Happy 30th birthday, C-64

To celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Commodore 64’s release, PC World–a magazine published by the same company that once published RUN, a magazine dedicated to the C-64 and other Commodore 8-bit computers–had someone try to use a 64 for a week.

Not surprisingly, they found the 30-year-old computer not up to 2012’s demands.

The article took some shots at the 64’s reliability. Admittedly, there were two decisions Commodore made that hurt the machine: The paper/foil RF shield, which doubled as a very effective heat trap, and the power supply, which tended to overheat and overvolt critical chips as it died, taking those chips with it unless it mercifully died first.

Since the 64 spent its entire life under severe price pressure, Commodore took these and other shortcuts. Most of the shortcuts were relatively harmless, but these two weren’t, and they mean that working 64s aren’t as easy to find today as they could be. But in the machine’s defense, it wasn’t ever intended to last 30 years, and in the 1980s they were pretty reliable once Commodore worked out its early production glitches. Removing that RF shield was a common modification in the 64’s heyday, and a high percentage of 64s went through more than one power supply in their lifetime.

If you want to use a 64 today, removing the RF shield if it’s still there, putting heat sinks on all of the large chips, and powering the machine with a couple of modern AC adapters (one 5V DC and one 9V AC) greatly increases your chances of the machine working well for long periods of time.

Now, regarding productivity…

You’d fare much better with 1992 PC applications than 1982 C-64 apps. Word for Windows 2.0 easily does 95% of what Word 2012 does. The main advantage to Word 2012 is that it can load larger documents. In the 1980s, each new year’s software tended to bring significant new capability, and this tailed off in the 1990s and is virtually non-existent today. One could use 1992 hardware and software to do almost everything you have to do today, and the difference between 2002 hardware and software and its 2012 counterparts is smaller still.

Like the article concludes, people didn’t buy C-64s to run productivity software, generally speaking. The best C-64 word processors were little more than text editors by today’s standards. It was good enough to write Dad’s business letters and my papers for grade school, and to teach me the basics of computers. And of course, there were a ton of nifty games for it.

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