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HomeTechnologyCreating the Commodore 64: The Engineers’ Story

Creating the Commodore 64: The Engineers’ Story


In January 1981, a handful of semiconductor engineers at MOS Expertise in West Chester, Pa., a subsidiary of Commodore Worldwide Ltd., started designing a graphics chip and a sound chip to promote to whoever needed to make “the world’s greatest online game.” In January 1982, a house pc incorporating these chips was launched on the Winter Shopper Electronics Present in Las Vegas, Nev. By utilizing in-house integrated-circuit-fabrication amenities for prototyping, the engineers had reduce the design time for every chip to lower than 9 months, they usually had designed and constructed 5 prototype computer systems for the present in lower than 5 weeks. What stunned the remainder of the home-computer business most, nonetheless, was the introductory value of the Commodore 64: $595 for a unit incorporating a keyboard, a central processor, the graphics and sound chips, and 64 kilobytes of reminiscence as an alternative of the 16 or 32 that had been then thought-about the norm.

When the chip-development mission began, the Commodore 64 was in no way what the designers had in thoughts. MOS Expertise was a service provider semiconductor home. Its LSI Group, headed at the moment by Albert Charpentier, had been accountable for among the chips that went into Commodore’s VIC-20 dwelling pc, however that mission was already nicely into manufacturing. “We had been recent out of concepts for no matter chips the remainder of the world would possibly need us to do,” mentioned Charpentier, “So we determined to supply state-of-the-art video and sound chips for the world’s subsequent nice online game.”

This text was first revealed as “Design case historical past: the Commodore 64.” It appeared within the March 1985 problem of IEEE Spectrum. A PDF model is obtainable on IEEE Xplore. The diagrams and images of chips, circuit boards, and screens appeared within the unique print model.

Charles Winterble, then director of worldwide engineering for Commodore, gave the go-ahead for the chip effort, and Charpentier’s group labored pretty independently till each chips had been completed in mid-November 1981.

At a gathering with Charpentier and Winterble late that month, Jack Tramiel, then president of Commodore, determined to not proceed with the online game. As an alternative, he determined, the chips would go right into a 64-kilobyte dwelling pc to be launched on the Shopper Electronics Present in Las Vegas the second week of January 1982. The pc had but to be designed, however that was simply remedied.

In two days, the engineers laid out on paper the machine’s primary structure. Simply earlier than the brand new yr, they accomplished 5 working prototypes. Within the meantime, sufficient operating-system software program was copied and rewritten from the VIC-20 to offer satisfactory demonstrations of what the brand new machine may do. Following its enthusiastic reception on the Shopper Electronics Present, the Commodore 64 was rushed into manufacturing; quantity shipments started in August 1982 and have continued unabated.

Regardless of complaints about high quality management and the business’s slowest disk drive, the Commodore 64 has been an unparalleled success, pushing plenty of its opponents out of the market. A part of the rationale for its success is the value, which retains falling—from $595 at its introduction to $149 presently, for which the patron will get graphics and sound equal to or higher than that supplied by machines that price 5 occasions as a lot.

Designing the subsequent nice chips

Within the late Seventies, MOS Expertise was a profitable semiconductor firm; its engineers had designed the favored 6502 microprocessor, and it manufactured a number of different solidly promoting merchandise. Commodore, a West Coast firm on the time, took over MOS in 1976—inflicting lots of the MOS engineers to stop when their inventory was purchased at 10 cents on the greenback—however MOS was allowed to function pretty autonomously.

In 1979 and 1980, recollects Charpentier, MOS Expertise developed the 6510 microprocessor—a minor revision of the 6502 with an extra input-output port, the 6526 peripheral controller, a whole lot of read-only reminiscence (ROM) chips, and a 4-kilobit random-access reminiscence (RAM) chip. At the moment, MOS was supplying gear to Atari Inc., Common Electrical Co., Hewlett-Packard Co., and plenty of different purchasers, in addition to to Commodore.

When the choice was made to design the most recent in superior graphics and sound chips, step one was apparent: to search out what the present high-quality chips may do. In assembling his design staff, Charpentier recruited Robert Yannes, a younger engineer who had joined MOS in 1979 and had designed the VIC-20 at dwelling, from a spare prototype board. The staff spent about two weeks researching comparable chips industrywide.

“We regarded closely into the Mattel Intellivision,” recollects Winterble. “We additionally examined the Texas Devices 99/4A and the Atari 800. We tried to get a really feel for what these firms may do sooner or later by extrapolating from their present expertise. That made it clear what the graphics capabilities of our machine needed to be.”

The MOS designers freely borrowed concepts that they favored—sprites from the TI machine, collision-detection methods and character-mapped graphics from the Intellivision, and a bit map from their very own VIC-20. They then packed as lots of these concepts as they may right into a predefined space of silicon.

