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Children playing Paperboy on an Amstrad CPC 464 in the 1980s
Most home computers, such as this Tandy Color Computer 3, featured a version of the BASIC programming language. The sometimes-sprawling nature of the well-outfitted home computer system is very much in evidence.

Home computers were a class of personal computers entering the market in 1977, and becoming increasingly common during the 1980s.[1] They were marketed to consumers as accessible personal computers, more capable than video game consoles. These computers typically cost much less than business, scientific or engineering-oriented desktop personal computers of the time, and were generally less powerful in terms of memory and expandability. However, a home computer often had better graphics and sound than contemporary business personal computers. Usually they were purchased for education, game play, and personal productivity use such as word processing.

Advertisements for early home computers were rife with possibilities for their use in the home, from cataloging recipes to personal finance to home automation,[2][3][4] but these were seldom realized in practice. If no packaged software was available for a particular application, the home computer user was required to learn computer programming; a significant time commitment many weren't willing to make. Still, for many the home computer offered the first opportunity to learn to program.[5]

The line between a 'business' and 'home' computer market segments has blurred, since the computers typically use the same operating systems, processor architectures, applications and peripherals. Another change from the home computer era is that the once-common endeavour of writing one's own software programs has almost vanished from home computer use.[6]

A RadioShack TRS-80 released in 1977.
The Commodore PET released in 1977. This model featured a built in Datassette drive.



Computers became affordable for the general public due to the mass production of the microprocessor. Early microcomputers had front-mounted switches and blinkenlights to control and indicate internal system status, and were often sold in kit form. These kits would contain an empty printed circuit board which the purchaser would fill with the integrated circuits, other individual electronic components, wires and connectors, and then hand-solder all the connections.[7] In contrast, home computers were designed to be used by the average consumer, not necessarily an electronics hobbyist.

While two early home computers (Sinclair ZX80, and Acorn Atom) could be purchased in kit form (or assembled), otherwise home computers were only sold pre-assembled. They were enclosed in molded plastic cases, which were more attractive to consumers and lower cost than the metal card-cage enclosures used by the Altair and similar computers. A keyboard was usually built into the case. Ports for plug-in peripheral devices such as a video display, cassette tape recorders, joysticks, and (later) disk drives either were provided or available as add-on cards. Usually the manufacturer would provide all the peripheral devices practical to add to any system as extra cost accessories. Often peripherals were not interchangeable between brands of home computer (or sometimes even between successive models of the same brand).

To save the cost of a dedicated monitor, the home computer often would have connected either directly or through an RF modulator to the family TV set as video display and sound system.[8]

Almost universally, home computers had a version of a BASIC interpreter combined with a line editor in read-only permanent memory with which you could type in BASIC programs and execute them immediately. The BASIC interpreter was also used as the Operating system, and given tasks such as the loading, saving and managing and running of files.[9] One exception was the Jupiter Ace, which had the Forth language built in. A programming language was seen as a requirement for any computer of the era due to the dearth of commercially-available productivity software.

After the success of systems like the RadioShack TRS-80, the Commodore PET and the Apple II in 1977, large numbers of new machines of all types began to appear during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Some home computers sold many units over several years, such as the BBC Micro, Sinclair ZX Spectrum, Atari 800XL and Commodore 64, and attracted third-party software development. By 1982, an estimated 621,000 home computers were in use in the United States, at an average sales price of $530. [10]

Low-end home computers competed with video game consoles. The markets weren't entirely distinct, as both could be used for games. A common marketing tactic was to show a computer system and console playing games side by side, then emphasising the computer's greater ability by showing it running user-created programs, educational software, word processing, spreadsheet and other applications while the game console showed a blank screen or continued playing the same repetitive game. Books were available for most models of computer with titles along the lines of "64 Amazing BASIC Games for the Commodore 64". These books would include type in program listings and sometimes an mail-in offer to obtain the programs on disk or cassette and were a popular and low-cost means of both learning to program and software distribution. Some video game consoles offered "programming packs", consisting of a version of BASIC in a ROM cartridge. For the ColecoVision console Coleco even announced an expansion module which should convert it into a full-fledged computer system, but this never materialised, and instead the Coleco Adam was announced.[11] During the peak years of the home computer market, scores of models were produced, usually with little or no thought given to compatibility between different manufacturers or even within product lines of one manufacturer. [12] The concept of a computer platform did not exist, except for the Japanese MSX standard. [13]

