My first personal computer: The Commodore VIC-20

My first personal computer: The Commodore VIC-20

Summary: Set the Wayback Machine to the early 1980s, when the world of personal computing was just beginning to bud. The Commodore VIC-20. This is the story of my first personal computer and the man who told me to buy it.

TOPICS: Hardware
My first personal computer: The Commodore VIC-20

I don't really want to go into much detail of where I was or what I was doing when I bought my first personal computer but it was the early 1980s. I was young and impressionable. I wanted a computer that was both affordable and fun to use. No 1s and 0s for me. No punch cards either. I wanted the real thing. The VIC-20 was as close as I came to the real thing. William Shatner made me do it. This is my story.

Since other writers on ZDNet are taking the long, strange trip back to the 30 year ago mark in time, I'll do the same. But this isn't a story of triumph or inspiration. It's a story of want. It's a story of despair and disappointment. It's a story of hero worship taken too far—where no boy with limited spare change should have ever gone.

In the early 1980s, there were a lot of different personal computers hitting the market: The TRS-80 lineup, the Commodores (computers not the band), the Apple, the Zenith, the IBM PC, the Compaq luggable, the Amstrad, and a few other oddballs left over from the late 70s. The highly acclaimed Amiga was also in there somewhere.

But the only personal computer that this poor boy from the sticks could afford was the much hyped Commodore VIC-20. For only $299, I could own a part of history. It was the first mass marketed computer that I can remember. It had TV commercials. And it had none other than Captain James Tiberius Kirk himself at the helm, William Shatner.

Well, that was it for me. I had to have one. I needed a computer. I actually needed a real computer. Instead of a toy with 3K of memory and a keyboard that you plug into a TV, I needed a real 128K PET or Apple or an IBM PC or something. What I could afford and what I got was a VIC-20. Awesome. Not.

The Commodore 1530 Datasette VIC-20
The Commodore 1530 Datasette VIC-20

Even then I knew that the VIC-20 was junk but at least I had one. And like always, I had friends who got a VIC-20 and then the Commodore 64, the 128, the Atari 600 and so on it goes. I only had the VIC-20. It was basically (no pun intended) worthless. Of course I bought the 5K add on expansion pack and the cassette thingy so that I could load and save programs. You know, programs that could make noise and play 8-bit games. On my TV.

The VIC-20 didn't teach me to program in BASIC, although I did do a little programming. It didn't teach me to appreciate video games—the ones at the Arcade were much better. Yes, I spent my mispent youth in Arcades playing Dig Dug, Centipede, Space Invaders, Star Castle, Defender, Tank Battle, and many others. I never got very good at any of them. It took a lot of quarters just to be less than a mediocre player.

I wish I had all those quarters back. And my $500-ish that I spent on the VIC-20 and accessories. No, I wouldn't be rich. I probably wouldn't be better off in any way. The biggest loss of all was my time. Hundreds of hours spent playing video games, messing with that VIC-20, trying to come up with awesome ideas for software to sell, only to have my friends tell me, "Oh, they already have that."

Nope, in many cases, they did not already have that.

So, my nephew was the proud recipient of my ill-conceived purchase less than a year after it was purchased. I gave him all the accessories, games, and other software too. I don't think he ever really did anything with it other than sell it in a garage sale for $5 or less.

I remember the deciding moment to buy the VIC-20, as if it were yesterday. My girlfriend and I had gone to the mall where we saw a huge display of VIC-20s and all of its accessories. There a big sign with Shatner's face on it told me that this was the "wonder computer of the 1980s" and that it would be the only computer that I'd ever need for "years to come".

She asked me, pointing to Shatner, knowing that he was my hero and my role model (Well, Captain Kirk, not so much Shatner—but to me, he was Kirk), "Would this man lie to you?"

The Commodore VIC 20 box
The Box

I grabbed the box, went to the counter, wrote the check, ran home, plugged it all in and probably didn't speak to anyone for the next week.

The only thing that little box taught me was the following:

  • Technology is obsolete by the time I buy it.
  • Technology never lives up to its hype.
  • The next version is going to be way better than the currently available one.
  • I can't afford the technology that I really need.
  • Heroes are fictional characters.
  • William Shatner got paid to be in those commercials.

