Creating the Commodore 64: The Engineers’ Story

Read Time:39 Minute, 45 Second

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 wished to make “the world’s greatest online game.” In January 1982, a house pc incorporating these chips was launched on the Winter Client Electronics Present in Las Vegas, Nev. By utilizing in-house integrated-circuit-fabrication services 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 worth 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 have been then thought-about the norm.

When the chip-development venture began, the Commodore 64 was by no means 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 venture was already nicely into manufacturing. “We have 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 printed as “Design case historical past: the Commodore 64.” It appeared within the March 1985 situation of IEEE Spectrum. A PDF model is out there on IEEE Xplore. The diagrams and pictures 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 have 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 a substitute, he determined, the chips would go right into a 64-kilobyte dwelling pc to be launched on the Client 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 fundamental structure. Simply earlier than the brand new 12 months, they accomplished 5 working prototypes. Within the meantime, sufficient operating-system software program was copied and rewritten from the VIC-20 to provide satisfactory demonstrations of what the brand new machine might do. Following its enthusiastic reception on the Client 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 quite a lot of its rivals 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 at the moment, for which the patron will get graphics and sound equal to or higher than that offered by machines that value 5 occasions as a lot.

Designing the following 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 most 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, remembers Charpentier, MOS Expertise developed the 6510 microprocessor—a minor revision of the 6502 with an extra input-output port, the 6526 peripheral controller, numerous read-only reminiscence (ROM) chips, and a 4-kilobit random-access reminiscence (RAM) chip. At the moment, MOS was supplying tools to Atari Inc., Basic Electrical Co., Hewlett-Packard Co., and quite a lot of different shoppers, 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 seek out what the present high-quality chips might do. In assembling his design crew, 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 crew spent about two weeks researching comparable chips industrywide.

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

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

“Al [Charpentier] was given the liberty, inside a sure die dimension, to place in every little thing he might, working backward throughout the dimension we deliberate. When he ran out of registers he stopped,” mentioned Winterble. “We outlined upfront the silicon dimension that might give a yield we have been prepared to stay with; at the moment, a die dimension that was cheap in 5-micrometer know-how was lower than 200 mils. Then we prioritized the want record from what have to be in there to what ought to be in there to what we’d like to have, so the selections that have been wanted at numerous factors turned pretty automated.”

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 delicate design instruments of at this time’s engineering workstations, however that they had one available design instrument 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 might be lifted out and run as a take a look at chip, permitting thorough debugging with out concern for different components of the circuitry. David A. Ziembicki, then a manufacturing engineer at Commodore, remembers that typical fabrication occasions have been a couple of weeks and that in an emergency the captive fabrication facility might 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 price range accountability,” mentioned Winterble, “apart from Jack [Tramiel] watching me. Jack mentioned that budgets have been a license to steal.” As a result of MOS Expertise’s fabrication facility was not working at full capability, the tools 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 have been utilizing individuals who have 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 often thought-about costly, the C-64 chips weren’t. Not solely have been growth 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 have been excessive as a result of the chips have been designed for a mature semiconductor-manufacturing course of.

The sound chip was designed with 7-micrometer know-how, 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 know-how.) Commodore’s video chip was designed with 5-micrometer options.

As a result of design time relatively than silicon was at a premium, the chips have been laid out merely relatively than compactly. “We did it in a really modular trend,” mentioned Yannes. For instance, he famous, “the usual method of constructing oscillators is to construct one after which multiplex it till you’ve 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, after we got here out with the primary move, it functioned aside from one dangerous sprite.”

In November 1981, the chips have 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 following option to be made, based on Charpentier, was between a 16-kilobyte and a 64-kilobyte machine, for the reason that customized chips have been designed to deal with both possibility.

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

When the design of the Commodore 64 started, the overriding targets have been simplicity and low value. The preliminary manufacturing value 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 growth. “That wasn’t even a call,” mentioned Charpentier. “It was simply widespread sense. For those who’ve received a product that’s a winner, why change it?” To modify 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 worth second, as many engineers are likely to do, the small design crew at Commodore had value in thoughts from the start. Yannes, for instance, had made financial system his credo when he was an impecunious high-school scholar in search of components to construct a sound synthesizer. “Anytime I design one thing, I wish to use the minimal variety of elements doable. It’s a private problem. If there’s a spare [logic] gate in a gate bundle, I’ll work to do away with the whole bundle, as a result of in working with a sure variety of chips, I ought to have the ability to deplete every little thing that’s in them. The Commodore 64 was my try and construct absolutely the minimal system that might be constructed out of the video and sound chips put collectively.”