The introduction of the IBM Personal Computer in August 1981 would eventually lead to standardization in personal computers, largely due to the system's open architecture, which encouraged production of third-party clones of the unit. While the Apple II would be quickly displaced by the IBM PC for office use, Apple Computer's 1984 release of the Apple Macintosh created a new model for the home computer which IBM-compatible computers would eventually imitate.

The declining cost of IBM-compatible "personal computers" on the one hand, and the greatly increased graphics, sound, and storage capabilities of dedicated video game consoles such as the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo Entertainment System on the other, combined to cause the market segment for home computers to vanish by the early 1990s in the US. In Europe, the home computer remained a distinct presence for a few years more, with the Amiga and Atari ST lines being the dominant players, but today a computer purchased for home use anywhere will be very similar to those used in offices - made by the same manufacturers, with compatible peripherals, operating systems, and application software.


A Commodore 64c system, showing the basic layout of a typical home computer system of the era. Pictured are the CPU/keyboard unit, floppy disk drive, and dedicated color monitor. Many systems also had a dot matrix printer for producing paper output.
Eastern Bloc computers were often significantly different in appearance from western computers. Pictured is a KC 85/3 with its keyboard placed on top, by VEB Mikroelektronik Mühlhausen released in 1986 and based on an East German Zilog Z80 clone.
The Soviet Elektronika BK0010-01 home computer was based on the К1801ВМ1 (Soviet LSI-11-compatible CPU) and shared architectural similarities with PDP-11.

Many home computers were superficially similar. Most had a keyboard integrated into the case; sometimes a cheap-to-manufacture chiclet keyboard in the early days, although full-travel keyboards quickly became universal due to overwhelming consumer preference. Most systems could use an RF modulator to display 20–40 column text output on a home television. Indeed, the use of a television set as a display almost defines the pre-PC home computer. Although dedicated composite or "green screen" computer displays were available for this market segment and offered sharper text display and sometimes increased graphics resolution, a monitor was often a later purchase only made after users had bought a floppy disk drive, printer, modem, and the other pieces of a full system. This "peripherals sold separately" approach is another defining characteristic of the home computer era. Many first time computer buyers brought a base C-64 system home and hooked it up to their TV only to find they needed to purchase a disk drive or Datassette before they could make use of it as anything but a game machine.

In the early part of the 1980s, home computers were mostly based on 8-bit microprocessor technology, typically the MOS Technology 6502 or the Zilog Z80. A notable exception was the TI-99 series, announced in 1979 with a 16-bit TMS9900 CPU.[14]

Processor clock rates were typically 1–2 MHz for 6502 based CPU's and 2–4 MHz for Z80 based systems (yielding roughly equal performance), but this aspect of performance was not emphasized by users or manufacturers, as dealing with the systems' limited RAM capacity, graphics capabilities and storage options took priority. Clock speed was considered a technical detail of interest only to users needing accurate timing. To economize on component cost, often the same crystal used to produce color television compatible signals was also divided down and used for the processor clock. This meant processors rarely operated at their full rated speed, and had the side-effect that European and North American versions of the same home computer operated at slightly different speeds and different video resolution due to different television standards.

Many home computers initially used the then-ubiquitous compact audio cassettes as a storage mechanism. Most cassette implementations were notoriously slow and unreliable, but floppy disk drives as found on more costly business-oriented microcomputers were expensive and used disks eight inches wide at the beginning of the home computer era. Costs declined toward the end of the 1980s as sales of microcomputers increased and mass production of 5.25" drive mechanisms enabled economy of scale. The 5.25" floppy disk drives would remain the standard throughout the 8-bit era. Though external 3.5" drives were made available for most systems toward the latter part of the decade, most software for 8-bit home computers remained sold on 5.25" disks; 3.5" drives were used for data storage. Standardization of disk formats was not common; sometimes even different models from the same manufacturer used different disk formats. Various copy protection schemes were developed for floppy disks but most were broken in short order, and many users would only tolerate them for games as wear and tear on disks was a significant issue in an entirely floppy-based system, and having a backup disk of vital application software was seen as important. Copy programs that advertised their ability to copy or even remove common protection schemes were a common category of utility software in this pre-DMCA era.

