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back to article Remembering the Commodore SX-64

We're shrinking away this week from monolithic supercomputers with This Old Box for something a little bit smaller. In fact, we'll be looking at the world's first commercial full-color portable computer. Fantastic! This old box logo But first, some insight into our computer selection process: It's twofold this time - 1) The …

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Hmmmmm...

Being as a C64 is about the size of my PC keyboard, and probably not much heavier, a better plan would have been to take that, and a 7" portable TV.

I still want one, though. Obviously.

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Coat

Missed feature in comparison

"Pool of Radiance" -- the theme music alone tips the scales in favor of the Commodore! (Ok, I know it's a separate purchase, but it's well worth it!)

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Paris Hilton

I hauled mine around 10 states

In my last few high school years my SX-64 and I were inseparable. I hauled that muther around 10 states on various trips, and even used it at school. I participated in the First Annual New Mexico High School Super Computer Challenge. I used the SX to dial into Los Alamos and work on a VAX/VMS system to write programs in Fortan 77 for the new Cray Y-MP/2E. For myriad reasons my team did not complete the challenge, one of which being my active activism against the tyranny of the school administration.

The airports didn't like it so much. At every security check-point I had to plug it in to show them that it worked and was a real computer. At one I actually wound up doing a demo. People thought it was pretty cool though aged at the time (1990-ish.) With it at 23 lbs and I at a wobbly 130 lbs or so (boy, those days are gone!) with toothpick sized arms, it was quite a chore to carry around Memphis, Atlanta, and Dallas/Fort Worth airports. But I had some games, a BBS program I was writing, and a WarpSpeed cartridge, so I was pretty much set. Carried the 1670 modem and a joystick in my bag.

This unit was stolen from the high school computer lab by a former fellow teammate. It was found out in a field, sabotaged, with several pins broken off the character ROM. Still works to this day. I was able to quickly figure out the problem and replaced the CHARROM.

I've picked up a second unit not long ago and have planned to rebuild the insides including a 5" LCD screen to replace the CRT. Just need to find time for it.

I've seen some redone with 1581 drives in the empty drive bay or replacing the 1541. There's a lot of room inside and a lot which can be done with these things.

Paris Hilton icon 'cuz I bet she's a chore to lug around all those airports as well. There's a number of projects I wouldn't mind working on with her as well, I just need to find time for it.

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Happy

Feature table :-)

Nice double-joke in the feature table, since the MBA doesn't have any of those features either, does it?

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Dead Vulture

carry on

15 years ago a cow-orker gave me his when he tired of it, no box so i carried it on board my flight home

the best part was at security where they wanted me to boot it - what a crowd, in them days, yunguns, a 386 monochrome laptop was hot, the color screen won!

sadly it finally bit the dust of eBay a few years back

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My dad had one... (almost)

I remember when i was a kid my dad had a C64 in a hardcase, basically a large briefcase full of foam padding with the keyboard, tape drive and power supply in it, with some fans as well. You needed to plug in the power cord, as well as a monitor, but i bet it was a damn slight lighter and cheaper than the SX :P

ah i remember spending hours reading the instructions to 'The Hobbit', the first RPG i ever played...... *drifts off into nostalgia*

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Lucky Ole Sod!

I want to be the bloke in that advert.

Seriously.

Not only does he have splendid chest (and stomach) hair, but he also sports a bevy of beauties draped around his own open air pool.

He has achieved the pinnacle of Male aspiration.

Add to this that fact that he will never have to worry about a Windows Blue Screen on his awesome ultra portable Commodore and I am left wondering why evolution didn't have the common sense to come to a stop in the 70's.

High times for the High Life my man.

You are an inspiration.

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Got one!

I've got one of these stored away somewhere, apparently one of the first few built to production standard.

Big heavy piece of equipment, especially with the size of the PSU at the back (the whole back end is a cast heatsink for the PSU) and the solidly built case (steel (!!) chassis, aluminium shell), but the feature set was OK at the time - I seem to remember MIDI was included? And the keyboard wasn't too bad, one advantage of all that space. Though you did have to squint at the display, so not that good ergonomically.

Talking of which, it's a very nice monitor, I believe based on some sort of portable Sony unit that was built-in in it's entirety. Very fine dot pitch tube (seemed to be a Trinitron?) so quite capable of displaying readable text even with the limited size available. And if you crack the case open you can drive audio + PAL Y/C video straight into the display cable, so it can work as a TV too if you've got a tuner. Later in its life I used mine as a TV for a couple of years...

