Retro Home Computers – Commodore 128
Three new disk drives were introduced in conjunction with the C128, the 1570, 1571, and 3.5 inch 1581 drives promising far faster transfer speeds via a new “burst mode”. With these three drives, more complex drive data arrangements were also made available to Commodore users in the nature of “track and sector” oriented subdirectories, a feature not available to PC users, who instead had to convolute their file allocation tables to do the same thing. The disk drives also had more on-board RAM than their predecessors, the 1540 and 1541 drives.
The C128 also had far more RAM than the C64, and a far higher proportion was available for BASIC programming, due to the new MMU bankswitching chip. This feature made it possible for BASIC program code to be stored separately from variables, greatly enhancing the machine’s ability to handle complex programs.
The C128’s greater hardware capabilities, especially the increased RAM, screen display resolution, and serial bus speed, made it the preferred platform for running the GEOS graphical operating system.
The system architecture of the C128, which in case of a C128D with memory expansion included three CPUs, five types of RAM memory, three operating modes, two system speeds, two graphics chips and two completely different low-level floppy disk encoding schemes was positively baroque and not at all orthogonal.
This high complexity was probably a factor in the limited success of the C128but of course also much of the reason for the machine’s popularity among long-time CBM users and ‘hackers’, who enjoyed the capability of full C64 compatibility in a computer which was also fully usable as a BBS terminal and general office application platform in 80-column mode running native or CP/M programs. Another selling point for this group of users was the full-featured business keyboard, which was the first ‘real’ keyboard of a CBM computer since the less flexible (and thence, less popular) CBM-II/B series.
Because the C128 would run virtually all C64 software, and because the next-generation, 16-bit, home computers, primarily the Commodore Amiga and Atari ST, were gaining ground, relatively little software for the C128’s native mode appeared (probably on the order of 100200 fully commercial titles, plus the usual share of public domain and magazine type-in programs). While the C128 sold a total number of 4 million units between 1985 and 1989, its popularity paled in comparison to that of its predecessor.
This has been blamed on the lack of native software and on Commodore’s less-aggressive marketing. An additional explanation may be found in the fact that the C64 sold huge numbers to people primarily interested in computer games, which the more expensive C128 didn’t add much value towards improving (with the exception of a few Infocom text adventures)the C128 was certainly a better business machine than the C64, but not really a better gaming machine, and people who wanted business machines bought IBM PC clones almost exclusively by the time the C128 was released. The main reason that the C128 still sold fairly well was probably that it was also a much better machine for hobbyist programming than the C64.
Also, when the C128(D/DCR) was discontinued in 1989, it was reported to cost nearly as much to manufacture as the 16-bit Amiga 500, even though the C128D had to sell for several hundred dollars less to keep the Amiga’s high-value marketing image intact.
Bil Herd commented on the Wikipedia C128 article himself, stating: “We considered the C128 to be a holding action until the next generation computers arrived, we were trying to up the game as far as expectations for new machines and buy a year, two at the max in the process. In that we exceeded our initial goals but probably due in part to Commodore’s lacklustre follow through on marketing and selling the Amiga.”