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Commodore Plus 4 and Commodore 16

Dan Bowman kindly pointed me to former Commodore engineer Bil Herd’s discussion of the ill-fated Commodore TED machines on Hackaday. Here in the States, few remember the TED specifically, but some people may remember that oddball Commodore Plus 4 that closeout companies sold for $79 in 1985 and 1986. The Commodore Plus 4 was one of those TED machines. So was the Commodore 16.

What went wrong with those machines? Commodore miscalculated what the home computer market was doing. The TED was a solution to too many problems, and ended up not solving any of them all that well. Arguably it’s more popular with vintage computer enthusiasts today than it was in the 1980s.

TED was Commodore’s effort to combine graphics and sound and I/O into a single chip that they could then pair up with a CPU and varying amounts of memory and varying numbers of supporting chips and carpet-bomb the market. With this single chip, Commodore thought it could compete against everything from $49 Timex-Sinclair machines to $2,000 IBM PCs.

The 64K Commodore Plus 4 was the flagship of the ill-fated TED machines. Its ahead-of-its-time appearance couldn't save its lack of compatibility with other machines.

The 64K Commodore Plus 4 was the flagship of the ill-fated TED machines. Its ahead-of-its-time appearance couldn’t save its lack of compatibility with other machines. It was a flop at $299, though it sold reasonably well at a closeout price of $79. Image credit: Foofy/Wikipedia

The problem was that Commodore didn’t have a beefy enough CPU to pair with the TED chip to go up against the IBM PC (they used 7501 and 8501 CPUs running at 1.79 MHz, which didn’t cut it), and the Timex-Sinclair machines were already thoroughly dead by the time the TED chip was ready to go.

The lineup

At various times they planned a Commodore 116, 232, 264 and 364. The 116 had 16K of memory and a cheap PCjr-like chicklet keyboard. The 232 had 32K of memory and a decent keyboard, the 264 had 64K of memory, a modem port, and a decent keyboard, and the 364 had 64K of memory, a modem port, speech, and a better keyboard. Collectively, they’re known as the 264 series. All had the enhanced Basic 3.5 in ROM with graphics and sound commands, and an external power supply with a square connector like the later 128.

The 264 series could also use the Commodore 1541 floppy drive, or the newer, faster 1551 floppy drive that connected via the cartridge port.

Several things happened. Jack Tramiel, the president of Commodore, left the company before the 264 series could be released. And the market changed. So in the end, Commodore released three machines. At the low end was the 116, which ended up only being sold in Europe for the equivalent of about $50 US. The United States and Europe got the Commodore 16, which was basically a 116 in a Commodore 64 case with a slightly altered C-64 keyboard, priced at $99. The Commodore Plus 4 was a 64K machine with the 264 keyboard, a user port for a modem, and some built-in software, including a word processor, priced at $299.

Problems with the Commodore 116, Commodore 16, and Commodore Plus 4

Commodore 16

The Commodore 16 looked like an underpowered 64. It was worse than that. Incompatible and bringing 16K to a fight that needed 64K, it flopped badly.

None of the machines were compatible with the existing Commodore VIC-20 and 64. And the TED’s sound was adequate, but no match for the SID chip in the C-64. The TED offered graphics with 320×200 pixels and 128 colors (though 8 of the colors were duplicate shades of black) which was rather good for the time, but it didn’t have any sprites. So programming arcade-style video games for it was difficult. In the end, the 64 had more to offer to home users, and the TED machines weren’t going to unseat the Apple II in business, let alone the IBM PC.

Commodore ended up building somewhere between 400,000 and 600,000 Plus/4s and struggled to sell them all. About 100,000 of the machines ended up in Hungary, whose economy presumably couldn’t afford the 64. The Commodore 16 did even worse, as a 16K computer in a world where 64K was becoming entry level. The 64, meanwhile, continued to sell well at the price of $199 (or its equivalent elsewhere in the world).