Pleased New Yr 1982!

Within the consumer-electronics business, new merchandise are historically launched to distributors, sellers, the press, and the competitors twice a 12 months—in the course of the first weekend in January and the primary weekend in June, on the Winter and Summer season Client Electronics Exhibits (CESs).

“Once you labored for Commodore,” mentioned Yannes, “you at all times 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 have been Atari folks with their mouths dropping open, saying, ‘How will you try this for $595?’”

“We have been a success,” Winterble added.

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

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

Among the adjustments have been pretty vital, however they might 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 purpose was optimum efficiency in each black-and-white and coloration. Earlier video chips, equivalent 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 alerts, 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 for the reason that coloration and black-and-white units of data have been always altering part relative to one another, “the colour transitions have been unbelievable, 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-Assist resolution.”

And that’s what it seems like, based on Craig Nelson, director of product growth for Epyx Pc Software program of Sunnyvale, Calif. “It’s a extremely elegant circuit,” he mentioned, “aside from the phase-locked loop, which is simply caught in the midst of it.” (Commodore now says it has redesigned the chip to get rid of the issue.)

On account of the “Band-Assist,” the colour data and the black-and-white data shift part by 180 levels in relation to one another on successive video fields relatively than altering part unpredictably. This conforms extra intently to the Nationwide Tv Techniques Committee (NTSC) customary, 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 mechanically reverse their relationship each different area—one area in part, the following area out of part. (Within the NTSC customary, colours are decided by the part distinction between the colour sign and a coloration reference sign transmitted firstly 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: adjustments in coloration would result in adjustments in brightness and vice versa. It was to common these adjustments out over time that the NTSC specified that the relative part reversal of the 2 alerts might happen on successive fields. The result’s extra pleasing coloration transitions, however the part 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 brought on it to dissipate a substantial amount of energy—almost 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 alerts,” recalled Winterble. “We knew we might have a warmth drawback.”

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

Some adjustments which 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. Consequently, 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 the truth is change some issues that labored—together with one revision that degraded the machine’s efficiency.

However the designers did the truth is 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 great one, and we ended up spending about $3,” Charpentier mentioned.

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

Digital design wasn’t the one tough space because the Commodore 64 went from prototype growth 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 services in Japan, the place the disk drive for the C-64 was to be manufactured. And the C-64 circuit boards have been being made in Hong Kong.

“It was numerous enjoyable,” mentioned Ziembicki. “The design folks would choose an English screw. The manufacturing finish would choose metric. However they went with what that they had. Commodore manufacturing was superb at making issues match whether or not they have been supposed 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 not so good as they might be’—particularly when persons are clamoring to purchase them.”

​Adjustments 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 secret is to have the ability to resolve your issues while you’re working,” mentioned Ziembicki.

One of many first battles, recalled Charpentier, was over the format of the printed-circuit board. Commodore’s meeting plant in the USA used automated component-insertion tools, however its Japanese facility didn’t, and the 2 meeting strategies required completely different element spacing. In the long run, 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 quite a lot of the elements—switches, for instance. “You choose 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 cheap. 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 employees from California to Pennsylvania, communication between the design engineers and the manufacturing services was not superb, 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 just thought the manufacturing finish might get.”

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

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

Probably the most infamous drawback was “sparkle,” a defect that brought on small spots of sunshine to seem on the show display. The issue was solved earlier than Charpentier left the corporate in September 1982, however reviews of the defect continued nicely into the Christmas season, with press reviews citing it for example of Commodore’s poor high quality management. Canny shoppers used it as an excuse to return completely good Commodore 64s whereas they have been underneath 90-day guarantee. Because the worth 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 worth and purchase one other C-64 on the decrease determine.

Sparkle was extensively attributed to bugs within the video chip that was the guts of the system, however the truth is it was attributable to a ROM chip of which 3 million have 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 incorrect knowledge. We didn’t even suspect it might 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 alerts. The video circuitry and the 6510 microprocessor alternated in controlling the system bus, and when management handed type one to the opposite, voltage spikes have been generally generated.

“It simply occurred that we hit the precise timing,” Charpentier mentioned. “If the spike had been a couple of nanoseconds shorter or longer, it wouldn’t have been an issue. The spike was simply large sufficient that the ROM noticed it as a legitimate handle. It will ignore the following handle request and provides the video chip incorrect knowledge.” Because the ROM contained the C-64 character set, the display show can be suffering from random slices of characters.

