Friday, April 30, 2010

The Good Old Days

In the mid-1980's I taught 5th and 6th graders how to use early home computers - we had a lab of about 25 Radio Shack Color Computers - CoCo's for short. We built the labs before there were even floppy drives for the computers - you loaded and saved software on standard Radio Shack cassette tape players.

At one time we networked the lab- twenty-five wires all running into a "network box" with a single tape recorder providing the feed. All of the kids would type "load" into their computers and press enter, then I'd turn on the tape player and broadcast the program I wanted them to use.

I can still remember my first drive - a 5 1/4" floppy drive with removable floppy discs that would hold about 250K on them. I paid about $495 (1985 dollars?) for it and thought I'd died and gone to heaven. The discs failed often and easily, but it was so much faster and held so much more software than the silly tape drives.

Below is a generic picture I ran across of some kids with the CoCo's, and below that is some info I grabbed off of Wikipedia about the computers.

The Radio Shack TRS-80 Color Computer (also called Tandy Color Computer, or CoCo) was a home computer launched in 1980. Despite the name, the "Color Computer" was a radical departure from earlier TRS-80 Models - in particular it had a Motorola 6809E processor, rather than the TRS-80's Zilog Z80.

The Motorola 6809E was a very advanced processor, but was correspondingly more expensive than other more popular microprocessors. Competing machines such as the Commodore VIC-20, the Commodore 64, the Atari 400, and the Atari 800 were designed around a combination of the much cheaper MOS 6502, itself essentially a clone of the Motorola 6800, paired with dedicated sound and graphics chips and were much more commercially successful in the 1980s home computer market. Steve Wozniak once commented that the 6502 was 1/4 the price of the Motorola 6800 when the original Apple was being developed in the late 70s. By 1986 prices for 8 bit processors had dropped dramatically from the late 70s, but the MC6809 was still just over twice the price of a MOS6502 (6809/6809E - $5.95; MOS6502 - $2.79). [1]

The Tandy Color Computer line started in 1980 with what is now called the CoCo1 and ended in 1991 with the more powerful yet similar CoCo 3. It was one of the more powerful 8 bit computers of its day and used more standard peripherals than other maker's, who seemed to rely on peripheral sales to make up for low computer costs. All three CoCo models maintained a very high level of software and hardware compatibility, with few programs written for the older model not running on the newer. The same can't be said in the reverse due to the greater capabilities of newer models, obviously. The death knell of the CoCo was the advent of lower cost IBM PC clones, the same executioner of other members of the home computer genre.

The CoCo lacked some of the graphics and sound capabilities of other home computers, but made up for it in computing power and ease of programming in BASIC. Combined with the versatile BASIC, the robust, easy to interface to design, has long made it an experimenters favorite.

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