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TRS-80 MC-10: Radio Shack’s cheapest computer

The TRS-80 MC-10 was a really cheap beginner’s home computer from 1983, designed to compete with cheap computers from Timex. It was a little bit too limited and perhaps not quite cheap enough, so it only lasted a year on the market.

Priced at $119, the TRS-80 MC-10 was Radio Shack’s entry-level computer in 1983 and 1984. Tandy overestimated the demand for cheap, limited computers and the MC-10 flopped.

The reason it existed

In 1980, British electronics company Sinclair Research designed the cheapest computer it possibly could, the Sinclair ZX-80, and priced it at just under 100 British pounds. Sinclair cut every corner it could to reach that price point, so the computer was very limited. But a year later, Sinclair found a way to address some of its annoyances while reducing the cost even further. A year later, Sinclair’s manufacturing partner, Timex, started selling this computer in the United States as the Timex Sinclair 1000. And you could buy one at any store that sold Timex watches.

This scared everyone, including Tandy, Radio Shack’s parent company.

Atari, Commodore, and Texas Instruments responded to Timex’s threat by cutting prices. Tandy responded differently. It designed a new computer it could sell for as close to $99 as possible. That was the MC-10. It was a cut-down version of the popular TRS-80 Color Computer, and cost $119.

Radio Shack also sold a 16K memory expansion and a printer for it, and it used a cheap household cassette recorder for data storage.

The idea with all of these cheap computers was to get people interested in computing at a low price, then get them to upgrade to something better once they outgrew that initial purchase.

Advantages of the TRS-80 MC-10

TRS-80 MC-10

The diminutive TRS-80 MC-10 only cost $119, but was too limited to catch on. It only lasted a year on the market.

The TRS-80 MC-10 was quite a bit better than the Timex-Sinclair 1000. It offered twice the memory, with 4K of RAM, and its chiclet keyboard, similar to what you find on a calculator or TV remote, was  easier to type on than the flat membrane keyboard on the Timex. More importantly, it had color. Its 8 colors was limited for the time, but the Timex didn’t have color at all.

Although the TRS-80 MC-10 cost $20 more than the cheapest computers from Atari, Commodore, and TI, it had a hidden cost advantage. Tandy didn’t make you buy a proprietary cassette recorder. They used a nonstandard connector so you had to buy an expensive cable from Radio Shack to use the tape recorder you already had, but it was cheaper than buying a whole redundant unit.

Timex quickly lowered its price to $49, but if you wanted a usable computer with storage, the MC-10 easily cost $50 less than the cheapest offering from Atari, Commodore, or TI. And you could buy one at Radio Shack. In 1983, almost 90% of the population in the United States lived within five minutes of a Radio Shack.

If this sub-$200 computer trend was going to catch on, the TRS-80 MC-10 was going to dominate. It was cheap, had very little in the way of hidden costs, and you only had to drive five minutes to get one.

Disadvantages of the TRS-80 MC-10

But you’ve never heard of the TRS-80 MC-10. So needless to say, it didn’t dominate. Why?

The TRS-80 MC-10 was a cut-down version of the much more famous TRS-80 Color Computer. But the two machines weren’t fully compatible. Most magazine type-in programs for the Color Computer would work, but most of the software Radio Shack sold wouldn’t. Worse yet, Radio Shack left out the cartridge port. Timex didn’t have one either, but Atari, Commodore, and TI did. So did the Color Computer. If you could live without saving data, it was cheaper to buy a $99 Atari, Commodore, or TI and buy software on cartridge. Plus, cartridges loaded instantly, whereas tape was slow. The MC-10 also lacked joystick ports and had no way to add them.

And the Color Computer only cost $80 more. For your money, you got more memory, sound, a cartridge slot, joystick ports, and a better keyboard. It was worth saving up a little longer to get the better machine.

The MC-10 was the computer that most deserved the Trash-80 nickname. The quality was fine, it was just too underpowered.

How the MC-10 stacked up against competitors

The Timex computers failed because they were just too limited, and the MC-10 veered in that same direction. The Atari 400 had a worse keyboard, but it had outstanding graphics and sound. TI offered the second-best graphics and sound in the category, while offering a full-travel keyboard. Its layout was a bit awkward, but compared to the MC-10, it was luxurious. The VIC-20 had worse graphics and sound and less memory, but the best keyboard in the price category, and it wasn’t close. Then along came Timex, with its model 2068, which was a better MC-10 than the MC-10.

As a result, nobody talked about the MC-10. I desperately wanted a computer in 1983, and I read everything about them I could find. Nothing I read in 1983 and 1984 even mentioned the MC-10. I never saw one in a Radio Shack, either.

Tandy quietly discontinued the MC-10 in 1984.

The fallout from the price war

The price war of 1983 drove down the cost of computers and decimated the video game industry, but it took a toll on the computer industry too. Commodore won the battle, driving Timex, TI, and Coleco from the market and seriously wounding Atari and Apple as well. It’s easy to forget that Apple fired Steve Jobs in 1985 because it was losing money and laid off 20 percent of its workforce.

Industry analysts disagreed about what it meant at the time. Some thought lower prices would mean faster adoption rates, but some were arguing as early as 1984 that it would erode consumer confidence. In hindsight, I think the people who argued it eroded confidence were right.

Tandy adjusted as well as anyone. In late 1984 it released its very successful Tandy 1000, which was powerful enough to be a serious computer. It was IBM compatible, but had graphics and sound that made it capable of playing good video games. It struck a good balance. The Tandy 1000 could run business software so adults could bring work home, kids could do their homework on it, and they could play games on it that looked at least as good as console games, but were more complex because it had more storage. It lacked the pizazz of the 68000-based computers that hit the market in 1984-85, but in many ways was more practical. And for a few years in the late 1980s it was the best selling home computer in the United States.

The TRS-80 MC-10 was a misstep, but Tandy capitalized on the next stage.

Value today

The TRS-80 MC-10 isn’t common, but few people remember it. For that matter, everything Tandy made outside of the Tandy 1000 line seems unfairly forgotten today. Radio Shack sold more computers than anyone until 1981 when the VIC-20 stormed the market, and between its portables, the Color Computer, and Tandy 1000, only Commodore outsold them in the 1980s. Apple’s claim of being the best-selling computer in the 70s and 80s is, with all due respect, completely unfounded.

Rarity helps drive value, but so does demand. Low demand means limited value. At any given time, there are usually at least a couple of MC-10s available on Ebay. Loose examples usually sell for $25 or less, depending on condition and completeness. A boxed MC-10 sells for closer to $50. When they sell for more than $50, it’s usually due to condition and the presence of one or more extras.

Boxed examples are fairly common for the same reason boxed Timex computers are common. The price drew people in, but it takes more than a low price to keep people interested. Since there wasn’t a lot that people could do with them, they got boxed back up and put into a closet.

Be sure to look closely at the photos of any MC-10 you buy. If they were stored with the cables sitting on top of them, it can produce burn marks on the case. If you don’t mind the battle scars, you can score one cheaply.

Cheap 1980s computers like the MC-10 can be fun to collect because they’re inexpensive and don’t take a lot of space. And their limitations attract developers who want to write something limit-pushing and like a challenge.

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