Commodore Plus/4, 16, 116: the 264 TED series

The Commodore 64 turned out to be a commercially successful machine since the beginning. However, Jack Tramiel was worried about cheaper machines that were available on the market (mainly, the Timex/Sinclairs and the Texas Instruments machines).

Still, there was room for improvements on the Commodore 64, as the built-in BASIC interpreter lacked many useful commands. Furthermore, the Commodore 64 had a complex design featuring many specialized chips. As a result, production costs were not low.

So, Commodore started to design a new machine, built around a new custom chip called TED. TED is short for Text Editing Device, but despite its name it was responsible not only for graphics, but also for sound and I/O. This chip offered the same maximum resolution of the Commodore 64 (320 x 200 pixels), but it featured a rich palette of 121 colours (15 colours with 8 shades + unshaded black). That’s pretty much, compared to the 16 colours palette of the Commodore 64. Still, there was something very important missing: sprites. This, combined with the fact that its sound abilities were really poor (only two channels with square wave, or one channel square wave + one channel with white noise) made it clear that this chip could not be regarded as an update of the couple VIC-II and SID on the Commodore 64.

The original concept of the 264 machines (as all TED based machines were called), was a little machine with rubber keys and small case with nice design. This machine was intended to be sold at a small price: only 49 dollars. Despite its dimensions, the machine offered many ports (two joystick ports, a cartridge port, cassette port, serial port, composite and RF connectors, and even a reset button). This is what will be later known as the Commodore 116. It would be sold in Europe as a cheap version of the Commodore 16, but it was actually the beginning of the TED concept: a cheap machine that would outperform Timex/Sinclair machines. Actually, with its small size and rubber keys, the Commodore 116 is very close to the Spectrum concept. And this was what Jack Tramiel really wanted.

Early prototypes of the Commodore 264 series were the Commodore 264 and Commodore 232 machines. As their name implies, they had 64K and 32K bytes of RAM memory respectively.

These machines were intended for business use, so the key was to provide them with built-in productivity software in ROM.

At the beginning, the idea was to let customers choose what software titles they wanted inside their computers. Word processor software and the language Logo were originally planned to be available, but at a certain point there was a change. The Commodore 264 would be offered with a package of 4 built-in programs: a word processor, a spreadsheet, a database and a graphing program. The machine was then renamed around this software package: the Commodore Plus/4 was born.

As for the Commodore 232,  it didn’t see any development. Still, a machine with less memory was finally designed. It was the Commodore 16, a computer with only 16K of RAM memory that was intended as an upgrade to the Commodore VIC 20 machine that was discontinued in 1984. Basically, the Commodore 16 is the same as the Commodore Plus/4, but with only 16k RAM and without the built-in productivity software. They choose a dark grey case with the same shape as the Commodore VIC 20 one.

 

Commodore_Plus4_foto_02
Commodore Plus/4 – The flagship of the TED line – 1983

 

DSCN4657
Commodore 16

 

DSCN2967
Commodore 116 – The original TED concept

 

These machines were blessed with a new BASIC interpreter: CBM BASIC V. 3.5. Although its name, it was far more advanced than BASIC V. 4.0 found on Commodore CBM machines. It offered commands for handling graphics and sound. Disk commands were also available. A handy built-in machine language monitor was also provided built-in.

The original Commodore 264 machine had a planned retail price of 79 dollars. But, before Commodore TED/264 machines could reach the shelves, Jack Tramiel had left Commodore. Because of that, the TED project was changed and Commodore started to think of these machines as true successors of the Commodore 64, rather than a new line of cheap machines.

The Commodore Plus/4, like the Commodore 264, had a nice small sized dark grey case, with low profile white keys on keyboard. A nice look for a home computer, maybe not quite for a business machine.

There was also another prototype: the Commodore V364. It looked like a bigger Plus/4. It was larger to offer a numeric keypad. It had a third-party voice synthetizer chip built-in (that’s why the “V” as part of its name), and was going to offer an improved version of the Magic Desk software. It should have been the high-end machine of the TED line. This project never saw light, only two or three prototypes were built and of course they are extremely rare.