“Al [Charpentier] was given the liberty, inside a sure die measurement, to place in every thing he may, working backward inside the measurement we deliberate. When he ran out of registers he stopped,” mentioned Winterble. “We outlined upfront the silicon measurement that will give a yield we had been keen to stay with; at the moment, a die measurement that was affordable in 5-micrometer expertise was lower than 200 mils. Then we prioritized the want checklist from what should be in there to what ought to be in there to what we’d like to have, so the selections that had been wanted at numerous factors grew to become pretty computerized.”

9 months to first-pass silicon 

For 9 months, Charpentier labored with two draftsmen and one computer-aided-design operator on the graphics chip whereas Yannes labored with two different draftsmen and one CAD operator on the sound chip. They lacked fully the subtle design instruments of immediately’s engineering workstations, however that they had one available design device discovered nearly nowhere else within the home-computer business: a chip-fabrication line on the premises. With this, Winterble defined, a circuit buried deep contained in the chips could possibly be lifted out and run as a take a look at chip, permitting thorough debugging with out concern for different elements of the circuitry. David A. Ziembicki, then a manufacturing engineer at Commodore, recollects that typical fabrication occasions had been a number of weeks and that in an emergency the captive fabrication facility may flip designs round in as little as 4 days.

The price of creating the Commodore 64: Nobody is aware of.

The price of creating the Commodore 64: Nobody is aware of. “I had no formal funds accountability,” mentioned Winterble, “aside from Jack [Tramiel] watching me. Jack mentioned that budgets had been a license to steal.” As a result of MOS Expertise’s fabrication facility was not operating at full capability, the gear used for C-64 take a look at chips and a number of passes of silicon would in any other case have been idle. “We had been utilizing individuals who had been there anyway,” mentioned Ziembicki. “You waste a bit little bit of silicon, however silicon’s fairly low cost. It’s solely sand.”

Though customized chips are normally thought-about costly, the C-64 chips weren’t. Not solely had been improvement prices absorbed in firm overhead, however there was no markup to pay, as there would have been inf the chips had been constructed by one other firm. And yields had been excessive as a result of the chips had been designed for a mature semiconductor-manufacturing course of.

The sound chip was designed with 7-micrometer expertise, cutting down to six in locations. (In contrast, the customized chip for Atari’s Video Pc System, fabricated 4 years earlier, was constructed with 6-micrometer expertise.) Commodore’s video chip was designed with 5-micrometer options.

As a result of design time slightly than silicon was at a premium, the chips had been laid out merely slightly than compactly. “We did it in a really modular style,” mentioned Yannes. For instance, he famous, “the usual approach of constructing oscillators is to construct one after which multiplex it till you may have as many as you want. We simply constructed an oscillator module and repeated it, as a result of that was a lot sooner than figuring out all of the timing for the multiplexer.”

“What was outstanding,” Winterble added, “was that 9 months later, once we got here out with the primary go, it functioned apart from one dangerous sprite.”

In November 1981, the chips had been full. The unique intent had been a recreation machine, however at this level the personal-computer market was starting to look promising. At a gathering of Charpentier, Winterble, and Tramiel, the choice was made to go for a private pc. The subsequent option to be made, in accordance with Charpentier, was between a 16-kilobyte and a 64-kilobyte machine, because the customized chips had been designed to deal with both possibility.

“Jack [Tramiel] made the guess that by the point we had been prepared to supply a product, 64K Rams could be low cost sufficient for us to make use of,” Charpentier mentioned.

When the design of the Commodore 64 started, the overriding objectives had been simplicity and low price. The preliminary manufacturing price of the Commodore 64 was focused at $130; it turned out to be $135. The pc would use the identical case because the VIC-20 and the same-sized circuit board, to hurry improvement. “That wasn’t even a choice,” mentioned Charpentier. “It was simply frequent sense. For those who’ve received a product that’s a winner, why change it?” To change from the VIC-20 to the Commodore 64, the manufacturing group had solely to make the cartridge slot smaller, change the colour of the case, and design a brand new label.

Moreover, as an alternative of designing for efficiency first and value second, as many engineers are likely to do, the small design staff at Commodore had price in thoughts from the start. Yannes, for instance, had made economic system his credo when he was an impecunious high-school scholar searching for elements to construct a sound synthesizer. “Anytime I design one thing, I wish to use the minimal variety of elements potential. It’s a private problem. If there’s a spare [logic] gate in a gate package deal, I’ll work to eliminate your entire package deal, as a result of in working with a sure variety of chips, I ought to have the ability to dissipate every thing that’s in them. The Commodore 64 was my try to construct absolutely the minimal system that could possibly be constructed out of the video and sound chips put collectively.”

Joyful New 12 months 1982!

Within the consumer-electronics business, new merchandise are historically launched to distributors, sellers, the press, and the competitors twice a yr—through the first weekend in January and the primary weekend in June, on the Winter and Summer season Shopper Electronics Reveals (CESs).