In contrast to modern computers, home computers most often had their OS stored in ROM chips. This made startup times very fast - no more than a few seconds - but made OS upgrades difficult or impossible without buying a new unit. Usually only the most severe bugs were fixed by issuing new ROMs to replace the old ones at the user's cost. The user interface was usually only a BASIC interpreter coupled to a character-based screen or line editor, with applications performing all other OS duties themselves. As multitasking was not common on home computers until late in the '80s, this lack of API support wasn't much of a liability. Application programs usually accessed hardware directly to perform a specific task, often "switching out" the ROM based OS anyway to free the address space it occupied and maximize RAM capacity. In an enduring reflection of their early cassette-oriented nature, most home computers loaded their Disk Operating System (DOS) separately from the main OS. The DOS was only used to send commands to the floppy disk drive and needn't be loaded to perform other computing functions. One notable exception was Commodore, whose disk drives actually contained a 6502 processor and Commodore DOS in ROM. Many home computers also had a cartridge interface which accepted ROM-based software. This was occasionally used for expansion or upgrades such as fast loaders, and application software on cartridge did exist, but the vast majority of cartridges were games.[15]

From about 1985, the high end of the home computer market began to be dominated by "next generation" home computers using the 16-bit Motorola 68000 chip, which helped to enable the greatly increased abilities of the Amiga and Atari ST series. Clock rates on these systems were approximately 8 MHz with RAM capacities of 256 kB (for the base Amiga 1000 system) up to 1024 kB (1 megabyte, a milestone, first seen on the Atari 1040 ST). These systems had built-in 3.5" floppy disks from the beginning but 5.25" drives were made available to facilitate data exchange with the IBM PC compatibles. The Amiga and ST both had GUIs inspired by the Apple Macintosh, but at a list price of $2495 (over $5000 in 2007 dollars), the Macintosh itself was too expensive for most households.

Radio frequency interference

After the first wave of computers landed in American homes, the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) began receiving complaints of electromagnetic interference to television reception. By 1979 the FCC demanded that home computer manufacturers submit samples for radio frequency interference testing. It was found that "first generation" home computers, which often included their own screens, emitted too much radio frequency noise for household use. Some manufacturers appealed to the FCC to waive the requirements for home computers, while other manufacturers (with compliant designs) objected to the waiver. Eventually techniques to suppress interference became standardized.[16]

The Home Computer "Revolution"

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, from about 1977 to 1983, it was widely predicted [17] that computers would soon revolutionize many aspects of home and family life as they had business practices in the previous decades.[18] Mothers would keep their recipe catalog in "kitchen computer" databases and turn to a medical database for help with child care, fathers would use the family's computer to manage family finances and track automobile maintenance. Children would use disk-based encyclopedias for school work and would be avid video gamers. Home automation would bring about the intelligent home of the '80s. Using Videotex, NAPLPS or some sort of as-yet unrealized computer technology, television would gain interactivity. The personalized newspaper was a commonly-predicted application. Morning coffee would be brewed automatically under computer control. The same computer would control the house lighting and temperature. Robots would take the garbage out, and be programmable to perform new tasks by the home computer. Electronics were expensive, so it was generally assumed that each home would have only one multitasking computer for the entire family to use in a timesharing arrangement, with interfaces to the various devices it was expected to control.

The single most important item in 2008 households is the computer. These electronic brains govern everything from meal preparation and waking up the household to assembling shopping lists and keeping track of the bank balance. Sensors in kitchen appliances, climatizing units, communicators, power supply and other household utilities warn the computer when the item is likely to fail. A repairman will show up even before any obvious breakdown occurs.

