What it was like owning a Commodore in the 1980s

Since questions occasionally come up, and I remember well what it was like owning a Commodore in the 1980s in the United States, I’ll share my recollections of it.

It was very different from computing today. It was still interesting, but it was different. Technology moved fast in the 1980s, so if you blinked, you missed stuff.

Pricing

In the 1985-86 timeframe, a Commodore 64 cost between $150 and $200, depending on where you bought it and whether you got the older breadbin model, or the sleek 64C model that came with GEOS bundled. A Commodore 128 cost around $250-$300, again, depending on where you bought it.

A 1541 disk drive cost $150-$200. There were some clones that cost a bit less–I remember $139 being a common price for them–but their relative scarcity today shows that the 1541, for all its faults, sold extremely well. The 1571, which was double-sided and offered better speed when used with a 128, cost closer to $250.

This was considerably less than anything else on the market at the time, but could still represent a significant sacrifice for some families. Paying $350 for a C-64 and disk drive in 1985 would be like paying $700 for a computer in 2010. Commodore marketed itself as a computer for the working class, but computers of today are far more affordable than anything Commodore was able to do back then.

Who bought them

I owned a Commodore because I attended a small Lutheran grade school. Most small Lutheran grade schools couldn’t afford Apples, so they bought Commodores. The families who could afford them followed suit. But we’re probably talking 15 or 20 percent of the people I knew.

Back then, buying the same computer your kids used at school was a major consideration. Not everyone followed it, but more seemed to than not. That way, they didn’t have to learn how to use one kind of computer at school and another kind at home.

Aside from families like mine, a lot of technical-minded people bought them. Often they were people who were interested in computers in general but a Commodore was all they could afford.

Where you could buy them

Commodores were everywhere back then. You could buy them at Kmart, Target, Toys R Us, and Children’s Palace, at the very least. Sears sold them in their catalogs and in the stores at least during the Christmas season. Other catalog retailers like Dolgin’s, Service Merchandise, and K’s Merchandise carried them too. There were also a large number of dealers who sold them by phone or mail order, usually for less than the retailers due to their lower overhead.

Commodore also had a network of authorized dealers, but their prices were higher, so most people bought them at the discount stores instead. If your computer needed service under warranty, that was where you took it. Or for out-of-warranty repairs, for that matter. The computers themselves were pretty reliable once they got the manufacturing process mastered. But the power supplies and disk drives tended to be problematic.

Peripherals

There wasn’t a lot you could do without a disk drive, so you either bought a disk drive or the computer ended up in the closet pretty quickly. Tape drives weren’t very popular because they were so much slower than even the super-slow Commodore disk drives. Very little software was available on cassette for the 64 in the United States.

Printers were common, because word processing was one of the most obvious things to do with a computer. Printer ribbons were cheap–some even used the same ribbons as some popular typewriters–and paper didn’t cost much more than paper does now. Cost per page wasn’t a huge consideration because people didn’t print as much as today. Dot-matrix printers weren’t especially fast. The fastest could print about three pages in a minute. Most could manage no more than one page in a minute. Output was black and white only, of course, with noticeable gaps between the dots.

People didn’t print photographs, and there was no World Wide Web, so they didn’t print web pages either. A box of 250 sheets of paper lasted a very long time for most people. A good printer cost around $200, though there were printers available for considerably less than that. You got what you paid for, though, even more so than today.

Modems existed. I don’t think they were common, especially in the mid 1980s. I got one in the late 1980s, and as a result, most of the Commodore owners I knew also had one. They were a lot more common in cities than in small towns, since online services like Compuserve and Quantum Link (which became AOL) and GEnie were a local call in cities, and a lot of hobbyists set up BBSs you could call. In small towns, BBSs were pretty much unheard of.

Software

The same places that sold Commodore hardware also sold software. There were specialty software shops too, like Babbage’s and Software Etc. But a lot of us subscribed to magazines (or bought them off the newsstand) that featured programs we could type in. Some of the programs were very simple while some rivaled commercial prepackaged software. A lot of people learned programming by typing in those programs, finding their mistakes, then modifying them to work differently. Many cities had user groups who exchanged public domain software. And of course the stores that sold peripherals sold commercial software too.

