Timex Sinclair 1000: The can’t-miss that missed

The Timex Sinclair 1000 was the U.S. version of the Sinclair ZX81. It was perhaps Timex’s most successful home computer, but its success paled next to its British counterpart. It was a real computer for $100 way back in 1982. The public was tiring of game consoles and wanted more capability, so what could go wrong?

The Timex Sinclair 1000 sold for $99, and was the first home computer to sell for under $100. It was a very limited machine with 2 KB of RAM, a membrane keyboard, and no color or sound, and was discontinued in 1983.

Introduction

Timex Sinclair 1000
Timex hoped to dominate the US market with an Americanized version of the Sinclair ZX81. Suffice it to say, it fell short of becoming The Beatles of home computers.

The Timex Sinclair 1000 was a joint venture between Sinclair, the UK computer manufacturer, and Timex, best known as a maker of wristwatches. The Timex Sinclair 1000 was an Americanized version of the ZX81. Timex replaced the RF modulator with a version suitable for use in North America, added an additional 1 KB of RAM and added additional shielding, as the FCC was very strict about computer emissions in the early 1980s. It used a television as a display and a standard cassette recorder for storage.

The ZX81, introduced in March 1981, had been extremely successful in the UK. Timex initially sold its own version of the ZX81 under license, but introduced the TS 1000 in July 1982, priced at $99, and launching a price war.

While the ZX81 sold 1.5 million units, its US counterpart was less successful. Timex did sell 600,000 units, but didn’t lead to enough sales of additional peripherals or first-party software to be profitable. Timex discontinued the TS 1000 in 1983 and exited the US computer market entirely in February 1984, after the TS 2068 failed.

It was demand for computers that caused the video game crash of 1983, but it’s noteworthy that in November 1983, the average street price of a Timex Sinclair 1000 was half that of the fading Atari 2600 game console.

Using the Timex Sinclair 1000

The Timex Sinclair 1000 was a bit of a mixed bag. Its graphics capabilities were very limited, but it had a fairly powerful version of Basic for its time, including graphics commands. This made it easier to write simple games on it than on its main competitor, the VIC-20. But its 2 KB of RAM was very limiting and the computer as a whole felt underpowered. The membrane keyboard was hard to type on, and you had to get used to using hotkeys to enter Basic commands when you typed in programs.

The TS 1000 also had what I consider a serious design flaw. It used the same 3.5mm connector for the power jack as it did for the tape drive, and it placed all three connectors right next to each other. This made it entirely possible to plug the AC adapter into one of the tape leads and damage the machine.

The Timex Sinclair 1000 power supply

Frequently when a Timex Sinclair 1000 turns up today, the power supply is missing. When the computer went into storage, the AC adapter probably ended up in the box of random AC adapters, where it was eventually reused or discarded.

The Timex Sinclair 1000 needs 9 volts DC, with a 3.5mm connector, with the tip negative. The original power supply was .7 amps, or 700 mA. An Atari 2600 power supply works perfectly, though its 500 mA probably isn’t enough if you use the 16K memory expansion with it. If you want to be safe, look for a 1-amp unit. Of course 700 mA is fine but 1A will be easier to find. Higher voltage is bad, but higher amperage is OK, within reason.

Why the Timex Sinclair 1000 failed in the United States

Timex Sinclair 1000
The Timex Sinclair 1000 only had connectors for a TV, tape recorder, AC adapter, and memory expansion. Using a standard tape recorder was consumer friendly but it hurt Timex’s bottom line. If your AC adapter is missing, you can substitute an Atari 2600 adapter, just be sure to plug it into the right plug to avoid destroying the computer.

Demand for home computers was booming in 1982 and 1983, and Timex was a household name. Furthermore, selling 600,000 units would have meant it was likely the third best-selling computer of its time, behind the Commodore VIC-20 and Texas Instruments TI-99/4A in a crowded market.

So what was the problem?

Commodore lowered the price on the VIC-20 and TI and Atari followed suit. While the VIC-20 was underpowered and the TI was a good idea poorly implemented, both of them were better machines than the TS 1000. They offered real, full-travel keyboards so you could touch type on them, and they offered color and sound. The 400 was better than both of them except for its lousy membrane keyboard. But all three were much better than the Timex. When the VIC-20 cost $299 and the TI cost $450, there was an argument to buy the Timex and upgrade to one of the others later. When all four machines cost $99, it made sense to skip the upgrade cycle.

Timex lowered its price to $49 to try to compete, but the much larger software library for the other two machines made them worth the money. Worse yet, all the others had an automatic upsell that Timex lacked. While Timex let you use a standard household tape recorder, the competition used their own proprietary connectors. That meant you had to buy their $70 cassette drives instead of letting your household tape recorder do double duty. Atari, Commodore and TI made more money off their tape drives than Timex did off their computer.

Better value, better ecosystem

The hidden price of the tape drive really meant a VIC-20, Atari, or TI setup cost $120 more than a Timex setup. But most U.S. consumers were willing to pay that. Then, as now, people were willing to pay a premium for a nicer keyboard and nicer graphics.

In the UK, where Atari, Commodore and TI didn’t have a head start, the ZX81 fared better. But in the States, where all three had a chance to build an ecosystem around their computers, they could afford to sell their machines at break even or even a loss and make up the difference in peripherals and first-party software titles.

