Thought the 1980s computer age was all about ZX Spectrums and Commodore 64s? Think again.

As with many hagiographies, history is always defined by the winners. In home computing, the ultimate victors were IBM compatible PCs – ultimately today’s Windows 10 PCs. Today, their role in history could be wiped out by tablets and smartphones.

By 2025, there may be a generation that have only used laptops, tablets or smartphones. Few people may have had the joys of using a desktop PC and a CRT monitor. Even fewer people may remember pressing SHIFT and RUN STOP to load a Commodore 64 game on cassette.

If you can remember any 8-bit machine besides The Holy Trinity of the C64, ZX Spectrum and Amstrad CPC, you are in a minority. Anything other than the BBC Micro, ZX81 or Apple ][, you could breeze through a 1980s Computers round on Pointless.

For everybody else, here’s the crib sheet – should this round ever be considered on Alexander Armstrong’s and Richard Osman’s game show:

  1. Enterprise 128;
  2. Memotech MTX;
  3. Commodore Plus/4;
  4. Camputers Lynx;
  5. Texas TI-99/4a;
  6. RM Nimbus;
  7. MGT Sam Coupé;
  8. Oric Atmos;
  9. EACA Video Genie;
  10. Mattel Aquarius.

1. Enterprise 128

Back in 1983, a dizzying number of new computer systems were launched. Whereas America was in the midst of its much fabled video games crash, the C64 and ZX Spectrum systems had bragging rights in many a British school playground. A few rival companies had had tried to topple Tramiel’s and Sinclair’s machines and Intelligent Software were no exception.

In September 1983, David Levy’s company announced the arrival of the Enterprise machines, available in 64k and 128k versions. Had the machine been launched in early 1984, it could have taken the third place spot. With an advanced form of BASIC, stereo sound, 40/80 column modes, 256 colours and 640 x 512 resolution, a clear win ‘back in the day’. Not least the ability to have up to 3,900k RAM – nearly 4MB.

Sadly, the Enterprise computers came late to the party: 23 June 1985. Its sleek keyboard (albeit similar to Sir Clive’s QL and ZX Spectrum+/128k computers) had a built-in joystick. Having the same processor (Z80A) as the ZX Spectrum’s 128k models (albeit faster at 4MHz) could have made for easy porting of Speccy titles.

In the end, it was claimed that only 80,000 Enterprise computers were manufactured. After Intelligent Software wound up, 20,000 Enterprises were shipped to Hungary where they gained a cult following. Had it arrived in the summer of 1984, things could have been different.

2. Memotech MTX

Party to the ZX Spectrum’s success was the plethora of third party peripherals. Romantic Robot offered gamers the Multiface cartridge, which enabled you to cheat your way through Dun Darach. The late lamented Maplin and several other companies offered replacement keyboards, many of which better than the ‘dead flesh’ of the 16k and 48k Spectrums.

Based in Witney, Oxfordshire, Memotech was one of plethora of companies which offered peripherals. In 1983, they created their own computer system: the Memotech MTX. Available as the MTX500 (32k) and the MTX512 (64k), they had a proper keyboard, support for CP/M, and hardware sprites. 32 at any one time (the C64 and Atari 400/800 only support 8). As for colours, 16 of them with 256 x 192 high resolution graphics.

Memotech’s machines also had ‘virtual screens’ – enabling you to multitask – years before it became the norm on today’s operating systems. You could expand your Memotech up to 512k.

In spite of having what could have been a good machine for 1984, it (according to Wikipedia) tried to sell Memotech MTX512s to the USSR with a red case. This, alongside its lack of commercial success on home soil led to the company’s bankruptcy.

3. Commodore Plus/4

Imagine you’re in Manchester Arndale Centre in 1984. You go to the home computer section in Dixons and find the Commodore 64s. Your mother points you towards a Commodore Plus/4, because you could do your homework on its four built-in programs. These enabled you to draw bar charts, do your home accounts, catalogue your record collection, or type your forthcoming blockbuster novel.

The Commodore Plus/4 wasn’t launched as a successor to the C64. It was pitched at the home/small business market as an alternative to the Apple and IBM computers. Unlike the C64, it has more colours (121 compared with 16), and inferior sound capabilities. It also lacks the C64’s hardware sprites. All of which was controlled by the TED chip.

