The Commodore VIC-20: 36 Years Later


Like many kids that grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, the VIC-20 was the first computer I actually owned, if not the first one I regularly used or programmed.  Mine came from Montgomery-Ward (a now-defunct department store and mail-order company that was the chief competitor to Sears and Roebuck for a century or so) and had been marked down to $329 from it’s original price of $499. Naturally, right after I got it, the MSRP was dropped down to $299 and sold “on the street” for under $200!  With no means of data-storage, there was an immediate need for some peripherals so I soon acquired the C2N Cassette Drive, the VIC-1525 Graphics Printer, and eventually a 1541 Disk Drive.  All told I had the full-on Commodore Experience as my main machine until 1985 when I received one of the original 128k Macintosh Systems.

I’ve had it out of the box a few times since then.  I had to show my kids what the term “gaming system” meant to me — they played the retro games for a few months and it went back into storage.  I dug it out for the Retrochallenge a few years ago.  Heck, I even pulled it out of storage so I could use the 20 ma Current Loop interface to read some punched paper tapes off the teletype!

Even as limited as the VIC-20 was, with its 22 column display and 5k (3,583 bytes free!) memory, it was still a REAL COMPUTER that was capable of serving as a word processor, programmable calculator, data terminal, and BASIC programmer’s workstation.  With a “shell account,” it is even possible to surf the net and do rudimentary email and such (but only if you’re a real masochist!)

In all honestly, the biggest limitation really is the 22 column display — I have RAM expansion packs that fill out the address space to a full 48k of RAM, just like the Apple II.  The printer produces reasonable dot-matrix output on standard 8.5 x 11 inch paper. The BASIC programming language is more than capable of handling any mathematical problem I might feed it.  Even communications on the VIC-20 are fairly painless, even though the emulated UART maxes out at 9600 baud on the “user port.”  It’s a handy little system that still gets me excited when I boot it up.

8-bits forever!