Alongside some of the 'portable' PCs that came out in a similar style I'd say the SX compared favourably. I used some of the Compaq attempts and usually thought that the engineering was nowhere near as good, though I will admit Compaq put more thought into weight reduction and the specs were better!

In any case, when it was new(-ish) I thought it was quite impressive; compared to other home computers available at the time it seemed well equipped and the novelty factor of it being 'portable' was a bonus - certainly made my CPC seem a little tame. Plus I was *much* younger so more easily impressed.

I'll have to go digging for my example, though I think last time I checked the CPU had failed. :-(

Maybe it's time to gut it and put something more modern inside, the monitor will work just as well and it's big enough for almost anything to fit!

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I loved mine.

Mine went everywhere with me. But my best memory was an 8 hour layover in the Chicago airport, and the impromptu video game tournament that made me VERY popular that day.....

The empty slot was perfect for carrying your cord, and the mandatory Epyx Fastloader!

Its true though, airport security hated it, and it would just about dislocate your shoulder in any long distance carry.

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Otrona

I remember when that Commodore unit first shipped, it reminded me of the Otrona Attache, it's a similar form factor that came out a couple of years earlier.

http://oldcomputers.net/attache.html

This is pretty much the minimal cabinet you can squeeze a 5" CRT and two floppies into.

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Coat

Luxury!

There were 23 of us huddled in one school room. We *had* to develop useful BASIC programs on 16k Apple IIc boxes, at our tax paying parents expense, and if our coding wasn't tight enough our computer instructor would....

<TAXI>

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Heart

Excellent.

Best Register subhead in ages. My compliments to the chef^H^H^H^Hwriter.

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Linux

my god there are some

serious geeks reading this stuff, gentlemen my hats off I don't even know anyone who can compete.

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J
Linux

Who?

Who needs a fecking Mac Book Air when you can have this!? I wonder whether some sad geek ported Linux to the SX64 though...

23 lb? Piece o'cake! I suspect my photo equipment bag (K1000 based) is about that weight...

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engineers hammer

those were the days; heard it before I saw it. ICL mainframe in fact.

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Paris Hilton

Ah !

Ah , but you forget the power supply is superior as it is a non run flat battery !

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LOL

Also i am pretty sure there was a Commodre 65 made but only about 300 units..

Looked more like an amiga but hey

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Jobs Halo

ethernet?

maybe im wrong, but doesnt the wafer macbook air 'not' have built in ethernet ?

by the way, i love these retro articles

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Ray
Happy

Brings back memories

I got one when i was 13 or 14, i remember it being on sale down from 2000 to 1200 guilders (545 euros). Man i was happy with that thing! carried it around everywhere i went, always being the geeky one at the Commodore club meetings ;-) modifying it myself making a reset button and a switch to use single sided floppies to be used both sides, installed a speeddos chip (the Power Cartridge used up the slot and speeddos could make a dump of anything in the memory, even inserted cartridges).

About 2 years back i started it up again but it would not boot, surprise surprise: the Commodore Club still existed (well, not the same club, but still a Commodore club) and i found an engineer there that replaced one of the rom chips.

Man, i had plenty of hours fun with that thing!

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Coat

@spacepiggy

"15 years ago a cow-orker gave me his"

I've never seen a cow being orked before, but I am curious :)

Mine's the patchwork farmer's jerkin with horsehair lining please - no taxi required, I came here on my tractor...

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One of my favorites

We used to attend computer trade shows to sell modem\software packages.

At Comodore shows this was my preferred demo model, despite the weight & tiny screen, it was a breeze to setup as only had to plug it into the mains & attach the modem & the software\RS232 communications cartridge.

Take 1 screen, 1 "datasette", one 1541 & one C64 into the Novotel Hammersmith & spend ages looking for all the cables as you set it up?

Not me just just carry the SX64 into the stand & go. :)

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Unhappy

Comparison unfair

Nowhere do you mention that the Commodore is the best thing to have in case of mugging. Lamping a mugger with one of those or a MacBook Air, I know which I would choose.

Efros

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Happy

and here's...