Confusingly, the Plus/4 was part of a family of low cost computers. It was the flagship model with 64k of RAM and a full travel keyboard. At the lower end were the Commodore 16 and C116 machines, both of which having 16k of RAM. The former used the same keyboard case as the C64 and VIC20 machines. The 116 had chiclet keys.

In spite of bombing in the US of A, it enjoyed some modest success as a ‘first computer’ or budget option in Europe. Especially in Hungary and Italy and (to some extent) the UK. It also had a fair number of commercial games, but many developers chose to support the 16k machine instead. To this day, there are people out there who are still writing C16 and Plus/4 games, pushing them to the limits.

4. Camputers Lynx

During the start of 1983, Camputers aimed to have a slice of the action with their Lynx machines. Released in March of that year was their 48k computer. With a 4MHz Z80A processor, it had one high resolution mode (256 x 248) and eight colours.

The Cambridge-based company (that’s the ‘Cam’ in Camputers for you there) also launched 96k and 128k models. Their highest resolution, 512 x 248. Another unique selling point was the computer’s built-in assembler mode.

By 1984, Camputers’ Lynx machines sold in fewer numbers than expected. Their last throw of the dice was a 128k computer, aimed at home/small business markets. By June of that year, they called in the receivers. Anston Technology was formed to purchase Camputers’ assets. In 1986, the machines and all intellectual property was sold to the National Lynx User Group.

5. Texas TI-99/4a

One for the pub quizzers: who developed the world’s first 16-bit computer? You will be surprised to find it was Texas Instruments with their TI99/4 family of computers. Launched in 1979, the pioneering computer’s 16 bit processor was Texas’ 9900. With 256 bytes (0.25k) of RAM, the ‘scratchpad’ memory was dependent on cartridges and its edge connector. The TI-99/4 had a calculator style keyboard.

By 1981, the TI-99/4A was released. This time with a full travel keyboard. Most of its games came on cartridge which allowed for instant loading. Between the keyboard and cartridge slot was a heatsink, known by its users as a cup warmer.

Among its main disadvantages was expandability. Though there was a number of peripherals launched by Texas Instruments, there was only one expansion port. With daisy-chaining, the printer could piggyback with your speech synthesis module. If you had the full complement of peripherals, say goodbye to your desk space.

By 1984, the machine’s commercial life came to a halt. Some cite the infamous video games crash as one factor. In reality, it was a sustained price war between Commodore and Texas which led to the TI-99/4A’s demise. For Jack Tramiel, the reasons were personal as TI screwed CBM over the use of their calculator chips. In the end, Commodore won as Texas Instruments couldn’t sustain any further price cuts.

6. Research Machines Nimbus PC

Cast your mind back to the early days of school computing. Research Machines cleared the way with their RM380Z computer before Acorn’s micros became the de facto standard. Alongside the BBC Micros was another Research Machines computer, the Nimbus.

Whereas the Beeb was based on trusty 6502, IBM PC architecture inspired the Nimbus. The 16 bit machine uses an 80186 processor: less powerful than a 286, more powerful than an 8086. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, it had a respectable catalogue of educational software.

The original RM Nimbus was superseded by the X (AX/VX), M (PC-286 and PC-386), and S series of PCs. After the end of its commercial life, you could say it was a halfway house for the arrival of IBM PCs into our classrooms. For everything else you need to know on the RM Nimbus, we recommend the RM Nimbus Website. Which, we are happy to report, looks like a screenshot from the said machine itself.

7. Sam Coupé

By the late 1980s, the Holy Trinity of 8-Bit Computers (Speccy/CPC/C64) began to look dated alongside their 16-Bit peers. For Speccy owners, the 128k machines took preference over 48k ones among software houses. Some users chose to upgrade to an Amiga or an Atari ST, passing on their 8-bit machines to younger siblings.

As a last gasp to extend the life of their 8-bit machines, Commodore, Amstrad and Atari redesigned their computers. The CPCs had fresh white cases and ‘Plus’ added to their 464s and 6128s. Atari refreshed their ageing 400 and 800 models as the 65XE and 130XE. Commodore launched the C128 and C128D models between 1985 and 1987. As a last hurrah for the British computer manufacturer was Miles Gordon Technology’s Sam Coupé.

