Commodore is known and remembered for producing
their 8-Bit line of computers such as the PET, VIC-20, and most of all the famous Commodore
64. However, with the discontinuation of the PET and the complete failure of the Plus/4
to recapture any of the business or educational market they had lost, they needed to produce
something for business market. It was also clear by this point that IBM was leading the
way in the business market and clones like the Compaq Portable were also very successful.
There was certainly nothing stopping Commodore from introducing their own IBM clones. As early as 1983, Commodore was trying to
strike a deal with Intel to be a second-source manufacturer of the Intel 8088 and related
chips. Which means they would have been producing the 8088 at their MOS chip fab. They were
also trying to strike a deal to rebrand the dynalogic Hyperion as a Commodore product.
In fact, some marketing materials are known to exist showing the Commodore logo on the
Hyperion, however no such computer was ever sold by Commodore. Nevertheless, they did start building their
own line of PC compatible computers. There are a number of different model numbers, such
as the PC-1, PC-5, PC-10, PC-10-II, PC-10-III, and they do go on and on. Now, unfortunately,
there is little to no logic in these model numbers and they don’t even necessarily
tell you in which order they were first released. For example, the PC-5 was the first model,
as best I can tell, which came out in 1985, but the PC-1, came out two years later in
1987. Or did it? The motherboard says 1987, but the back of the case says 1984. And there
isn’t much logic on the case styles either. For example, the PC-5 and 10 are basically
the same computer with a different video card, and the PC-20 is also the same, just adding
a hard drive. Likewise, all of these models are essentially the same computer with different
hardware configurations. There are actually even more models than I’m
listing here, but it’s insane to try to make sense of it. It’s sort of like trying
to make sense of the Macintosh Performa model number scheme. As such, I’m not even going to attempt to
talk about these computers in chronological order because I’d probably just wind up
getting it wrong. So, these are of course, PC compatibles or MS-DOS computers, right?
So, there are certain assumptions about the architecture that we probably don’t need
to discuss because well, that would probably be a better documentary for the IBM PC. So,
yeah, we can just assume these are PC compatibles and what I’ll focus on is what makes these
computers different from regular PC compatibles and how the different Commodore PCs are also
different from each other. Let’s start by taking a look at the PC-10.
This is one of the earlier models and we’ll have a look at the keyboard. You have 10 function
keys to the left, backslash is over here, and you may notice there are no independent
cursor keys. Instead, you would have to use the cursor keys on the number pad. This layout
may seem strange today, but this was more or less identical to how the IBM PC keyboard
was laid out at the time, and even pretty similar to clones like the Compaq portable. The keyboard itself plugs into the front with
a little right angle connector like this, which was kind of unusual at the time, since
the IBM and most clones had the keyboard connect to the rear. Speaking of the rear, let’s
turn it around and see what’s on the back. It’s pretty sparse. You’ve got the power
switch, and of course the power connector, and over here is a serial port. This one uses
the 25 pin style, which was common at the time. A few years later most PCs had switched
to using the 9-pin version that most people remember. And of course, a parallel port for
a printer, and the last thing is the CGA video port. To disassemble it, there are 5 screws on the
back, which was pretty standard for PC clones of the era, but also two screws towards the
front on each side. And then the case just comes off like so. Now, some people might be wondering if this
computer was really made by Commodore or if they just rebadged some other clone PC. It’s
a good question. But, once you start looking inside, there are some dead giveaways this
was really made by Commodore. For example, you may notice the MOS logo on
some of these chips. And over here it does say Commodore right on the board. Another
interesting tidbit about the motherboard is that it uses an 8088 processor made by Siemens,
but apparently licensed by Intel. By default, these models came with 256K, but this is a
RAM expansion board that brings it up to 640K. All successive models came with 640K by default. This board does have 5 expansion slots, like
the original IBM PC, but I only have this one card in it right now. And the truth is,
this board has a lot of stuff integrated such as the serial and parallel ports, as well
as the floppy drive controller. This type of integration was rare during this time.
