Commander X16: A Dreamy 8 Bit Computer Comes Closer To Reality

David Murray and Kevin Williams with an early X16 prototype

Imagine the ultimate homage to 1980s 8-bit home computers. It might  look like [David Murray] aka The 8-Bit Guy’s Commander X16.

As a core group of geeks, hackers, and developers age, we yearn for the computers of our youth. VIC-20s, Commodore Pets, 64s, 128s, Ataris, Apple IIes, and the list goes on and on. For many of us, our first hands on experience with a computer was with such a machine that is now called “retro”. Sadly, many of these relics are getting more expensive as demand increases and supplies dwindle. Working examples are harder to find, and even those can break down. Original monitors, peripherals, and accessories are also getting scarcer. This is all quite understandable when we consider that some of these classics are over 40 years old.

What was it that we loved about these old rigs that makes them so attractive? [David] decided to distil what makes a classic a classic, and then turn that list into a spec list for what he calls his “Dream Computer”. He found that things like a printed and spiral bound manual were a big part of the charm and utility of these early home computers. Booting directly to a prompt and being able to directly control the hardware was another highly desirable trait.

[David] also took the time to determine what people don’t like about these retro machines: Wacky keyboard layouts, composite video output, and glacially slow storage. Swapping multiple floppies to load a program or respooling a cassette tape is just as undesirable in 2021 as it was in 1981. Who knew?

X16 Prototype #3
The X16’s’ prototyping is still in progress.

The result of [David]’s research is the Commander X16. Inspired by the VIC-20, it’s a fresh take on the retrocomputer that only uses parts that are currently available. You can see the first video in a series about the development of the X16 below the break. Be aware that a lot of progress has been made since the video came out in 2019, but it still provides an excellent starting point for learning about the project.

The X16’s specifications read like dream list made in the mid 80s: 256 color VGA, up to 2MB memory, an 8 MHz 6502, plenty of expansion ports, and even ports for SNES style controllers.  And what else will this dream machine include? You guessed it: A spiral bound manual!

It’s not possible to list all of the great features of the X16 in this space, so check out the Commander X16 FAQ for all the details. If this project makes your heart go pitter patter, you may be interested to know that they need help with software development! An emulator is available for development. The goal is to have a healthy software ecosystem in place when the X16 launches.

You may also enjoy reading about other 6502 retrocomputer reports such as this “Brain in a vat” 6502 computer, or a guided tour of the birthplace of the 6502 and the Commodore 64 with our very own Bil Herd.

Thank you to [Truth] for bringing us a report of this fine project via the Tip Line. Keep those tips coming!

32 thoughts on “Commander X16: A Dreamy 8 Bit Computer Comes Closer To Reality

  1. I really don’t get this project. If they want a retro programming experience which has any chance at all of having a large enough user base to generate significant user input and programs, why don’t they just create a virtual machine with a very graphics and sound capable “gaming” BASIC in a Raspberry Pi?

    1. They’re chasing an experience. They want the touch and feel of an old computer with sourceable parts and without certain inconveniences that only existed due to the state of the technology. The article does a pretty good job of setting that up, but perhaps didn’t hammer it home.

      Perhaps the reason you don’t get it is because you didn’t use any of those computers. I don’t know, cause I don’t know you.

      Have you never wanted to rewatch an old movie in the theater again, but maybe this time without the crying baby? It’s basically that.

      1. Its the same reason people perform “restomods” on old muscle cars. A 1969 Mustang is cool but old cars are objectively bad. They are slow, unreliable, unsafe and have many quirks both of the good and bad variety. So take the good parts of the experience and replace the bad ones with modern technology. Replace that unreliable carbureted engine with a modern fuel injected one. The dodgy drum brakes with safe and effective discs, the dim seal beam headlights with LEDs etc.

        Because the reality of nostalgia is it was never as good as you remember it. But with some effort and skill you can make it as good as you remember.

    2. I hope I am wrong, but I see this more as a collectible than something that will thrive with development activity. Real retro hardware is not hard to get, and they are well documented, with active communities and with plenty of known hacks to make them more comfortable to work with (drive emulators, direct vga or rgb output, hdmi converters, wireless controllers, usbinterfaces, etc).

        1. From the FAQ:
          “How much will it cost?
          Pricing has not been announced yet. The goal is to make the most affordable modern retro computer possible. The hope is still that Phase 3 (the X16E) will be available under $99 as indicated in David’s first video.”