So why bother?

The VIC, at the time, was running out of gas, and Commodore assumed that the 64 was perhaps a year behind the VIC in the march to oblivion. That was a miscalculation. The Commodore Plus/4 computer failed miserably at replacing the 64, and the 16 failed at replacing the VIC. Instead, the 64 replaced all of them, and kept selling faster than Commodore could build them. Once it was clear the Commodore Plus 4 and Commodore C16 would fail, Commodore got the band together to build the Commodore 128. The 128 provided a higher-end machine to sell alongside the 64 until the Amiga was ready to go.

What Commodore could have done instead

In a perfect world, Commodore would have skipped the TED, and perhaps even skipped the 128, and instead released something Amiga 500-like in July 1985 or sooner, priced under $1,000. Of course, the summer release of the Amiga was a rush job. Arguably the machine wasn’t really ready to go at the time, and probably a sub-$1,000 price point was impossible in 1985. But Commodore really wanted a piece of the higher-end market. And even a summer 1985 release meant they were going to be the third to market with a Motorola 68000-based computer.

Ultimately it was all for naught. Commodore slowly bled out and went bankrupt in 1994, never figuring out how to duplicate the 64’s success. The TED proved a fairly unreliable chip, so finding working Commodore 16 and Plus/4 computers is difficult today. Finding one in the original box is almost as easy as finding a working model. But just like 1984, the people who want one are more rare than the machines themselves. So they aren’t exactly worth a fortune, with the possible exception being one of Bil Herd’s or Dave Haynie’s prototypes.

Vertical integration: Blessing and curse

Another thing came to me as I was researching all of this. Commodore had trouble juggling factory capacity to accommodate both the 64 and Plus/4. Commodore had its own chip design team and a foundry near Valley Forge in Pennsylvania. So they made their own chips, except for memory chips and the really cheap logic chips that tied the larger chips together. Vertical integration was the secret of their success, and their policy was not to outsource their own designs.

I wish Commodore had just cut its losses with the TED machines and made 64s as fast as they could. Better yet, source some chip production from Rockwell and/or Western Design Center in order to keep the factories humming. Had they done that, I have to wonder what might have been. I still think Commodore was a doomed company no matter what. But if they’d been able to pile up more cash by selling a million or two more 64s in the mid 1980s, they would have been able to do some more interesting things with the Amiga later in life.

How TED could have been saved

Bil Herd, the chief designer of the TED machines, maintains they could have been successful if Commodore marketed them properly. Here he is discussing the 116.

The TED’s design was a throwback to the VIC-20, not the 64. Herd initially designed a $49 16K version, the 116, and a $99 64K version, the 264. At those prices, it would have replaced the VIC neatly. It also would have not competed with the 64. The 64 would remain at $199. Also like the VIC, Herd designed both machines to be as small as physically possible.

There was nothing sacred about the VIC-20 design except that it was what had been possible in 1980. In 1982, the C-64 reused it to get to market faster. The 64 sold on price and installed software base, not looks.

Marketing forgot that and stuffed the C-116 in a C-64 case with a 64 keyboard. Priced at $99, it promptly flopped. The Commodore Plus 4, at $299, also flopped. The price suggested it was a replacement for the 64.

By the time Commodore was making these decisions, Jack Tramiel had left the company. Herd sometimes suggests these decisions came from Tramiel loyalists who later left to follow him to Atari. That’s possible. It’s also possible Commodore made the missteps on its own. It happened a few more times over the next decade.

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2 thoughts on “Commodore Plus 4 and Commodore 16”

  1. One additional note: When planning the C16, Commodore actually had some weird ideas about cost savings: According to Bil Herd, their first idea was to put cheap single sided PCBs inside the C16. But apparently they encountered technical issues, so they had to cancel that plan and switched back to ordinary double sided PCBs.

    1. Awesome. That sounds like Commodore. Especially if they wasted an inordinate amount of money on the single-sided board.

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