Computers also handle travel reservations, relay telephone messages, keep track of birthdays and anniversaries, compute taxes and even figure the monthly bills for electricity, water, telephone and other utilities. Not every family has its private computer. Many families reserve time on a city or regional computer to serve their needs. The machine tallies up its own services and submits a bill, just as it does with other utilities. [19]

Mechanix Illustrated, November 1968 edition

All this was predicted to be commonplace sometime before the end of the decade, but virtually every aspect of the predicted revolution would be delayed or prove entirely impractical. The computers available to consumers of the time period just weren't powerful enough to perform any single task required to realize this vision, much less do them all simultaneously. The home computers of the early 1980s could not multitask. Even if they could, memory capacities were too small to hold entire databases or financial records, floppy disk-based storage was inadequate in both capacity and speed for multimedia work, and the graphics of the systems could only display blocky, unrealistic images and blurry, jagged text. Before long, a backlash set in—computer users were "geeks", "nerds" or worse, "hackers". The North American video game crash of 1983 soured many on home computer technology. The computers that were purchased for use in the family room were either forgotten in closets or relegated to basements and children's bedrooms to be used exclusively for games and the occasional book report.

It took another 10 years for technology to mature, for the graphical user interface to make the computer approachable for non-technical users, and for the internet to provide a compelling reason for most people to want a computer in their homes. Predicted aspects of the revolution were left by the wayside or modified in the face of an emerging reality. The cost of electronics dropped precipitously and today many families have a computer for each family member, or a laptop for mom's active lifestyle, a desktop for dad with the kids sharing a computer. Encyclopedias, recipe catalogs and medical databases are kept online and accessed over the world wide web not stored locally on floppy disks or CD-ROM. TV has yet to gain substantial interactivity; instead, the web has evolved alongside television, but the HTPC and internet video sites such as YouTube, Netflix and Hulu may one day replace traditional broadcast and cable television. Our coffee may be brewed automatically every morning, but the computer is a simple one embedded in the coffee maker, not under external control. As of 2008, robots are just beginning to make an impact in the home, with Roomba and Aibo leading the charge.

This delay wasn't out of keeping with other technologies newly introduced to an unprepared public. Early motorists were widely derided with the cry of "Get a horse!"[20] until the automobile was accepted. Television languished in research labs for decades before regular public broadcasts began. In an example of changing applications for technology, before the invention of radio, the telephone was used to distribute opera and news reports, whose subscribers were denounced as "illiterate, blind, bedridden and incurably lazy people".[21] Likewise, the acceptance of computers into daily life today is a product of continuing refinement of both technology and perception.

Use today

As many older computers have become obsolete and in some cases nonfunctional, it has become popular amongst enthusiasts[22] to virtually "recreate" these machines, their environments and popular software titles[23] with emulation software. One of the more well-known emulators is the Multiple Emulator Super System which can emulate most of the better known home computers. One system for which many emulators exist is the MSX. A more or less complete list of home computer emulators can be found here. Games for many 8 and 16 bit platforms are becoming available for the Wii Virtual Console.

Retrocomputing is gaining in popularity, with many enthusiasts using real Commodore 64 hardware to perform modern tasks such as surfing the web and email. The 64 has also been repackaged as the C-One and C64 Direct-to-TV, both designed by Jeri Ellsworth with modern enhancements.[24]

As of 2008, game consoles are beginning to incorporate most of the most common uses for PCs in the home - all of the current console generation feature music playing capability in addition to gaming and the Wii and PlayStation 3 can be used to browse the web. The Xbox 360 also features instant messaging. Through the web browser component, word processing, email and photo editing is available using Web applications. As cloud computing develops, future home computer users may opt for the all-in-one simplicity of a console, netbook, nettop or set top box over a standard PC, leading to a new era of home computers as distinct from business computers. Laptops are becoming popular for use in the home, which may redefine the term personal computer itself as a truly personal accessory, similar to an MP3 player or cell phone.


Many enthusiasts have started to collect home computers, with older and rarer systems being much sought after. Sometimes the collections turn into a "museum", often the collections are presented on web sites. [25]

Notable home computers

The 1977 Apple II with 2 Disk II disk drives and an Apple monitor

The list below shows many of the most popular or significant home computers of the late 1970s and of the 1980s.

