but still, it was a lot more software than I could ever buy. I doubt I could have afforded all those disks either. Key publishers like Microsoft and Lotus stayed away, but desktop video was the Amiga’s killer app. Nobody thought about desktop video before the Amiga, and the most popular desktop video rigs for those other computers included an Amiga. If you wanted to do desktop video in the early 90s on another computer, you were really using a two-computer network where the Amiga did most of the work behind the scenes.
Both machines had plenty of software available with plenty of wow factor for their era. Today it seems quaint, but it was a different time.
Design and production
Both machines relied on custom, proprietary chips. Early on, this allowed both machines to hit the price points Commodore wanted. Later on, it kept prices artificially high because Commodore didn’t upgrade its chip production plants the way Intel did.
Commodore produced all of the major chips in the 64 except the memory. Even the CPU was a Commodore design. The Amiga used a Motorola 68000 CPU but the other major chips were custom. Commodore produced them themselves until the chips outgrew their production capabilities. Post-1992 Amigas relied on companies like HP to produce the chips for Commodore.
For most of its life, the 64 was either the cheapest computer on the market, or the best value on the market. An awful lot of 64 home setups cost $200-$250, since a common configuration was a 64, a single disk drive, a fastload cartridge, and a spare TV.
The Amiga was never cheap. The Atari ST always beat it in price. The ST didn’t multitask, but it did enough to make Commodore management sweat a lot. It was difficult to get a good Amiga home setup for much less than $1,000.
The biggest difference between the two machines was marketing. Commodore had a dealer network, but sold both the VIC-20 and 64 in mass-market retailers like Kmart and Target. The dealers didn’t like that because the discounters undercut their prices. But being able to walk into Kmart and buy a Commodore computer was part of those machines’ success.
With the Amiga, Commodore wanted to be taken more seriously, so it sold Amigas through what was left of its dealer network. When mass marketers like Software Etc. wanted to carry the Amiga, Commodore often turned them down.
The first rule of marketing is to make your product easy to buy. The 64 was easy to buy. The Amiga wasn’t.
Meanwhile, Packard Bell copied Commodore’s approach with the 64, selling cheap PC clones in any store that wanted them. The Amiga was more capable and more reliable, but Packard Bell and other PC clone makers had a machine for any budget. Some people say the release of the game Doom sealed the Amiga’s fate, but even without Doom in the picture, the Amiga couldn’t compete. For example, in St. Louis in 1991, there were only two Amiga dealers left, and both were in far-flung suburbs. But virtually any store that sold televisions also sold PCs. And they were a lot cheaper.
Knowing how to use one machine didn’t help you much when it came to using the other. The 64’s built-in Basic language interpreter doubled as its operating system. The Amiga had a multitasking operating system that was a little like Unix but not really.
Both were important machines. The 64 was the first 64K computer to sell for under $600 and its always-aggressive pricing made it accessible. The 64 introduced many GenXers to computing.
The Amiga introduced the masses to multitasking, but not only that, its graphics and sound were revolutionary for the time. Desktop video wasn’t possible on a personal computer before the Amiga. Although by modern standards the Amiga wasn’t a commercial success, it was extremely influential. In some ways it’s like early underground rock bands like MC5 and the Velvet Underground, who influenced just about everyone who came after them, but didn’t sell very many records themselves, at least while they were active together.
Which one would you have wanted?
The answer to this question depends on what year you imagine it is. In the early to mid 1980s, the 64 was a fun machine. It was still fun in the later half of the decade, but in the mid to late 1980s, the Amiga was the computer you dreamed about having, assuming you’d managed to see or hear of it. Some of the Amiga’s appeal was its potential, and arguably some of that potential was never realized. If you like what-ifs, the Amiga is the ultimate what-if machine.
The 64 inspires a lot of armchair quarterbacking, but one of the limiting factors in its success was just that Commodore sold all of them it could make. Commodore designed it in 1982 expecting it to last 2-3 years on the market, and consumer demand kept it on the market until 1993. Realistically, the things they could have done to make it a more attractive computer for 1992 or 1993 would have made it too expensive in 1982 and 1983 and then it would have been a flop. Competing with 386- and 486-based PCs was the Amiga’s job, not the 64’s.
I do think if Commodore had done things differently, they could have produced a few million more 64s, and if they’d produced them in the right years they would have sold all of them.
As for the Amiga? It was more than capable. Mostly, Commodore just made it too hard to buy one. And then they never recovered.