Twenty Five Years of the IBM PCjr

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Old Skooler ramblings has a fantastic write-up of the twenty-five year old PCjr., IBM’s embarrassing attempt at designing an affordable, entry-level computesr to ’80s consumers. Its primary failing? It was actually less IBM compatible than the clones on the market at the time. But the PCjr was filled with similar juicy design fuck-ups:

• Because of no DMA capability, the computer needed to use the CPU to read the floppy disk, grinding the machine to a halt every time a floppy was accessed.

• The PCjr. was the only PC ever created that was slower than the original IBM PC.

• A modular design that allows you to simply plug-in additional PCjr. hardware, but which effectively doubled the PCjr’s physical size.

• Memory expansion sidecars were required to approach rudimentary compatibility with most PC programs.

Of course, some good came out of it all: the PCjr was the computer Tandy eventually decided to clone and enhance, leading to the creation of the crackerjack Tandy 1000.

25 Years of Junior [Oldskooler Ramblings]

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17 Responses to Twenty Five Years of the IBM PCjr

  1. OM says:

    “That’s the most gratuitous use of ellipsis marks I’ve ever seen. Is that intentional or some sort of Vista problem?”

    …It’s the way I post. Deal with it, and be grateful I don’t post in all caps :-P

  2. Eloine says:

    I’ve actually had a lot of fun w/ a PCjr lately. The thing has a wireless IR keyboard(!) and RCA audio and video outs, plus had an OK basic interpreter on a cartridge. I’m actually using it as the core to an installation piece I’m working on. Plus it looks pretty cool:-)

    I met a guy online in Rochester, MN who works with PCjrs. I bought my keyboard from him:
    http://www.brutman.com/PCjr/

  3. Blackhat says:

    the PCJr was my first computer–one of the later ones with a “real” keyboard. I learned BASIC on it so it wasn’t a total waste. Mostly I remember playing “Dig Dug” on it though…

  4. btb says:

    • Because of no DMA capability, the computer needed to use the CPU to read the floppy disk, grinding the machine to a halt every time a floppy was accessed.

    Gee, the same thing STILL happens when you put a cdrom into the Dell machine.

  5. Shrdlu says:

    @10: That’s the most gratuitous use of ellipsis marks I’ve ever seen. Is that intentional or some sort of Vista problem?

  6. Anonymous says:

    IBM — that odd amalgam of research company and productivity. Everything they did had some sort of nifty tech-dreamer element, and the ones that turned out to be useful and valuable (for the most part) eventually migrated to other company’s products.

    My father worked for them his entire life, and the stories he tells! He started in the mechanical days, so most of his early career was a strange combination of telephone repairman and mechanic. Now he consults from home, part time, which means they call him when old stuff breaks.

    As for the PCjr. :
    infrared keyboard – FAIL
    cartridges – FAIL
    good sound chip – WIN
    decent graphics – WIN
    BASIC++ – good idea but…

    definitely a mixed bag, but a valiant attempt to be user-friendlier and compete with the Macintosh

  7. Anonymous says:

    what fun the pcjr was for me and my young sons…my oldest learned basic on it…we all played snack attack, dig dug, jumpman, kindercomp, and a host of other games and educational tools…koala pad was ok but not great…the polyphonic sound was great…i remember i expanded the memory…saved basic programs on tape…in all, a great learning tool and fun machine…its stored reverently in my basement, ready to go.

  8. urshrew says:

    Ah, the Tandy 1000, my first computer. I used to turn that thing on and off rapidly to watch the screen get all screwed up. That was what my 8 year old mind thought real computing was. That and playing Burger Time and Defender. It wasn’t until I got my Tandy 3000 years later with a whopping 640k of RAM that I learned the wonders of VGA color.

  9. SeattlePete says:

    I BEGGED my parents to upgrade from the old Tandy Model 3 that was beginning to collect dust in our living room to the 1000. My friend had gotten a C64 for his birthday and would let me know daily how it could display colors. COLORS! A revolution in computing excellence.

    It wasn’t easy, but eventually I did get the 1000. My folks were pretty bummed out having to scrap the Trash-80, having mistakenly thought that computers would never be outdated. Not to mention the fact that the guy at Radio Shack sold them the “gold package” which came to $2700 (in 1984). I believe that he threw in the cassette player for free though.

    My mom was harder to sell on the idea than my dad. When I told her that the 1000 was 10 times better at less than half the price of the old machine she rolled her eyes and said “Well that sounds like a scam to me”. To this day she maintains that “computer are a scam”.

    I didn’t care of course I just wanted my 1000 for Christmas, and after much lobbying, I got it. My brother got a used Chevy Nova. I distinctly remember him looking at me like, you sad, sad nerd before peeling out in the driveway to go pick up his girlfriend. Little did he know that having a powerhouse IBM-clone in my room would make wildly popular, universally hailed and undeniably cool in 1987.

    Ok, so I made that last bit up. But whatever, at least I had awesome VGA graphics to keep me company. Yay, Space Quest!

  10. ReneKita says:

    I’m fairly sure that the Atari Portfolio was the slowest PC compatible ever built. Or maybe it was the memory card’s slowness: Time required to compile and run “Hello world” with Turbo Pascal 3.0: four and a half minutes. This took a second on a 4.77MHz 80C88 Toshiba 1000 laptop PC. Mind, both were still ultra-cool gadgets. A decade later, I still occasionally amused visitors by demonstrating the Dracula’s sarcophagus style creak on opening the Porfolio’s screen. And the damn thing still works!