Commercial software was expensive. Generally budget titles cost around $15, and new releases cost $29.95 or $39.95. Productivity software often cost more–sometimes $49.95 or even $59.95.  That was a lot of money in the 1980s–you can roughly double those prices to get 2014 values. Which leads me to…

Piracy

Yes, piracy was rampant in Commodore’s heyday. A 64 and a 1541 disk drive cost around $300 for most of the decade. Remember, double those numbers to get current figures. Some people just used magazine type-in and public domain software, the same way people might only run free apps on a tablet today.

But a lot of people pirated software too. A friend would buy a software then make copies to give away. And while I can’t speak of every area code, most St. Louis-area BBSs offered pirated software for download. And it wasn’t the least bit uncommon for local Commodore owners to meet up for copy parties. A few people would bring machines, set them up on folding tables, and copy disks for several hours.

Some people never even tried to justify it. Others justified it by saying they couldn’t afford to pay $30 or $40 for a piece of software and not know how long it would be fun or useful for them. A few pirated software to try it out, then bought a legitimate copy. But let’s be honest–most didn’t. And, remembering that the median household income in 1984 was about $21,000, they probably really couldn’t afford to buy a great deal of software after buying the computer. I knew people who bought a fast load cartridge and a copy program, and that was the only commercial software they ever paid for. Some skipped buying the copy program and pirated that too.

In St. Louis, the fast load cartridges were all legitimate. But I understand there were some areas where people chipped in and produced their own bootleg copies of commercial fast load cartridges. The raw materials cost about 1/3 what a legitimate cartridge cost. I knew people in St. Louis who were capable of copying cartridges but none of them, to my knowledge, ever did.

Generally speaking, if someone had $150, they were more likely to buy a printer or an extra disk drive than they were to buy three or four pieces of commercial software.

Upgrading

Commodore went under in 1994, so even those of us who didn’t want to move on eventually had no choice. Most of us moved on from 8-bit Commodores earlier than that though. Many of us bought Commodores because they were the least expensive option. So when it became less expensive to buy a new machine than to upgrade a Commodore, we did. Late in the decade, it was possible to buy an accelerator cartridge to make the 64 run at 4 MHz for the low low price of $200, buy a RAM expansion cartridge to add 256K or even 512K of memory for another $200 or so, and buy a 20MB hard drive for the low low price of $600. Or for around $1,000 you could buy a PC clone that had a hard drive, 512K of memory and probably ran at 7 or 8 or even 10 MHz.

Some people stayed loyal to Commodore and bought Amigas. When the Amiga 500 came out in 1987, it cost $600 and included a disk drive. It cost about twice as much as a 64 with a disk drive, but ran about eight times as fast, had eight times as much memory, and its disk drive had four times the storage capacity. Plus it could multitask, which was pretty neat.

Staying past the bitter end

But some people stayed to the bitter end and beyond. I still remember in the summer of 1995, I was working selling computers at retail just before I got a job doing desktop support at my university. A guy came in and told me he’d “had computers ever since they came out.” He told me all about his souped-up Commodore 64. He’d outfitted it with a hard drive, extra memory, and pretty much everything I’d ever dreamed of getting but couldn’t ever justify because it was cheaper to just buy an Amiga. I thought it sounded impressive. He sure did too. “I want a new computer but I don’t want to buy something less capable than what I’ve already got,” he said.

So I showed him a couple of PC clones running Windows. I would have loved to have shown him the Internet, but we couldn’t do that in the store at the time. But he sure loved that Commodore. He wasn’t impressed with the 486s and Pentiums I could show him, even though the worst machine we had in the store ran at 50 MHz and had 8 megabytes of RAM and at least a 540 megabyte hard drive. I told him Commodore had been out of business more than a year and eventually he was going to have to move on.

“Yeah, but they have to keep making the parts for seven years,” he said. “That’s the law.”

That wasn’t quite true. But when you’re not ready to upgrade you’re just not ready, and you’ll find reasons not to do it.

He walked out without buying a computer that day, and a week or two later I went back to college. At the time his stubbornness frustrated me. But looking back, I admire his willingness to hold on and milk that old technology for everything he could get from it. I’m sure he upgraded eventually, but he didn’t buy his new computer from me.

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