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The home computer is a consumer-friendly word for the second generation of microcomputers (the technical term that was previously used), entering the market in 1977 and becoming common during the 1980s.
The home computer became affordable for the general public due to the mass production of the silicon chip based microprocessor and as the name indicates, tended to be used in the home rather than in business/industrial contexts. They were also designed to be immediately useful to non-technical customers, in contrast to first generation microcomputers that often came as kits and required electronics skills. Use of the term "home computer" largely died out at the end of the decade (in the U.S.) or in the early 1990s (in Europe). This was due to the rise of the IBM PC compatible personal computer (the IBM PC and its clones are not covered in this article), and the consequent preference for the term "PC" rather than "home computer."
After the monumental success of Apple Computer's Apple II in 1977, large numbers of new machines of all types began to appear during the late 1970s and early 1980s. The boom was further facilitated by the 1979 release of VisiCalc, a software application which greatly helped to legitimize the personal computer in the business sector and as a whole. Included in the explosion of new commercial systems were such exotica as the Forth-based Jupiter ACE, which appeared on the market in the early 1980s but vanished rapidly. Some offerings became market mainstays for years, such as the BBC Micro and Commodore 64, both of which are still favorites among classic computer hobbyists as of 2006.
However, the introduction of the IBM PC (its original designation actually being the quite anonymous, classic IBM-nomenclature, "IBM 5150") in August 1981 led to a revolution in personal computing, largely due to the system's open architecture, which encouraged production of third-party clones of the unit. While the Apple II would eventually be displaced by the IBM PC, Apple Computer's 1984 release of the Apple Macintosh would create a new model for the home computer which IBM compatible Personal Computers would eventually emulate.
Many home computers were superficially similar, some having a very cheap-to-manufacture keyboard integrated into the processor unit and displaying 20–40 column text output on a home television. Many used ordinary and widely available compact audio cassettes as a (notoriously slow and sometimes unreliable) storage mechanism since floppy disk drives were very expensive at the time, especially in Europe (often a disk drive would be priced higher than the computer itself due to its more complicated mechanical construction, and thus, manufacturing cost). All in all, cheapness was the order of the day for most of these machines, in order to get the prices low enough to encourage ordinary-income people to buy. A prime buyer segment were families with school-age children.
All modern desktop computers employ an operating system (OS) which acts as an interface between the operator and the computer's internal hardware (memory, CPU, etc). Home computers most often had their OS, of which one part was usually a BASIC interpreter, stored in one or more ROM chips. The term software commonly denoted application programs sitting 'above' the OS to perform a specific task, e.g. wordprocessors or games. As many older computers have become obsolete it has become popular amongst enthusiasts to enable one type of computer to emulate another via the use of emulation software. Thus, many of the operating environments for the computers listed below can be recreated on a modern PC.
Home computers were mostly based on 8-bit microprocessor technology, typically the MOS Technology 6502 or the Zilog Z80. A large variety of 8-bit home computers were designed and marketed during the early to mid-1980s. A notable exception was the TI-99 series, released in 1979 with a 16 bit TMS9900 CPU. These were then gradually supplanted by the PC (mostly the PC compatibles—clones—costing significantly less than the IBM PC) and the PC's competing Motorola 68000-based home/personal computers appearing from 1984 onwards. Some vendors attempted to prolong the market life of their 8-bit computers by price cuts and other means (see, for example, GEOS), but their era had ended. See the list of home computers by category for a comprehensive listing of most well-known home computers, divided by wordlength (8, 16-bit) and CPU architecture.
Notable home computers
The list below shows the most popular and/or historically significant home computers of the late 1970s and of the 1980s. It includes their initial year of release as well as their region/country of origin. The most significant releases in the USA were: the Apple II (1977), the IBM PC (1981), the Commodore 64 (1982), and the Apple Macintosh (1984).
A plethora of home computers came out during this period, but most failed to have a significant impact on the US market or the history of home computing and as such are not mentioned (this includes machines not sold/known in the USA). Different models in a line of compatible computers are listed as a whole, such as the Apple II and TRS-80 families.
(For a comprehensive overview of home computers, i.e. not just the most notable ones given below, see the List of home computers.)
