Radio Shack computers

Radio Shack released one of the first home computers, the TRS-80 Model I, in 1977. Between 1977 and 1979, it sold 100,000 units. Radio Shack sold them just as quickly as Tandy could make them. You can count Radio Shack and its parent company Tandy among computer companies that failed, but they enjoyed a good run. For a time, Radio Shack computers, later marketed as Tandy computers, were very popular.

Radio Shack and Tandy computers included the TRS-80 Model I from the inaugural class of 1977, the pioneering Model 100 portable, and the Tandy 1000 series, which helped bring PC clones into homes.

There were several reasons why Radio Shack computers were hard to compete with in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s.

Radio Shack retail location in Nebraska
Radio Shack stores used to be mainstays in small towns and big cities alike. Most people were within five minutes of a store like this one, where Radio Shack computers were sold alongside phones, stereo equipment, and walls and walls of adapters and cables.

Radio Shack was once a retail powerhouse. At its peak, there were 8,000 locations. Tandy operated 7,000 company-owned stores, while franchisees operated another 1,000. In its heyday, 90 percent of its customers lived within five minutes of a Radio Shack. By comparison, in 1980, there were 6,200 McDonald’s locations. Yes, for part of the 1980s it was easier to find a Radio Shack than a McDonald’s. This matched my experience. In a rural Missouri town of 8,000 where I lived in the 1980s, Radio Shack was about two minutes away. It was next to the nearest grocery store. We could go to Radio Shack just as easily as we could go to the grocery store or post office. To buy any other brand of computer in 1985, you had to drive an hour.

Today, 400 franchise-owned stores are all that remain. But in the 1970s and 1980s, chances were the closest computer store to you was a Radio Shack.

Radio Shack computers fall fairly neatly into four categories.

TRS-80 line

TRS-80 Model 3
Early Radio Shack computers, like this TRS-80 Model 3, were 8-bit computers powered by a Zilog Z-80 CPU.

The first TRS-80 computers were 8-bit machines powered by a Zilog Z-80 CPU, which was where the “80” in the name came from. They ran TRS DOS and, optionally, CP/M.

The original TRS-80 line survived until 1985, when the Tandy 1000 line of IBM compatible PCs displaced it. It success surprised Tandy, who expected to only sell a few thousand machines. Instead, they sold 10,000 machines in their first six weeks, outselling the Apple II by a factor of five early on. The TRS-80 Model I was the most successful of the three machines released in 1977. Tandy later followed up with the Model 2 and Model 3. They could run Tandy’s own operating system, TRS DOS, but since they had Z-80 CPUs, it was also possible to run CP/M on them. This opened the door to a large variety of software.

This line initially sold well, but suffered from quality control issues. This series earned the nickname “Trash-80,” which was sometimes affectionate and sometimes derisive. Tandy management didn’t like the nickname, for obvious reasons.

TRS-80 Model 100 line

Radio Shack computers - Model 100
The TRS-80 Model 100, first released in 1983, was an early portable computer. It sold six million units.

The TRS-80 Model 100 was one of the first successful portable computers. Tandy sourced it from Kyocera of Japan, and introduced it in the United States in 1983. Even though it wasn’t particularly successful in its homeland of Japan, it sold 6 million units in the United States. That’s a success of Apple II proportions. It ran on four AA batteries and could give up to 20 hours of use. It had an Intel 80C85 CPU running at 2.4 MHz, anywhere from 8 to 32 KB of RAM, and an 8-line 40-character LCD display, in monochrome of course.

Unlike some computers of its era, it had a 56-key, full-sized, full-travel keyboard. It had several simple applications built in, including a text editor, and it had enough memory to hold about 11 pages of text.

Tandy introduced three other models in this line: the Model 200, Model 600, and Model 102. The 200 and 600 had enhanced displays and keyboards, at the expense of being less compact. The Model 102 was a direct replacement for the 100. It was more lightweight and came standard with 24K of RAM, expandable to 32K.

Competitors

Commodore developed an LCD computer to compete with the Model 100, but Tandy management convinced Commodore management that there was no future in LCDs, so Commodore dropped it. Shame on Commodore for listening to a competitor, but kudos to Tandy for trying. Sometimes crazy ideas work.

Success and significance

The Model 100 is significant partly because it contains the last software Bill Gates personally wrote himself. The Model 100 line was especially popular with journalists, who used them well after their technical obsolescence due to their long life on commonly available batteries and a built-in modem and terminal program that made it easy to transmit stories back to the newsroom from the field, long before the Internet made such things trivial. These computers survived in the field well into the 1990s because they were easy to keep working.

TRS-80 Color Computer line

Radio Shack computers - Color Computer 3
This Color Computer 3 system wasn’t as popular as some other 8-bit computers, partly because it gave way to the Tandy 1000 in the mid 1980s.

The Color Computer line was a line of relatively successful 8-bit home computers that competed with the likes of the Commodore 64 and Apple II. First introduced in 1980, it survived in the market until 1991.

In all, there were three models of the Color Computer, with successive revisions receiving more memory, enhanced keyboards, and updated, more contemporary styling. Newer models were mostly compatible with previous models, with only a few titles not working on the later machines.