...a nice ITX souped up version. the guy managed to hook up the CRT as well. lovely.

http://www.mini-itx.com/projects/sx64/

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Adolescent workouts

My Dad had one very similar to this by called the Otrona 'Attache.' I used to use it to do my English homework on it, and would be the only person in the class, and possibly the whole high school, to bring my essays in 'Word Processed.'

Er.. using 'Wordstar' if I recall.

It had an orange VDU and yes weighed a fricken ton and a half.

I'm not much of a geek when it comes to programming etc. and remember punching in thousands of numbers and commas which I was copying out of a book, to make a "3D" sphere appear on the screen... which never bloody happened because of some unknown reason. Probably I missed comma or something. I got really pissed off after days of typing and never tried anything like that again. Probably scarred me for life and certainly put me off trying to understand programming gibberish for life.

Now I LOVE GUI... sorry. I'm an artist, not a maths / logic whiz.

I really tried, but as Dirty Harry said: "A man's gotta know his limitations..."

My Dad certainly kept in shape lugging this thing a few miles to work and back during the week. (Uni professor.)

I loved that thing though. Saved me from writers cramp time after time.

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Rob
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Similar Amstrad machine

I have an Amstrad PC512 from mid to late 80s. That was a proper PC (sans HDD) with an LCD monitor. It runs on 8 C size batteries. Take THAT commodore.

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Flame

Comparison table

I'm not sure about that comparison table. The Mac Air makes you look like some kind of metrosexual, while the SX-64 makes you look like a rich guy with a pool with bikini babes hanging about. Well ok, that's slightly untrue. Better not carry one about or you'll be arrested by the bomb squad on conspiracy of techno terrorism.

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Lightweight!

The XPS M2010 makes this look positively svelte!

(MacBook Air search hit-seeking. Why not just post an article which just says MacBook Air over and over? Or put the words: "MacBook Air" in every headline?")

Osbourne-1 was marginally more useful for business, though.

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Commodore getting it wrong even then!

There were a few business apps (remember Mini office) on the C64, but marketing the SX64 as a portable business machine was a joke. It was a home computer and largely a games machine.

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Adam Osborne's little monster came first...

...and then there were the Compaq "portables". Although I've used those machines, none interested me as proper business machines until the Toshiba 5100/5200 came out.

I could squeeze in SCO Unix (with drastic pruning), a full Oracle database and a (rather) large application into that THING's 100 MB disk. It was so precious that my boss actually carted the damn thing on his *lap* all the way from Heathrow to Narita, used it in Tokyo and carted it all the way back the same manner even though it was *definitely NOT* a lap-top by any stretch of imagination. That probably contributed to his Deep Vein Thrombosis, if nothing else.

Ah !! The sacrifices we make in the name of computing !!

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Amstrad CPC thingy

My first "real" portable (ha ha ah ha) was an Amstrad PPC with 1,000 expensive non-rechargeable batteries that went flat in about two minutes and a patented Unreadable-In-Any-Light LCD screen. Was that progress? A Z88 was better I posit.

Ah, Old Computers. The newest old history in history.

Are personal computers the the fastest generators of obsolescence? They seem to go out of fashion faster than fashion itself.

Nick. (Old car, old bike, old house, old clothes, new Mac.)

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Black Helicopters

Que the theme song:

My little brother's best friend's father had one. I remember (at age 13) boldly barging into their home several times on warm summer nights to ask permission to go upstairs and use it. It had that asci Star Trek game with the K's for Klingons... My very first time spent with a computer (apart from that time dad took me in to land the luner lander on his company's mainframe.)

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My first computer!

It's amazing. My dad came home with one of these around 1986, when I was all of four. I'm sure he picked it up on clearance somewhere. But that computer was the best gaming platform I had for years to come. My dad's uncle had a C-64 that he used to get a ton of cracked games, so we had a huge library to play. Also, after a year or two, my dad got a monitor that was probably 13", which was hooked up to the beast and allowed my dad and I to play Wasteland for hours each night.

My dad later picked up GeOS for it, as well as geoCalc, and spent hours making up the stats spreadsheets for my baseball teams. Ah, those were the days.

He recently sold it to a guy in Finland, I think, or Denmark. All the games, the cartridges, the monitor, and other periphrials (I think there was a drawing pad called Koala?) for a few hundred dollars. It still worked just fine 20 years later.

Ah, memories.