“Whenever you labored for Commodore,” mentioned Yannes, “you all the time needed to have one thing for the Winter CES.” The C-64 didn’t have a lot competitors on the winter present in 1982. Atari was nonetheless sowing its 400/800 pc. Mattel launched the Aquarius pc, and Spectravideo launched its pc/recreation machine, each with restricted reminiscence and capabilities.

Ziembicki recalled, “All we noticed at our sales space had been Atari folks with their mouths dropping open, saying, ‘How will you do this for $595?’”

“We had been a success,” Winterble added.

After the present, Commodore, which had a popularity for generally displaying merchandise that by no means reappeared, needed to get the 64 into manufacturing rapidly. Only some design modifications had been made to prepared the machine for manufacturing. “What’s within the 64 functionally is what I needed,’ Yannes mentioned. “What’s within the sound chip is what I needed, and what’s within the video chip is what Al [Charpentier] needed.”

In reality, mentioned Ziembicki, “after it lastly received into manufacturing, we regarded again and requested, why did we trouble altering it after January? It wouldn’t have offered one unit much less, and we might have saved some huge cash on improvement prices.”

A number of the modifications had been pretty important, however they could have created as many issues as they solved. The most important enchancment was to treatment “a hiccup” within the video chip, mentioned Winterble.

When Charpentier first designed the video chip, he defined, his aim was optimum efficiency in each black-and-white and coloration. Earlier video chips, comparable to these used within the Atari and the Apple, had a black-and-white frequency of seven.16 MHz—twice the tv color-clock frequency of three.58 MHz—however this might not squeeze sufficient characters on a line, and it additionally induced cross discuss between the 2 indicators, inflicting an object to shift barely to the left or proper on the display relying on its coloration. After the January 1982 CES, when he noticed that 40 characters wouldn’t fairly match onto a TV display, Charpentier sped up the black-and-white clock fee and made the 2 clocks fully asynchronous. However because the coloration and black-and-white units of knowledge had been continually altering section relative to one another, “the colour transitions had been implausible, however there was an total swimming impact,” he recalled. The answer was to place a phase-locked loop into the system so the colour and the black-and-white data would have a relentless relationship. This, Charpentier acknowledged, was “a Band-Help answer.”

And that’s what it appears like, in accordance with Craig Nelson, director of product improvement for Epyx Pc Software program of Sunnyvale, Calif. “It’s a extremely elegant circuit,” he mentioned, “apart from the phase-locked loop, which is simply caught in the course of it.” (Commodore now says it has redesigned the chip to remove the issue.)

Because of the “Band-Help,” the colour data and the black-and-white data shift section by 180 levels in relation to one another on successive video fields slightly than altering section unpredictably. This conforms extra carefully to the Nationwide Tv Techniques Committee (NTSC) normal, which requires black-and-white data to have a clock fee that’s an odd harmonic of the color-clock fee, in order that the 2 routinely reverse their relationship each different area—one area in section, the subsequent area out of section. (Within the NTSC normal, colours are decided by the section distinction between the colour sign and a coloration reference sign transmitted at the start of every line.)

On the time the usual was developed, generally obtainable circuitry couldn’t fully separate the black-and-white data from the colour: modifications in coloration would result in modifications in brightness and vice versa. It was to common these modifications out over time that the NTSC specified that the relative section reversal of the 2 indicators may happen on successive fields. The result’s extra pleasing coloration transitions, however the section shift makes stationary figures seem to jitter. The jitter is especially apparent on skinny vertical traces, like these in alphanumeric characters. However when the Commodore 64 was conceived, it was to be primarily a recreation machine, not a pc.

Working a 5-micrometer-technology chip at an 8-MHz clock fee triggered it to dissipate quite a lot of energy—practically 1.5 watts. Not solely did the chip run quick, however to forestall the colours from washing out, as that they had within the VIC-20, “we went to 12 volt to drive the heck out of the colour indicators,” recalled Winterble. “We knew we might have a warmth drawback.”

At this level Winterble made one other design repair—welding a small metallic tab onto the within of the lid of the shielding enclosure across the video chip. When the pc was assembled, the tab pressed towards the highest of the chip package deal, forming a heat-conducting path and turning the shielding right into a warmth sink.

Some modifications that may have improved the machine didn’t get made within the rush to manufacturing. For instance, Yannes mentioned, the wires for the sound output on the printed-circuit board run alongside the wires for the video sign. Because of this, the sound output picks up an annoying 15,750 -Hz whine. Rerouting the circuit would have taken time, “and we had a board that labored,” he defined. “At that time, in the event you had one thing that labored, you didn’t change it.” A circuit-board revision since then has rerouted these traces, Commodore mentioned.

However the designers did in actual fact change some issues that labored—together with one revision that degraded the machine’s efficiency.

However the designers did in actual fact change some issues that labored—together with one revision that degraded the machine’s efficiency. The unique design specified a high-quality radio-frequency modulator to transmit the sign to a tv set, however a less expensive modulator was substituted. “It was $6.25 to $6.50 for a superb one, and we ended up spending about $3,” Charpentier mentioned.