Once seen, never forgotten, the Sam Coupé was billed as an upgrade to the ZX Spectrum. The wedge shaped computer came with a full travel keyboard, 128 colours, a built-in 3.5″ floppy drive (and space for a second), 512 x 192 high resolution graphics and six channel sound. The basic model came with 256k of RAM with 512k of RAM in later models. What’s more, it used the Z80B processor (6MHz and 4.5MHz clock speeds available).

A recipe for success? They were scheduled for release in November 1989, then delayed a month. But sales were sluggish and Miles Gordon Technology filed for bankruptcy on the 11 March 1990. On the 06 August 1990, SAM Computers was formed. Then liquidated on the 15 July 1992 – after only selling 12,000 units in three years. West Coast Computers took over their inventory.

Like Memotech, MGT made their money on ZX Spectrum peripherals. The company was formed by ex-Sinclair Research employees Alan Miles and Bruce Gordon. Delays to the chip development of the SAM Coupé led to MGT’s demise. Long after their arrival, games are still being coded for the ‘Super Spectrum’.

8. Oric Atmos

Since the arrival of the ZX Spectrum, several other manufacturers wanted a piece of the low-cost computing action. One was Tangerine Computer Systems’ Oric family. With a bit of help from British Car Auctions, Oric Products International launched the Oric-1 on the 01 September 1982 with 16k and 48k versions and a hard calculator style keyboard. It was a modest success with over 150,000 machines sold in the UK.

With extra funding from Edenspring Investments plc, the Oric-1 spawned a sister: the Oric Atmos. Like its older brother it had the same memory, its 6502A processor. It even had its tape loading problems, which was part of the system’s ROM and separate BASIC commands for generic sound effects. It came with a full-travel keyboard and an attractive black and red case.

The Oric Atmos was launched on the 01 February 1984. Available peripherals included a Prestel adaptor as well as the usual gubbins. Thanks partly to the C64 and ZX Spectrum, it didn’t get a look in on our soggy little island. The Oric family gained greater success in France and Eastern Europe, including clones and successors (the Stratos and the Telestrat). By December 1987, Oric Products International was no more.

9. EACA Video Genie

Back in the late 1970s, Tandy were a main player in microcomputers. Before IBM compatible clones became the norm, there was various Tandy TRS-80 clones. One example was the EACA Video Genie. In Australia and New Zealand, the same machine was rebadged as the Dick Smith System 80 Mark I, for sale in Dick Smith Electronics stores.

As for memory, a cool 16k of RAM. Owing to the TRS-80’s specifications, the same blocky monochrome graphics. The computer came with a built-in cassette recorder and, in terms of weight and size, quite a beast.

In the UK, Lowe Electronics in Matlock was Video Genie Central. They were the major UK distributors of EACA’s machines. The shop was better known for its amateur radio equipment and have since closed. They were taken over by Walters and Stanton, whom in turn have moved to Portsmouth since being taken over by Nevada Radio.

10. Mattel Aquarius

Few machines on launch have been classed as obsolete on arrival. In fact it was dubbed The Computer of the 1970s on launch in 1983. Enter the Mattel Aquarius.

In the early 1980s, Mattel Electronics had some success with the Intellivision console. What was promised in the life of the console was an external keyboard which never materialised. What it did inherit from the console was its awful controllers and cartridge loading facilities. Thanks to their Mini Expander peripheral, it could have equalled the Intellivision.

As for the computer itself, it has a (pitiful for 1983) 4k of RAM. BASIC commands, which could have been done with ease on the Commodore 64 or ZX Spectrum, would have tested the unexpanded machine.

Why did it flop? Too little memory, expensive prices compared with the competition, and those awful Intellivision style controllers. Plus you couldn’t use a monitor. To blame its failure on the video games crash of 1983 is a lazy argument. As for the age of Aquarius, it was replaced by The South Bank Show in my part of the world.

Before I go…

Did you have any of the above machines? Could you add a few more forgotten micros to the list? Feel free to comment.

S.V., 13 October 2018.

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