In early 1984, IBM released its first home computer, the IBM PCjr. Commodore soon responded with one of its best advertisements, pitting its Commodore 64 vs IBM PCjr.
The ad contrasted a stripped-down PCjr with no disk drive and a chiclet keyboard with a complete C-64 setup.
The ad was a little misleading because you didn’t get everything in the picture for the cost of a PCjr. You’d have to choose the printer or the monitor. But Commodore’s point stood. You could buy a computer for a lot of money, or get a lot of computer for the money.
The ad worked. The PCjr only lasted about two years on the market, and sold somewhere between 270,000 and 500,000 units.
The Commodore 64 lasted 12 years on the market and sold around 12 million units. Nobody knows exact sales figures for the C-64, but nobody disputes it was the best selling computer of all time. And we do know in fiscal years 1984 and 1985, Commodore sold about 4.5 million C-64s total.
People expected great things from the PCjr. They also expected great things from the Coleco Adam. The Commodore 64 just turned out to be too much of a juggernaut to compete against well. Its low price meant you couldn’t afford to make many mistakes if you wanted to compete. And the PCjr, as it turns out, just made too many mistakes.
The IBM PCjr
IBM rightly recognized that the IBM PC was a poor fit for most households. It was expensive, and its poor graphics and sound capabilities meant it wasn’t very good for playing games.
So IBM created a lower-cost machine and added color graphics with a couple of extra modes, plus a Texas Instruments sound chip that had been used in the TI-99/4A and Coleco Adam computers and Colecovision game console. And they contracted Sierra On-Line to create some slick games to use the machine’s capabilities.
With competitive sound and graphics and the ability to run some (but not all) IBM PC productivity titles, it would have been a compelling home computer. Arguably IBM priced it too high, but Apple computers were expensive, and people bought them.
The PCjr did have a 4.77 MHz Intel 8088 CPU and it ran IBM PC DOS (a close MS-DOS derivative). You had to use a third-party expansion to expand it to 736K, but if you did, the computer would use it.
Problems with the PCjr
The problem was IBM gave it a lousy rubber chiclet keyboard. The replacement keyboard was better, but had a slightly odd layout and didn’t feel as nice as the IBM PC keyboards. Commodore’s keyboard was somewhere in between.
And it was difficult to add memory or a second floppy drive or hard drive to it. Expansions came in the form of add-on sidecars, which looked awkward when you chained more than one or two together. If you used sidecars and added a second drive, the machine turned into a clumsy L shape and started to look like a hack job.
The IBM PC was successful because it was easy to upgrade, and the PCjr didn’t inherit that feature. It was a machine with too many compromises at a no-compromises price. A bare PCjr with 64K, no disk drive and no monitor cost $669. A usable configuration would set you back $1,300 or more.
With fewer compromises, the Commodore 64 vs IBM PCjr battle would have gone differently. We know that from the Tandy 1000. The Tandy 1000 wasn’t perfect, but it sold as quickly as Tandy could make them in the 1984 timeframe.
The PCjr wasn’t perfect, and didn’t need to be, but it wasn’t good enough, so it failed.
The Commodore 64
Commodore introduced the C-64 in 1982 at a price of $595. By the time the PCjr came out, it was selling for about $220. A bare C-64 wasn’t very usable either, but a disk drive cost around $200. A lot of people bought a C-64 and 1541 disk drive and connected it to a 13-inch TV. A decked-out C-64 setup with a color monitor, two disk drives, a printer and a modem cost around $1,100.
With the C-64, you got a full travel keyboard, excellent graphics and sound for its time, and a huge software library. The 64 had a lot of games and a lot fewer productivity titles like word processors and spreadsheets. But the titles were good enough for writing letters and doing homework.
The C-64 had a slower 8-bit CPU, limited to 64K of memory. Commodore later released memory expansion for it, but little software used it. Commodore’s disk drive was painfully slow. One of the most popular Commodore upgrades was a fast load cartridge. The C-64 was vulnerable, but IBM kept its price too high.
The C-64 was the right machine for 1984, with a reasonable amount of power at a price point that enough people could afford to reach critical mass. Adding a hard drive to a C-64 was an expensive proposition too, so few people did it. But you could have a reasonable setup for $500 to $1,000, which was much more difficult to do with a PCjr.
Commodore 64 vs IBM PCjr: The machines’ fate
In late 1984 when IBM ran promotions lowering the price to something closer to Commodore’s level, the PCjr sold extremely well, approaching or even exceeding the C-64. But when the promotions ended, the computer became sales-proof. Dealers who had been able to sell 50 units a month suddenly could only sell two.
In mid-1985, Commodore released the 128, which featured more memory and a faster disk drive. IBM discontinued the PCjr in March 1985. Competing with the C-64 was hard enough. The 128, with its upgrades, was going to be too much. All told, the Commodore 64 lasted a decade-plus on the market, with the 128 at its side for about five of those years, and they sold about 12,350,000 units total.
Commodore won the battle but lost the war. The computer you’re reading this on has more in common with the PCjr than with the Commodore 64. The IBM PC architecture was easier to swap new processors into. That’s why IBM PC clones eventually overtook the industry, and Commodore went out of business in 1994. IBM had some success with its PS/1 and Aptiva computers in the 1990s, but eventually sold its PC business to Lenovo.
Commodore 64 vs IBM PCjr today
If you want a hobby machine today, you can have fun with either machine. But the C-64 definitely has a larger library of software to explore, and it’s cheaper and easier to put mass storage on a Commodore today, which is a little different from the situation in the 80s. A TV makes a reasonable display for it, as does anything with composite inputs. A C-64 connected to a TV with some kind of mass storage won’t take much space.
The PCjr can be as svelte or as monstrous as you want. Some people take pride in connecting a second drive and as many sidecars as they can find to one. And the limitations that were enraging in 1984 aren’t necessarily a showstopper today. Living within those limitations can be part of the fun with a hobby machine.
The PCjr has an interesting software library, and titles that run on both machines tend to be faster and nicer to use on a PCjr. The PCjr doesn’t have as much of a speed advantage over the 64 as it seems like it should, but if nothing else, it has more memory and more software that can use additional memory you add to it.
But even most of the PCjr’s defenders would say you’re better off with a Tandy 1000 than a PCjr. The price difference between the two isn’t great. Expanding a Tandy 1000, even the compact EX and HX models, into a usable configuration is easier and cheaper. Later Tandy 1000s have slightly faster CPUs, which is nice to have. And the Tandy runs almost every PCjr title, while there are lots of later titles that run on a Tandy but won’t run on an unmodified PCjr.
Using my C-64 and my Tandy 1000 side by side, it’s easy to see how if IBM had made the PCjr more like the Tandy, the C-64 vs PCjr would have been a much closer fight.