IBM wasn’t even doing it yet, and just a few clones such as Tandy had started to integrate
these things onto the motherboard. Even though there is a lot of empty space
in the case, there is technically no hard drive bay. However, a hard drive could be
added in the form of a hard-card, like this which contains both an MFM hard drive and
a controller card all in one. And it would just fit down into a card slot like this.
Now, since I don’t have a functional hard drive at the moment, I’ll be using a more
modern device, this XT-IDE, to demonstrate this computer. Now, I want to take a look at this ATI graphics
card. This is something I feel makes the computer very unique for its time. So, keep in mind that in 1985, CGA graphics
was still king. EGA graphics had been released the year before in 1984, but up to this point
most of the PCs on the market were still using CGA. In fact, EGA was a bit on the expensive
side and so it was a little bit slow to catch on. But, looking at this board, you may notice
it has a lot of RAM. A CGA card only needs 16K, but this card has 64K of video RAM. I’ll
talk more about this in a moment. It also has an option parallel port, which is not
populated on this model. And I believe, according to the documentation that this is an optional
header for a joystick port. And the manual isn’t clear, but apparently one of these
headers here is for a composite video output. So, this is quite a compact and sophisticated
video card for the CGA era. So let’s talk about that extra RAM. Just
as a refresher, a regular CGA card has a 40 and 80 column text mode with 16 colors. It
also has a 320×200 mode at 4 colors, which was the most popular mode used for games.
It also had a high resolution mode with 2 colors for use with business applications
and some games. And technically speaking, if you had a composite monitor then you could
have a low resolution 16 color mode. So, the ATI Graphics Solution 3 offers some
additional modes. For starters, it has a 132 column text mode. Also a 320×200 mode with
16 colors. A high res mode with 4 colors, and even a high res mode with 16 colors. And
on top of that, this card can display Hercules graphics by changing the dip switches to that
mode, of course it requires a Hercules or MDA compatible monitor to use this mode. So, these modes here are very similar to what
Tandy or EGA offered at the time. However, the problem was, it wasn’t compatible with
either of these existing video standards. In fact, these modes weren’t even invented
by ATI. These modes are actually called Plantronics Colorplus. These modes are actually based
on an actual video card by Plantronics. Unfortunately, there simply weren’t enough
of these computers on the market supporting these modes to get any software developers
to actually support them. In fact, there are only a handful of applications known to support
Plantronics mode and none of those are games. However, I do want to show you a few things
I found. First, we’ll need to connect up a color
RGBI monitor. I’m just going to use the regular Commodore 1084. Now I want to show
you another thing. Listen to the sound this thing makes when powering it on. Does that
sound familiar? It should, it’s the same sound made by the Commodore PET when it is
powered on. Anyway, one thing I want to do first is run CheckIT. The main reason is I
just wanted to run the benchmark and see how fast it is. And, no surprise, it performs
almost identical to the original IBM XT at 4.77 mhz. One thing I found particularly interesting
was that some games, such as Avoid the Noid come up in a unique 4-color palette. As you
can see, the Noid is red, which is supposed to be his color after all. However, when you
run the game on most CGA based computers, it looks like this, using the default magenta
palette. So, obviously this CGA card is a bit more configurable than most and this game
takes advantage of that. Anyway, moving along, this is a test program
that comes with the ATI card, which will allow you to test all of the modes. I’ll start
by testing the text modes. So, this is the 40 column mode, this is the 80-column mode.