So at the beginning, the TED line was meant to offer:

  • a cheap little machine for home use: the Commodore 116, at a price of 49 dollars;
  • a better machine featuring built-in software in ROM: the 79 dollars priced Commodore 264. Customers would choose built-in software;
  • a high-end machine featuring advanced office automation software and a speech synthetizer: the V364.

So, little price, better BASIC than the Commodore 64 one and built-in software programs were the keys for the success of these machines. Sadly, things turned out differently.

The following machines were actually put on the shelves:

  • the Commodore Plus/4, in 1983.
  • the Commodore 16, as a VIC-20 replacement, in 1984. Later, in Europe, the Commodore 116 was being sold as a cheaper version of the Commodore 16 (mainly in Germany). It is rare.

In the USA, they were a total commercial failure. They were priced extremely high: the Commodore Plus/4 was priced higher than the Commodore 64! This price would have set the machine as the Commodore 64 successor. But a successor is meant to be better. How could the TED chip cope with the advanced graphics and sound of the Commodore 64? The nicer palette was not enough to make it an improvement over the C64.

As for the built-in software, the 3+1 package was outrageus. Really, the programs were really bad and absolutely inadeguate for a serious office use. The text editor featured only 99 lines of text. A text page was 80 columns, but since the Plus/4 offerred only 40 characters per line like the Commodore 64, the text was scrolling horizontally as you were writing. That made it difficult to see what you were actually writing. Also, cursor responce was very slow.

The spreadsheet was a little better but it was very limited in size. The database was simple too, and the graphing software didn’t take advantage of the bitmap graphics offered by the TED. It simply used text characters to plot points.

As a result, the Plus/4 didn’t offer interesting software for office use. Still, this software made use of the disk drive only to save data, so home users with a tape drive were not able to save their work. The idea of built-in programs was sound, actually the Plus/4 was the first computer to have that feature, but with that poor software, things went just wrong.

Commodore TED machines were not Commodore 64 compatibles, so users could not take advantage of the big Commodore 64 software library. To make things even worse, joystick connectors were non standard, featuring mini-DIN connectors. A mini-DIN connector was used for the tape as well. That meant people owning Commodore or Atari machines was forced to buy another joystick for the TEDs. And Commodore owners could not use their Datassettes. Actually, aftermarket adaptors later allowed to connect standard joysticks, but they were not available at the beginning. So, Commodore built a joystick for the Commodore Plus/4, C16 and C116 machines: the t1341, and a new Datassette: the 1531. It was just the same as the 1530, but with a different connector.

TED machines should have not been competing with the Commodore 64, that’s why they had their own peripherals. Incompatibility was not regarded as a problem with that in mind. The non-standard connectors were part of the Commodore 116 original design, due to its size there was no other choice to fit all the ports it has. Then, they were used on the other machines due to a commercial choice. But the Commodore Plus/4 and 16 could have sported the standard joystick ports with no problems.

But, as the Commodore Plus/4 was priced higher than the Commodore 64, people was disappointed by it. It was not excellent for office use, due to the poor built-in software, the 40 columns video and the slow 1541 disk drive (this was still compatibile with the TEDs). It was not better than the Commodore 64 as a home computer with that pricing. The Commodore 64 was an excellent gaming machine, and if you wanted to program in BASIC, you could expand the bult-in old BASIC interpreter with ease. So, the great Plus/4 BASIC 3.5 was not crucial for the success of the machine.

It did offer some improvements over the Commodore 64: a faster CPU (the MOS 7501, a 6502 based CPU with a maximum clock speed of 1.79 MHz), a better BASIC, and an advanced memory management that allowed 60K of free BASIC memory (the Commodore 64 only allowed 39K of free BASIC memory, plus 4K RAM for machine language programs or utilities). But 60K BASIC RAM, still being impressive on a 64K RAM machine, were not really important. Also, a big BASIC program could not be loaded fast, considering the slow 1541 serial data transfer protocol. Actually, there was a new drive for the TED series: the 1551. It had a special connector that could be plugged on the cartridge port and offered parallel data transfer. But, this unit was only lately introduced. Still, it wasn’t fast as a parallel device, as it was only three times faster than a stock 1541. Still, the 1551 was not compatible with the Commodore 64. An interface to use it with the Commodore 64 was announced, but was never released.