Winterble has a distinct view of the $3 modulator: “The 50-cent modulator we had been utilizing on the VIC-20 wasn’t adequate,” he mentioned, “so we went to a dearer one.”

Digital design wasn’t the one troublesome space because the Commodore 64 went from prototype improvement into manufacturing—the logistics posed a posh drawback. The C-64 was designed in Norristown, Pa., at MOS. The VIC-20 meeting line, which was to start making C-64s, was in Santa Clara, Calif. Because the C-64 went into manufacturing, Commodore was additionally opening a brand new meeting line in West Chester, Pa. There have been extra VIC-20 meeting amenities in Japan, the place the disk drive for the C-64 was to be manufactured. And the C-64 circuit boards had been being made in Hong Kong.

“It was a whole lot of enjoyable,” mentioned Ziembicki. “The design folks would decide an English screw. The manufacturing finish would decide metric. However they went with what that they had. Commodore manufacturing was excellent at making issues match whether or not they had been meant to or not. Their constitution was ‘Ship ‘em’”

“It takes a really robust individual,” defined Charpentier, “to say ‘I’m not transport these as a result of they’re inferior to they could possibly be’—particularly when persons are clamoring to purchase them.”

​Modifications proceed throughout manufacturing

The beginning of manufacturing of the Commodore 64 within the spring of 1982 didn’t sign an finish to the controversy. “The hot button is to have the ability to remedy your issues when you are operating,” mentioned Ziembicki.

One of many first battles, recalled Charpentier, was over the structure of the printed-circuit board. Commodore’s meeting plant in the USA used automated component-insertion gear, however its Japanese facility didn’t, and the 2 meeting methods required completely different element spacing. Ultimately, the board for the C-64 was laid out for automated insertion, and manufacturing was moved to a brand new plant in Hong Kong that had the automated instruments.

Issues additionally plagued plenty of the elements—switches, for instance. “You decide a swap that’s listed as a client swap,” mentioned Ziembicki. “You design it in. You name the producer and get an estimate that sounds affordable. Then California [the production division] needs 50,000 per week, however the producer says, ‘We are able to’t make that. It’s a client swap, however we’re not geared for client portions.’ At that time, you’re hung up.”

Since Commodore had simply moved its engineering workers from California to Pennsylvania, communication between the design engineers and the manufacturing amenities was not excellent, Ziembicki defined. “It received to the purpose the place you couldn’t cease working even in the event you didn’t get an answer—you’d simply proceed with the elements that you simply thought the manufacturing finish may get.”

And outdoors suppliers weren’t all the time dependable. “One supplied an influence provide for engineering approval,” Ziembicki recalled. “It received permitted, after which the provider modified the design and didn’t inform anyone.”

Charpentier mentioned that his relations with the manufacturing group had been pretty agreeable. Winterble’s dealings with them weren’t practically as cordial, however he discovered this acceptable. “I personally needed to play the heavy on a whole lot of stuff,” he mentioned. “Then Al would go in and do some good. That approach eased a whole lot of stress—it was a strategy to get issues completed.”

Probably the most infamous drawback was “sparkle,” a defect that triggered small spots of sunshine to look on the show display. The issue was solved earlier than Charpentier left the corporate in September 1982, however stories of the defect continued nicely into the Christmas season, with press stories citing it for instance of Commodore’s poor high quality management. Canny shoppers used it as an excuse to return completely good Commodore 64s whereas they had been beneath 90-day guarantee. For the reason that value of the machine had dropped $200 within the two months following its introduction, this ruse enabled house owners to acquire a refund of the acquisition value and purchase one other C-64 on the decrease determine.

Sparkle was broadly attributed to bugs within the video chip that was the guts of the system, however in actual fact it was brought on by a ROM chip of which 3 million had been in service with no issues in different methods, together with the hit arcade online game Asteroids. Commodore engineers themselves first regarded for the issue within the video chip. It took them three weeks to identify the ROM chip because the supply of the defect, Charpentier mentioned. “The issue was a random occasion—it didn’t occur on a regular basis. We thought the video chip was for some purpose seeing the mistaken information. We didn’t even suspect it could possibly be the ROM. Lastly we put the logic analyzer on it and tracked it down.” The ROM, which Charpentier and his group had designed years earlier, had a particular pre-charging circuit to make it run sooner, however the circuit made it delicate to spurious indicators. The video circuitry and the 6510 microprocessor alternated in controlling the system bus, and when management handed kind one to the opposite, voltage spikes had been generally generated.

“It simply occurred that we hit the precise timing,” Charpentier mentioned. “If the spike had been a number of nanoseconds shorter or longer, it wouldn’t have been an issue. The spike was simply broad sufficient that the ROM noticed it as a legitimate tackle. It might ignore the subsequent tackle request and provides the video chip mistaken information.” For the reason that ROM contained the C-64 character set, the display show could be suffering from random slices of characters.

