Amstrad PCs: The PC1512 and PC1640

The Amstrad PC1512 and PC1640 were inexpensive Korean-made PCs that took Europe by storm in the mid 1980s. Amstrad was the UK’s largest computer maker, and it hoped to replicate that success in the United States as well. Here’s an overview of those machines, and why that effort was less than an overwhelming success.

Amstrad overview

Amstrad PCs
The British firm Amstrad rose to prominence selling cheap audio equipment to consumers, and for a time successfully applied the same strategy to a line of PCs that introduced the world of IBM compatibility to the European market.

Amstrad was founded in 1968 by Alan M. Sugar, and the name was a contraction of Alan Michael Sugar TRADing. It gained success in the 1960s and 70s by selling consumer audio equipment, often undercutting competitors’ pricing by using cheaper manufacturing processes.

The Amstrad PC 1512 and 1640

The Amstrad PC 1512 and 1640 were compact, XT-class PCs that took advantage of the integration that was happening in PC chipsets in the mid 1980s. Consolidating large numbers of individual chips from earlier PC designs into a smaller number of integrated chips saved both money and space. Amstrad then took this a step further, using the space it saved to add serial and parallel ports, as well as CGA-compatible video, onto the motherboard as well. These were all separate cards on the IBM PC and XT and early clones. Technically they were optional, but if you wanted to actually use the computer, you needed some kind of video card. And if you wanted to connect a printer or a modem, the parallel and serial ports didn’t feel very optional.

The result was a compact desktop PC about half the size of its IBM equivalent. It was about half the price, too.

Amstrad played this up in its marketing. Competing PCs, it said, came in lots of expensive little pieces. Or you could buy an Amstrad, which included everything you needed, including a selection of software, in two boxes. You just bought whichever system unit you wanted and whichever monitor you wanted. The least expensive model paired with a monochrome monitor cost $699, which was pretty impressive for 1987.

The model numbers refer to the amount of memory the system included. The PC1512 had 512KB of RAM, while the PC1640 had the full 640K of RAM supported by MS-DOS.

At its peak, Amstrad had about 25% of the European computer market, and computer historians credit Amstrad with popularizing IBM compatible PCs in Europe.

Were Amstrad PCs any good?

Amstrad PCs sold well in Europe, and it makes sense why. Released in 1986, they undercut just about everyone else’s price while offering a nice, compact unit that promised IBM compatibility and access to its software library consisting of thousands of titles. Its 8 MHz 8086-compatible processor ran nearly twice as fast as an IBM PC or XT, and about 33% faster than a Tandy 1000SX. And in case the new machines like the Apple Macintosh, Atari ST, or Commodore Amiga with their GUI and mouse made you feel left out, Amstrad bundled a mouse and Digital Research’s GEM, which, somewhat coincidentally, was the very same GUI the Atari ST used, just ported to a different architecture.

Amstrad offered the best of both worlds at the time: IBM compatibility, and it was just as easy to use as those window-based machines everyone was talking about. And it cost less than even the Atari ST.

But there were some compromises. The biggest compromise involved the monitor. The power supply for the whole system was built into the monitor, which locked you in to using an Amstrad monitor. This resulted in a smaller, cooler-running system that didn’t need a fan, which was very unusual for a PC at the time. The European market tolerated this better than the U.S. market did. More often than not, a U.S. consumer would buy the matching monitor when they bought a computer. But they didn’t like being forced to do so.

Amstrad gained a reputation for unreliability due to an issue with the disk controllers in its second-generation PCs. The problem was due to Seagate, rather than a problem inherent with Amstrad’s design. Amstrad successfully sued Seagate, but never shook the reputation for poor reliability.

Why Amstrad was less successful in the United States than Europe

While there was some resistance to tightly-integrated systems in the United States, it wasn’t a showstopper. Tandy, Epson, Leading Edge, and Packard Bell all sold tightly-integrated XT-class machines in the United States and they fared pretty well.

And I wouldn’t say Amstrad flopped here in the States. They didn’t make a huge name for themselves here, but the Amstrad PC1512 and 1640 aren’t rare. They’re no harder to find on Ebay than a contemporary Epson or Leading Edge PC, but there’s certainly less demand for them today than for a more conventional PC that isn’t tied to a single specific make of monitor.

But if there’s one word that’s a kiss of death here in the States, it’s “proprietary,” and Amstrad’s monitor and mouse were proprietary. The mouse could be forgiven, especially in the 1980s. But the monitor was a problem.

There was another proprietary aspect to Amstrad. Amstrad offered enhanced CGA graphics, but there was already an existing standard for enhanced CGA graphics, in the form of the IBM PCjr/Tandy 1000 graphics modes. Amstrad implemented something similar, but incompatible. Very few titles supported the enhanced Amstrad graphics, but a fair number of popular titles did support the Tandy modes. Being able to take advantage of that would have been a selling point.

The other problem was Amstrad showed up about a year late. Amstrad PCs didn’t hit the US market until late 1987. By then, Tandy had been selling its PCs here nearly three years, and Leading Edge for nearly two. They were more familiar, and Amstrad didn’t undercut their price by much.

Obsolescence

The other problem for Amstrad was that the PC market started moving very rapidly in the late 1980s. An 8 MHz 8086 or NEC V30 was a viable CPU in 1987, but it was fading fast. Companies like Compaq and AST were pushing 286- and 386-based PCs. They were more expensive, but the prices on those came down every three months, and Amstrad didn’t have much room to cut prices to compete. Every three months, the cost advantage narrowed.

Amstrad did release PCs based on faster Intel CPUs eventually, but being a consumer electronics company at heart, they weren’t used to moving as quickly as the PC market tended to move. By the early 1990s, other makers crowded Amstrad out of the US market.

In Europe, Amstrad lasted a bit longer, and it sold a clever machine called the Mega PC. Released in 1993, it paired a 386SX-based PC running at 33 MHz with a Sega Megadrive game console (sold as the Genesis here in the States.) But even this machine suffered from the same problem as the initial PC1512 and PC1640. In 1993, the 386SX was an entry-level PC and 486-class machines were quickly crowding it out of the market. Building a game console onto an ISA card and integrating it into a PC wasn’t a bad idea, and Amstrad wasn’t the only one to try it. But mashing together two aging technologies and pricing it at 999 British pounds didn’t make for a hit.

Increasing competition from larger PC makers pushed Amstrad out of the market, and it shifted its focus to communications equipment.

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