Commodore unveils 264 and 364V computers. Sheldon Leemon.
Commodore's new 264 series of computers does not present any surprising technological advances. These computers are more like an interesting variation on a familiar theme. Like previous Commodore computers, the 264 is based around a 6502-type microprocessor, is compatible with some, but not all, existing Commodore peripherals, and is software incompatible with every other Commodore computer. Its most innovative feature is the built-in applications software in ROM that enables the user to perform specific tasks as soon as he gets the computer out of the box.
The natural comparison to make in describing these computers is with the 64, Commodore's most popular model. Generally speaking, the 264 and 364V offer less than the 64 in the way of graphics, sound, and I/O hardware and try to compensate with improved software. Where the 64 has a separate dedicated processor chip for graphics, one for sound, and two powerful input/output chips, the 264 series has only one chip, called the TED chip, to perform all of these functions. The result is some major cutbacks in the areas of graphics and sound. The new series does not have the sophisticated three-voice, eight-octave sound synthesizer with its provisions for envelope and waveform control, filtering, synchronization, and ring modulation that the 64 has. Instead, these computers are limited to two simple tone generators, one of which can generate "white noise" for sound effects. Likewise, the 264 series lacks sprite graphics, which provide an easy method of animating objects on the 64 screen.
The character and bit-map graphics scheme on the new series is almost exactly the same as that on the 64, with some small but nice improvements. While both the 264 and the 64 have a maximum of 16 primary colors available, the 264 has a better color selection (three of the colors on the 64 are shades of gray), and each color can be set to one of eight different luminance levels for a total of 128 possible shades. In addition, any text character can be designated as a "flashing" character, which will blink on and off like the cursor. Built-In Software
In other areas of hardware comparison, the 264 series holds its own, and in some respects even bests the 64. Its 7501 microprocessor uses the same instructions as the 62510 on the 64, but runs at a 1.76 MHz clock speed, which makes it a considerably faster processor than the one used by the 64. Although it has the same 64K RAM standard with the 64, it uses a more sophisticated method for bank-selection of ROM programs that allows it to choose from anyone of four 32K ROM programs at a time.
The 264 has internal slots for two such ROM programs, one of which is occupied by an expanded 32K Basic interpreter and operating system ROM. The 364 has internal slots for three ROM programs, including Basic and the operating system. Additional ROM programs can be plugged into a memory expansion cartridge slot, which can access up to two 32K ROM programs on cartridges that can be "piggy-backed."
Commodore will use the extended internal ROM capability to provide built-in applications software. They have stated their intention to sell several different models of the 264 and 364V, each with different software in internal ROM. They have mentioned a word processor, their Magic Desk program, and 3-PLUS-1, a combination word processor, file manager, spreadsheet, and graphing program as possible options.
Also shown at CES were models for the educational market with Logo and Pilot as standard languages. If the consumer later decides that he wants a different package built-in, it should be possible to have the ROM changed, but all built-in software will also be available separately on cartridge. In addition to the internal applications software, the 364V will also come with Commodore's Magic Voice speech synthesizer and 16K of speech software on ROM.
The memory access scheme used by the 264 series allows not only more ROM in the system but more effective use of the RAM. For example, despite the fact that the Basic interpreter and operating system occupy twice as much ROM on the 264 as on the 64, the 264 has more than 59K of RAM workspace available for Basic programming as opposed to the 38K available on the 64. Another area of improvement is in the RS-232 port. The use of software to emulate an ACIa chip on the 64 limits its baud rate to about 1200 baud, but the 264 has an actual ACIA, which allows communication to take place at a rate as high as 19,200 baud. Improved Keyboard
The external hardware comprising the case, the keyboard, and the I/O connectors is considerably different on the 264 than on the 64. The case of the 264 is several inches shorter in length than the Vic/64 case, and the styling is considerably more streamlined--very much like a miniature Atari 800. Although it has 67 keys, just one more than the 64, considerable improvements have been made in the keyboard layout; including the addition of four separate arrow-shaped cursor movement keys and an Escape key. The four function keys have been moved to the row above the keyboard, and one of them is designated the HELP key. The RESTORE key has been replaced by a reset button near the on/off switch.
The 364V model also has a 19-key numeric keypad, which makes its case roughly the same size as that of the 64. Unfortunately, the keyboard itself seems to be of a lower quality than that on the current 64 (keyboard quality is always subject to change, however, as several different keyboards have been used at various times on the Vic and 64).
