VIC-40 - from VIC-20 upgrade to new computer

From an undated (late 1981 ?), glossy leaflet from Commodore Home Computer Division in Slough, England:


For those VIC owners wishing to extend the capacity of the VIC 20 to include 40 column by 24 line display, Prestel compatibility and full 32K RAM there is an add-on expansion board that will do it all. Contact your local computer dealer to get the full details and a demonstration.
Ok, this sounds like the VIC-40 add-on referred to on SWoC and somewhat in Brian Bagnall's book, where it is said that the 40-column chip almost was ready when the VIC-20 was released. On SWoC, it says there is a reference in the November 1981 issue of Cursor about this upgrade.

Now move forwards in time, to this article from UK magazine MicroComputer Printout, January 1982:

EXCLUSIVE: The Commodore has one of his little surprises in store. Instead of the minor upgrade confidently predicted by the trade, the forthcoming VIC-40 will be a completely new computer.

The current VIC-20 had been criticised for offering a screen layout of only 22 characters by 25 (sic!) lines. It was thought that the new model would simply upgrade this to the PET format of 40X25. However telephone taps on the Commodore's private line reveal (amongst other things) that the VIC-40 will be powered by a mysterious new chip, designated the 6509. This is a "high speed" 8 bit microprocessor designed by Commodore subsidiary, MOS Technology, and which boasts its own onboard memory management software. What this means in plain English is that the CPU can address more than the usual 64K of ROM and RAM.

Commodore will probably release the VIC-40 around March, with 64K bytes of RAM as standard; it will be possible to add more. Where the 6509 will really score is in providing the capability to load large and very complex programs from plug-in ROM cartridges. This raises the possibility of plugging in alternative operating systems as well as applications software.

My bet is that the new computer will not replace the VIC-20, for which a 40 columns upgrade will be available from Commodore by Feburary. Should this column not appear next issue, it will be because I have been assasinated by one of the Commodore's revenge squads.

Ok.. clearly this scoop is about the Commodore 64, which on SWoC is referred to as VIC-30, but I think Brian referred to as another VIC-40. The 6509 is used in the CBM-II series computers: P500, 600/B128, 700/B256 etc. They can address up to 1 MB memory thanks to bank switching. It appears this chip was ready simultaneously with the 6510, and maybe at an early stage Commodore decided to use it in all their computers but for some reason the C64 has a 6510 instead. Most cartridge software yet was limited to 16K if I'm correct. Someone with a large collection or knowledge about C64 cartridges can correct me.

The same magazine, MicroComputer Printout in May 1982 (three months later) had a detailed article about the new Commodore computers:

New generation of PETs, VICs coming

EXCLUSIVE: Commodore are about to announce not one but five completely new computers. They range from an intriguing sub 100 computer/music synthesizer/video game machine, to a powerful new business computer with 256K of RAM. Commodore plan to unveil the new range - which will eventually kill off the PET - at the Hannover Fair Trade in late April. Here is a model by model breakdown with the (hitherto) confidential details of each machine:

THE ULTIMAX is a low-cost combined computer, sound synthesizer and colour video game machine. Like the current VIC-20, it normally plugs into a TV screen, but for special high resolution effects it can be used with a colour monitor.

The Ultimax accepts plug-in cartridges, but not the same ones as the VIC-20. A variety of video game cartridges will be available, as will a sound synthesizer with 'piano' overlay for the membrane keyboard. To compute, a BASIC cartridge must be slotted in. This is not the 'standard' PET/VIC/Microsoft BASIC, but a subset of it minus trig. functions and dimensioned arrays.

Did I tell you that the colour graphics are superb? Well they are, with up to 16 different colours on screen at any one time, and high resolution of 320x200 pixels (picture elements or points) built-in.

The designers have also adapted the 'sprite' graphics techniques developed at MIT for the Logo language. A sprite is a single character that you create on a 24x21 matrix which can then be moved around the screen independently of anything else. It might be a Space Invader, a transistor or whatever you choose. In fact you can have up to 256 such sprites and in a variety of colours. They can pass over or under each other on the screen, or simply collide. Up to eight sprites may be on any one line, so large 3D effects can be created. Because screen images can be moved pixel by pixel, both horizontal and vertical scrolling is possible.

Whereas on the VIC-20 both audio and video output are controlled by the VIC chip, on the Ultimax the VIC chip has split into a 6566 chip to handle the more complex video display, a 6581 SID sound synthesizer. A variety of sounds can be generated, making it possible to simulate different instruments in eight voices.

The CPU is a 6510, essentially an upgrade of the PET's trusty 6502 chip. It uses the same machine codes but has an additional 8-bit output port that is bit-by-bit programmable. This allows more memory to accessed than on the 6502, but without recourse to memory management routines.

The Ultimax uses the standard Commodore cassette system for storage, and comes with 1K of screen RAM, 1K of colour RAM and 1K of user memory. The BASIC cartridge includes an additional 2.5K of RAM. Probably price: 99 inc. VAT, but with CBM marketeer John Baxter covetously eyeing lucrative Sinclair market, he might persuade Big Bob Gleadow to let him sell it for less. Target date for release is September, but you know about Commodore and their release dates...

