Commodore 128

I enjoy taking unique photos, but I’m not very refined at it. Fake it until you make it, I guess.

This is my day-driver in the Commodore world. I searched out a nice-looking Commodore 128 at a reasonable price. I’d say I did a good job; the case and keyboard are nearly immaculate. The price was not cheap, but nothing for me ever is after shipping, and this was definitely in the “not bad” range. Look at this beauty:

Just look at it!

However, the one I bought is an NTSC model. Growing up in America before the Internet became mainstream, you could easily never know that NTSC was a disadvantage. Since I was in an NTSC region, everything related to video that I owned was NTSC-compatible, and all software in the stores were written with NTSC compatibility in mind. And it never ever seemed like a problem; walk into Target and see a hundred games ready to go with your system. Walk into an actual software shop and there could be double or triple. Actually, I talk about it as if I felt it wasn’t a problem, but I’m pretty sure I never even knew about NTSC, much less PAL, when I was growing up.

But the landscape is quite different now. Here I am, actually still in an NTSC region, but with access to the Internet. And being such an old technology, copyright is kinda ignored and you have basically unfettered access to mountains upon mountains of software. And when this happens, you start to realize that a lot of it doesn’t work, and you may wonder why. And the reason is that much much more software was written for PAL.

So I bought another Commodore 128, this time from the UK, thus PAL. And I received it, but it wasn’t nearly as nice looking. Sticker residue was the real eye-sore, and of course that will clean up, but on top of that, it was a little yellowed and quite a few keys had small nicks on them. Not wanting to trade my beauty of a 128 for a beat-up one just for access to more software, I exchanged one motherboard for the other. Pretty straightforward process, just a few screws to open the case, two cables and a ground wire to disconnect top from bottom, and a few screws to release the motherboard, repeat, and reverse. Tidy. Now I have a nice-looking AND highly compatible Commodore 128! And now that I think about it, I also have a not-so-nice looking and not as compatible Commodore 128! It lives in the closet until I get around to cleaning it up and selling it.

And here it is all set up with SD2IEC and Datassette.

So, why a Commodore 128 instead of a Commodore 64? That’s the more typical choice, right? Well, my first computer was actually a Commodore 64, but I didn’t buy that myself, and it was used entirely for games. After a couple of years, I bought my own Commodore 128 at a garage sale. Sure, it was used, but it was my own money. And it was purposed not only for games (but believe me, there were games) but also for school. Not every teacher at the time would accept a printed paper, but quite a few did, and each paper got input on that system. I feel I did a lot of growing up on that system, so it remains the more nostalgic of the two for me.

The Commodore 128 is also a much more sophisticated system. The CPU was faster by nearly double the speed. There was double the memory. The included version of BASIC was much more featureful. It output at double the resolution, if you had the right hookups. There was a second CPU that could load CP/M programs. And there was almost no software to take advantage of any of this! Is what people like to say. But actually there were a substantial number of apps that could take advantage of these features. What the Commodore 128 was lacking was games.

This is the rear view, where you can see there are two (actually three, but one doesn’t really count) possible video outputs. The one labeled video is for 40-column video, but the RGBI can output at 80-column, and they can even be run at the same time.

But inside every Commodore 128 is 99.9% of a Commodore 64. It was nearly 100% compatible with Commodore 64 apps and games. So while it can be thought of as its Achilles’ heel, because software developers just kept producing Commodore 64 games since the Commodore 128 could also play them, in retrospect another perspective is possible. Commodore 128 native for productivity and the very seldom game, and Commodore 128 in Commodore 64 mode for serious gaming. I’ve heard there are games that aren’t compatible with the 64 mode of the Commodore 128, but I’ve never personally loaded one that doesn’t work. I believe I was given one specific title that doesn’t work, and if that game is a must-have, well, I suppose the 128 isn’t for you. But for me it’s the dream machine!

