Commodore SX 64

Over the course of its 12 years on the market, Commodore released a number of Commodore 64 models. The computer’s capability changed very little over time, but the technology did. The world changed a lot between 1982 and 1994, and that gave Commodore some opportunities to lower costs, chase other market segments, or both. The Commodore SX 64, also known as the Executive 64, was an example of this.

Commodore in 1984

Commodore was a mixed-up company in 1984 and the SX 64 reflected that. It had just sold $681 million worth of computers the year before, mostly on the strength of the Commodore 64, a $250 home computer that performed like a machine that cost three times as much. But that same year, its bombastic founder, Jack Tramiel, left the company after a disagreement with its enigmatic chairman, Irving Gould, who resembled a caricature of every stereotype of 1980s big-money excess.

The result was a company that lost its way. Commodore couldn’t produce C-64s as fast as it could sell them in 1984, yet it introduced a newer, more expensive computer called the Plus/4.

And then there was Commodore trying to be Compaq. Compaq was the darling of the industry with its IBM PC-compatible portable briefcase-like computer. Commodore wanted in on that game. It couldn’t offer IBM compatibility, so Commodore tried building a portable computer based on its successful C-64, and give it color and sound. And Commodore priced it at $995. Inability to keep up with demand for the regular 64 may explain why they announced the SX 64 at the Consumer Electronics Show in January 1983 and yet couldn’t release it until the next year.

The Commodore SX 64

Commodore SX 64
Here’s a black and white picture of the first color portable computer, the Commodore SX-64. It dates to 1983-84.

Commodore’s briefcase-shaped portable 64 contained all of the internal parts of a Commodore 64, power supply, 1541 floppy drive, and a five-inch CRT monitor. It was the first color portable computer ever released.

Commodore tweaked the ROM to change the default screen colors for readability and make the computer assume a disk drive rather than a tape drive. They left out the RF modulator and cassette port, since you probably wouldn’t use it with a TV or a tape drive. But other than that, it was 100% compatible with the C-64. It even had a cartridge port, which most people populated with a Fast Load cartridge. The whole package weighed 12 kilograms, or about 26 pounds, according to Commodore product literature.

It wasn’t the success Commodore hoped for.

The SX-64 was popular with user groups due to its portability, but lack of business-oriented software kept it from becoming popular with traveling executives, who were Commodore’s original target audience. Most executives preferred a Compaq, or at least something that ran CP/M like a Kaypro or Osborne. And no, Commodore’s CP/M add-on wasn’t compatible with the SX. Nice try, though.

The 64’s 40-column display and slow disk drive just didn’t lend itself well to business software. There were a few good word processing programs available for it, and a company ported Microsoft’s Multiplan spreadsheet to the 64, but neither the SX-64 nor its desktop sibling ever caught on with executives.

The Commodore DX 64

Commodore also planned a dual drive version called the DX-64. Exactly how many real DX-64s exist is controversial. A determined hobbyist can stuff the parts of a 1541 floppy disk drive into the storage compartment (or parts salvaged from a broken Commodore SX 64) and turn an SX-64 into a DX-64. The SX-64 didn’t sell especially well, so Commodore never followed up by producing the DX-64 in quantity.

Some people speculate that the SX and DX kerfuffle hurt the SX-64. People who wanted one waited for the DX-64, but since people weren’t buying the SX-64, the DX-64 never came.

Later production runs of the SX-64 had a beefier power supply, and any legitimate DX-64 also had the same newer power supply.

Failure in the marketplace

The regular model C-64 had its best year in 1984, and Commodore sold more than $1 billion worth of computers for the first and only time that year. But the SX didn’t play much of a role in that success. Based on serial numbers, it appears Commodore sold around 85,000 SX-64s. In 1984, Commodore probably sold 3 million regular C-64s.

The large retailers featured it in the computer sections of their Christmas catalogs alongside other Commodore computers in 1984, but it was gone from the 1985 catalogs. Commodore discontinued the SX-64 in 1986. Like so many other Commodore disappointments, the SX-64 ended up in the hands of COMB Liquidators, who sold them at deep discounts over the course of a couple of years while Commodore tried to right its ship again.

The Commodore SX 64 always retained a following among people who needed its portability, and used SX-64s have always been in high demand. Vintage computer enthusiasts love the portable Commodore because of its rarity and C-64 compatibility. But it was a niche product that never achieved the kind of high-volume success Commodore’s model depended on.

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