Much heralded the VIC-40 leaves most prognosticators with egg on face. Contrary to prediction it has more in common with the Ultimax than with the current VIC-20 model. It will, for example, accept Ultimax cartridges, but not VIC-20 ones - a further example of lack of long range planning at CBM. It looks as if there will be two models, one priced at about 300 with 16K of RAM, and a 64K version at around the 500 mark. The latter will, as with the PET, have 32K of RAM accessible by the user from BASIC. The remainder up to 52K will be available for languages etc.

The VIC-40 will share the same ROMs as the existing VIC-20, so there shouldn't be any compatibility problems there. In fact it will be possible to redefine the memory map, so conversation and tailoring of PET and VIC software should be straight forward.

It will be possible to plug more accessories in without the need for multiplexer: four games paddles, two joysticks or two light pens. Case and keyboard will be the same as the VIC-20. According to the Commodore leaks department, there are also plans for a direct connect modem. Z-80 softcard, Extended BASIC ROM and Extended Machine Code cartridges, the latter necessitated by the lack of a built-in machine code monitor. Release date is currently scheduled for the end of the year.

The Commodore 64 looks like a replacement for the 4000 series PETs, from where we stand. However, Commodore are likely to continue making the latter for as long as there is a demand. Smart new ergonomic styling resembles a rounded off PET, with detachable keyboard and tilt-and-swivel screen. The new keyboard seemed a considerable improvement when I tried it, both from the point of view of 'feel', and the provision of then programmable function keys. Commodore's marketing bods reckon the CBM64 will slot in just about the VIC-40. Screen layout is still only 40 columns however, but BASIC 4 will be implemented, so all that 4000 series software should run without difficulty.

The Commodore II is where it all starts to get interesting. Two models are planned, with 128K and 256K of RAM memory respectively. Some sources hold they will be marketed as the CBM 128 and CBM 256. Whatever the designation, both will have the same space-age styling as the Commodore 64, much of the design work on which was performed by Porsche before Commodore fell out with them.

Disk drives will be built into the base. These will run off DMA so they should be very fast. The CPU is a 6509 (no blood relation of the 6809) with bank switching between the 16K RAM banks. Screen format is 80 columns by 25 lines with a built-in high resolution graphics capability (but will it be implemented?). There is also a 24 hour clock with programmable alarm, so no doubt someone will offer a battery back up to keep it going when the power is off. Commodore have at last provided both RS232 and IEEE-488 interfaces onboard. Judging by the preliminary spec, wot I have had sight of, it looks like the full, debugged IEEE-488 - at long last!

Taking the 256K version, 64K of memory will be allocated to the operating system, probably to allow space for additional processors. It is likely there will be slots for Z-80, 6809 and 8080 processors. Hints of a revolutionary new 'universal' computer capable of running "any" software have been dropped by Commodore bigwigs recently. Despite enthusiastic reporting in the national press, we remain unconvinced; the Z-80 softbox for the PET is hardly a new item, and the CBM micro mainframe already offers dual processors.

Returning, reluctantly, to the CBM 256 memory map, we find 128K available for softloaded languages and operating systems (such as CP/M?), and additional space for expansion ROMs. It is also worth noting that the memory will be capable of expansion to 512K with an external box.

On the software side we find that the language subset of the 6509 is almost identical to the well-tried 6502, so although there is no direct compatibility with sofware for the 8000 series PETs (aaghh!), conversation "will be easy". Their words, not mind. Rather sensibly Commodore have chosen to get their 'Approved Products' suppliers involved before, rather than after, the launch of the new machine. At a confidential briefing session, into which I managed to insinuate myself, one of the software publishers asked the obvious question:

"With all this RAM space and memory mapping, will character sets be definable?".

Answer: "That's why we invited you here today".... Proving beyond doubt that the Commodore still believes that Software sells Hardware. It is on the basis of this broad base of supporting software that the new range of computers will be marketed.

One final observation on the CBM 128 and 256: there appears to be 5 levels of interrupt, so the designers may well have multitasking in mind. The implementation will probably be left to an independent software house, if past experience is anything to go by.

Oh, and there is also the kernal of a network built-in. No doubt the same will apply to the commercial development of that also.

Price? Probably 2000+ for the 128K model; 2500+ for the 256K versions. Availability from around late summer time.

Of course there are still persistent rumours of a 16-bit machine from Commodore - but that's another story.

By July-August 1982, it seems the VIC-40 and Commodore 64 was two names of the same machine (also mentioned VIC-64 as it was called in Sweden), and what you should call it depended on whom at Commodore you asked. The hybrid previously referred to as Commodore 64 seems now to have been renamed into a 40 column 500 series, while the CBM-II are referred to as 700 series.

What is the conclusion? It appears a lot of stuff happened in Commodore around the New Year 1981/82. Some rumours, leaks and misinformation. The reference to both a VIC-40 and a Commodore 64 at the same time boggles me a bit. SWoC says the P500 is also known as P128, 'C' series, PET-II and C128-40. I suppose it could be extended to say it once was known as Commodore 64 too? :-)