And this, is the 132 column mode. I’ve actually never seen this on a CGA monitor. Admittedly,
it is not super clear due to the limits of the CRT. OK, let’s look at the graphics modes, starting
with regular CGA 4 color mode. Interesting enough, they’ve picked an interesting palette
right here in the test program. And here’s another palette. OK, let’s try the 16 color
graphics mode. And it works. And while this test looks very boring, it’s something a
regular CGA card could technically not do. And now we’ll try the high res mode with
16 colors. This is pretty cool, again this is basically like EGA graphics. If only there
were some games that made use of it. Well, technically there is now. Most of you are familiar with Planet X3. And,
of course, it runs fine on this machine in CGA mode. It was actually designed with a
4.77 Mhz XT with CGA in mind. And, I want to show you at what speed it moves, and there’s
a reason I’m showing you this, which you’ll understand in a minute. This game also allows
you to pick from 4 different CGA palettes. As you can see. However, recently it was updated to support
Plantronics Colorplus mode. And here it is. As far as I know this is the first ever game
to support it. Now, this looks a lot nicer than 4 color CGA, but there are a few things
I should tell you about. First of all, I want you to see how sluggish it is. That’s because
the screen now uses twice the amount of RAM as before, so updating the screen takes twice
as long. Fortunately, Planet X3 does have a reduced screen width mode for slower PCs
and it does help the performance here drastically. The second thing I wanted to mention is that
we’re not really using the full resolution here. We’re using the 320 by 200 mode, but
we’re using the 16 color graphics from the Tandy mode, so the graphics are a bit chunkier.
This is because we didn’t have any custom graphics for this mode. However, we are using
the higher resolution font that is not possible in the Tandy mode, so it actually does look
slightly better than the Tandy mode. So, I wanted to see if there was some way
I could simulate what games might have looked like if they had ever actually been designed
to support Plantronics Colorplus. Well, I found a way to demonstrate this. I discovered
that CSHOW, which is an old image-viewing program for PCs actually supports plantronics.
So, I just took some screenshots of games using DOSBOX, and then saved them as GIF images.
And, as you can see, one of the viewing options is the Plantronics mode, although it only
supports this one resolution and not the higher resolution. Still, let’s have a look. So
yeah, here’s what Commander Keen would have looked like. This is Day of the Tentacle.
Here’s Maniac Mansion. This is Ultima VI. And this is Populous. And the last one here
is Defender of the Crown. So again, the graphics would have been very comparable with both
Tandy and EGA. And just for the heck of it, here’s a full color image from something
modern. It’s kind of a pity that these modes were otherwise never used. I am pretty sure
most of the people who used these computers never knew their computer was even capable
of this due to the sheer lack of software support. As a result, almost 100% of software
titles had to be used with the traditional CGA 4-color schemes, just like the IBM PC. So, moving along we’ve talked about the
PC-10, which was roughly the size of the original IBM PC. But now, let’s take a look at the
PC-20, or more specifically the PC-20 dash 3. It’s noticeably more compact than the
first. It’s also important to note that this computer is virtually identical to the
Commodore Colt, which was probably the best selling version of any of the PC compatibles
by Commodore. The only real difference between these two computers is the front faceplate.
They have the same motherboard and same case. They look even more similar on the rear. Don’t
worry too much about the differences in the floppy drives. Most likely neither of the
floppy drives on the bottom are from the factory and were probably installed by the end users.
So everything you’re about to see on the PC-20 applies to the Colt as well. Let’s take a look at the keyboard that comes
with it. You may notice it is a much more modern layout, more reminiscent of the 286
era. For example, you have 12 function keys at the top of the keyboard, control and alt
are over here, inverted-T style cursor keys, and of course a number pad. Taking a look at the side, you may notice
they have moved the keyboard port over here, along with a reset button, which is the same
style of reset button that was used on later 8-bit machines like the Commodore 128. Moving on to the rear, one of the first things
you may notice is that basically everything is now integrated onto the motherboard. Starting
to the left, there is a mouse port. Now, while this looks like it would be for a 9-pin serial
mouse, it’s not. This is actually designed to work with an Amiga mouse, like this. So,
this is another interesting thing it shares with other Commodore products. It also has
a built in composite video jack, along with a jack that doubles as CGA or Hercules depending
on how you configure these DIP switches here. And then, you have your standard serial and
parallel ports. To open the case, there are two screws on
the rear, and then two screws on the side. However, there is one thing to be mindful
of. I need to pull this case backwards, but first we have to do something about his reset
button because it will snag on the case and break. All you need to do is push it in like
this at the same time you pull back on the case, like so. Then you can pull the case
off. Ok, first thing you might notice is that this
does have an integrated hard drive. And yes, the controller is integrated on the board.