In response to Nelson of Epyx, “This confetti interference-looking stuff on the display, glowingly known as sparkle, has an especially un-nice property: it causes {hardware} collisions—the sprites consider it actually exists.” Because the sparkle was attributable to inappropriate knowledge fed to the video chip, it triggered the circuitry accountable for checking whether or not the movable show objects—sprites—have 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 very best resolution 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 issue with the ROM, “I made a logic error,” Charpentier recalled. The error, which was corrected generally after Charpentier left Commodore, brought on the early C-64s to generate the incorrect variety of clock cycles on every horizontal video line. “It was off by one,” he mentioned. “As a substitute of 65 clock cycles per line, I had 64.”

Consequently, the 180-degree part 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 perimeters 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 typically sluggish to reply and overlays the sprite on the background data solely after it has missed a couple of pixels.

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

The C-64 designers weren’t the one ones revising their machine; even some assembly-line staff received into the act. Since testing coloration high quality mechanically is just about unimaginable, assembly-line staff have been instructed to show a potentiometer that controls the colour and black-and-white alerts till they noticed coloration. As Charpentier recalled, the employees quickly found that in the event that they turned the potentiometer so far as doable, 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 staff’ “revision” was seen; by then, some reviewers have 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 want to see a couple of extra. One such change can be satisfactory 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 surprise, might which have handed closing 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 referred to as certainly one of Commodore’s errors “not coming a bit nearer to high quality.”

One grievance voiced by designers of add-on {hardware} for the C-64 is that its minimalist design leads to undesirable interactions between components 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. Gadgets that connect to the joystick ports may cause unpredictable responses—an issue that might not happen if separate {hardware} had been used for the 2 features.

One other flaw is the pc’s crude inside software program. The system comes up in Fundamental 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 Fundamental 4.0,” Charpentier mentioned. The C-64 doesn’t use this superior model of Fundamental as a result of “it could have required extra ROM than we might put in.” As a substitute, the machine makes use of a much more primitive model of Fundamental, 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 price spending cash for.”

Probably the most obvious omissions from the Commodore 64’s Fundamental 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 costlier and that almost all of patrons aren’t going to make use of.”

“Commodore has at all times 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 price spending cash for.”

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

The truth that these adjustments haven’t been made has not likely affected the success of the C-64, asserted Brian Dougherty, president of the Berkeley Softworks of Berkeley, Calif. “This machine has the very 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 just isn’t the machine itself, however in its disk drive. With a fairly quick disk drive and an satisfactory disk-operating system (DOS), the C-64 might 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 software requires numerous disk entry.” And for the reason that DOS is so weak and lacks options equivalent to the automated creating and sustaining of directories and conserving monitor of recordsdata, “it’s much more tough 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 issue 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, based on operating-system rules. All of the routines that must be there are there, however there also needs to be a facility for mechanically studying the primary monitor of the disk and booting a extra subtle working system into reminiscence.”

The disk drive does the truth is have a facility for mechanically studying the primary monitor of a disk, based on Nelson of Epyx, however as a result of it isn’t documented, it isn’t extensively 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 enter we did settle for. Advertising mentioned the C-64 needed to be appropriate 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 an odd format within the early days in an effort to pack knowledge: on the outer tracks, the disk strikes sooner than on the inside tracks, so the info fee adjustments in an effort to pack extra knowledge on the market. It was a pleasant concept, nevertheless it was clumsy, in that you just’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 may 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. Consequently, the 6502 processor sends out one bit at a time underneath direct software program management, relatively than sending a byte to the peripheral controller and letting it maintain clocks, knowledge, 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 appropriate,” Charpentier continued. “And, as a result of the processor within the C-64is turned off for 40 microseconds each 512 microseconds, it saved lacking the interrupt alerts that management the disk interface. The answer: sluggish the drive down even additional.”

Pace was the one issue that might have been modified with out incurring the price of radical adjustments within the disk drive; if the C-64 designers had been capable of forgo VIC-20 compatibility, they may have completed significantly better. And in the long run, in fact, the C-64 was not appropriate with the disk drive of the IC-20 anyway.

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

Different producers try to resolve 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 tough 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 feature applies solely to make use of of the C-64 for programming in Fundamental; 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. In response to Nelson, this system will work with any disk-based software program. “That’s doable,” 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 crew had labored onerous to make sure a low preliminary manufacturing value for the C-64. Vertical integration helped preserve components 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 value. We agonized over each transistor.”