The most popular home computers in the USA up to 1985 were: the TRS-80 (1977), various models of the Apple II family (first introduced in 1977), the Atari 400/800 (1979) along with its follow up models the 800XL and 130XE, and the Commodore VIC-20 (1980) and the Commodore 64 (1982). The VIC was the first computer of any type to sell over one million units, and the 64 is still the highest-selling single model of personal computer ever, with over 17 million produced before production stopped in 1994 – a 12-year run with only minor changes.[26]

In Europe the situation was slightly different, as many of the British made systems like Sinclair's ZX81 and Spectrum, and later the Amstrad/Schneider CPC were generally much cheaper in Europe than US systems (such as the Atari and Apple models). The reverse was also true, as popular British systems like the Spectrum never became popular in the US, like the ill-fated Timex Sinclair 2068. The result was that these British systems were much more popular in Europe than in the USA, the only notable exception being the Commodore 64 (C64), which competed favorably price-wise with the British systems, and was the most popular system in Europe as in the USA.[27][28]

Until the introduction of the IBM PC in 1981, computers such as the Apple II and TRS 80 also found considerable use in office work.[29][30]

(For a comprehensive overview of home computers, i.e. not just the most notable ones given below, see the List of home computers.)



Three microcomputers were the prototypes for what would later become the home computer market segment; but when introduced they sold as much to hobbyists and small businesses as to the home.

  • June 1977: Apple II (North America) (color graphics, eight expansion slots; one of the first computers to use a typewriter-like plastic case design.)
  • August 1977: Tandy Radio Shack TRS-80 (N. Am.) (first home computer for less than US$600) (used a dedicated monitor for U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules compliance).
  • December 1977: Commodore PET (N. Am.) (first all-in-one computer: keyboard/screen/tape storage)

The following computers also introduced significant advancements to the home computer segment:

  • 1979: Atari 400/800 (N. Am.) (first computer with custom chip set and programmable video chip and built-in audio output)
  • 1979: TI-99/4 (first home computer with a 16-bit processor)


No computer has sold more units than the Commodore 64.[31]
The East German Robotron KC 85/1 was virtually not available for sale due to huge demand by industrial, educational as well as military institutions.
  • 1980: Commodore VIC-20 (N. Am.) (under US$300; first computer of any kind to pass the one million sold mark)
  • 1980: TRS-80 Color Computer (N. Am.) (Motorola 6809, optional OS-9 multi-user multi-tasking)
  • June 1981: Texas Instruments TI-99/4A (based on the less-successful TI-99/4, first to add sprite graphics)
  • 1981: Sinclair ZX81 (Europe) (£49.95 in kit form; £69.95 pre-built) (released as Timex Sinclair 1000 in US in 1982)
  • 1981: BBC Micro (Europe) (premier educational computer in the UK for a decade; advanced BASIC with integrated 6502 machine code assembler; designed with a myriad of I/O ports)
  • April 1982: Sinclair ZX Spectrum (Europe) (best-selling British home computer; "made" the UK software industry, widely cloned by the Soviet Union)
  • June 1982: MicroBee (Australia) (initially as a kit, then as a built-up unit)
  • August 1982: Dragon 32(UK) became, for a short time, the best-selling home micro in the United Kingdom.
  • August 1982: Commodore 64 (N. Am.) (custom graphic & synthesizer chipset, best-selling computer model of all time: ~ 30 million sold)
  • Jan. 1983: Apple IIe (Apple II enhanced. Reduced component count and manufacturing costs enabled high-volume production. The IIe would not be discontinued until 1993.)
  • Apr. 1984: Apple IIc (Apple II compact. No expansion slots, and built-in ports for pseudo-plug and play ease of use. The Apple II most geared to home use, to complement the Apple IIe's dominant education market share.)
  • 1983: Acorn Electron A stripped down 'sibling' of the BBC microcomputer with limited functionality. The Electron recovered from a slow start to become one of the more popular home computers of that era in the UK.
  • 1983: Coleco Adam (one of the few home computers to be sold as a complete system with storage device and printer; cousin to the ColecoVision game console; one of the first systems to be "orphaned" by its manufacturer, a casualty of the North American video game crash of 1983.)
  • 1983: MSX (Japan) (a computer 'reference design' by ASCII and Microsoft, manufactured by several companies: ~ 5 million sold)
  • 1983: VTech Laser 200 (entry level computer aimed at being the cheapest on market). Also sold as Salora Fellow, Texet TX8000 & Dick Smith VZ 200
  • 1984: The Apple Macintosh is introduced, providing many consumers their first look at a Graphical User Interface, which would eventually replace the home computer as it was known.
  • 1984: Amstrad/Schneider CPC & PCW ranges (Europe) (British std. prior to IBM PC; German sales next to C64)
  • 1985: Elektronika BK-0010 (one of the first 16-bit home computers, and the only "official" home computer in USSR)
  • 1985: Robotron KC 85/1 (Europe) (one of the few home computers manufactured by the East German VEB Robotron-Meßelektronik "Otto Schön" Dresden)
  • 1985: Atari ST (N. Am.) (first with built-in MIDI interface; also 1MB RAM for less than US$1000; Motorola 68000 processor.)
  • 1985: Commodore 128 (N. Am.) Final, most advanced 8-bit Commodore, retained full C64 compatibility while adding CP/M in a complex multi-mode architecture
  • July 1985: Commodore Amiga (N. Am.) (custom chip set for graphics and digital audio; multitasking OS with both GUI and CLI interfaces; Motorola 68000 processor.)
  • 1987: Acorn Archimedes (Europe) (based on the powerful Acorn-developed 32-bit ARM microprocessor; most powerful home computer in its class on its debut)
  • 1989: SAM Coupé (Europe) (based on 6 MHz Z80 microprocessor; marketed as a logical upgrade from the Sinclair ZX Spectrum)