          I suspect that they may make that goal just because they genuinely appear to want to get this into the hands of as many peoples as possible. David already had a Kickstarter for a DOS game, so I’m sure he has plans in place for extra high and extra low demand when this lands.
          (ref: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1973096722/planet-x3-for-ms-dos )

  2. I am not into retro computing, so maybe I do not get the point, but if I would start designing a bit & pulse equivalent of an computer, I would definitely take the one-FPGA-does-it-all aproach, instead of relying upon parts long out of production.

    1. If I remember right in one video David says this approach was taken so you can also see the way the computer is structured. Here is the CPU, here is the RAM, this is the io module etc. Done as an FPGA you can’t see that, only conceptually. That said the dream is to have one offered integrated totally in a FPGA but only to keep costs low more than anything. At least that is how I understand it.

  3. The past is gone, what about the now and the future?

    I have no nostalgia for the past. I never threw out a comouter I bought new (well the Atari ST I bought as clearace in 1989 and was always flakey). So my KIM-1, OSI Superboard II, three Radio Shack Color Computers, Radio Shack Model 100 sit around. I have no desire to go back. They were fine until I got something better.

    There was a whole period where old computers were tossed. An Intel 8085 starter board, an Apple II, an Apple IIGS, various Macs, and thise are the ones I keep. I didn’t save my Mac Plus, the IBM PC jr, the Apple III, the HP 150, some other oddballs. Sometimes too much work or expense to find the missing pieces, this is before collecting became a thing.

    And after learning to use a different computer, you get nothing new. It’s old, it’s slow, you rarely can do anything that can’t bedone with newer computers.

    Moving from that time in April 1979 when I got my.KIM-1, it was always upward, and learning a new computer had immediate results.

    1. > rarely can do anything that can’t bedone with newer computers.
      It is an air gapped computer (no networking by default) with no separate dedicated ME/PSP processor running encrypted unauditable code, with full access to all hardware.
      (ref: https://libreboot.org/faq.html#intelme and https://libreboot.org/faq.html#amd-platform-security-processor-psp ).

      The 6502 chip is simple enough to absolutely understand everything about it and is fully documented. If you did not trust the provided boot ROM ( https://github.com/commanderx16/x16-rom ), you could create your own.

      There is no wondering why “was the disk being accessed just now”, it will not do anything that you did not instruct it to do. There is also no slow build up of residual software crud over a number of years on the machine that will eventually causes the computer to crawl along compared to when it was initially installed, practically forcing all non-technical people to upgrade. There is no siting around waiting for updated to be installed, which is good for most use cases, but would be bad if it was connected to a network.

      I personally can see benefits to a constrained computer. OK the maximum clock is only 8 MHz for a W65C02S, but maybe it could be upgraded to a 14MHz W65C02S-14 – but if I’m honest looking at the PCB design and thinking about all those long transmission lines, maybe not.

      1. It wasn’t the processor that limited them to 8MHz, but the other circuitry. 6502.org forum member recently got a W65C02S-14 running at 33MHz, over four times the 8MHz of the X16. It didn’t have much hanging on it though.

        Where’s the “Like” button though? Full control, no viruses, no long boot-up times, etc.. I don’t think anyone was expecting this to be used for video editing. However, I used my first PC, a 16MHz ‘286 with 1MB (not GB) of RAM and a 640×480 monitor for laying out printed circuit boards. The most complex one I ever did had about 500 parts and 12 layers, and I did not run out of RAM. Try that with modern bloatware!! Ain’t gonna happen. I had a 32MB hard disc; and with all my board layouts, emails, manuals, software development, etc., I never got it more than about 20MB full. The first time I tried Windows, just the OS took many times that much disc space. I think it came on something like 35 floppy discs before the files were de-compressed and installed!

  4. Good luck to them, I say.

    Personally, I’d like something that runs an OS along the lines of nuttx, has native micropython than can edit and run programs on the device, and has HDMI & USB.

  5. From the article above: “He found that things like a printed and spiral bound manual were a big part of the charm and utility of these early home computers. Booting directly to a prompt and being able to directly control the hardware was another highly desirable trait.”

    Absolutely, and this is why some of the comments above miss the mark. Here are a couple of editorials about how modern computers make it harder, not easier, for kids to start programming today:
    http://oneweekwonder.blogspot.com/2011/10/duplocode-fallacy.html
    https://developers.slashdot.org/story/18/02/17/0947212/learning-to-program-is-getting-harder

    As for the availability and speed of the 65c02, yes, it’s still being made today, and WDC’s licensees are silently putting it into tens of millions of products a year today (in ASICs), for automotive, industrial, appliance, toy, and even life-support equipment. 6502.org forum member “plasmo” has successfully run a W65C02 at 33MHz. If that’s not enough, the 65c02 has been made in an ASIC for a commercial product running at over 200MHz, with the memory and I/O circuitry onboard so the buses don’t have to go outside the IC. A few years ago, Bill Mensch, owner of Western Design Center and of the intellectual property, said he thought that if it were made in the newest (at the time) deep sub-micron geometry, it’d do 10GHz.