Based on Nelson of Epyx, “This confetti interference-looking stuff on the display, glowingly known as sparkle, has a particularly un-nice property: it causes {hardware} collisions—the sprites imagine it actually exists.” For the reason that sparkle was brought on by inappropriate information fed to the video chip, it triggered the circuitry accountable for checking whether or not the movable show objects—sprites—had been overlaying background objects on the display. So software program that relied on collision sensing to manage the motion of objects on the display would go berserk when confronted by sparkle.

The bug within the ROM was corrected, though Commodore needed to depend on exterior suppliers for some time because it ramped up its new manufacturing line. Solely the primary few hundred thousand items shipped had the defect. However, Nelson noticed, “it doesn’t matter to programmers that it was fastened. Our software program has to work in each machine on the market.” The perfect answer for programmers, he defined, is to repeat the contents of the ROM into RAM, which is dependable. However this wastes 2 kilobytes of RAM.

​“A screw-up in my timing”

Along with the problem with the ROM, “I made a logic error,” Charpentier recalled. The error, which was corrected generally after Charpentier left Commodore, triggered the early C-64s to generate the mistaken variety of clock cycles on every horizontal video line. “It was off by one,” he mentioned. “As an alternative of 65 clock cycles per line, I had 64.”

Because of this, the 180-degree section shift between the black-and-white and coloration data, which might have eradicated color-transition issues, didn’t happen. Relying on their coloration and the colour of the background, the sides of some objects on the display would seem barely out of line. This was corrected roughly 5 months into manufacturing.

However main edges are nonetheless an issue with the C-64. The circuitry that shows both sprite data or background data at any level on the display is usually sluggish to reply and overlays the sprite on the background data solely after it has missed a number of pixels.

The C-64 designers weren’t the one ones revising their machine; even some assembly-line employees received into the act.

The C-64 designers weren’t the one ones revising their machine; even some assembly-line employees received into the act. Since testing coloration high quality routinely is just about not possible, assembly-line employees had been instructed to show a potentiometer that controls the colour and black-and-white indicators till they noticed coloration. As Charpentier recalled, the employees quickly found that in the event that they turned the potentiometer so far as potential, it resulted in saturated coloration—nevertheless it additionally worn out the black-and-white sign. A number of thousand computer systems had been shipped earlier than the assembly-line employees’ “revision” was seen; by then, some reviewers had been lambasting the C-64 for its “garish” colours.

​High quality nonetheless missing

Although these modifications have been made within the C-64 since its introductions, designers who write industrial software program for the machine wish to see a number of extra. One such change could be sufficient high quality management. “They don’t take a look at,” mentioned Nelson of Epyx. “I’ve opened up brand-new Commodores and located traces reduce. They clearly use an influence screwdriver to assemble the C-64, generally miss the screw, and chop the traces. How, would possibly you marvel, may which have handed remaining inspection? Effectively, these traces are hooked as much as the disk-drive connectors, which they clearly don’t take a look at.”

In hindsight, Charpentier known as one among Commodore’s errors “not coming a bit nearer to high quality.”

One criticism voiced by designers of add-on {hardware} for the C-64 is that its minimalist design ends in undesirable interactions between elements of the {hardware} and software program. For instance, the circuitry used to manage the joystick and the game-paddle port is borrowed as soon as each 1/60 second to scan the keyboard for keys which have been pressed. If the joystick switches are closed, the keyboard-scanning software program will report {that a} key has been pressed. Units that connect to the joystick ports could cause unpredictable responses—an issue that will not happen if separate {hardware} had been used for the 2 capabilities.

One other flaw is the pc’s crude inside software program. The system comes up in Primary when it’s turned on. This can be a leftover from the times of the primary Pet pc produced by Commodore, which had no disk-operating system, since there have been no disk drives available then. “A good disk-operating system wasn’t developed till Pet Primary 4.0,” Charpentier mentioned. The C-64 doesn’t use this superior model of Primary as a result of “it could have required extra ROM than we may put in.” As an alternative, the machine makes use of a much more primitive model of Primary, borrowed from the VIC-20.

“Software program wasn’t tangible—you couldn’t maintain it, really feel it, or contact it—so it wasn’t value spending cash for.”

Probably the most obvious omissions from the Commodore 64’s Primary are instructions to manage the sound and graphics chips. “There was by no means any intention that the system would have built-in software program to manage the graphics or the sound,” mentioned Yannes. “That was an apparent a part of the Commodore philosophy; you don’t waste cash on issues that make the product dearer and that almost all of consumers aren’t going to make use of.”

“Commodore has all the time paid lip service to software program,” Charpentier mentioned. “They do sufficient to get by after which depend on exterior sources to fill the hole. Commodore was an extension of Jack Tramiel, and to him software program wasn’t tangible—you couldn’t maintain it, really feel it, or contact it—so it wasn’t value spending cash for.”

