Commodore 64: A Look Back at a Geek's First PC

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Commodore 64: A Look Back at a Geek's First PC

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Before I owned a Commodore 64, my parents enrolled me in an after-school program that would start it all: A BASIC programming course on the PET computer. PET, which was made by Commodore, was an acronym for Personal Electronic Transactor. Of course, to many of us future computer geeks, it simply stood for "pet." This computer looked like something straight out of the science fiction movies. This was the future. Thirty years from now we'd all own PET computers. Or would we?

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Although my parents didn't actually buy me a PET, they did eventually buy me my first computer: The Commodore VIC 20. This mean machine, which plugged right into your color TV, sported a whopping 23 columns of text across the screen, 5 Kilobytes of Memory (about 3 of which was usable), and a stunning 16 colors. (Yes, that's 16 colors total—not 16-bit color.)

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Before he was hawking cheap flights and hotels, and before Captain James T. Kirk died (sorry to spoil it if you missed it), William Shatner (a much younger and thinner version) was the spokesperson for Commodore! But what. If. We hired. William. Shatner! To be. The spokesperson. Yes, we computer geeks have always loved him.

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During the entire time I owned a VIC 20, word of a mythical new creature was growing and spreading, a creature that sported a full 64K of memory, a creature with graphics so powerful the world of computing would be turned upside down. But would I ever become one of the chosen and actually own one?

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While I was away at summer camp, my parents waited in line at a now-defunct store called Computers And More in Grand Rapids, Michigan, to pick up the new Commodore 64. They stashed away the VIC 20 from my desk and replaced it with the C64. I came home, and, expecting to see the VIC 20, instead saw something that looked very similar, but gray in color instead of white. What was this new thing? It was the C-64! Needless to say, I didn't sleep that night.

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This was a time when we all read BYTE magazine. This was the time when Byte magazine was still THICK. While my older brother was typing in the 100-line program in BYTE magazine for his TI programmable calculator, I was reading about the Commodore 64. (If I had known someday I'd work for PC Week—which would later become eWEEK—I would probably have subscribed to PC Week instead. But I can't change the past. We computer kids loved our BYTE magazine.)

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The games on the Commodore 64 featured amazing artwork—on the boxes anyway. Alas, the games themselves rarely had very good graphics, as the Commodore 64's graphics capability wasn't quite living up to its promises. In fact, some games didn't have graphics at all—but they nevertheless consumed hours, weeks, months of my life when I could have been playing baseball or dating girls.

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Technology was rapidly advancing during this time, but I would hold onto the C-64 well into college, using it to write my reports and to log into the school's network with my 300 baud modem... until I saved up money from a summer job to finally buy the ultimate computer: The Amiga 500. Way ahead of its time, the Amiga's graphics were better than the IBM Personal Computer, and in the world of home computing, it was, of course, important to make sure that you knew exactly why your computer was better than your friend's computer. And most importantly of all, this was the computer with which I learned C programming. My life would never be the same.

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But the Commodore 64 refused to die. Production went well into the 1990s. And today emulators exist that run on various platforms, even including one for Adobe Flash; circuits exist that let you build your own Commodore 64; and in 2004 a woman named Jeri Ellsworth designed a standalone Commodore 64 emulator that's not much more than a joystick and some buttons with the full hardware inside, including thirty built-in games. Called the C64 Direct-to-TV, the computer was a big hit on QVC. It appears the Commodore 64 really did reach mythical status, living on forever. Yes, children, I once owned an original Commodore 64.

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