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You can run XP on one, too...

http://www.mini-itx.com/projects/sx64/

Mind you, I'm not 100% sure whether this counts as an inspired hack or savage butchery of a classic machine. Still, kudos to the chap: all the original ports and controls work, as does the original screen, keyboard and SID chip!

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Go

I can hardly wait!

...to see the review^H^H^H^Hwind on the steadfast TRS-80 Model 4P!

Commode-door (sorry; couldn't resist) opened the gate for portability; and I had my trusty 4P running TRSDOS *and* CP/M -- depending on the floppy I booted from!

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Happy

Very good...

Who is the fox in the Commodore add (great chest carpet btw).

I have to admit he isnt a patch on the Eeeeeeee beach bird though....

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Boffin

Refit

And someone has refitted one to take an i386 board and is running XP

http://www.mini-itx.com/projects/sx64/

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Anonymous Coward

Difference between the UK and US versions

Allegedly some US versions did ship with two drives. The models released in the UK had a "disk storage slot" instead. However, the magnetic field from the main drive was rumoured to be fatal to any disks stored there....

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Anyone remember the Osborne Portable?

During my degree (Astrophysics with a bit of Geophysics), we were using an Orborne "portable" to record measurements in the field. It was a bit of a beast, and the floppies had a habit of being sensitive to voltage fluctuations which made them run at different speeds, which when you are out in the back of beyond, is a bit of a bugger!

http://oldcomputers.net/osborne.html

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Paris Hilton

Bad disks from CRT in UK?

IIRC, there was supposed to be a DX-64, which would be the dual drive model. AFAIK, never saw the light of day. As for the CRT blanking disks, I never had the problem. Might have been a problem in the UK versus the US due to FCC requirements and stuff. Who knows.

I remember running GEOS v2 on mine. That little monitor is surprisingly sharp. Of course you could hook up a larger monitor in the back if necessary. I don't think that the SX could be used as a serious business machine any more than the real 64 could. There was good software, though. I remember reading about small businesses run entirely on Commodore 64, hotels and the like. In fact, during one family road trip way back when we stayed at a hotel that was run on a C64.

One of the great things about the SX was using the "dual monitor" capability. My friends and I could play games versus each other on separate screens, or use the bigger screen for observers. "Space Taxi" anyone? "Gunship" more your style? Or how about a game of "Strip Poker" for the party?

PH again, for the strip poker.

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the real value of the Commodore SX-60 for me...

...was not in the games or color, it was in the cool and inexpensive peripherals that were available.

In the mid-80's, the SX60 taught me about text-to-speech with a plug-in cartridge that turned trivially-encoded text strings into recognizable speech. It also taught me the possibilities (and limitations) of speech recognition when I added the Covox Voice Master. There was also a FORTH cartridge I used in an electronic music class to write a multitrack synthesizer: each voice of a two-part Bach invention was encoded as a separate FORTH source in which note names and durations were new FORTH commands; my program read both sources and merged them in real-time to play back the complete piece using cooperative multitasking.

Oh, and the light pen! Within a short time of unpacking it, I had a little Basic program (maybe twenty lines) that read the light pen coordinates and varied the sound frequency based on horizontal position and the volume based on vertical position of the pen on the screen. The button on the light pen changed the sound's voicing on-the-fly.

I even learned Pascal on it because there was a disk-based product that more-or-less transliterated Pascal into Basic along with some extra tricks to provide local variables etc.

I also had a Kaypro DOS machine with more RAM and a faster CPU but it never fired the imagination like the Commodore did. By the late 80's I was working with Macs, and the Mac Plus with HyperCard, sound and speech synthesis was the last machine that stretched my mind: after that, most personal computers seemed focussed on emailing, web-surfing and gaming.

So here's to the Commodore SX-64, the 64, the VIC-20, the Ataris, the TRS-80's and other machines that made it easy for us to experiment with awesomely cool stuff in just a few lines of Basic or whatever. The only thing that approaches the level of excitement and involvement of those days is Alan Kay's SQUEAK project (www.squeak.org) but even that is completely mediated through software that requires object orientation to grok; although it generates excitement and understanding, it is at a completely different level than cartridges, wires, PEEKs and POKEs.