The C-64 designers had plans of their very own for modifications which haven’t but been applied. They used the VIC-20 case to shortcut improvement, however they did have a brand new case designed that they meant to substitute in eight to 10 months. “It was thinner in entrance and had extra of a wedge form to it,” mentioned Charpentier. “I all the time thought the VIC-20 case regarded clunky.” Just a few new options had been additionally to be added to the machine.

The truth that these modifications haven’t been made has probably not affected the success of the C-64, asserted Brian Dougherty, president of the Berkeley Softworks of Berkeley, Calif. “This machine has one of the best graphics-display functionality of something that has but been completed for a TV display,” he mentioned. “It got here sloe to being an superior system.”

​The albatross of the C-64: its disk drive

The one main flaw of the C-64 isn’t the machine itself, however in its disk drive. With a fairly quick disk drive and an sufficient disk-operating system (DOS), the C-64 may compete within the enterprise market with the Apple and maybe with different enterprise computer systems. With the current disk drive, although, it’s hard-pressed to lose its picture as a toy.

“Enterprise-oriented software program doesn’t look nearly as good because it ought to on the C-64,” mentioned Dougherty, “not as a result of the bottom system isn’t adequate however as a result of the disk-drive entry is simply too sluggish; any enterprise utility requires a whole lot of disk entry.” And because the DOS is so weak and lacks options comparable to the automated creating and sustaining of directories and preserving observe of recordsdata, “it’s much more troublesome to develop enterprise software program” for the C-64, he added. “Any individual like Lotus [Development Corp., manufacturer of a popular integrated business-software package] is going through much more problem than they did creating software program for the IBM PC, as a result of the PC has an operating-system construction that simply doesn’t exist for this product.

“The fundamental input-output system in ROM is finished pretty cleanly, in accordance with operating-system ideas. All of the routines that must be there are there, however there also needs to be a facility for routinely studying the primary observe of the disk and booting a extra refined working system into reminiscence.”

The disk drive does in actual fact have a facility for routinely studying the primary observe of a disk, in accordance with Nelson of Epyx, however as a result of it’s not documented, it’s not broadly used.

How did the Commodore engineers botch up the disk drive?

“The disk drive? What a gory story!”

“The disk drive? What a gory story!” Charpentier mentioned. “That needed to do with the one advertising and marketing enter we did settle for. Advertising mentioned the C-64 needed to be suitable with the VIC-20.”

The disk drive on the VIC-20, Charpentier defined, was a direct descendant of the drive on the Commodore Pet pc. “We had a parallel IEEE-488 bus for the Pet disk drive; and we used a wierd format within the early days so as to pack information: on the outer tracks, the disk strikes sooner than on the interior tracks, so the information fee modifications so as to pack extra information on the market. It was a pleasant concept, nevertheless it was clumsy, in that you simply’re incompatible with everybody else. That’s the nut this all began with.”

The VIC-20 disk drive was designed in Japan, and the bus was modified from parallel to serial to economize. The drive could be very sluggish as a result of the serial-interface portion of the interface controller (the 6522) used on the VIC-20 doesn’t work. Because of this, the 6502 processor sends out one bit at a time beneath direct software program management, slightly than sending a byte to the peripheral controller and letting it deal with clocks, information, and hand shaking.

“We fastened the serial-shift register for the 6526 [the interface controller used on the C-64 to replace the 6522] however we couldn’t use it, as a result of the disk drive needed to be suitable,” Charpentier continued. “And, as a result of the processor within the C-64is turned off for 40 microseconds each 512 microseconds, it stored lacking the interrupt indicators that management the disk interface. The answer: sluggish the drive down even additional.”

Velocity was the one issue that would have been modified with out incurring the price of radical modifications within the disk drive; if the C-64 designers had been capable of forgo VIC-20 compatibility, they may have completed a lot better. And ultimately, after all, the C-64 was not suitable with the disk drive of the IC-20 anyway.

“All of it stemmed from the 6522 serial interface not working,” Charpentier concluded.

Different producers are attempting to unravel the disk-drive drawback of the C-64. Some are promoting their very own disk drives to be used with the C-64, however they’ve discovered it troublesome to interrupt right into a market that Commodore controls. Others are promoting applications that may be loaded into RAM to hurry up disk-transfer charges, however this selection applies solely to make use of of the C-64 for programming in Primary; prepackaged software program loaded into the system knocks the applications out of RAM. Epyx has launched a ROM-based program to hurry disk switch fivefold. Based on Nelson, this system will work with any disk-based software program. “That’s potential,” mentioned Charpentier. “The C-64 disk drive has its personal microprocessor and reminiscence, and you’ll ship data to it to alter the working system and to hurry up the serial-bus protocol.”

The usual software program for the C-64 disk drive can learn a 256-byte sector each 2.5 revolutions of the disk, or 512 byes per second. Programming methods utilized by Epyx have yielded switch charges of as much as 2.5 kilobytes per second. (Amongst different sluggish disk drives, Atari’s 810 transfers 1000 bytes per second, and the Apple II disk drive runs at a most of 15,000 bytes per second.)