But those things I learned back then are still true today. They were lessons learned. They were relatively inexpensive lessons to learn. If I could buy 20 years worth of wisdom for $500, that would be $500 well spent.

And you wonder why I'm so cynical. 

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Topic: Hardware


Kenneth 'Ken' Hess is a full-time Windows and Linux system administrator with 20 years of experience with Mac, Linux, UNIX, and Windows systems in large multi-data center environments.

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  • I loved my VIC-20

    Used the built in basic to write some simple games and a typing exercise program. Then wrote a simple editor that allowed me to write assembly code and it would poke it straight into memory. Got a 'real' assembly language monitor cartridge and I used that to write a 'Torg' game I sold to HES, made a few $K off of it.
    I've never enjoyed programming more than I did with that simple machine.
    • I did too.

      I blame it for my 27 years in IT.
  • Nice and fun article Mr. Hess

    I went through a similar experience ... my first computer was a Texas Instruments TI-99/4A.
    Nice little machine for the time, I learned to program in BASIC on that little thing. I remember spending hours trying to make sprites (graphics) move the way I wanted.

    Even though I "wasted" hours and hours on it, it sparked my interest for IT and I became a professional computer programmer a few years later (after college).

    Wasted youth ... I'd do it all over again ... LOL
    • Same thing

      This is almost identical to my introduction to computers. I had a TI 994/A and got the expanded basic cartridge to write my own programs. A few months ago I found an old 60 minute cassette tape with some of my programs on it. I'll never be able to load them again but playing them back is a nostalgic song of tones and static =)
      • love the article

        Memories. It was a special time back then. I purchased every computer magazine that I could find even if I didn't own that computer. I wanted a Commodore 64 so bad but I wound up purchasing a Tandy Color Computer 3 and learned it's version of BASIC inside in out. So much so that I purchased a compiler that turned my BASIC code into assembler language and sold my video games as shareware. I actually found a review of my games that were printed in Rainbow Mag (a color computer specific mag). The author panned the hell out of my games.. but oh well...
  • The VIC-20 was actually awesome.

    The VIC-20 was insanely accessible to programmers. The range of graphics and sound things you could do with it - while not as great as the Commodore 64 that followed two years later - kept a lot of programming youths busy. On the VIC-20, I learned machine language, bitmapped graphics (well, you had to create custom character sets and set up your screens with them - but what an education that was!), and sound programming on that machine. In many ways, it offered a better experience than any other computers at the time (certainly the black & white computers with little more sound than a beep). The presentation of graphics on the screen even looked a little nicer to me than the Apples of the day. For instance, check out the smoothness difference between versus

    You could write programs that integrated with standard Atari joysticks and paddles, and do all sorts of cool things. I spent literally hundreds of hours of my youth on that thing.

    And then there were some great cartridge-based games. Like AE, Gridrunner, and Gorf. There was even a serviceable version of Donkey Kong, from Atari, of all companies.

    I would plug the cartridges in with the machine on and inspect the code, and you could even change the code in RAM to customize the games that way. I would tweak graphics and run through the code to find parameters that I could change, and even analyze the cartridge code. It was awesome. Couldn't do that with any other machine on the market!

    It's fair to say that while the first computers I used were a DEC PDP-11 and Commodore PETs (in school), the VIC-20 was how I got my initial deep immersion into computers, and I owe my whole career to that experience.

    Linus Torvalds cut his teeth on the VIC-20 as well. It was a great machine!

    • make the investment, reap the rewards

      • such a brilliant and simply stated concept

        that only works in a competition-free vacuum. Adults empower. Children compete.
  • I also had a VIC-20

    I loved it but maybe it is because I was younger (9 or so) when I got it and had a different set of requirements. I spent a lot of time learning to program using the guides in the book and magazine articles. I remember going to Montgomery Ward with my mother specifically because they had a working display model and I wanted to use it. I really appreciated the machine and that my parents were willing to purchase it for me for Christmas, even though they had no idea what it was or what it did. When I got it, I returned all of my other Christmas presents so that I had enough cash to buy the cassette drive.

