Last Updated on November 28, 2018 by Dave Farquhar
The battle of the Commodore 1541 vs clones existed because Commodore’s early track record was rather imperfect.
Commodore’s 1541 floppy disk drive was the first consumer disk drive that cost less than $300, so it has an important place in computing history.
What some people forget is that while it broke new ground, its early owners loved to hate it. It was slow, it was loud, and ran hot. Early units were unreliable too. And to add insult to injury, in 1982 and 1983, Commodore couldn’t build them fast enough to keep up with demand. Even though it had problems, people were eager to buy it. (Disk drives for other computers tended to be problematic too, in this young industry.)
The 1541’s problems led to a number of clones that tried to be a little bit better.
Numerous companies set out to correct the 1541’s flaws, but ran afoul of copy prevention schemes that relied on the 1541’s software bugs. The drives were better, but that didn’t help you when the software you wanted to run refused. People got frustrated quickly when the $40 game they just bought wouldn’t run. Most didn’t see buying a $300 1541 as a good solution, especially when the package didn’t mention any problems with aftermarket drives.
Numerous clones also made outlandish claims, claiming to be up to 400% faster than the 1541. Usually this meant they did one thing much faster than the 1541. But when it came to loading and saving files, they were the same speed, so you didn’t notice the difference in most use.
Most clones did at least succeed in running cooler and quieter than the real thing. Some included DIP switches to make it easy to make a multi-drive setup. With the 1541, you had to open the drive and cut traces to change device numbers. Commodore wasn’t even kind enough to provide jumpers.
MSD took a slightly different approach in its advertising, billing its drives as reliable and available. This lasted even into the summer of 1984, when 1541s were no longer so difficult to find.
Some of the later 1541 clones used the actual 1541 ROM, which was a copyright violation, but they would swap address lines on the chips to make it harder to detect. This solved the compatibility issues temporarily. Commodore eventually caught on and sued most of these companies, who then ended up taking the drives off the market, or licensing the ROM from Jiffy DOS, which was mostly compatible, and presumably paid a royalty back to Commodore.
Commodore used two different drive mechanisms in the 1541 and 1541C, one made by Alps Electric and one made by Mitsumi. The Mitsumi drive did a better job of staying in alignment, but the heads in the Mitsumi drives tended to oxidize and fail. The 1541-II switched to a mechanism made by Chinon. Most third-party clones used drive mechanisms made by someone else. Some of those drives worked better in the short term, but failed over time. The TEC drives in MSD’s Super Floppy Drive series come to mind. When new, experts considered them more robust than the 1541’s mechanisms. But when you find them today, they often have leaky capacitors and don’t work.
The clones generally weren’t able to undercut Commodore in price by much. Commodore’s MOS subsidiary made almost all of the chips in the 1541. Its competitors had to buy equivalent chips from MOS or from one of its licensees. Early on this wasn’t much of a problem, as some people would pay a premium for a better drive. But compatibility issues put an end to that. Competitors had to settle for smaller margins and undercut Commodore in price by $20 or so to stay alive.
Ultimately, Commodore responded to the clones by releasing the 1541-II. The 1541-II had an external power brick, fewer chips inside, DIP switches for changing the drive number for multi-drive setups, and a more robust drive mechanism. The changes solved the reliability issues. The new design also cost less to make, so Commodore lowered the price. Near the end of the days of Commodore’s 8-bit line, the only surviving competitor was the FSD-2 Excelerator Plus, also known as the Oceanic OC-118 in some parts of the world.
Had things gone better, Commodore wouldn’t have had to worry about the Commodore 1541 vs clones. But when you’re breaking new ground, running into problems is a chance you take.
Cloning the 1541 was much easier than cloning the C-64 itself, which is why you didn’t see Commodore 64 clones in the 1980s.
David Farquhar is a computer security professional, entrepreneur, and author. He started his career as a part-time computer technician in 1994, worked his way up to system administrator by 1997, and has specialized in vulnerability management since 2013. He invests in real estate on the side and his hobbies include O gauge trains, baseball cards, and retro computers and video games. A University of Missouri graduate, he holds CISSP and Security+ certifications. He lives in St. Louis with his family.