Intelligent design shaves pennies

The Commodore staff had labored exhausting to make sure a low preliminary manufacturing price for the C-64. Vertical integration helped hold elements prices down, and Winterble vetoed concepts for added options. The designers themselves believed in counting pennies; Charpentier mentioned he had discovered lots” from Jack Tramiel, who was “an actual stickler for price. We agonized over each transistor.”

With a manufacturing price of $135 and a retail value of $595 at its introduction, the Commodore 64 would have a retail markup comfortably above the business normal of 1 to 3 (maybe one to 2 when volumes climb). However Commodore has continued to search out methods to scale back each the retail value, now $149, and the manufacturing price, believed to be between $35 and $50 immediately.

Commodore wouldn’t affirm this price determine. Dougherty of the Berkeley Softworks estimated the prices of C-64 elements, base don his expertise at Mattel and Imagic.

  • Three ROMS at $1 every.
  • Eight dynamic Rams at $1.85 every.
  • SID (sound) chip and VIC (graphics) chip at $4 every.
  • RF modulator package deal, $3
  • 6510 microprocessor, $1 to $2
  • A handful of TTL, buffers, energy regulators, and capacitors for a complete of $5
  • Keyboard, lower than $10
  • PC board, $1 to $2
  • Plastic case, $1 to $2
  • Energy provide and miscellaneous connectors, $5 to $10
  • Packaging and handbook, $1 to $2

In additional cost-cutting strikes, Commodore has changed the TTL with inexpensive customized chips and has discovered methods to extend yields on the sound and graphics chips.

Not all cost-cutting steps had been with out detrimental impact on the system. The 6567 video chip was initially packaged in ceramic, although plastic is less expensive. “We tried every kind of issues,“ Charpentier mentioned, “copper-lead frames, metallic inserts within the package deal, and an ungodly variety of different issues to get a plastic package deal, as a result of a ceramic package deal could be very costly. However we couldn’t discover a package deal that ran cool sufficient. Earlier than I left Commodore, I listed some concepts to scale back the ability, however half of the chip was nonetheless operating at an 8-MHzclip. With no main redesign, you possibly can not get the ability out.”

The design staff was autonomous—they did their very own market analysis, developed their very own specs, and took their child proper up by means of manufacturing.

The chip is now encased in plastic. Commodore engineers mentioned that along with redesigning the chip, they’ve developed a plastic package deal that may dissipate warmth in addition to ceramic.

For the reason that change to plastic packaging, plenty of new issues with the C-64 have been reported—issues which might be machine-specific or temperature-dependent. One failing that’s broadly recognized all through the software program business is an inclination for the chip to lock up when a program switches graphics modes—from displaying a bit map to displaying characters [see sidebar, “A Rich Collection of Graphics Modes”]. “A recreation we had been producing began to fail on the manufacturing line,” mentioned Nelson of Epyx. “Then we’d take a look at [defective disks] once more they usually’d work. It relied on which machine we put them on and what the temperature was.” Charpentier speculated that some circuit traces had been left floating within the unique design; poor processing and excessive working temperatures would stress chips to the failure level.

One other drawback that has begun to emerge in some C-64s is defective horizontal scrolling of bit-mapped screens. In a latest overview of the Summer season Video games, an Epyx sports activities recreation for the C-64, the San Jose, Calif., Mercury Information criticized the “flashbulb impact” noticeable through the swimming occasion. That, in accordance with Nelson, isn’t an “impact”—the C-64 utilized by the Mercury Information reviewer merely doesn’t do horizontal scrolling correctly.

The liberty ended

Though the machine has its flaws, the designers of the Commodore 64 imagine they got here up with many important advances due to the liberty they loved through the early phases of the mission. The design staff was autonomous—they did their very own market analysis, developed their very own specs, and took their child proper up by means of manufacturing. However as quickly because the manufacturing bugs had been labored out and Commodore knew it had a winner, the company paperwork, which till then had been on the West Coast coping with the VIC-20 and the Pet pc, moved in.

“At that time, many advertising and marketing teams had been coming in to ‘assist’ us,” Winterble recalled. “The subsequent product definition was going to be thought up by one group, and one other group was to be accountable for getting issues into manufacturing, and Al’s group would do R&D on chips solely.”

“For those who let advertising and marketing become involved with product definition, you’ll by no means get it completed rapidly,” Yannes mentioned. “And also you squander the flexibility to make one thing distinctive, as a result of advertising and marketing all the time needs a product suitable with one thing else.”

Charpentier summed up their frustration: “Whenever you get many individuals concerned in a mission, all you find yourself doing is justifying your self. I knew the Commodore 64 was technically nearly as good and as low-cost as any product that could possibly be made on the time, however now I needed to take heed to advertising and marketing folks saying, ‘It received’t promote as a result of it doesn’t have this, it may well’t do this.’