    All that said, I can see where the author of this article is coming from. I remember it being frustrating that almost all of the prewritten programs from the computer magazines at the time were written for the 64 or Amiga.
    • I Remember

      I remember... 1983 and just landed in West Germany (I was in the Army)... finding magazine programs... sitting day and night, punching in all those characters. Never turning off the machine because I didn't have a cassette, or a way to save anything. I remember this simple game (like space invaders) that I got from the magazine. It took days to input from the pages of the magazine. The pages we wrinkled and abused from going over line by line. Finally hitting the "assemble" button. Does it work? Many hours of frustrating and disappointment. Back to checking it all again. Once I got it to work. I played the game for about 10 minutes... then turned the Vic20 off... lol.
  • opportunity missed

    The Vic 20 had limits but you could have done so much more with it.

    You get out of things what you put into them.
    Or as the old computer saying goes: garbage in garbage out.

    If the C64 was already out when you bought the Vic 20 you would have been outclassed by your friends and that may have been a factor but you could still do a heck of a lot of programming on that machine. I worked on writing tight code that could run with the expansion ram removed... Like a self commenting disassembler that I used to analyze the ROMS in the machine and cartridges. Oorah!
    • Yep!

      Exactly... everyone I knew back then already had a Commodore 64 when I first got my Vic20... They were playing deep in the game like LodeRunner. My mouth would water.. wishing I could afford such a glorious machine. Then I would go home to my Vic20. My next glorious upgrade with the Tandy 1000 with the brand new DOS 2.1 just released! I had to finance that puppy at Radio Shack. And OMG, it actually had a 5 1/4 floppy drive! Wow! I was in 7th heavan! lol.
  • Fond memories

    Thanks for the walk down memory lane. I am will always remember this machine fondly.

    Some of my classic games ( were picked by Commodore to be launch titles.

    The work involved getting them to run on this machine's tiny footprint was legendary. But it was doable and the games ran!

    The Vic was revolutionary for it's price and what you got for it. It wasn't garbage by any standard. It was a true usable computer and it was affordable!
  • First computer I got to work with was

    the Commodore PET.... there were 8K and 16K variants.
    • I actually had the manuals for the Commodore PET

      but I never owned a PET myself?! I think I was researching that computer at the time and I forget how I came to own those manuals. (I hope I didn't buy them. Grin) But I definitely was interested in one at the time.
  • I loved my Commodore 64

    This article brought back some fond memories of my first computer. The Commodore 64 with a whopping 64KB of memory. I purchased the cassette recorder, the 5 1/4 inch floppy drive and the dot matrix printer. I wrote a lot of college papers on that little computer. It was a work horse that lasted several years for me. I wish I still had it but I sold it in a garage sale a long time ago.
  • VIC-20 was great

    The VIC-20 was my first computer and I loved it. It was the only computer I could afford with my paperboy income, but it seemed vastly superior to the Apple II at school: It was color and had amazing sound abilities. I was able to make some pretty impressive (for the time) games with custom character sets and peeking and poking them on-screen in BASIC. I never had the expansion memory so became very good a squeezing as much as I could into a small space. A skill some could benefit from today.

    The only complaint I had was the tape drive. I was using old tapes due to my budget constraints. That made saving files unreliable and very time consuming.
  • Seems I was not alone in my quest

    It is curious to look back how many decades ago now, and find that so many of my peers and idols had the same (first) computer I had. I was only twelve when my dad brought home my VIC-20. It consumed my life and I traveled everywhere with it. We were just shy of being 'poor', but my parents found a way to get one in my hands. I can't tell you how many hours were spent typing in the BASIC programs that would be in Compute Magazine. Then, you spent almost as many hours debugging the code, trying to get the game to work. Half the time, it didn't matter what the game was, it was just cool for a twelve-year-old to be writing code in to a computer and then having it do something so much cooler than the hand-held football games of the day.
    I too, like so many others became a developer, self-taught, just like those days back in front of my 13-inch B/W TV and my Commodore VIC-20.
    What an excellent memory to remember, as I sit in front of my desk and begin programming for the day. Thanks Ken!
  • True Story

    Back when the VIC-20 came out and was carried by K-Mart, I was at a K-Mart, standing at the counter with a running VIC-20 on display. A man with his young son approached the VIC-20, looked at it, then typed in - "what is the capitol of Arkansas" the VIC-20 responded with "Syntax Error". The man looked at me and said "They don't know much do they?"

    It was all I could do to not burst out laughing.

    Home computers and users have come a long way since then.
    • re: True Story

      I have to look for the city of "Syntax Error" on a map ... great story ... LOL