Last Updated on April 23, 2023 by Dave Farquhar
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 SX64, also known as the Executive 64, was an example of this, trying to get into the luggable market where Compaq thrived. It was a pioneering machine but didn’t set any sales records.
Commodore in 1984
Commodore was a mixed-up company in 1984 and the Commodore SX64 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 play up the color and sound capability. And Commodore priced it at $995. Inability to keep up with demand for the regular 64 may explain why they announced the Commodore SX 64 at the Consumer Electronics Show in January 1983 and yet couldn’t release it until the next year.
The Commodore SX64
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 on the 5-inch screen and make the computer assume a disk drive rather than a tape drive as the default storage device. 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 in the top, 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 gained a following with user groups due to its portability, so it was easy to set it up for demos or copy sessions. 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 Epyx ported Microsoft’s Multiplan spreadsheet to the 64, but neither the SX-64 nor its desktop sibling ever caught on with executives.
Commodore SX64 vs Apple IIc
Apple entered the portable market around the same time but took a different approach with the Apple IIc. Apple skipped the built-in monitor, offering an optional LCD for travel, and making the main system unit an all-in-one wedge incorporating a floppy drive and keyboard and giving the whole thing a carrying handle. The result was pretty elegant and weighed 1/3 as much as a Commodore SX64.
It outsold the Commodore SX-64, selling about 400,000 units. But I don’t know how many people think of the two as competitors. The IIc was more commonly used as a compact home computer than for travel.
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. Dual-drive C-64 setups were uncommon enough that it’s hard to imagine lack of a dual drive being the kiss of death for the Commodore SX-64.
Later production runs of the SX-64 had a beefier power supply, and any legitimate DX-64 also had the same newer power supply.
The Commodore SX-64’s 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 over the course of about three years. In 1984, Commodore sold approximately 3 million regular C-64s. So the non-portable version outsold the SX64 100 to 1.
I think the bigger problem was the size of the portable computer market. Compaq sold 200,000 Compaq portables, and that was a raging success. For Commodore, 200,000 units wasn’t enough to be worth bothering with. But 400,000 might have been. Commodore was hoping to sell double the number of units Compaq did, and sold about half as many. Traveling executives didn’t want to run C-64 software. They wanted to run Lotus 1-2-3.
Would Commodore have done better with an Apple IIc-like approach? Maybe. But the IIc didn’t sell in the kinds of numbers Commodore liked either. My hot take is that skipping the portable market entirely and just building 85,000 more regular C-64s and 1541s would have been better for Commodore’s long term outlook. In 1984, Commodore was selling C-64s about as fast as they could build them, so a portable version was a distraction they really didn’t need.
How Commodore marketed the SX64
But the Commodore SX-64 didn’t die for lack of trying. Commodore pushed the machine, at least in the first year. The large retailers featured the Commodore SX-64 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. It wasn’t a matter of Commodore building a machine nobody wanted. Some people really wanted the SX64. The problem was there weren’t enough people who wanted an SX64 enough to pay $995 for one.
The Commodore SX64 today
Today, it’s not uncommon for vintage computer enthusiasts to take C-64s to shows and meets. It’s much easier to move around than a 64, 1541, and 1702. Some keep their machines stock and others soup them up. Two common mods are swapping out the 5-inch CRT with an LCD to save heat and about 1/3 of the machine’s weight, and adding a second floppy drive. A Commodore SX-64 is a fun machine
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.