Few people have heard of it, yet many consider John Blankenbaker's KENBAK-1 to be the first commercial personal computer.

Koss introduced these headphones over 40 years ago, and they remain affordable favorites to this day.

My Favorite Oddball Microcomputers

People tend to forget that for every well-known microcomputer like the Apple II or the Commodore 64, there were dozens of less popular designs. Here's an introduction to a few of strange beasts from the late 1970s and early 1980s, including the Mattel Aquarius, Cambridge Z88 notepad, Jupiter ACE, and the Commodore PET 64 'Frankenputer'.

Audrey3Com Audrey:  3Com introduced the Ergo Audrey Internet appliance in late 2000. The $499 device was envisioned as a web surfing and email device for the masses. She was designed to be washable (ooh) and came in five excruciating colors:slate, ocean, sunshine, meadow and linen. Technically, Audrey was a neat machine. She runs the QNX 2000 operating system and includes a touchscreen stylus. The guts include a 200-MHz Geode GX1 processor, 16MB of ROM, 32MB of RAM, and a built-in 56K modem (that's right -- no hard drive). She even supports a built-in wi-fi upgrade and the sleek little wireless keyboard tucks behind the screen when not in use.

NC100 Amstrad NC100:  The Amstrad NC100 looks a lot like Radio Shack's TRS-80 Model 100, but they're two quite different machines. The NC100 was introduced in 1992 at a price of £199. Amstrad advertised it with the slogan, "If you can't use this new computer in five minutes, you'll get your money back." It included a word processor (with 48,000 word dictionary), BBC BASIC programming, calculator, diary, address book, and clock. There was no built-in storage -- you used a serial cable to transfer data from the 64KB of battery-backed RAM to another machine.

MaxCommodore MAX:  The Commodore MAX (Ultimax in the USA) was released for Japan in 1982, as a follow-up to the immensely successful VIC-20 series. It was envisioned as the low-end mainstay of the Commodore line-up, with the C-64 as their high-end offering. In reality, the MAX was a stripped-down version of the C-64. It was an awful home computer -- membrane keyboard, tiny 2.5K RAM memory, and crippled graphics. Programming in BASIC was only possible with an add-on ROM pack.

PortfolioAtari Portfolio:  The Atari Portfolio was a marvel of late 1980s miniaturization. Designed by DIP in Guildford, UK, it was more-or-less IBM-PC compatible. The biggest compatibility challenge was the monochrome 40x8 character non-backlit screen -- few programs could run acceptably with so little screen real estate, and even fewer developers produced Portfolio versions of their work. The machine featured an NEC V30 processor (Intel 8088 clone), a meager 128K RAM, and a Microsoft DOS 2.2 compatible operating system that was idiotically named "DIP-DOS." There was no room for internal floppy or hard drives so everything was stored in battery-backed memory cards. A special card reader was available to transfer information to your desktop PC.

Z88Cambridge Z88:  The Cambridge Z88 is my favorite Clive Sinclair creation: a sleek notebook computer that was introduced in 1987 and promptly forgotten.  It runs on four AA batteries and features 32KB of memory (upgradable).  The display is a 640 x 64 monochrome LCD capable of three (count 'em!) shades of gray.  A decent productivity suite was included: word processor, spreadsheet, calculator, BASIC interpreter, and various PDA-like widgets. To round off the package, software is still available to transfer files to and from a PC.

Kim-1 Commodore KIM-1:  The KIM-1 was the first computer made by MOS Technologies (Commodore). It came as a fully assembled bare board, with a six-digit LED display and a hexadecimal keypad (with 1152 bytes of RAM and 2K of ROM). They were produced until 1981, enjoying considerable success as low-cost hobbyist and educational machines. The incredibly successful Commodore PET-2001 was based on the KIM-1 architecture but included niceties such as a case, power supply, monitor, keyboard, and cassette drive.

PPC 640Amstrad PPC 640:  Amstrad unleashed the PPC-640 in 1988 as a low-cost IBM-compatible portable. It weighed 22lbs, so the term "draggable" is probably more apt. It ran on ten C batteries or mains power and offered a terrifyingly bad 320x200 flip-up monochrome screen. The CPU was an Intel 8088, clocked at 4.77 MHz. It came with a "full" 640K of memory and included a 2400 bps modem, in case you had a hankering to surf your local FIDO bulletin board system or CompuServe.

PET 64Commodore PET 64:  Some clever soul at Commodore decided to combine the case and monitor from the PET 4000 series with a Commodore 64 motherboard. The resulting offspring was labeled the PET 64 (or Educator 64) and marketed to schools. They retained the 3-voice analog synthesizer (although it drove a tinny built-in speaker), and the C-64's beautiful color palette was rendered as varying shades of green.

Plus/4Commodore Plus/4:  The Plus/4 was built around Commodore's new TED single-chip computer concept. TED was originally envisioned as a way to profitably produce extremely cheap computers, although the Plus/4 was at the high end of the product line. The Plus/4 was intended as a follow-up to the C64 and VIC-20, but used a different microprocessor and system architecture (making it incompatible). It had a better built-in BASIC programming language and could display more colors, but did away with the sound generator and hardware-based graphic sprites that made the Commodore 64 so successful. Oh, and it included a suite of low-quality built-in applications. Regrettably, there was only so much fun to be had with a home machine that was focused on word processing, spreadsheets, databases, and a drawing program.