“The liberty that allowed us to do the C-64 mission will most likely by no means exist once more in that setting.”

​Postscript (as of March 1985)

Of the unique Commodore 64 design staff, solely Robert Russell stays at Commodore; he’s presently a design supervisor. The remainder of the staff—Albert Charpentier, Robert Yannes, and Charles Winterble, together with David Ziembicki and Bruce Crocket, who helped debug the mission and produce it into manufacturing—left Commodore within the spring of 1983 and shaped the corporate Peripheral Visions. Their plan was to design one other pc. To acquire working capital, they took on a contract from Atari—to design a keyboard for the Video Pc System, which was previewed however then, because the videogame market crashed, by no means launched. Peripheral Visions was sued by Commodore, which mentioned the VCS keyboard was a mission that belonged to Commodore. At this writing, the swimsuit had not been resolved.

Peripheral Visions has been renamed Ensoniq and can quickly launch its first product, a music synthesizer. Albert Charpentier is presently vice chairman of engineering at Ensoniq, Bob Yannes is senior designer, and David Ziembicki is supervisor of manufacturing management. Charles Winterble left Peripheral Visions and is now group vice chairman of electronics at Coleco Industries Inc. of West Hartford, Conn. And Jack Tramiel is presently chief government officer of Atari Corp., the corporate that was Commodore’s chief competitor within the home-computer market earlier than dropping practically a billion {dollars} in competing towards the C-64.

To probe additional

Pc bookstores carry a wide array of books on the C-64. Amongst these advisable are
What’s actually contained in the Commodore 64, by Bilton Bathurst, revealed by DataCap of Feneur, Belgium, and The Anatomy of the 1541 disk drive, by Lothar Englisch and Norbert Szczepanowski, revealed by Abacus Software program of Grand Rapids, Mich. Pc magazines comparable to Inventive Computing and Compute! overview software program and publish applications that run on the C-64. The Commodore 64 itself might be discovered at most giant retailers.

How Programmers Exploited the C-64 {Hardware} (Slideshow)

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A Synthesizer on a Chip

“I’d labored with synthesizers, and I needed a chip that was a music synthesizer,” mentioned Robert Yannes, the sound-chip designer and methods architect for the Commodore 64. He started engaged on the chip within the spring of 1981, assisted by two draftsmen and one CAD operator. “No person else had a good suggestion of what we had been doing,” he mentioned. “Past primary analysis, which I’d been doing since highschool, the precise design took solely about 4 or 5 months.”

The foremost variations between his chip and the everyday videogame sound chips, Yannes defined, had been its extra exact frequency management and its unbiased envelope for shaping the depth of a sound. “With a lot of the sound results in video games, there’s both full quantity or no quantity in any respect. That basically makes music not possible. There’s no strategy to simulate the sound of any instrument even vaguely with that type of envelope, besides possibly an organ.”

Though it’s theoretically potential to make use of the amount controls on different sound chips to form the envelope of a sound, only a few programmers had ever tackled such a posh activity. To make sound shaping straightforward, Yannes put the envelope controls in {hardware}: one register for every voice to find out how rapidly a sound builds up; two to find out the extent at which the word is sustained and how briskly it reaches that stage; and one to find out how briskly the word dies away. “It took a very long time for folks to know this,” he concluded.

Yannes additionally put a lookup desk within the {hardware} to transform information from musical notes to the equal frequencies, however that required extreme silicon. “I took that out,” mentioned Charles Winterble, who was worldwide-engineering director at Commodore through the C-64 design.

The exact capabilities of the sound chip usually are not clear even immediately, largely due to incorrect specs having been written when the chip was first designed. “The spec sheet received distributed and copied and rewritten by numerous folks till it made virtually no sense anymore,” mentioned Yannes. An instance of the defective documentation is the declare that the chip can logically AND a number of waveforms. The chip can produce both a triangular wave, a sawtooth, or a sq. wave, relying on which bit is ready in one among its management registers. “There is no such thing as a interlock to make it possible for if one bit is on, the others are off,” Yannes mentioned. “That might have taken an excessive amount of silicon.” So if a couple of waveform is elected, the interior notes of the output multiplexer are discharged, and what emerges is the minimal of amplitudes.

One other error within the spec sheet issues the on-chip filters. “The filter was the very last thing that was labored on,” Yannes acknowledged. “I ran out of time. The pc simulation mentioned, ‘This won’t work very nicely’—and it didn’t.” The filter could have been mediocre, however the equations describing the way it labored had been simply plain mistaken, Yannes recollects. “They didn’t dangle collectively. Nobody gave me an opportunity to appropriate them.”

Confronted by these incorrect equations, most software program designers use solely the sound chip.

A number of the Japanese programmers who wrote early recreation software program for the C-64 took a distinct strategy, Yannes famous: “They wrote it in accordance with the spec. It didn’t matter to them whether or not one thing labored or not. Because of this, applications made sound results you couldn’t hear.”

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