Year Released: 1984
Original Price: £199 (with green monitor), £299 (with colour monitor)
Buy It Now For: £10+
Associated magazines: Amstrad Action, Amtix, Amstrad Computer User
Why The Amstrad CPC464 Was Great: You didn’t just own an Amstrad CPC464 – it became an integral part of your life. It was the ace up your sleeve, to be used when someone said: “What’s best: the Spectrum or C64?” You could smilingly answer: “Neither! The CPC beats them both” And it did. This underdog of a computer had a few tricks – great graphics, decent sound and so many enthusiastic users who refused to let go when the machine died. CPC owners were proud of their choice and rightly so.
The best things come to those who wait – and with the Amstrad CPC 464, that was certainly the case. When this marvellous machine was launched on April 11, 1984, to more than 400 journalists packed into the Great Hall of London’s historic Westminster School, it was commonly agreed it had its work cut out.
It was competing against the Spectrum and Commodore 64, but Alan Sugar was confident his technically superior CPC – affectionately codenamed Arnold – would win. It certainly struck a chord with the press: The Guardian called it Amstradivarius, Personal Computer World boldly said it was the Sinclair Beater and Computer News referred to it as Arthur. The Grimsby Evening Telegraph called it the Mean Machine, but the London Evening Standard went one better. “After the People’s Car [the VW Beetle] the People’s Computer,” it gushed.
Mr Sugar was planning worldwide sales of more than 20 million computers and was keen to shift an initial 100,000 that had been created prior to launch. The launch had tried to capture the imagination of journalists by using historical figures ranging from Einstein, Ravel and Archimedes to Monet and Shakespeare to highlight the various attributes of the CPC (Shakespeare, for instance, showed how easy writing Hamlet would have been with a word processing package). Amstrad was keen to portray the CPC – the Colour Personal Computer – as a ‘jack of all trades’. Whereas the Spectrum and C64 were becoming firmly established as decent games machines, the CPC was being marketed as equally good for business.
And Amstrad wanted to get the machines out in the shops by the end of June, with Bill Poel, the general manager of Amsoft, telling Your Computer: “I will be prepared to eat one in Trafalgar Square if it’s late.” He didn’t have to. On June 21, the machine was made available to buy at Rumbelows in Edgware Road, London. Around 60 people queued for nearly an hour to get their hands on it, rushing forward when the doors finally opened at 9.30am. By 10.30am, 100 computers had been sold and software was being snapped from the shelves. It was reported that one man had even flown in from Bahrain!
Roland Perry, then Amstrad group technical manager, says: “We were pleased with this initial success. Sir Alan had wanted to create the CPC 464 because he wanted to get into the home computer market. It was the ‘latest thing’ that was clearly catching on as a mainstream item in the shops and we wanted to be a part of it. To see it sell was very pleasing.”
Prior to the launch, Amstrad had been desperate for software, particularly games. The solution was to launch Amsoft at the beginning of 1984, tasked with approaching third-party companies to create 50 CPC games. Some of the games were given away with the CPC 464 for free and these included Harrier Attack, The Galactic Plague, Roland On The Ropes, Fruit Machine, Bridge-It and Xanagrams.
“Games were very important for the 464,” continues Perry. “The subsequent CPC 664 and then 6128 with their disc drives started a trend towards small business use with CP/M and word processing and accounting packages, but for me the CPC 464 was 100 percent a games machine.” The 8-bit CPC was impressive. Amstrad decided to use tapes as the storage medium because they were cheap. It was a good decision – it placed the CPC within the affordable reach of children and so the machine slowly became a strong games contender.
Although programmers wished it had hardware sprites, at the CPC’s heart was a Z80 processor running at 4MHz. It had 64K of memory, a built-in tape drive (an external 3-inch disc drive was available to buy later), and the choice of colour or green screen monitor.
The computer had three display modes. Mode 0 allowed 16 colours from the 27-strong palette to be shown in low resolution. Mode 1 used up to four colours from 27 in medium resolution. And mode 2 – which had the highest resolution – was able to show two colours from 27.
The 464 used the General Instruments AY-3-8912 sound chip that outputted in mono via a tiny, four centimetre, built-in loudspeaker with volume control. It provided 3-voice, 8-octave sound capacity. In later 464 models, stereo output was made available through a 3.5mm headphones jack which could also be linked to external speakers.
While it didn’t hit the heights of the C64, the sound capabilities were good enough to allow digital sound samples in games such as Robin Hood and Robocop. But for the less technically savvy, the machine was striking for other reasons. Aside from the all-important joystick port, the keyboard, computer and tape deck were combined in one unit connected with just two wires to a monitor, which contained the power supply unit. The whole thing was powered by one plug in what proved to be a tidy, simple system, attractive to the public. It also kept manufacturing costs down. But the keyboard itself was more striking. Long and thin, and with the tape deck to the right of the keyboard, it had garish red, green and blue keys.
Perry says: “We wanted the keyboard to look like a ‘real computer’ – the sort of thing people saw at the airline check-in desk when they went on holiday. The integrated tape deck was created because Amstrad’s success had been making integrated consumer electronics like the Hi-Fi that had nothing extra to buy and no complicated wiring. For this reason we bundled the CPC with a monitor.”
Although the Z80 chip powered the CPC, Amstrad initially pondered using a 6502 processor, the same one used in Commodore’s Vic-20 and in the Apple II. It was to have 32k of RAM and Microsoft’s BASIC. In the end, Locomotive Software, which produced the CPC’s BASIC, persuaded Amstrad to try the faster Z80 instead.
“We started the development of the Amstrad by having a basic idea and coming up with an outline spec, then filling in more details as we went along,” continues Perry. “Sir Alan was pleased with the end result. Anything he didn’t like we changed. I remember him wanting the cursor keys to ‘work’ at all times, which wasn’t how people typically made BASIC interpreter interfaces at the time.”
The CPC continued to pick up sales and was even making an impact in the classroom – in November 1984, Sir Keith Joseph, the minister of state for education and science, toured Thorpe Bay High School in Southend which was the first to have 464s.
But although the 464 sold well in Britain, it became a phenomenon in Europe, particularly in France where it was the best-selling home micro. In Spain it was distributed by Indescorp as the CPC472 (it had an extra 8K of – unusable – RAM to get around a Spanish ruling that computers with 64K or less had to contain a tilde (~) on the keyboard). In Germany, it was sold under Schneider’s name but without the coloured keys.
“We would have been happy to sell 100,000 CPCs and get into the top ten sellers,” continues Perry. “But we surpassed our expectations, got to the top of the charts and sold a couple of million. Much of that was because we insisted on distributing the machine in well-known High Street stores rather than solely mail order or in specialist computer stores. It was a complete system, not just a console.”
Buoyant sales of the machine meant the vast majority of the major third-party software houses soon supported it. Games produced for the Spectrum and Commodore were created for the CPC, although, because the Spectrum shared the Z80 processor, many initial Amstrad games were lazy Speccy ports. Some of these games were sluggish and jerky and did not take advantage of the four and 16 colour modes nor the hardware scrolling. But when done well, the CPC more than held its own with colourful graphics, great sound and smooth scrolling.
Four Great Amstrad CPC 464 Games
Read the full feature in Retro Gamer issue 25, on sale digitally from GreatDigitalMags.com
Retro Gamer magazine and bookazines are available in print from ImagineShop