Timex promised to offer somewhere between 25 and 30 first-party software titles upon release. But only a fraction of them materialized. This was something of a chicken-and-egg problem. It’s easy to understand Timex being reluctant to go to the expense to import and publish a bunch of software for a computer that wasn’t selling. But one reason it wasn’t selling was because there was more software available for the competition. The competition understood that in order to build a market for their machines, they had to offer some software themselves, at least initially. And the profits from the software helped make up for any losses they incurred in a race to the bottom during a price war.

When a sale isn’t a sale

Timex Commodore rebate
This ad from the summer of 1983 encouraged consumers to buy both a C-64 for $389 and a Timex Sinclair 1000 for $45, then send the Timex to Commodore for a $100 rebate and take a profit. Thousands of people did just that.

Finally, many of Timex’s 1983 sales were a gimmick. In 1983, Commodore offered a $99 rebate toward a Commodore 64 with the trade in of any computer or game console. Discounters advertised the two machines side by side, encouraging consumers to buy both machines, send the Timex to Commodore, and pocket the $50 difference. Commodore ended up with a warehouse full of Timex computers no one wanted. Commodore employees used them as doorstops, and the CPU from one of them ended up in the Commodore 128 prototype.

Timex was the loser in that deal. Sure, it sold the machine and made a tiny profit. But it gained no additional mindshare, and no additional sales from peripherals or software. Commodore got played too, but at least it offered the rebate on what was at the time a high-margin machine.

Timex got its chance to play the spoiler, however. Commodore designed its ill-fated Commodore 16 and Plus/4 primarily to compete with low-cost machines from Timex at any price point Timex wanted to hit. Timex left the market and Commodore, in a fit of something other than brilliance, released the machines anyway. This unleashed half a million computers that had nothing to compete with except Commodore’s other very successful machines. This was the first of Commodore’s many missteps that took it from leading the industry in market share to bankruptcy and liquidation in just 10 years.

Differing attitudes toward computers in the US and UK

I think there was one more factor that made a cheap-as-possible computer more successful in the UK than on the other side of the Atlantic. In 1980, the British government launched a computer literacy project and put the BBC in charge of it. This fostered an interest in computers throughout British society. While the BBC commissioned a computer and most of its content favored that machine, it did try to maintain some platform neutrality. That meant people who couldn’t afford a fancy BBC Micro could buy a cheap Sinclair computer and still do the exercises and learn.

There was no similar cohesive effort in the United States. There was a government program called Chapter 1 to furnish schools with computer equipment, and PBS had a television show called Computer Chronicles. But the interest in computers didn’t permeate all of US society. In the small rural town in Missouri where I lived in during the mid 1980s, most people thought my parents were weird for letting me have a computer at home.

Unlike the UK, the people in the United States who could only afford a Timex were the least likely to buy one. Middle-class families were happy to buy a nicer computer at a higher price, or just wait a year or three to see what happened next. I get the sense that in the UK, there was a fear of missing out. That wasn’t prevalent here.

I got mixed reactions when I posed that question online. So maybe the reasons were more complex than that, but for whatever reason, the British ZX81 outsold the Timex-Sinclair 1000 2.5 to 1, in spite of having 1/4 the population of the United States.

A second life and legacy

Timex’s machines did retain a bit of a cult following after Timex left the computer market. The machines were inexpensive, so hobbyists would buy them and use them like we use a Raspberry Pi today, for projects. It had a built in programming language and could use a cheap tape recorder and black and white TV for a display. That made it good for robotics and home automation experiments, or controlling a model railroad.  Timex Sinclair 1000s still turn up from time to time in the estates of mad scientist types.

If the machine broke, it wasn’t a huge deal. It was cheap, and some inventory remained in the sales channel for years. Once that dried up, plenty remained on the used market.

Furthermore, some of the machines’ weaknesses could be overcome. You could add an additional 16K of RAM to it, making it more useful. And when TI departed the home computer market soon after Timex, TI keyboards turned up in the surplus electronics market. Timex owners soon figured out how to rewire the cheap surplus TI keyboards to work with their machines. If you ever see a Timex Sinclair 1000 with a sketchy-looking external keyboard, compare the keyboard to a TI-99/4A. It will probably match.

These developments, along with the ability to run software imported from the UK, helped the machines survive longer than they otherwise would have.

How much is a Timex Sinclair 1000 worth today?

Although the machines are old, the Timex Sinclair 1000 isn’t terribly rare. I see people trying to sell boxed examples for $99. But unless it’s complete with all the paperwork and pristine, $50 is much more realistic. A loose example is worth about $20, especially if it’s untested. The keyboards frequently go bad, and replacements cost around $22. They make good curiosity pieces, but nostalgia plays a big part in value. That’s why less rare machines from the era are worth more. More people have memories of owning or using an Apple, Atari, Commodore or TI computer in the 1980s.

Although a computer approximately four decades old still in its original box sounds unusual, boxed examples of Timex and TI computers are surprisingly common. Back then, any computer, even a $49 Timex, was a major purchase, and people would save their boxes and even the original paperwork. If someone bought either machine late in its life and lost interest in it, back in the box it went. If you do find a boxed example, look through the papers inside. You may very well find a dated sales receipt, and possibly even the ad that piqued the original purchaser’s interest.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this:
WordPress Appliance - Powered by TurnKey Linux