Similarities and differences with other home computers

Like the 64, they connected to a television, with a dedicated monitor as an option. Unlike the 64, they had a Motorola 6809 CPU in them. This made them a more capable machine in many ways than 6502-based computers like the C-64, Apple II, and Atari 800/XE. In terms of raw CPU power, these were among the best 8-bit computers ever made. It was capable of running an advanced, multitasking operating system called OS-9, which made it unique in the market.

The 6809 was a much more expensive CPU than the 6502 in other models. In order to keep the Color Computer’s price competitive, Tandy scrimped on the sound and graphics capability.

Radio Shack carried a full line of accessories and software for the Color Computer line. It didn’t sell in Commodore 64-like numbers, but it did outlast some industry big names like Texas Instruments.

Competing with other computers in the same line

Arguably, the later Tandy 1000 hurt the Color Computer’s success. Unlike some of its competitors, Tandy wasn’t afraid to compete with itself, and the decision was probably the right one. Tandy bet the future was in IBM compatibility, and was correct. And perhaps the higher price and better profit margins on the Tandy 1000 line made the decision an easy one.

Regardless, the Color Computer line always was and always will be popular with hobbyists and tinkerers due to its advanced-for-an-8-bit CPU and its generosity with I/O ports. These make it a good machine for hardware experiments and for programming, as the machine is more limited than a modern computer, but not as limited as some of the 8-bit machines it competed with.

Tandy 1000 line

Tandy computers - Tandy 1000SX
This Tandy 1000SX computer, from 1987, was essentially a no-compromises PCjr. Unlike the PCjr, the Tandy 1000 line was very successful.

By 1985, Radio Shack computers carried the Tandy brand name, hoping to ditch the “Trash 80” nickname and the techy image of the Radio Shack name. The company felt its early success slipping at the expense of competitors like Apple and Commodore, and hoped a brand change and a shift in focus would help.

Tandy computers sounded a bit more professional, while no less suited for home use.

Radio Shack sold IBM-compatible PCs before the Tandy 1000. But not all of them were 100% IBM compatible, so those early machines were a mixed success. On the other hand, the Tandy 1000 line was an unqualified success. It was not only Radio Shack’s most popular line of PC compatibles, it was one of the most popular IBM compatibles of the 1980s, period. Its popularity changed the industry.

A PCjr done right

Introduced in 1984, the Tandy 1000 was an IBM PCjr done right, with better expandability and compatibility than IBM’s home computer, as well as a comfortable full-travel keyboard. The Tandy 1000 was highly compatible with the PCjr, but when the PCjr faltered, Tandy shrewdly left the PCjr compatibility in, but played up its PC compatibility. Some models even included MS-DOS in ROM, so it booted up nearly instantly. Tandy bet correctly that an IBM-compatible computer with competitive graphics and sound would sell, and it did. And to support it, Radio Shack kept plenty of games in stock that helped take advantage of the Tandy 1000’s capabilities and show them off.

Compatibility with existing peripherals

Tandy also shrewdly made the Tandy 1000 compatible with some Color Computer accessories, such as joysticks and printers. This way Color Computer users could upgrade and take some of their peripherals with them. This strategy had worked well for Commodore with the transition from the VIC-20 to the 64, and Tandy did a good job of watching what worked for its competitors and emulating their practices.

Tandy 1000 success

The overall strategy paid off handsomely. For a time, Tandy was one of the top-selling PC brands, up there with IBM and Compaq. The Tandy 1000 was instrumental in making PCs popular as home computers. Radio Shack marketed the Tandy 1000 line aggressively. Its ads featured the tagline “Clearly superior” and touted its advantages over IBM.

Tandy did a good job of keeping the Tandy 1000 line current, aggressively swapping in newer and faster CPUs and eventually adding VGA graphics once that newer standard caught on. They were expensive computers by modern standards, but by 1980s standards, they were priced aggressively.

Early Tandy 1000 computers found themselves competing with computers like the Commodore 64. It was more expensive but was also more capable, so it fared well. Within a few years, the Tandy 1000 was competing with computers like the Amiga. By souping up the processor and the graphics, it was still able to compete with newer, faster machines.

The end of the line for Tandy computers

Tandy computers started running out of steam in the early 1990s and by then, they were no longer clearly superior. The availability of cheap PC components made in the Far East made it easier for other companies to undercut Tandy’s prices. In the early 1990s, Tandy was still selling 8086– and 286-based computers when 386SX computers were standard. One of my classmates bought a Tandy 1000 RL on sale in 1992 and was pretty distressed when he found out how poorly Windows ran on it.

In 1993, Tandy bowed out. It sold its factory to AST and in 1994, started selling AST computers in its stores. At various times, Radio Shack sold AST, Compaq, and IBM computers.

The end of Radio Shack

Tandy, perhaps sensing that big-box electronics stores threatened the Radio Shack business model, bought the Computer City chain in 1991. Computer City couldn’t compete with CompUSA and ended up selling out to CompUSA in 1998.

It may be surprising to some, but Radio Shack actually peaked in 1998. That year it was still the largest consumer electronics store in the world. Radio Shack turned profits as late as 2010, but started losing money rapidly in 2013. By 2014, it didn’t have enough capital to close the underperforming stores it needed to close in order to turn itself around.

Radio Shack went bankrupt in 2015, and its post-bankruptcy reincarnation went bankrupt in 2017. All that remain are the 400 franchises, who simply pay to use the name.

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