  11. mabwiddershins says:

    I bought one of these in the library where I worked for “the public,” and we had an Apple IIe for staff. My son, who was about six at the time, loved the PCjr and quickly discovered the key that would switch the keyboard from QWERTY to DVORAK . . . rendering the machine unusable for anyone else until we figured out what he had done. The PCjr ran a lot of kids programs very well. Sticky Bears spelling? And one very involved “adventure” game called Aztec, I think, that no one every finished because the clues were so involved and obtuse.

  12. OM says:

    …The “Peanut” actually made me a good bit of money from 1985 to 1988, as I did a *lot* of upgrades for people who bought them when IBM discontinued them. Locally you could pick up a full system – basic box, 64k sidecar, monitor and internal modem – for about $600.00. The sidecar could be upgradeded from 64k chips to 256k chips, and with a slice-n-dice of a couple of trace leads and a small proprietary “internal use only” software driver that IBM put up on its support BBS, you could get the JRs up to 640K of ram.

    …Another nice upgrade was putting in an NEC-V30, which gave the JRr CP/M capability, and allowed it to run the P-System about 20% faster. The V30 was only about a $15 upgrade, but if you knew where to get the chips you could get the price down to about $5 just because they weren’t good for anything else and parts shops wanted to move them.

    …Yet another fun upgrade was building cables to allow the JR monitor to work with a regular CGA port. All of the rear ports in the JR were a proprietary style of connector, and when people dumped their JRs for regular clones, a *LOT* of people found the JR’s monitor was too good to dump. Thankfully I had a copy of the JR’s engineering manual, which helped trace those pinouts in short time.

    …There were also a few companies that did “2nd story” enhancements, where the internal modem slot was used to provide a data path for an addon that gave you a second floppy, or towards the end a 10mb HD. Sadly, no DMA, which meant that whenever the drive was accessed the system froze until the read/write cycle was done.

    …And then there was building those adapter cables for the “Infernal Keyboard” so you wouldn’t have the system freeze if someone flicked their Bic lighter in front of the system. Again, the engineering manual came in handy!

    …About the only thing I never did get into was doing up custom PROMs for the CPU or the front carts. Didn’t want to spend the investment, and I didn’t know enough Assembler to even make the attempt worth my while even if the chip burning hardware had been given to me. One guy locally toyed with it, tho, and we dabbled a bit with putting Windows 1.0 and GEM Desktop(*), as well as the first three Ultimas, and actually got really good performance compared to, say, one of IBM’s 4.77MHz “B” model PCs. The BOOT time was practically nonexistent, too!

    …The JR was a fun toy to play with and actually make some cash off of, but like with IBM’s PC line from the beginning, it was hampered and crippled by marketing goons, and treated like the bastard stepchild of another bastard stepchild, which is how the suits at IBM treated their PC division until they sold it to the Chinese. I *think* my JR is still over at the parents’ house in the garage, and maybe one day I’ll go dig it out. I’ll have to use a TV for a monitor since all my adapter cables and CGA monitors are long since gone, but I could feed the signal directly into a TV card and use that. The irony of using a machine a hundred times its power as a display wouldn’t be lost on anyone save the clueless without a sense of humor.

    (*) One of the best DOS shells ever created, and one that was sued out of existence by those dogsucking bastards at (cr)Apple. If anyone wants to know why I have such hard feelings against Steve “If you can’t beat’em, sue em!” Jobs, and why I want them to lose every lawsuit they file, the demise of GEM is probably what kicked it off.

  13. Agies says:

    @2 Goddamn those Sticky Bears.

  14. JPW says:

    “The PCjr. was the only PC ever created that was slower than the original IBM PC.”

    WRONG. I owned a Data General One laptop. It was definitely made to a slower spec than the jr.

    Also, I remember the PCjr having a “Video Gate Array” which was the precursor to the VGA standard. I’d have to verify in the technical reference manual (stored in my garage).

    Finally, the jr has three-note polyphony compared to the PC’s single channel. Think DTMF. . . .

  15. Anonymous says:

    My uncle gave me a PCjr at some point, I think it was after my Commodore 128 had died to an electrical spike. I thought it was pretty cool. It had DOS, which I was infatuated with after using it on my neighbors PC.

    It was pretty nice. It had a real-key keyboard (wireless, which was awesome) instead of the chiklets, and it had 640k of ram, which made it huge.

    I mostly used it to dial into BBS’s. I had to order a special cable to hook it up to my modem.

    After college I went back to using it. This was around 94-96. It was the first computer that I spent any significant time on the internet with (shell account, of course). By this time I thought of it as not much more than a dumb terminal, and it automatically loaded pro-comm when I booted it up.

    I spent a ton of time playing Elendor MUSH with the PCjr.

  16. Ceronomus says:

    The PCjr had a pretty die-hard legion of fans. It was strange though, as games like Kings Quest (the original) was only available for the PCjr from an IBM Product Shop, not from any other retailer. I wonder what the attempt at throttling the most popular titles to a limited amount of stores did to PCjr sales.

  17. airship says:

    We Commodore aficionados laughed ’till we cried when the pitiful PCjr hit stores. Our little 8-bit wonders kicked its scrawny metal ass.

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