Along with these changes in the keyboard layout, changes to the screen editor in the operating system allow line insertion and deletion and the setting of margins at the top, bottom, and sides of the screen to create a "window." Other screen editing changes include the use of the ESC-0 sequence to cancel insert or quote mode, and CONTROL-S to halt output to the screen temporarily. Peripheral Compatibility
The connectors on the back of the case help to tell the peripheral-compatibility story. The User Port connector is the same as the one on the 64, and many peripherals that plug into that port, such as modems, will be compatible with the 264. Likewise the serial port, which is used to connect the computer to serial printers, and the 1541 disk drives are the same, and those peripherals can be used with the 264.
But the cassette connector is of the new European mini-DIN variety, so the old Datasette recorders cannot be used by the new series, nor can their tapes be read by the new Datasette. Likewise, the joystick ports use the new round DIN-type plug, so none of the existing joysticks on the market today can be used with the 264. Finally, the Memory Expansion port into which the user plugs ROM program cartridges is different, so 64 cartridges will not work with the new line of computers. Operating System
We now turn to the area of operating system, where substantial improvements have been made over earlier Commodore computers. First, the operating system ROM, including the Kernal, the Basic interpreter, and character generator, has been expanded from 20K on the 64 to 32K on the 264 series. The 264 and 364V come with Basic 3.5, by far the most powerful Basic interpreter offered on a Commodore machine to date.
It contains all of the Basic 4.0 disk commands except for DOPEN, DCLOSE, and RECORD, as well as the improved string handling of Basic 4.0.
It features program editing commands such as auto line numbering, DELETE, RENUMBER, and KEY, which lets you designate strings of texts to be printed each time that you press one of the function keys. It also contains the error-trapping commands TRAP, RESUME, and ERR$.
Structured programming commands such as IF-THEN-ELSE, DO, LOOP, EXIT, WHILE, and UNTIL have been added, and neatly formated output is available via the PRINT USING command. Hexidecimal conversion commands have been added, along with the logical operator XOR.
If the graphics and sound capabilities of the 264 series are less extensive than those of the 64, at least the Basic 3.5 on the 264 fully supports those capabilities. This is in sharp contrast to the 64, the Basic interpreter for which sorely lacks support for the graphics and sound hardware. Basic 3.5 contains commands such as GRAPHIC, PAINT, BOX, CIRCLE, COLOR, SCNCLR (screen clear), SSHAPE, GSHAPE (for saving and retrieving images from the bit-map graphics screen), and SCALE. New functions have been added to read the color, luminance, and on/off status of each dot on the bit-map screen, as well as to read the joysticks. SOUND and VOL commands are used to control the two tone generators.
Besides the extended Basic, the new operating system ROM also contains a machine language monitor. Unlike the Tiny Monitor found in earlier Pet/CBM machines, it is a true extended monitor with assembly and disassembly capabilities. New Peripherals And Pricing
Some new peripherals will be made available when the 264 series is released in April. The SFS 481, a new parallel disk drive that plugs into the cartridge slot of the 264 will have a data transfer rate several times that of the 1541 serial drive. Commodore also promises a new daisywheel letter-quality printer, the DPS, 1101, and a new color monitor, the 1703, as well as a 1531 cassette drive to go along with the new series.
No prices have been announced either for the new series of computers or for the new peripherals. The best guess of industry watchers is that the 264 will sell somewhere in the $300 price range, and that the 364 will be priced under $500. The peripherals should be similarly low-priced.
There has been much speculation on the effect that this new series of computers will have on the marketing of Commodore's current line. Some predict that there wil be a revolt by consumers who are fed up with Commodore introducing one incompatible computer system after another, leaving their previous products obsolete. Some question by consumers would be willing to pay more for a computer that has less hardware capability than the 64 and obviously costs less to make. Others have said that retailers will not be willing to stock hardware and software for all of Commodore's systems, and that the struggle for shelf space will cause the new series either to fail or to replace the 64 entirely.
Commodore has strongly denied that they intend to drop even the Vic 20 as a result of the new series, much less their popular 64 model. They point out that they are still making versions of every computer they ever manufactured, and that their CBM systems are sellling better now than when first introduced as the Pet in 1977. It seems fair to take them at their word when they say that in the end, it will be the buying public who decides which computers they will produce.