Commodore 64: Great?

Our story on the 25 Greatest PCs of All Time, which we published on Friday to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the PC, is a smash hit. We knew it would spur controversy. And in all the discussion of the piece that's going on and off, the most common gripe by far seems to be that we didn't include the Commodore 64, one of the most famous PCs of the 1980s--and with 30 million units sold, possibly the most popular computer of all time.

We didn't forget about the C64; actually, we discussed it at length when we put together our list. Ultimately, though, we chose to give it a slot in our list of 25 near-great PCs instead.

How come we didn't rank it higher? It all boiled down to how it fared in our 4-I ranking system. To wit:

Innovation: The C4 scored here for its SID sound chip, which gave it unusually good audio for an early-1980s PC. And the simple fact that it had 64KB of RAM was impressive at the time. But it's hard to make the case that the C64 was a technological leader in other respects: Its graphics weren't particularly advanced, and it was stuck with a version of BASIC that was already out of date.

Impact: On this factor, the C64 was a huge winner--as the best-selling computer model of all time, it was undeniably influential. It was lots of folks' first computer, and the array of applications and add-ons it inspired was gigantic. Had we rated PCs only on their influence on the market, the system would have been near the top of our list.

Industrial Design: Here, the C64 was a nonstarter. As explained in Brian Bagnall's excellent book On the Edge: The Spectacular Rise and Fall of Commodore, the system was put together in such a hurry that it got a spray-painted version of the earlier VIC-20's case...which wasn't an inspired piece of design in the first place.

Intangibles: We didn't formally rate contenders on price, but the C64, at US$595, was a deal for its time--one which helped to drive down the prices of computers in general.

So there you go--we thought the C64 was significant in multiple ways, but it fell short of our top 25. If it had sported a few more technical innovations or had a cooler case, it might have made the cut.

Side note on another system a bunch of people asked about: We considered the Timex/Sinclair 1000 for our list, too--but decided that the toylike US$100 micro-microcomputer just wasn't a good enough PC for this particular list. (Both the C64 and TS1000 found spots on our earlier list of the 50 Greatest Gadgets.)

Still think we gave these machines short shrift? Feel free to continue the debate...

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Harry McCracken

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