- June 1977: Apple II (North America) (color graphics, eight expansion slots)
- August 1977: Tandy Radio Shack TRS-80 (N. Am.) (first home computer for less than US$600)
- December 1977: Commodore PET (N. Am.) (first all-in-one computer: keyboard/screen/tape storage)
- 1979: Atari 400/800 (N. Am.) (first computer with custom chip set and programmable video chip)
- 1979: TI-99/4 (first home computer with a 16 bit processor)
- 1980: Commodore VIC-20 (N. Am.) (under US$300; first computer in the world to pass the one million sold mark)
- 1980: TRS-80 Color Computer (N. Am.) (Motorola 6809, OS-9 multi-user multi-tasking)
- 1980: Osborne Computer Company releases the Osborne 1
- June 1981: Texas Instruments TI-99/4A (based on the less-successful TI-99/4) (Second home computer with a 16-bit CPU, first to add sprite graphics)
- August 1981: IBM PC (N. Am.) - the original version and progenitor of the IBM PC compatible hardware platform. The original model was designated the IBM 5150. It was created by a team of 12 engineers and designers under the direction of Don Estridge of the IBM Entry Systems Division in Boca Raton, Florida
- 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)
- 1982: Kaypro Computer releases the Kaypro II
- April 1982: ZX Spectrum (Europe) (best-selling British home computer; "made" the UK software industry)
- August 1982: Commodore 64 (N. Am.) (best-selling computer model of all time: ~ 17 million sold)
- 1983: Coleco Adam
- 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).
- January 1984: Apple Macintosh (N. Am.) (first mouse driven, fully GUI-based home/personal computer; first 16/32-bit)
- 1984: Amstrad/Schneider CPC & PCW ranges (Europe) (British std. prior to IBM PC; German sales next to C64)
- 1985: Atari ST (N. Am.) (first with built-in MIDI interface; also 1MB RAM for less than US$1000)
- July 1985: Commodore Amiga (N. Am.) (custom chip set for graphics and sound; multitasking OS)
- 1987: Acorn Archimedes (Europe) (based on the powerful Acorn-developed 32-bit ARM microprocessor; most powerful home computer in its class on its debut)
Notable game consoles
The list below includes the most popular and/or significant video game consoles of the home computer era and other superlatives. Though not general purpose computers, many consoles competed for consumer money in the same market as the more low-end home computers (and used similar hardware, sometimes directly affecting the development of home computers). This market was also flooded with several oddball or badly marketed systems that never achieved much success, and neither introduced any technical novelties; accordingly, those systems are not mentioned here.
(For a comprehensive overview of game consoles, i.e. not just the most notable ones given below, see the List of video game consoles, which includes most game consoles up to the present.)
- Magnavox Odyssey (1972) (first console, only one without sound and color, all-analog)
- Fairchild Channel F (1976) (first microprocessor-based console, first one with sound, and color, first console to use cartridges)
- Atari 2600 (aka Atari VCS) (1977) (first very successful console, largest video game library)
- Magnavox Odyssey² (1978) (aka Philips Videopac G7000) (first with full QWERTY keyboard)
- Milton Bradley Microvision (1979) (first handheld cartridge-based video game system; monochrome LCD screen)
- Mattel Intellivision (1980) (most direct competitor against Atari 2600; first 16-bit console albeit crude Atari-like graphics; first console with Internet connection)
- Vectrex (1982) (only non-handheld console with built-in display screen, only one with real vector graphics)
- Atari 5200 (1982) (first video game console based upon a home computer)
- Colecovision (1982) (most popular 2nd-gen. 8-bit console, first with arcade-quality graphics)
- Nintendo Entertainment System (1985) (most popular 3rd-gen. 8-bit console in the U.S.)
- Sega Master System (1986) (outsold the Nintendo Entertainment System in parts of Europe and Brazil)
- Sega Mega Drive/Genesis (1988/1989) (first successful 16-bit console)
- Nintendo Game Boy (1989) (first successful, and bestselling, handheld video game console)
- Atari Lynx (1989) (first color graphics, backlit LCD handheld, albeit a marketing flop)
- Super Nintendo (SNES) (1991) (arguably the most advanced 16-bit console, top U.S. and worldwide 16-bit seller)
- ^ The patents registered for the Magnavox Odyssey, despite its all-analog electronic construction, affected Atari 2600, Mattel, Activision, Nintendo and several arcade game manufacturers)
- History of computing hardware (1960s-present)
- Pirates of Silicon Valley
- Personal computer
- Triumph of the Nerds
- Computer magazines
- Rune's PC Museum
- Computer History Museum – An online museum of home computing and gaming
- HCM - Home Computer Museum
- "Total share: 30 years of personal computer market share figures" – From Ars Technica