DSCN3079
Commodore 1551 disk drive

If you look at Commodore Plus/4 or Commodore 16 games, they are not as good as the Commodore 64 counterparts. The lack of sprites forced to use programmable characters. As a result, these software sprites didn’t usually have a smooth motion and would clash with the background, also made of programmable characters. The CPU could not be at full speed while doing I/O. That made the actual CPU speed not much different from the one of the Commodore 64, so games could not take advantage of a fast CPU to overcome TED limits. Of course, very good programming techniques allow for better quality games, but that calls for big game development times that were not compatible with the market.

To make things even worse, the sound chip was not very good and was a disappointment compared to the excellent SID chip. Game music were just ugly. Again, you can make nice music with the TED, but that asks for big effort.

Still, as the Commodore Plus/4 and Commodore 16 were the same machine, software developers didn’t bother to write games for both, and they just programmed 16K games that would run on both machines. Of course, that sacrified the larger memory amount of the Commodore Plus/4, that could offer better games than the Commodore 16. Plus/4 titles using its full amount of memory are rare.

So, the Commodore Plus/4 was priced too high to be an actractive home computer machine. People just kept buing the Commodore 64: it could do the same things as the Plus/4, 16 colours were still good and BASIC could be expanded. And it was a great game machine with many titles already available. And you could use standard joysticks.

Being not advanced enough for office use, it didn’t sell well for business either.

As a result, it didn’t have any commercial success in the USA. Ironically, by the time these machines were introduced, Texas Instruments had already retired from the market and Timex/Sinclairs were not selling well in the USA. So, the TEDs didn’t even have the machines to compete with.

The Commodore 16 had the same fate. A 16K machine was a strange choice for 1984. Compared to the VIC-20, it was a good update but still, being incompatible with VIC-20 software and most peripherals (including the VIC-modem), it was hardly a good VIC-20 upgrade. So, it didn’t sell in the US as well.

Despite of those facts, these machines had  a sound design. Boards were small compared to previous Commodore machines. They had less chips but still retained many features with some improvements. The TED was advanced indeed. But Commodore management saw this as a way to improve their profits. They tried to sell those machine at high prices: they could have big earnings, considering their cheaper design compared to the Commodore 64’s one. But people could not forget about what those machines didn’t have when they were told prices.

If those machines were priced right, they would have been successful in the USA. In Europe, they were sold at right prices and they were successful in various countries: Italy, Germany, England, Finland, Sweden to name a few. They didn’t make huge sells, of course, but they had some success.

As for realibility, those machines were not excellent. The custom chips, TED, CPU and PLA, were really fragile and very prone to fail. Those chips had a tendency to eat up and finally get damaged. To my experience, the most common chip to fail is the CPU. It is custom and it can’t be directly replaced with a 6502 or 6510. You can figure it out how difficult it is to fix a TED machine now. You may find the problem within minutes, but you have no spares for it.

Commodore Plus/4 and 116 keyboards were not very good as well.

Commodore 116 keyboard was just terrible. Keys were made of rubber and very tiny. But the worst problem was the poor contact they made. The rubber keys had a conductive layer that was too thin. It soon degraded and you had to press hard on the keys. As a result, typing on a Commodore 116 keyboard is nearly a nightmare on most machines. I fixed a couple of Commodore 116 keyboard successfully, but it was very difficult.

The Commodore Plus/4 keyboard is quite good when it is in factory conditions. But it also suffers from bad contacts problems over time. The same is true for the early Commodore 64 keyboards (those with brown keys), but the fix is quite easy. On the Plus/4, if cleaning is not enough, you have to use a good contact spray to make the fix. I successfully repaired some Plus/4 keyboards as well.

As a note to Commodore 8 bit machines keyboards, Commodore 64 Cs seem to have the most reliable ones.

But don’t get me wrong. TED machines are really nice. They were just not needed as the Commodore 64 was doing well. Still, these computers can do great things. The following picture shows an expanded Commodore 116 (with 64k RAM), running an advanced Plus/4 demo. Yes, that’s the famous Amiga ball, and it’s moving very fast!

DSCN2700

 

Precedente Guida alla riparazione del Commodore 64 Successivo Introducing potentiometers: how they work

One thought on “Commodore Plus/4, 16, 116: the 264 TED series

Lascia un commento

*