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Memorable 1980s Home and Personal Computers

Taking a trip back in time, to look at seventeen vintage microcomputers.

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Vintage Computer Collage

I’ve gathered together a list of computers which meant something to me when I was growing up during the 1980s. In some cases I owned them, in other cases I just used them. And failing that, I might have simply read about them and dreamed…

I’ve tried to keep this brief, by not going overboard with technical details — although the list has grown quite long now. For CPU, I’ve not included any suffixes, and I’ve rounded the clock frequency in some cases, where it might depend on whether the machine had an NTSC or PAL video output. As for RAM, I’ve tried to give a fair indication — but it’s not easy in cases when there was a range of initial configurations, expansion options, not to mention newer or related models!

The computers are listed in order of release date — not necessarily the order in which I first came across them.

There are links to articles with my thoughts, memories and opinions of each of the machines. And those articles also include links to other websites which have more detailed technical specifications.

1Apple II Series

Apple II (Photo by Kevin Burkett licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)
Released:  1977 
Processor: 6502 @ 1.023 MHz 
RAM:       4 -- 64 KB
(Later models were faster and had more RAM)

A fairly serious and popular early machine, which was commonly found in UK schools and colleges. Quite large and expandable, with eight card slots — but relatively expensive. Disk drives were pretty-much standard, whereas lower cost competitors tended to use cassette. Most models had primitive one-channel sound, which was inferior to the likes of the Atari 800 and C64.

Read More: Remembering the Apple II


2Atari 400 and 800

Atari 800 (Photo by Evan-Amos, Public Domain)
Released:  1979
Processor: 6502 @ 1.8 MHz (approx.)
RAM:       8 KB -- 48 KB
(Later models had up to 128 KB)

Thanks to dedicated co-processors, the Atari computers had sprite graphics and impressive sound. Those features — along with four joystick ports — made them rather unusual, and well-suited to games. Expandable, and ahead of their time with plug and play peripherals, they were also good general-purpose machines. The cheaper 400 was more limited, and had a membrane keyboard.

Read More: Remembering the Atari 400 and 800


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3Sinclair ZX81

Sinclair ZX81 (Photo by Evan-Amos licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0)
Released:  1981
Processor: Z80 @ 3.25 MHz
RAM:       1 KB -- 64 KB

The first home computer in the UK that almost anyone could afford. Very small, with a limited specification — no colour, no sound, and a membrane keyboard. Also available in kit form, which made it even cheaper.

Read More: Remembering the Sinclair ZX81


4IBM Personal Computer

IBM PC 5150 (Photo by Ruben de Rijcke licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0)
Released:  1981
Processor: 8088 @ 4.77 MHz
RAM:       16 -- 256 KB
(Later models were faster and had more RAM)

When IBM entered the personal computer market with their model 5150, it was immediately successful. It was followed by a series of more advanced models, and after its BIOS was reverse engineered, compatible machines and clones appeared on the market. That made it an industry standard, and lead to PC-compatible machines becoming — and remaining — the dominant platform.

Read More: Remembering the IBM PC and Compatibles


5BBC Micro

BBC Micro (Photo by StuartBrady, Public Domain)
Released:  1981
Processor: 6502 @ 2 MHz
RAM:       16 or 32 KB
(Later models had up to 128 KB and were faster)

Fast, sophisticated, well-specified and expandable, this machine was used in many UK schools. It was a good all-rounder, with one of the best versions of BASIC. TV shows were made by the BBC about computing, which featured this micro. All that meant its success in the UK was almost guaranteed, despite it being at the more expensive end of the price range.

Read More: Remembering the BBC Micro


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6Sinclair ZX Spectrum

Sinclair ZX Spectrum 48K (Photo by Alan Edmonds licensed under CC BY 4.0)
Released:  1982
Processor: Z80 @ 3.5 MHz
RAM:       16 or 48 KB
(Later models had 128 KB)

A significant upgrade to the ZX81 — the Spectrum was still quite small and cheap. It added colour, sound, more memory, and an improved BASIC — as well as a better keyboard. All those features, along with good software support, helped make it a very popular machine in the UK. Unfortunately, the sound was only single-channel, and the keyboard was rubber.

Read More: Remembering the Sinclair ZX Spectrum


7Jupiter Ace

Jupiter ACE (Photo by Dutra de Lacerda, alias Factor-H, Public Domain)
Released:  1982
Processor: Z80 @ 3.25 MHz
RAM:       1 KB -- 49 KB
(Plus a separate 2 KB of video RAM)

An unusual machine because it used the FORTH programming language, instead of BASIC. In some ways, its hardware was like a cross between the ZX81 and Spectrum, with no support for colour, and only single-channel sound.

Read More: Remembering the Jupiter ACE


8Commodore 64

Commodore 64 (Photo by Alan Edmonds licensed under CC BY 4.0)
Released:  1982
Processor: 6510 @ 1 MHz (approx.)
           (6502 compatible)
RAM:       64 KB
(Later 128 model had Z80 and 8510 processors @ 2 MHz, and 128 KB RAM)

With sprite graphics and great sound (thanks to the 6581 SID chip), this was a very popular machine. A wide range software was produced for it, and it had support for cartridges, joysticks, disk drives and other expansion options — not to mention a good amount of RAM as standard. Unfortunately, the built-in BASIC had no support for the sound and graphics facilities, making it less friendly for novice programmers.

Read More: Remembering the Commodore 64


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9Dragon 32 and 64

Dragon 32 (Photo by Alan Edmonds licensed under CC BY 4.0)
Released:  1982
Processor: 6809 @ 0.89 MHz
RAM:       32 or 64 KB

The use of a 6809 processor, at a time when most manufacturers had opted for the 6502 or Z80, made this a slightly unusual machine. But despite that, it didn’t really seem stand out — it was simply a decent, solid machine, with a good keyboard. And as with many other early computers, the sound was only single-channel.