Someday, I hope to use this for actual productivity again. It won’t browse the Internet or display PDF files, but I can use it to type documents and print them, and I can use it to telnet, which could allow me to connect to a modern PC which I can use SSH from, which could make it quite accommodating to do work on. But for now, it’s getting serious use as a gaming machine!

Love love love these fake leather dust covers!


This is is the story of how I ended up getting a LITTLE carried away on the Plus/4 aisle…

After I bought my Commodore 128, I thought I would take things nice and slowly and enjoy collecting a few Commodore computers. But probably two days later, I found a Commodore Plus/4 on eBay, described as “Probably never been used.” Could be true. As often happens with vintage computers, the box isn’t in perfect condition, regardless of its status as a possibly “unused” computer. When I received it, I plugged it in and it came right up – a good sign! But I did run into a problem.

less-that-perfect condition box

What makes the Commodore Plus/4 most unique in the Commodore 8-bit series is that it comes with a built-in office suite. “What?” you say. “A built-in office suite?” Yes, actually, a built-in office suite that loads in about one second at the touch of a button. And it’s able to multitask in a windowed environment. It can share data between its applications. All within 64KB of RAM. Sounds impressive, right?

Well, it might be more accurate to say it can kind of multitask. And it kind of has a windowed environment. And it can kind of share data between its applications. So perhaps it’s best to say it’s kind of impressive. The software takes a lot of heat for its user interface, but really, I still find it somewhat amazing, despite its limitations. Seems you’re typing in a command every four seconds or so, sure, but for a machine released in 1984, to technically be able to do all of the things above, at speed, is no small feat. But to be reasonable, it is lacking in ease-of-operation.

Anyway, the problem I encountered was that, while the Plus/4 initialized correctly, the built-in office suite did not load. I had to replace one of the integrated software ROMs. How did I do that? Well, I could have just bought the target chip, but I found another “unused I think” Plus/4 on eBay for a reasonable price, so I went for it. This one had other intermittent problems, but the integrated software ROM worked a treat in my main Plus/4. So to repair the second Plus/4, I bought a third Plus/4 and so on. And if you think I’m exaggerating…

I’m not!

So what’s the hardware like? Well, it’s night and day compared to the Commodore 64. Unlike the Commodore 128, it is not the least bit compatible with Commodore 64 software. This is unavoidable due to a different CPU, different graphics and sound processor, and many other changes. But here’s the real kicker – it’s also incompatible with many Commodore 64 devices! Look at the ports on the back:

So from left to right, we have:
– a new power connector (mostly not a problem because the system comes with its own power supply, but at the same time, definitely a problem because that connector is proprietary and makes after-market power supplies much tougher to come by.
– the same old serial port. So that’s nice, you can use your old C64 disk drive, if you can live with the shame of a black computer and a brown disk drive. You really need to get the 1551 so you have matching pieces. And you can use many printers, but if it has a connector that connects to the tape drive port, you’re kinda out of luck, because…


– a new tape drive port. This is bad news for a lot of people – you couldn’t immediately bring over your tape drive. Had to get a 1531! Or wait until the tape adapter became available.

new 1531 tape drive for use with Plus/4 and the new plug

– the same user port.
– a new cartridge port. This also doesn’t matter that much, because even if it was the same port, the software wouldn’t be compatible, anyway.
– new joystick ports. Because of course.
– the same video cable. At least you didn’t have to buy a new monitor!

power adapter and joystick adapter.

Another difference visible along the perimeter of the case is the reset button on one side of the machine. And for all their differences, both the C64 and Plus/4 are interested in giving you terrible quality video output through the identical RF connector on the other side of the machine.

Even more strikingly different is the keyboard. The keys are stark white, and they replaced the two-key (up/down and left/right with shift) cursor movement setup with a set of four dedicated directional arrow keys that are actually shaped like arrows. Restore is gone in favor of a second control key, an escape key appears, and the function keys have all moved along to the top of the keyboard, and includes a dedicated “help” button.

This was a radical step away from Commodore’s previous design aesthetics. I think this is a beautiful machine!