Commodore 64 vs VIC-20

How do you compare the Commodore 64 vs VIC-20?

The Commodore 64 and its predecessor, the VIC-20, look a lot alike, and the VIC-20’s design certainly influenced the 64. The 64 is the best selling computer model of all time, and I argue the VIC-20 was the first really successful home computer.

But even though the two machines are closely related, there are significant differences between them. Let’s compare and contrast the two venerable machines.

Rarity and value

The C-64 is much more common than the VIC-20, since it was produced for more than 11 years while the VIC-20 was produced for no more than four years. Commodore made about three million VICs, versus about 20 million 64s.

But there’s more demand for the 64, so a working 64 is usually worth more than a working VIC. You can expect to pay $30-$50 for a working VIC, and $50-$100 for a working 64. Damaged or unworking units sell for less, but as long as they have some salvageable parts, they have some value. C-64 chips are harder to come by than VIC-20 chips.

The Games

For your $595, $229, $219, or $149, you got this box, cables to connect it to a TV, a power brick, and a book that told you how to hook it up and a little bit about how to use it.
The C-64. For your $595, $229, $219, or $149, you got this box, cables to connect it to a TV, a power brick, and a book that told you how to hook it up and a little bit about how to use it.

Let’s face it, there’s a pretty good chance the whole reason you’re reading this is because of the games. The 64, by virtue of being on the market for 12 years, has a much larger software library. There were perhaps 10,000 commercial titles produced for it between 1982 and 1994 and perhaps another 10,000-20,000 that originated in magazines (whether print- or disk-based) and the public domain/shareware world.

The VIC-20, priced at $299, was the first computer to sell more than a million units.
The VIC-20, priced at $299, was the first computer to sell more than a million units.

The VIC-20 was only on the market from late 1980 to January 1985 and sales dropped off in 1983, so its software library is much smaller. About 800 commercial titles were released for it, and perhaps another 100-200 magazine type-ins were published for it.

Both machines still have software being developed for them today. Oddly enough, the VIC-20 may have more developer support because it’s a more challenging machine to program, due to its limited resolution, less capable sound, and memory. Modern titles for both machines push them much further than anyone believed possible in the 1980s, but given the extreme limitations of the VIC-20, modern VIC-20 titles are very impressive.

It would take more than a decade just to try out every game produced for the 64, so the VIC-20’s smaller library isn’t necessarily a disadvantage.

Memory

The 64 had 64K of RAM and the VIC-20 had 5K. Neither machine could use all of its RAM at once. But even with the limitations, the 64 still had more than 10 times as much memory to work with.

The VIC’s memory was expandable, and a lot of software took advantage of it. Memory expansion for the 64 was trickier and didn’t become available until 1986. Not much software used it once it became available.

Graphics

The VIC’s graphics didn’t stop traffic even by 1982 standards. But no other computer had color graphics of any kind at its price point. The VIC lacked hardware sprites and didn’t have a true bitmapped graphics mode. Through software tricks, it was possible to generate graphics screens, often with a resolution of 160×160.

The 64 had  maximum resolution of 320×200, although many titles used its 160×200 mode, and the 64 had sprites, which made moving objects much easier.

Sound

Both machines had three voices in hardware, but the VIC had more limitations than the 64 regarding the range of each voice and the number of types of sound they could produce. Bob Yannes, who went on to found Ensoniq, designed both chips, and neither machine’s sound chip came close to what he really wanted to design. It took a while for technology to catch up with Yannes’ ambitions.

The VIC-20 had better than average sound for its day. The 64’s sound was the best on the market when it came out in 1982 and it remained the best until the Amiga and Atari ST came out in 1985. Of course, the Amiga and ST cost a lot more.

Setting them up

Connecting a 64 to a TV is different from connecting a VIC. But connecting the disk drives is the same. And most of the common C-64 commands work on a VIC too. Note if you have a rare 1540 drive, it works with a VIC but not a 64. You can modify a 1540 to work with a 64 but it decreases the value significantly. A 1541 will work on a VIC-20.

Similarities

Commodore designed both the 64 and VIC-20 to meet specific price points and to decrease in retail price rapidly. Commodore was an also-ran computer company in 1980 when founder Jack Tramiel decided to try this formula with the VIC-20, and it became a runaway bestseller, selling a million units in 1982. By 1983, the 64 was a million-seller itself.

The VIC-20 had an 8-bit MOS 6502 CPU; the 64 had the similar MOS 6510. Commodore, through its MOS subsidiary, designed and manufactured its own chips. This allowed them to tailor their designs to help meet pricing goals. Both the 64 and VIC teamed up MOS CPUs with MOS-designed sound, video and I/O chips. The only chips on the board that Commodore didn’t make were the memory chips and the inexpensive glue-logic chips. VLSI (very large scale integration) was still a good decade away.

Software-wise, the two machines sported very similar system software in ROM. Both the 64 and VIC inherited Microsoft Basic. Furthermore, Commodore put the same cut-down version of it in both machines to save costs. The kernal (someone at Commodore couldn’t spell) in both machines was adapted from the earlier Commodore PET.

And since Commodore expected a lot of VIC-20 owners to eventually upgrade to the 64, the 64 was compatible with most VIC-20 peripherals. The VIC-1515 printer and VIC-1540 disk drive didn’t work with the 64, but Commodore revised them quickly.

Commodore designed both machines for a three-year shelf life. Commodore got it about right with the VIC-20. But the 64 endured 12 years on the market. Commodore stopped producing chips for the 64 in 1992, but continued to sell units cobbled together from refurbished and unsold parts until they went out of business in early 1994.

The two machines do look a lot alike. Commodore designed the VIC to be as small as possible for the time. Since the 64 was a bit of a rush job, the 64’s case is just a VIC-20 case with a few minor modifications. The 64 is a darker color than the VIC. The 64 is a gray-tan beige, while the VIC is almost white. In 1986, Commodore put the 64 in a lower profile case and changed the color to a lighter beige.

So that’s Commodore 64 vs VIC-20, in a nutshell.

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