See also


  1. ^ Home of the home computer website
  2. ^ Video of old TV Ad for Atari Home computers from YouTube
  3. ^ Home computer ads
  4. ^ More home computer TV ads
  5. ^ readers recall the life-changing Commodore 64 from CNN
  6. ^ Jeremy Reimer (December 2005). "Personal Computer Market Share: 1975-2004". Ars Technica. Retrieved 2008-02-13. 
  7. ^ The Altair 8800 used binary LEDs and switches, and came as a kit
  8. ^ Texas Instruments TI-99/4 computer: At the start, the TI99/4 could not offer an RF-modulator certified by United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and had to use an expensive modified TV instead
  9. ^ Most home computers would have BASIC built in in permanent ROM
  10. ^ Gregory S. Blundell, Personal computers in the Eighties, BYTE January 1983, pp. 166-182
  11. ^ About the Expansion Module #3 for the colecovision
  12. ^ 1982 was arguably the peak year of the home computer market
  13. ^ about the history of the MSX standard
  14. ^ The TI99/4 was unique in using a 16 bit processor from Retrogaming Times, Issue 42, February 20th, 2001
  15. ^ List of TI99/4 cartridges, mostly games from
  16. ^ TRS-80 the "Trash-80" from
  17. ^ The Computer Revolution from
  18. ^ The computer revolution from The Eighties Club
  19. ^ Berry, James R. (11 1968). "40 Years in the Future". Mechanix Illustrated. Retrieved 2008-07-15. 
  20. ^ Horseless Classrooms from the Hawaii Education & Research Network
  21. ^ Clement Ader from Beb's Old Phones
  22. ^ Reviving Old Computer Games from
  23. ^ Traffic Details for from Alexa
  24. ^ Retro-Computing with FPGAs article from Slashdot
  25. ^ is one homecomputer collection that turned into a museum, with strong bonds to other similar collectors
  26. ^ number of C64s sold
  27. ^ 25th Anniversary of the Sinclair ZX Spectrum from Slashdot
  28. ^ Format Wars: The Tech that should have Won from
  29. ^ Tandy TRS-80 catalog listing many business uses (PDF)
  30. ^ "VisiCalc was first released for the Apple II, which quickly became an invaluable tool for businesspeople - at least until IBM moved into the "personal computing" market in 1981."
  31. ^ Grandiose Price for a Modest PC from Wired

External links


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