Commodore 128: Was It Really an Upgrade From the Commodore 64

commodore 128

In the eighties, Commodore was the name in home computers. Their Commodore 64 was the biggest selling home computer of all time and would transform the market. But what about their upgrade, the 128?

The 128 was a quirky, better looking younger brother than the Commodore 64. It had more power, dual compatibility modes yet never got the recognition it deserved. Below, we discuss the Commodore 128 and see if it really was an upgrade. 

The Roots of Commodore

Commodore began as a typewriter repair company in 1958. They soon began to extend their business to digital products, such as watches and calculators. By 1977 they had entered the home computer market with their Personal Electronic Transactor (PET) computer.

Marketing the Commodore 64

The arrival of the Commodore 64 in 1982 would change the home computer market forever, making Commodore a household name. The Commodore 64 would go on to be the biggest selling home computer of all time, and though justified, the company employed some tough tactics to get it there.

Firstly, Commodore began to undercut its competitors. A Commodore 64 was retailing at half the value of some others in its field. In addition to this, Commodore offered a $100 rebate for anyone trading in their old personal computers for a Commodore 64. 

This tactic meant that many households either purchased or swapped for a Commodore 64. A starting retail price of $595 with a rebate on top enticed many customers. This tactic would not just ensure Commodore a place in many homes but would put competitors such as Timex and Texas instruments out of the business. 

The second ingenious method Commodore employed was to market it as both an office and a gaming system. Games consoles were on the brink of collapse, and the public has lost faith in poor quality content for game consoles, with high prices and an overwhelming amount of choice. The public began to switch to this more versatile option, just as the video game industry collapsed under the strain.

The Power in the Commodore 64

On the surface, the Commodore 64 looked almost identical to their previous home computer, the Vic-20. Inside, it had 64kb of Ram, making it much more powerful than others in its field. It was all processed by a MOS 6510 CPU.

Graphically, it had 16 colors with 18 hardware sprites per line, scrolling, and a bitmap graphics mode. Not only was it powerful, but it also looked fantastic.

To top it all was the Commodore’s ability to utilize sound to its fullest. Evident in the fact that people are still making music using this software today. An SID chip with three channels gave it a sound unlike anything else at the time. 

Globally, this computer would go on to sell over 15 million units. It was the most purchased home computer of all time, and not even Commodore themselves could stop its growth.

The Arrival of the Commodore 128

Despite the success of the Commodore 64, Commodore had been making some terrible mistakes with their other products. This was partly down to hardware issues, and due to the fact that consumers could just not get enough of the Commodore 64. Efforts such as the Plus series had been deemed a commercial failure. 

The Commodore 128 was the companies intended replacement for the Commodore 64. Engineers began to look at the failures of their other systems and adapt. Many of the failed systems had not been compatible with the beast that was the Commodore 64, and so Commodore made sure the 128 would be able to use Commodore 64 devices and software. 

In terms of power, the 128 was a huge step up. It had 128kb of Ram, doubling the Commodore 64. The Commodore 128 CPU was a MOS 8502 running at 1-2MHZ, or two Zilog models running at 4MHZ in its more powerful mode.

Aesthetically, the computer was a world away from the Commodore 64 and Vic-20. It was a sleek, black, and thin line model. It was a big change to the beige box associated with the company. 

Dual Modality

In their search for Commodore 64 compatibility, Commodore had designed the 128 with a series of dual modes. In fact, they marketed it as three computers in one. 

At startup, you would be presented with the standard 128 native boot up. However, by inserting a disk at startup you could change it to a Z-80 mode for business applications. Boot it up holding down a particular key, and you were sent to Commodore 64 mode. 

In this dual-modality version of a Commodore 64, you could run all the programs and software you would do on your normal version. The 128 was in fact a perfect clone of the Commodore 64. 

Commercial Success

The Commodore 128 did have a respectable run. It would cease production in 1989, shifting over four million units. However, it was never the commercial success Commodore expected it to be.

This was mainly down to the fact that the Commodore 64 was still hugely popular. It would be produced all the way up until 1995, and even in 1989 when the 128 ceased production people were still using it. 

The high price of the 128 and the abundance of quality software for the Commodore 64 meant that for most people, the extra expenditure on the extra power from the 128 dual-mode was not needed. All that marketing hype that arrived with the Commodore 64 was never emulated for the 128 and this expensive system was marketed to the general public. Why would they pay for extra power that they were never going to use?

Commodore 64 vs 128

The Commodore 128 was definitely an upgrade, but commercial statistics and public opinion point to the fact that it was an unnecessary one. Despite its dual modes, upgraded hardware, and aesthetics, the 128 was just not needed. Apart from the success of the Amiga models in Europe, they would come nowhere near to the sales of the Commodore 64 and eventually go bankrupt.

Are you looking for more of a retro fix? Then visit our blog section at Retrothusiast. We have a library of articles on old home computers and software, to take you back to the nostalgic era of yesteryear! Come and do some vintage reminiscing with us today!

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  1. We had both a C64 and later a C128. The C128 was a lot nicer. There were software packages like Paperback Writer that were smart enough to tell if it was a C128 and take advantage of it. I used it for my first semester of college. It got enough use that the upgrade was definitely worth it. My younger brother eventually either sold it or traded it to help pay for an Amiga.

    1. I was recently reunited with my childhood Commodore 64. It stopped working when I was young, but they should be easy enough to fix. I also had an Apple IIe, which I was just reunited with as well. Haven’t tested it yet. Never owned an Amiga until now. Recently found a great condition A600 and it works great.

  2. The Commodore 128 was the most versatile computer Commdore made. It could run almost all software written for the Commodore 64 in 64 mode. The native 128 Mode offered a much better BASIC, and the CP/M mode, which could be used to run business software, but was seldom used. Since the Commodore 128 could run most of the software written for the Commodore 64, there was little software written for the native 128 mode. Still, it managed to sell 2.5 million units before being discontinued.