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

Commodore wouldn’t verify this value determine. Dougherty of the Berkeley Softworks estimated the prices of C-64 components, 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 bundle, $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 guide, $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 have been with out detrimental impact on the system. The 6567 video chip was initially packaged in ceramic, although plastic is less expensive. “We tried all types of issues,“ Charpentier mentioned, “copper-lead frames, steel inserts within the bundle, and an ungodly variety of different issues to get a plastic bundle, as a result of a ceramic bundle may be very costly. However we couldn’t discover a bundle that ran cool sufficient. Earlier than I left Commodore, I listed some concepts to cut back the facility, however half of the chip was nonetheless working at an 8-MHzclip. With no main redesign, you may not get the facility out.”

The design crew 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 bundle that may dissipate warmth in addition to ceramic.

Because the change to plastic packaging, quite a lot of new issues with the C-64 have been reported—issues which can be machine-specific or temperature-dependent. One failing that’s extensively recognized all through the software program business is a bent 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 have 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 in the course of the swimming occasion. That, based on Nelson, just 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 consider they got here up with many vital advances due to the liberty they loved in the course of the early levels of the venture. The design crew 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 have been labored out and Commodore knew it had a winner, the company forms, 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 teams have been coming in to ‘assist’ us,” Winterble recalled. “The following 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 get entangled with product definition, you’ll by no means get it completed rapidly,” Yannes mentioned. “And also you squander the power to make one thing distinctive, as a result of advertising at all times needs a product appropriate with one thing else.”

Charpentier summed up their frustration: “Once you get many individuals concerned in a venture, 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 might be made on the time, however now I needed to hearken to advertising folks saying, ‘It gained’t promote as a result of it doesn’t have this, it might’t try this.’

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

​Postscript (as of March 1985)

Of the unique Commodore 64 design crew, solely Robert Russell stays at Commodore; he’s at the moment a design supervisor. The remainder of the crew—Albert Charpentier, Robert Yannes, and Charles Winterble, together with David Ziembicki and Bruce Crocket, who helped debug the venture and produce it into manufacturing—left Commodore within the spring of 1983 and fashioned 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 venture that belonged to Commodore. At this writing, the go well with had not been resolved.

Peripheral Visions has been renamed Ensoniq and can quickly launch its first product, a music synthesizer. Albert Charpentier is at the moment vp 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 vp of electronics at Coleco Industries Inc. of West Hartford, Conn. And Jack Tramiel is at the moment chief government officer of Atari Corp., the corporate that was Commodore’s chief competitor within the home-computer market earlier than dropping almost a billion {dollars} in competing in opposition to the C-64.

To probe additional

Pc bookstores carry a big selection of books on the C-64. Amongst these really useful are
What’s actually contained in the Commodore 64, by Bilton Bathurst, printed by DataCap of Feneur, Belgium, and The Anatomy of the 1541 disk drive, by Lothar Englisch and Norbert Szczepanowski, printed by Abacus Software program of Grand Rapids, Mich. Pc magazines equivalent to Artistic Computing and Compute! overview software program and publish applications that run on the C-64. The Commodore 64 itself will be discovered at most massive retailers.

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


A Synthesizer on a Chip

“I’d labored with synthesizers, and I wished 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 one else had a good suggestion of what we have been doing,” he mentioned. “Past fundamental analysis, which I’d been doing since highschool, the precise design took solely about 4 or 5 months.”

The key variations between his chip and the everyday videogame sound chips, Yannes defined, have 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 may be both full quantity or no quantity in any respect. That actually makes music unimaginable. There’s no approach to simulate the sound of any instrument even vaguely with that sort of envelope, besides possibly an organ.”

Though it’s theoretically doable to make use of the quantity 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 notice is sustained and how briskly it reaches that degree; and one to find out how briskly the notice 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 knowledge 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 in the course of the C-64 design.

The exact capabilities of the sound chip should not clear even at this time, 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 certainly one of its management registers. “There isn’t a interlock to be sure that if one bit is on, the others are off,” Yannes mentioned. “That may have taken an excessive amount of silicon.” So if multiple 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 might have been mediocre, however the equations describing the way it labored have been simply plain incorrect, Yannes remembers. “They didn’t grasp collectively. Nobody gave me an opportunity to right them.”

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

Among the Japanese programmers who wrote early recreation software program for the C-64 took a special strategy, Yannes famous: “They wrote it based on the spec. It didn’t matter to them whether or not one thing labored or not. Consequently, applications made sound results you couldn’t hear.”

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