Vintage Computing: The Datasette
Last Sunday's post about the Floppy Drive Mountain
was a lot of fun and got an amazing amount of feedback, but today I'm going for something much more mundane: the Commodore Datasette
It was the cheap alternative to the floppy drive - using regular audio cassettes for data storage was a pretty good idea going back to the earlier Commodore computers like the PET
, which actually had a built-in tape drive in its first incarnation. So it was only logical that the Commodore 64
should also benefit from this simple and inexpensive alternative to the much more expensive disk drive, but it didn't last long until the floppy drive took over and the cassette drive was almost obsolete in the Commodore world. But many other 8-bit home computers like the Atari 400/800
and the Sinclair ZX Spectrum
also relied on cassette data storage, the Amstrad CPC
even came equipped with a tape drive in the computer itself.
When I got my Commodore 64 back in March 1989, I actually got it together with the Datasette pictured above. It's the 1530
, one of only two different models produced for the Commodore 64 - it was actually a pretty cheap affair, a somewhat rickety and noisy cassette drive with some basic electronics inside. It was extremely cumbersome to use, the loading and saving of programs took a long, long time, sometimes up to 20 minutes - the speed was actually about 50 bytes per second. It was possible to fit up to 120-130 kilobytes on a 30-minute cassette side, so the storage space was actually quite roomy. The datasette was also very reliable if you used good tapes, but finding your program on a cassette full of saved files could take some time because you had to load through all the files saved before it if you didn't write down a counter number to spool to.
Together with my C64 and Datasette, I got a few games on tape just to try out the computer, but these were actually quite boring and disappointing. Later I found out that I had accidentially grabbed some from a line of cheap budget releases from a british company called Mastertronic - the best thing with these games, which would load for more than ten or fifteen minutes, were the cassette covers, title graphics and tunes! Some of the games even had a Space Invaders mini-game clone running during the loading process, which was a pretty nifty programming trick, but the games themselves were still rubbish. This was mainly because all the really good Commodore 64 games at that time were not even sold on tape here in Germany anymore and only some cheap stuff was still available.
Because of the limited software available on cassette, the Datasette didn't last long and I got a proper floppy drive, the famous 1541-II, only about four or five weeks after the computer itself. The Datasette was simply a beginner's mistake and the floppy drive finally made my Commodore 64 a proper computer. I still held on to the Datasette and I've still got it today, but I think it doesn't work properly anymore - when I pulled it out of its package a few years ago, the motor refused to start. Maybe it just clogged up after not having been used for so long, something which never happened to my floppy drives!
There's also a bonus picture of some of the old cassettes over on the parallel blog post here:blog.bibra-online.de/2013/12/15/vintage-computing-the-datasette/ #VintageComputing #Datasette #Commodore