Home Computing in the 1980s

Sinclair ZX81
Acorn Electron
Schneider (Amstrad) CPC6128
2007 laptop
This represents an occasional interest of mine outside streetlighting. Click on an image of one of the 1980s computers to find out more about what it was like to use them. Or, click on the links below: Sinclair ZX81 (1981), Acorn Electron (1983), Amstrad CPC6128 (1985)

Left, from top: Sinclair ZX81 from 1981 (from Wikipedia); Acorn Electron from 1983 (my own); Schneider CPC6128 from 1985 (similar to Amstrad - from Wikipedia); a modern Fujitsu-Siemens laptop from 2007.

Computers in the past were a lot different to their modern counterparts. I have selected three computers from the 1980s, two of which I own or have owned, and have looked at how they used to work and just how different the home computing experience used to be.

There are several differences from today’s computers that are common to all three models below. There was no Windows environment, and no pre-installed software. Anything for word processing, data handling etc. had to be loaded in each time before use, and was so basic as to be barely better than a typewriter or pen and paper in any case. There was no music (apart from bleeps and simple computer-generated sounds), no CDs or DVDs, no memory sticks and no mice. Printers were a possibility, but most people didn’t have them. Even floppy disks (remember those?) were not on most computers in the early or mid-1980s. In order to use any of these computers, it was necessary to program them (i.e. type in instructions for them to carry out) – they were not as user-friendly as they are nowadays.

For each of the three chosen models of computer in turn, I have taken a look at the experience of using these computers. And while I may be a little flippant at times for the sake of humour, these computers in the 1980s paved the way for what we take for granted nowadays. The purpose of all this is not to poke fun at the computers of the past, but just to show how different they were from computers of today. So I hope I've not been too irreverent!

The screen images are taken from emulators (EightyOne, ElectrEm Future and WinAPE) that are able to mimic the way the original machines behaved. The difference is that the original images on TV screens and monitors of the 1980s were not of such a high quality as today!

 

References

There are a good number of websites devoted to retro or vintage computing. Many of these will go into greater detail than this overview document. In putting together this document, I have included content or used emulators from the following sites:
• Wikipedia
• Sinclair ZX81 website (where the EightyOne emulator can be found): http://www.zx81.nl/
• Acorn Electron games: http://www.stairwaytohell.com/
• Amstrad CPC6128 emulator (WinAPE) website: http://www.winape.net/
• Amstrad CPC games: http://www.cpczone.net/

 

Later in the 1980s - the Amiga 500 (1987)

I owned the Amiga 500 from 1991 to 1996, so for me it was not really a 1980s machine! If I'm going to be honest, I don't have very fond memories of this computer myself, but it certainly shows the development of a windows-and-mouse-style environment for home computers. Back then, personal computers could end up being big investments for people. It's interesting to think that now there are probably toy laptops from Fisher Price that have more computing power. If one were to look back on some reviews however, one can really see how the Amiga 500 opened some doors for the machines that were to follow. In the early days of the late 1980s, there was an acronym called WIMP – Windows, Icons, Mouse, Pointer – to indicate those computers where you could interact with it using windows and a mouse rather than having to only use the keyboard.

Left: the Amiga 500 computer. Photo © Bill Bertram 2006.

What frustrated me about this computer is that, as supplied, it wasn't possible to program it or do any word or data processing – extra software had to be purchased. Looking back, though, this was paving the way for modern computers! In order to do anything on the computer, you would either insert the Workbench floppy disk (which contained a disk operating system and file management, as shown on the monitor above), or you would insert another floppy disk containing a game or other software. And it's probably fair to say that the most common use for the Amiga was in playing games, as it had 4096 colours available and good sound facilities (for its day) which allowed game developers to start using a virtual-reality style of environment instead of something looking like Pac-Man! The standard model came with 512K of RAM, although I had it supplied with an upgrade to 1MB.

In time, I found some software to fulfil my programming needs. The Amiga was far more capable than previous computers I had owned, and there was plenty of software already available. But I was used to programming, having done it for several years. I also found some word-processing software. The best that I came across was called "Pagesetter II", and for the first time I was able to use proper fonts as opposed to the chunky characters I had previously seen on-screen. So from February 1992 I was printing out documents using "Times" (i.e. Times New Roman) or "Triumvirate" (very similar to Helvetica). The printer I had was dot-matrix – a more advanced model than the first one I had bought in 1988, but still noisy and screechy as it printed. It was a colour printer, which meant it had a four-colour ribbon similar to the ribbon found in a typewriter, and it never took long before the colours became contaminated with each other!

I seem to remember that PageSetter II did provide a challenge for the amount of memory that the Amiga had. Page scrolling was very slow.

© Matthew Eagles 2008. Last updated 18th November 2013.