H8Heathkit H8:  The Heathkit H8 computer was introduced in 1978, at a time when the idea of a kit-built computer seemed perfectly reasonable. The machine sold well and attracted the attention of Zenith, who offered fully assembled versions of Heath machines starting in 1979. The machine featured an Intel 8080 processor running at 2MHz. The front panel offered a 4K RAM, a 16 button keypad and a cryptic 9 digit LED display. A basic kit could be had for as little as $375, but most users added external serial terminals, up to 64K of memory, and floppy disk drives. there were up to ten expansion slots inside the machine, allowing you to add 3 parallel ports ($150), a cassette interface ($110), and even a fancy $675 floppy drive which required upgrading to 16K of RAM ($375).

Jupiter ACEJupiter ACE:  The incredible success of the Sinclair ZX81 led many manufacturers into the dangerous world of cheap and cheery low-end computers. The Jupiter ACE was the doomed child of one of these expeditions. The ace up Jupiter’s sleeve (groan) was that instead of including a built in BASIC language interpreter, it was based on a nifty but obscure language called FORTH. This must have been very cool for the engineers who developed the system, but the public accepted it with about as much glee as they'd accord to a three-week-old rotting fish.

Aquarius Mattel Aquarius:  Mattel is best known for creating their smash 16-bit video game console, the Intellivision. Like several of their competitors, they decided to dabble in the low-end computer market -- with disastrous results. The $159.95 Aquarius was designed by Radofin Electronics, the Hong Kong company that manufactured the Intellivision. It would have been impressive in 1981, but its 40x24 column text andlow-resolution 16-color graphics were hardly a head-turner in mid-1983. It met with indifference and hastened Mattel's withdrawal from the video gaming business.

Superboard Ohio Scientific Superboard II:  One of the first successful single board micros was the Ohio Scientifc Superboard II. In 1978, this machine shipped with a 6502 processor, 4K or memory and was expandable to quite respectable 8K. The video system displayed 24 lines of 24 characters on a monochrome composite monitor and a system monitor and 8K Microsoft BASIC was supplied in ROM. All you had to do was add your own case, power supply, display, and a cassette recorder for saving/loading programs. The price? An astoundingly affordable $279. They also offered basically the same system as the Challenger IP with case and power supply for $349, and a fully expanded system with 16K memory and a 5 1/4-inch floppy drive went for $1190. OSI sold a considerable number of these machines to hobbyists because the 1P was extremely good value.

MC-10 Radio Shack MC-10 Color Computer:  The MC-10 was envisioned as an entry-level machine to compete with ultra-cheap designs like the Sinclair ZX81. It arrived in late 1983 at a price of $119.95. Unfortunately, its tiny keyboard was even harder to use than it's big brother (the famed Radio Shack Color Computer) and it offered an equally deficient display and 4K memory. It was definitely a better machine than the ZX81, but didn't have to power to be a Truly Useful Computer. It vanished quietly in 1984.

AIM-64 computerRockwell AIM-65:  The AIM 65 was a 6502-based machine with a built-in single line LED display and a cash-register style thermal printer on the top panel. It came with either 1K or 4K of memory, dual cassette interfaces for storage, and three empty internal ROM slots for programming languages or user programs.

QLSinclair QL:  Let's step back in time twenty-two years. Sinclair decided to reach beyond the home computer market with the introduction of a sophisticated Motorola 68008 based machine with dual 100K microtape drives, networking, multitasking, and a formidable 128K memory. The £400 Sinclair QL (Quantum Leap) was introduced with much fanfare in 1984. It was beset with problems from the very beginning -- there were hardware issues and the machine's ROM wasn't finished in time for inclusion inside the case. It was attached using a Rube Goldberg-inspired external dongle. To make things worse, the computing market in general was going through an incredible slump.

CC-40Texas Instruments Compact Computer 40:  I’ve always had a soft spot for tiny computers and the TI Compact Computer 40 was a gem – it demonstrated the advantage of blending TI’s home computer and pocket calculator expertise. Unfortunately, it offered no external program storage, since it was intended to work with a miniscule wafertape drive which turned out to be too unreliable for real-world use. The CC-40 was built around a single-line 31-character LCD display, and included a version of TI BASIC that was largely compatible with the 99/4A. The base configuration offered 6K memory, but it could be expanded to 18K.

TI-74Texas Instruments TI-74 BasiCalc:  Unlike its ill-fated brother, the CC-40, the TI-74 could save program data to cassette tape for long-term storage. It offered 8K of battery-backed RAM and a 31 character LCD display (which scrolled to 80 columns) -- just enough to write and run useful programs. The TI-74 could be used as a standard scientific calculator with 10 programmable memories and 12-digit precision (one of my gripes about the early Sharp pocket computers was that while they were cleverly programmable, their calculator mode was no match for a cheap dedicated scientific). It ran on 4-AAA batteries, ensuring that a supply of electricity was readily available. Because of its versatility, the TI-74 remained on the market from 1985 through the early 1990s.

Timex 1500 Timex/Sinclair 1500:  Timex was Sinclair's North American manufacturing and sales partner, and in mid 1983 they introduced the Timex Sinclair 1500 in an attempt to fix a couple of the ZX81's most glaring warts: the ZX81's infamous membrane touchpanel was replaced by a "real" chicklet-based design (taken from the new color Sinclair Spectrum), and the memory was expanded to a respectable 16K (up from the Timex 1000's measley 1024 bytes). The display was still B&W, and the standard machine was incapable of making sound unless thrown. The TS 1500 was priced at an astounding $79.95. It didn't sell well because the industry's dirty little secret was that most low-cost machines spent their lives as fancy videogame consoles -- and the TS1500 couldn't compete with the rainbow of color and sound (can one have a rainbow of sound?) produced by the competiton.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing that allows us to laugh at obvious blunders from the past, but the reality of technological development is that it's often hard to determine which ideas will stick and which will prove to be embarrassing dead-ends. It goes without saying that there are dozens of other oddball micros out there, and we'll profile a few more of them over the coming months.


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