Read More: Remembering the Dragon 32 and 64


10Oric-1

Oric-1 48K (Photo by Alan Edmonds licensed under CC BY 4.0)
Released:  1982
Processor: 6502 @ 1 MHz
RAM:       16 or 48 KB
(Later models had 64 KB)

One of the ZX Spectrum’s rivals, and similar in appearance, this was a cheap, small, colour computer. It’s debatable as to whether its chiclet keyboard was an improvement over its rival — but it certainly beat the Spectrum by having a 3-voice sound generator chip. There were initial problems with its BASIC and cassette storage functions. In the end, it didn’t manage to outsell the Spectrum.

Read More: Remembering the Oric-1


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11Amstrad CPC 464

Amstrad CPC 464 (Derived from photo by Bill Bertram licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5)
Released:  1984
Processor: Z80 @ 4 MHz
RAM:       64 KB
(Later models had 128 KB)

Amstrad’s first home computer was a sort of ‘all-in-one’ machine, with a built-in cassette recorder, and a bundled green-screen or colour monitor. That made it easier and neater to set up than rival machines. A good specification and attractive price ensured that this machine sold well. The built-in BASIC had support for its graphics and 3-channel sound generator, making it easier for beginners to program than the Commodore 64.

Read More: Remembering the Amstrad CPC 464


12Sinclair QL

Sinclair QL (Photo by Telecarlos licensed under CC BY 3.0)
Released:  1984
Processor: 68008 @ 7.5 MHz
RAM:       128 KB -- 896 KB

Sinclair’s offering for the higher end of the computer market was let down by a number of factors. It used a slower version of the 68000 (the 68008), which also limited RAM expansion possibilities. Its micro-drives were inferior to the more common floppy disk drives, and the keyboard was of relatively poor quality. A lack of software support meant that few Spectrum owners upgraded, and those looking for a business machine wanted more.

Read More: Remembering the Sinclair QL


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13Apple Macintosh

Apple Macintosh 128K (Photo by Sailko licensed under CC BY 3.0)
Released:  1984
Processor: 68000 @ 8 MHz
RAM:       128 KB -- 512 KB
(Later Plus and SE models had up to 4 MB. 
Other models were faster, with even more RAM)

With its small built-in monochrome monitor, 3.5″ floppy disk drive and mouse, this 16-bit computer brought the graphical user interface to the masses. Other machines at the time had colour, but they were often text-based, or did not display text and graphics in a way which accurately represented how it would look when printed. In contrast, the Mac’s small but clear monitor gave true WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get). That made it ideal for applications like desktop publishing, especially when used with Apple’s new laser printer, the LaserWriter.

Read More: Remembering the Original Apple Macintosh


14Atari ST

Atari 1040STf (Photo by Bill Bertram licensed under CC-BY-2.5)
Released:  1985
Processor: 68000 @ 8 MHz
RAM:       512 KB -- 4 MB
(Later models were faster and had more RAM)

The arrival of the 16-bit Atari ST in 1985 marked the start of an era of more advanced home computers, with colour graphical users interfaces. Its 68000 processor — like the one found in the more expensive Apple Mac — was a big step-up from the 8-bit 6502 and Z80. Although it lacked the advanced graphics and sound chips of its later rival, the Commodore Amiga, it was still a very popular machine which performed well. Built-in MIDI ports made the ST a natural choice for musicians, who wanted to record and sequence external music synthesizers.

Read More: Remembering the Atari ST


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15Enterprise 64 and 128

Enterprise 128 (Photo by Miguel Duran licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5)
Released:  1985
Processor: Z80 @ 4 MHz
RAM:       64 or 128 KB

Despite its good specification, and novel features such as a built-in joystick, the Enterprise launched too late to succeed. By 1985, people either wanted to stick with the more well-established machines which had good software support, or switch to much more powerful 16-bit systems, such as the Amiga, Atari ST or Apple Macintosh.

Read More: Remembering the Enterprise 64 and 128


16Commodore Amiga

Commodore Amiga 1000 (Derived from photo by Kaiiv licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0)
Released:  1985
Processor: 68000 @ 7.09 MHz (PAL)
                   7.16 MHz (NTSC)
RAM:       256 KB -- 8.5 MB
(Later models were faster and had more RAM)

A ground-breaking 16-bit machine, the Amiga was effectively the first multimedia computer. It had a built-in 3.5″ floppy disk drive, and advanced custom chips for sound and graphics, which meant it could play sampled sound and manipulate images with minimal CPU intervention. Although its impressive sound and graphics made it popular for gaming, it wasn’t long before add-ons such as the Newtek Video Toaster meant the Amiga was also used for video editing and production. The Amiga also had a preemptive multitasking operating system, and a unique colour graphical user interface.

Read More: Remembering the Commodore Amiga


17Acorn Archimedes

Archimedes A410/1 (Photo by PaulVernon1974 licensed under CC0 1.0)
Released:  1987
Processor: ARM2 @ 8 MHz
RAM:       512 KB -- 1 MB
(Later models had up to 16 MB)

With its fast and efficient 32-bit ARM processor, which had a RISC architecture, the Archimedes computers were much more powerful than the BBC Micro, as well as 16-bit machines such as the Amiga and Atari ST.

Today, most smartphones contain a newer version of the ARM CPU core, which was originally developed for the Archimedes back in the 1980s. That makes it a very significant computer.

Read More: Remembering the Acorn Archimedes


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