    Obviously its memory map would still have the same limitations; but regarding the RPi comment: Anyone can get a RPi much cheaper. In fact, they could probably get a good used laptop cheaper. It will have more computing power, higher-res monitor, access to commercial software, etc.. The 8-Bit Guy’s computer will have to be for people who, for various reasons, have a love for the 65xx, and who are always straining for greater simplicity and efficiency and control of their own computer; or for educators who realize that as soon as you give someone a RPi, there will be the temptation (or even pressure) to load it with pre-written bloatware, and the user won’t be learning anything at all about the computer’s innards. Where will our engineers come from in 20 years when the current crop is retired?

    I was disappointed however when the 8-Bit Guy backburnered the plan to use a 65816. The excuse I read was not valid.

  6. You’d think that people upset about a person’s repair/restoration techniques would approve of them creating new hardware rather than “butchering” that precious old stuff. I guess there’s no pleasing some people.

    1. The real question is, what is the goal here? Its great that they built a new computer but if you sell me something, I have expectations that cannot be met. The seller is not expecting to make a lot of money off of this computer but there are a lot of things that can go wrong with production so returns and repairs could cost a lot of money.

      I’m an old Commodore / Amiga user and I’ve already learned some lessons with dealing with the behemoth called Commodore and what I’ve learned is that I can be abandoned.

      If I buy this computer, is it going to go anywhere? I want peripherals, I want vision, I want a user club, I want a website or BBS where I can download programs. I know the creators have their own lives but building a computer took Commodore hundreds of people.

      I’m not included in testing, I don’t have a demo board to test, and I don’t have access to talk to the creators. I’m a long time Commodore user but I also realize that many people called it a day with the Amiga and Commodore 64.

      Is the goal to just build a bunch of boards and those who use it will be great and then the creators will stop selling it and promoting it once the interest goes away? I also realize the technology is slow and may be limited in what it can do. Learning a new platform can take time so what should I expect to get out of it? I can’t contact the creators, I can’t ask questions, I don’t know where you are going. If you expect me to buy, write programs, learn or develop, I don’t know where to go unless the content creators lead. If you want me to promote your board, they have to show an interest in reaching out to me and others.

      I bought a couple of the $9 computers shown on Hackaday, the company did not charge enough to make money and that was the last I saw of them. The motto of Twin Cities publication for Commodore was ‘Commodore built it, we support it’. Really? Where are all of the big mouths of the Commodore 64 today? They were loud, made a splash, told us who was in charge and what will they do for us today? The reality is that we are not rich and cannot provide a service for nothing and that is why most people bow out of hobbies. I don’t want a $100 paperweight.

      This is nostalgia whereas Microsoft builds the most powerful software in the world to be run on some of the fastest computers in the world. What am I going to get so I know what I can contribute so that this computer will not just be a $100 paperweight?

      I’m sure this computer would be advanced for the 90s and I applaud the creators for building it. The question is, what are you going to do once the first production run is done and how will you lead? Where are we going?

  7. As a kid back in the end of the 70s, early 80s, I just accepted these old 6502/8080 type systems as what computers naturally had to look like. How else would you do it, right? A CPU with a few registers, a 64K memory space, all your peripherals’ registers right there for the peeking and poking. The ‘OS’ nothing more than a way to trade blocks of memory with some moving rust.

    Now, sitting here in 2021, in all its 64 bit glory, those old machines seem at once both intimately familiar and yet almost totally alien. They’re more like glorified calculators than anything that’d pass as a computer today. There’s virtually nothing between you and every last bit, be it RAM, ROM, or I/O, in the system. (TBH, a situation that persisted well into the mid/late 90s, though the shear quantity/variety of I/O devices became too much to bother with)

    Maybe part of the allure of “doing it the hard way” like this is simply to recalibrate, to come away with a greater appreciation for gigs of RAM and terabytes of fast, robust file storage. When you run an emulator, it’s not the same. You can sense it in your fingers somehow, as if that mega pixel gui desktop around your 40×25 didn’t give it away. It’s just pretend. At any moment, a swift ALT+TAB and you’re away to an IDE or a browser. When you have the Real Item in front of you, you can feel that, too. ALT+TAB is a fever dream. And limited though it may be, you can touch it all.

    Heck, maybe it’s just me. Same thing that makes me enjoy driving a stick.

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