In summary, I think that the misty-eyed ramblings about Commodores etc. are not merely the product of nostalgia but due to the fact that those machines and their add-ons encouraged stimulating experimentation before personal computing settled into the bloatware-, browser- and graphic horsepower-based categories it now largely occupies. In my experience at least, they represent a maximum in excitement and involvement that no amount of RAM, hard disk and language wars has equalled to date.

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Heart

10.5kg? That's not too bad...

Lets just chuck my HP NW9440 on the scales (starting at 3.4kg according to HP website - that's without the bloody battery!) with the monster plugpack it requires, a small logitech mouse because trackpads and keyboard nipples are quite frankly, arse, a mouse pad for said mouse ($1, IKEA), and the fairly heft laptop bag required to hold this aircraft-carrier of a laptop... Hmm, about 8.5kg!

Considering the SX64 was the most powerful thing around in about 198x, I would have hoped current laptops should weigh about 200g!

At least the HP can still play Elite! So can my trusty C64 - still working too!

I'd love to get my hands on a Sexy-64 though!

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Paris Hilton

well, let's face it, 5 inches isn't much to look at.!!

Nudge, Nudge. Wink, Wink. Say no more, know what I mean?

Paris because I'm sure she said that.

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Surely the best feature is that it looks just like...

...an oscilloscope. Just look at that case, clearly sourced from a 'scope manufacturer. Modern oscilloscopes are computers of course, so it wasn't just a one-way exchange of ideas!

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C64

The original C64 still get use around mine but i do rember by granddad having this super portable, it never left his office it was to heavy but made me always want a portable PC

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Happy

Good memories...

I worked for Commodore in the UK when the C64 was being developed - I brought the first one back into the UK in a shoebox - it was a mess of PC boards and spaghetti wiring that the engineering team finished a couple of days before I flew home.

The C64 was a great machine because of its 6502 processor – I wrote a stack of commercial software for it in assembler (including the assembler itself). I also wrote a version of Forth, which compiled down to machine code and then, when V isiCalc came on the scene I wrote a spreadsheet called Swift which did pretty well.

Great times and it only now with these retro pieces that I can see how amazing it was to be involved in the start of the personal computing revolution.

I never had a portable C64 – though I did do some development on the C128 which was a pretty nice machine before moving onto machine code with the first IBM PC’s.

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Jobs Horns

I'm sorry to say ...

... that when I read 23 pounds I did a genuine LOL (I really did catch myself laughing with an audible sound - LWAUS?!?).

But, as said by the author; it's easily done these days.

Having read a few of the comments saying how sharp the screen is I can appreciate that; a few years ago I picked up a few old Atari 800XLs at boot sales (for nostaligia - it was my second computer after a VIC 20 (the Atari was a good idea 'cause my uncle's brother could get all the Atari software pirate in those days)) I wondered if the components had deteriorated over the years as the display on the telly was so fuzzy. A few moments later I realised how shite a computer looks on a telly.

Oh for the old days of diversity. Macs (from which this is typed) are PCs these days and even Sun will sell you a PC if you want!

Why the icon? It's because I've not been to impressed with the latest OS X. At least I didn't pay for it (long story involving an apple store a friend making a thousand pound purchase the day after the latest release and various iMacs and iPod touches displaying mac oriented torrent sites and pornography).

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Bronze badge

It was heavy

made to feel heavier by the grooves on the handle (which doubled as a stand) that cut into your hand. I remember lugging one down the wooden escalator at Tottenham Court Road.

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Copyright Infringement

So you guys'n'gals were all copying games from your mates back then too?

Guess what, the game industry never collapsed, eh? In fact went on to become a massive new industry.

I didn't realise you needed cracked games on the C64. The only game I remember that had copy protection, was Elite with that prismatic lense. That actually worked!

"Thorin cleaves your head with an axe"

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Heart

Ah, the C64 "laptop" of doom.

The closest I have been to one of those is an ad in a magazine (which I still have in the cupboard).

I still want one, but I'm a bit of a C64 fan/nutjob.

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Happy

The important bit about the SX-64...

wasn't the weight(the Osborne One was just as heavy), but the screen.

This was the FIRST portable with a COLOUR screen.

Quick list of firsts:

1982: First portable: Osborne One

1982: First laptop: Epson HX-20

1983: First Portable with a colour screen: Commodore SX-64

1984: First 'PDA' : Psion Organiser One.

I think the Norand Sprint 100 was the first 'industrial handheld', but aren't certain when it was launched...

Yes, I have them all.

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