And it is technically an IDE controller, but it only runs at 8-bits wide, so it is not
compatible with typical IDE hard drives. There were a handful of custom drives made at the
time that were specifically designed for this interface, and finding one that works today
is darned near impossible. Also, the video chip is now a Paradise video
chip instead of the ATI model of the previous generation. However, it still has 64K of video
RAM, and still supports most of the same features as the ATI card. So, the PC-10 and the PC-5, I don’t generally
think of them as being good MS-DOS gaming computers, mostly because they’re so slow.
But, this computer is a good bit faster, so I’m going to go ahead and add an Ad-Lib
card to this, which is going to make it an even better MS-DOS gaming machine. So, let’s connect up the monitor to this
one. Since I’m using a Commodore monitor, it does have both inputs for RGBI as well
as the composite port. That way we can try out both options. And while we’re at it,
we can plug in the Ad-Lib to the monitor since it has an internal speaker. OK, let’s power this one on. Of course,
listen to the sound it makes after finishing the POST. Yep, it’s still the same sound
from the PET era. The next thing I want to show you is what
happens if you hold down control, alt, and press the keys S, T, or D. No, this isn’t
for playing music. Actually, it controls the speed of the processor. So, pressing Control,
Alt, S sets it to the standard speed of 4.77 Mhz, which is useful for some really old games.
And then T sets it to turbo mode, which is 1 and a half times as fast. And the D sets
it to double mode, which is twice the speed of the original IBM. Since this computer is quite a bit faster,
let’s see how it performs running Planet X3 in Plantronics mode again. And this time
we can also select Ad-Lib sound. OK, and with that little speed boost, as you can see, it
has no trouble keeping up proper speed, even when using the 16 color video mode. So here’s the next question, since this
has a composite video output, how well does that work? Since Planet X3 also supports this,
it will be a good test. Well, it works, but the colors are wrong. This is an extremely
common problem with IBM clones. It seems none of them ever cared enough about the Composite
mode to get the colors right. Now, I did add a feature in the game to help alleviate this
problem, but it will never look entirely correct without a properly compliant CGA card. And in the case of other games, such as Zak
McKracken, there’s no way to solve the problem. Going to composite mode definitely gets you
more color, but the colors are not correct. Granted, on some scenes like this one you
might not notice. But on scenes like this it is more obvious. For example, looking out
the window, it shouldn’t be green, rather blue. It should actually look closer to this.
So, unfortunately, composite mode isn’t a very good option for games. And since no
other games support the Plantronics mode, that means the only way to experience games
on this computer is using the traditional 4-color CGA mode. However, some games are tolerable to play
in this mode, and this machine is just about fast enough to enjoy them. However, much like
I added in an AdLib card, I suppose you could always upgrade to EGA or VGA by adding a new
card in there. OK, moving along, we’ve talked about the
PC-10, and the PC-20. Now, let’s talk about the PC-1. As you can see, the PC-1 is quite
a bit smaller than the other units. In fact, it’s only slightly larger than a 1571 disk
drive, and follows a very similar design language. One thing to note about the PC-1 is that it
was only sold in Europe, primarily Germany. So all of these require 240 volts. In fact,
on the bottom case it shows it was made in West Germany, there’s something you don’t
see anymore. On the side, you’ll see a keyboard port,
that same Amiga mouse port, and an external disk drive port. On the rear is a power in
and a power out for a monitor. Then we have the same RGBI output, along with composite,
and the DIP switches to set the mode. Over here we have parallel and serial ports. Now,
here is an expansion port, which is just a giant card-edge connector that brings out
the system bus, much like an ISA slot. To disassemble the computer, there are only
two screws on the bottom, and then it just slides off like this. I’m going to do a
bit of disassembly here so you can see what the board looks like. Now, one thing that
I find really odd about this computer is that it does not have an internal speaker. However,
it does have a jumper on the board if you want to add your own. So, by default this
computer is completely silent. Much like the previous models, this supports
