The Commodore 16 and Commodore 64 certainly look a lot alike, but there were a lot of differences inside between the two models. And when it came to success, the two machines couldn’t be more different. The technical differences had a lot to do with that. Here’s a look at the Commodore 16 vs 64.
The Commodore 64 came out in 1982. The Commodore 16 came out in 1984. Commodore assumed the 64 and VIC-20 would run out of steam sometime around 1984 or 1985. Sometimes the market does funny things and in this case, the market didn’t do what Commodore expected. The 64 stayed in production in various forms until 1993. Commodore had no reason to make Commodore 16s after 1984, though it may have taken until 1985 or 1986 to sell them all.
As the names suggest, the Commodore 16 had 16 kilobytes of RAM. The Commodore 64 had 64 kilobytes of RAM. But by 1984, 64 kilobytes of RAM was quickly becoming entry-level because memory prices were so low. At $99, the Commodore 16 was a solution in search of a problem.
The Commodore 16’s memory layout was more efficient and less fragmented, but 16K of memory just wasn’t enough. Had the computer been compatible with the 64 it might have been able to overcome this shortcoming, but it wasn’t. As a result, it was an even bigger flop than its notorious older brother, the Commodore Plus/4.
The Commodore 16’s TED chip could display 121 different colors at a time, which was a lot for 1984. Technically it produced 128 colors, but most people don’t count all of the eight indistinguishable shades of black. The Commodore 64’s VIC-II chip displayed 16 colors at a time, which was pretty standard for the era. But the Commodore 16 lacked sprites, which the 64 had. Sprites made movable graphics much easier. Arcade-type games were much easier to program on the Commodore 64 than on the Commodore 16.
The only advantage the Commodore 16 had was an enhanced Basic language with graphics statements, so you could easily make a Commodore 16 draw on the screen. The Commodore 64 made you manually flip bits with peek and poke commands to make graphics of any sort.
The Commodore 16 had rudimentary sound via its TED chip. But it only had two channels, and could only produce square waves or, in the case of the second channel, square or noise. The Commodore 64’s SID chip could produce square, sine, pulse, sawtooth, triangle, or noise on each of its three channels. Both sound primitive today, but in 1984, only the Atari 800 could rival the Commodore 64’s sound. The Commodore 16 had better sound capability than a stock Apple II or IBM PC, but it didn’t really impress anyone. It still had below-average sound.
The Commodore 16 did have an enhanced Basic language with sound statements, so you could make a Commodore 16 play simple melodies with minimal effort. With the Commodore 64, you had to resort to complex peek and poke statements to make music.
The Commodore 16 and 64 were similar but mostly incompatible. The memory layout of the two machines differed, and the sound and graphics chips weren’t compatible with each other. Modern computers use device drivers to work around those kinds of compatibility issues, but that was impractical on low-powered machines like this. The overhead was just too great.
Had Commodore made a cut-down 64 with 16K of memory and called that the Commodore 16, it would have been more successful, especially if Commodore had left a way to upgrade it to a full 64K. It would have been underpowered, but at least the two machines could have used the same game cartridges. That alternative version wouldn’t have sold especially well, and probably would have sold for $20 more than the Commodore 16, but Commodore could have adjusted to market conditions and not lost much.
Since the two machines weren’t compatible, the Commodore 16 was a hard sell. The machines lived side by side on retail shelves. But all of the software on the other side of the aisle ran on the Commodore 64. Given a choice between a $99 computer with no software, and a $249 computer with tons of software, it made sense to spend the extra money.
Commodore only made and sold a few hundred thousand Commodore 16s. The Commodore 64 is the best-selling, longest-running computer model of all time. Commodore managed to sell about as many Commodore 64s in 1993, when it wasn’t actively marketing it, as it ever sold Commodore 16s.
The Commodore 16 was the first time Commodore made an unsuccessful computer look like the successful VIC-20 and 64. But wasn’t the last. The 64 didn’t sell on its looks. People bought it for its software. Commodore marketing never understood that.
So why did Commodore bother with the Commodore 16 when it owned the home computer market already thanks to the Commodore 64? And why didn’t it make the two machines compatible with each other, at least to the extent that it could have?
Jack Tramiel expected a flood of cheap computers from overseas, probably Japan. So he wanted a simple, versatile computer design that he could scale to meet any price point, whether that was $49 or $299. That expected invasion never happened, but Commodore had the design ready, so they released it.
The mistake hurt Commodore’s profitability in the mid 1980s, and the company operated on dangerously thin margins anyway.