a monochrome Hercules monitor, or a color RGBI monitor. Although the smaller monochrome
monitor fits better on top and is most likely the monitor intended for this unit since it
was probably bought primarily by schools and businesses. Commodore’s PCs did continue to evolve much
like the rest of the industry. And this is the last computer I’m going to show in this
documentary. This is a small 386 computer, and again this was only sold in Europe. It
seems Commodore was mostly out of the PC market in the USA by this point. There are no actual
markings on the outside of this one to indicate an actual model number, other than saying
it is a 386-25. Taking a look at the side, you get a reset button, some dip switches,
and you’ll notice they have moved to a PS/2 keyboard port like the rest of the industry
at this point. On the rear, they have a VGA port, parallel, now using a standard PS/2
mouse rather than the Amiga mouse, and two serial ports. So, it’s pretty much just
like any other PC compatible at this point. To remove the top cover, it is just two screws,
and it comes apart like this. On the inside, there isn’t much that is terribly remarkable
compared to other PCs of the era, but looking at the motherboard, it does call this unit
a PC-50-3, and we see it was made in 1991. The motherboard has some built in RAM along
with some industry standard SIMM sockets, much like any other PC. They are using VLSI
chips for everything at this point, I don’t see any MOS branded chips. I would power it
on, but as you can see on the bottom, this one requires 240 volts, which I don’t have
readily available. So how did Commodore’s PC products fair
in the market? Well, it’s tough to say. One thing is for sure, if you look at an IBM
PC of the time, you’ll notice how all of its card slots are full, and these cards are
really big. I mean, even the CGA card itself is huge with a massive number of chips on
it. Even the first commodore PC had a much more integrated video card, and then all of
the later models moved the video to the motherboard itself. Commodore and Tandy both had a high level
of vertical integration. Whereas IBM was still buying most of their parts off the shelf,
so to speak. And so it’s very likely that Commodore and Tandy had considerably cheaper
production costs than IBM, and this was reflected in the price. I did find this article from 1987 in RUN magazine
about the Commodore PC-10. The journalist doing the review made many comparisons to
Tandy and other computer products. He compared the PC-10-1, which was selling for $999 to
the Tandy 1000 EX. The Commodore was nearly twice the price, but the reviewer still seemed
to prefer the Commodore because it had 512K of RAM and standardized expansion slots. He
also compared the the PC-10-2 to the Tandy 1000 SX, which it was closer in price. While I do agree with some of the assessments
of the reviewer, I have to disagree with the reviewer’s claims that the PC-10 offers
a more versatile video card than the Tandy. And while, from a technical standpoint this
may be true. Looking in hindsight, the Tandy graphics chip got massive industry support
for its graphics modes, where the Plantronics modes featured in the Commodore machine are
little more than a footnote in the history of MS-DOS computers, to say nothing about
the fact the Tandy also had a built in sound synthesizer and a faster processor. Of course,
it may also depend on whether the reviewer was looking at this as a business machine
or a gaming machine. Commodore also produced some other PCs, even
some laptop computers. In fact, they were still making the PC compatibles right up the
point that they went out of business. My understanding is that the PC clones were
in fact profitable for Commodore, but they just didn’t have a big enough presence in
that market to keep the company afloat. However, by this point there was very little about
these later model PC clones that would make them unique or different in any way from all
of the other PC clones that were already on the market. So, I didn’t feel it was important
to document them. That, and the fact the video would be 5 hours long. And, there are at least two episodes of Commodore
history remaining. Possibly three. The next episode will be about some of the more interesting
Commodore peripherals and how they fit into the Commodore ecosystem. And then after that,
of course there’s going to be a long documentary on the Amiga and the eventual demise of Commodore
itself. And, with any luck there might be one more episode with some of the more rare
Commodore machines such as perhaps the Commodore 65. So, stick around for those episodes and
as always, thanks for watching!

Commodore History Part 6 – The PC Compatibles
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