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Radio Shack's TRS-80 Turns 35 231

harrymcc writes "On August 3, 1977, Radio Shack announced its TRS-80 microcomputer at an event in New York City. For the next several years, it was the world's most popular PC — but it never got the respect it deserved. (I still wince when I hear 'Trash-80.') Over at, I'm celebrating the anniversary with some reflections on the machine and why it was so underappreciated."
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Radio Shack's TRS-80 Turns 35

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  • by cstec ( 521534 ) on Friday August 03, 2012 @08:10PM (#40874335)
    Got that straight. The TRS-80 Model I was for sale in stores in August of '77 [I was when it arrived], available as a retail purchase when Apples were just kits.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Friday August 03, 2012 @08:31PM (#40874465)

      My first computer. Figured out how to up the RAM from 16k to 48k (the max) myself. Figured out how to get lower case letters myself. Burned a ton of time on Scott Adams adventures.

      But the big thing was I taught myself to program. First BASIC, then when it proved too slow Z-80 assembler. For work I was a tech working on 8080-bases systems, so I used that assembler knowledge to write tests to exercise various circuitry. A co-worker and I wrote a Space Invaders clone, which turned out to be a hit at trade shows (prolly because marketing grabbed it before we gave the invaders missiles of their own. Engineering found out what I was doing and suddenly I was writing new software.

      Fast forward 35 years, I still write embedded software. And have my Trash-80 in the garage.

      • by Artifex ( 18308 )

        Figured out how to up the RAM from 16k to 48k (the max) myself.

        Yup, my dad saved over $300 buying the modules for our Model I Level 2 himself over letting Rat Shack put them in -- my first lesson in vendor markup, as a kid.

        With both parents having done their dissertations on that machine, it's no wonder I'm used to being up all night -- that Daisy Wheel Printer II was loud enough to be heard across the house, and would go at all hours.

      • Today a introductory computer should have a 20 Gigabyte flash drive on the motherboard, a Terabyte hard drive and 8 Gigabytes of ram memory and still cost less than the Trs-80. It should have at least 4 cores, built in sound, built in Ethernet and a clock speed thousand of times faster. Even with all that speed and power, I am still disappointed with what we are doing with it as I expected that the computer should have been able to monitor both me and my house for any problems. If I were asked to give up
  • by atheos ( 192468 ) on Friday August 03, 2012 @08:19PM (#40874381) Homepage
    nothing but good memories for the TRS-80.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    They had a room full of Trash 80s in the local Boys and Girls Club when I was growing up. While other kids were playing fooseball I was getting into the BASIC code for the bowling game and hard coding myself as the all time scorer on the high score board. They caught on when I started having scores higher than 300. 1,000,000 just sounded better.

    Good times.

  • Wasn't it a TRS-80 that Kurt Russell was playing chess against at the beginning of "The Thing"?
    That totally cracked me up: "Cheating Bitch!" then poured his scotch into the case - I wanted to do that so many times when playing chess against that damn computer! Granted, at that time I was drinking Koolaid, but the sentiment was the same.

  • by hawk ( 1151 ) <> on Friday August 03, 2012 @08:24PM (#40874417) Journal

    I owned a model 1.

    calling it "Trash-80" is exactly what that hack deserved; it was significantly behind what most hobbiests at the time would have cobbled together on the same parts budget.

    It's tough to choose a favorite design flaw, whether saving four bits by only using 7 video chips instead of 8, even though the character generator had lower case . . . Running the processor bizarrely slow, the same rate as characters appeared on screen, but yanking control away and creating a glitch on the screen with each read or write . . .

    My choice, though, is using the same connector for the power supply and video output, toasting the board for those who unwittingly just reached behind to plug them in . . .


    • I had a lot of fun with the BASIC with only two string variables: A$ and B$. Of course I had no clue what I was doing at the time.

      "Trash-80" always seemed more like a term of endearment.

    • calling it "Trash-80" is exactly what that hack deserved; it was significantly behind what most hobbiests at the time would have cobbled together on the same parts budget

      I agree that the Model I was nobody's idea of an awesome hardware design, but for $595, could anyone else have done better, at either a hobbyist or professional/corporate level? That was what really got my attention. Even as an 8-year-old, I knew $595 wasn't that much money for a real computer.

      The Apple II was about $1500. Sure, it was a

      • I agree that the Model I was nobody's idea of an awesome hardware design, but for $595, could anyone else have done better, at either a hobbyist or professional/corporate level?

        Commodore could, and did... At first with the PET, then with the Commodore 64, which debuted in Jan 1982 with 64K memory for $595.

        • You missed the important step of the VIC-20 in 1980. I always felt the PET was not really a consumer computer (more for business), but the VIC-20 certainly was. The only computer in 1980-81 which had more sales was the Atari 800. (Due to brand recognition from the #1 selling Atari console.)

      • but for $595, could anyone else have done better

        I think that's what they call a "leading question". Here's an unusual answer - the UK magazine Electronics Today International published plans in 197(?) for a home-build hobby computer that had similar specs, ran BASIC and could be assembled from parts you sourced yourself, using their PCB design. They even had off-the-shelf case, keyboard and so on. It would definitely have been in this price range or less. I bet nobody can remember it now - I believe it
  • I remember them being terribly slow (895 kHz), glitchy, having poor video quality and the storage being very unreliable. The Apple ][ was vastly superior. But that's just my memory...
    • And it had only two string variables: $A and $B I think.

    • Re:respect (Score:5, Interesting)

      by ralphdaugherty ( 225648 ) <> on Friday August 03, 2012 @08:48PM (#40874557) Homepage

      Cassette tapes unreliable storage? That's one of the kinder ways to describe it. :) But seriously, I taught myself programming with the Z-80 assembler/debugger and would make multiple backups to tape to counter the occasional read glitch that rendered the tape contents lost for all practical purposes. (Although in a pinch attempting to read it in over and over with fingers crossed hoping that one time it would work was occasionally successful, at which point you wrote it out to a new backup tape.)

      Wrote Double Deck Pinochle as my first program, later rewrote for DOS (is freeware out there somewhere), rewrote it in Java a few years ago (seriously proper OO architecture, but an interesting experience to rewrite 8086 to Java), and just so happens am now rewriting from Java to RPG for my IBM i (iseries AS/400) web server. Again an interesting experience. :)

      For those who might wander about RPG looks like these days, I have open sourced a couple of projects: []

      (the ascii source downloads can be viewed in a text editor.)

      And I have the TRS-80 to thank for it all. So happy 35th, TRS-80.

  • Model 100 (Score:5, Informative)

    by pdawson ( 89236 ) on Friday August 03, 2012 @08:31PM (#40874457)

    The model 100 was a great machine. Got me through HS and college in the 90's. Lightweight, runs forever on 4 AA batteries, stores 32k text worth of class notes. And the key for me, no distractions like sol.exe, no network access. Transfer the notes to PC vis serial port at home and you've got room for the next day's notes.

    And its even still available and supported at

    • Fun story: When Empire Strikes Back came out, a friend of mine went and bought a Model 100 just so that he could work on a term paper while sitting in line. Worked great.

    • by lobotomy ( 26260 )
      I was visiting San Luis Obispo, CA last week and saw a guy sitting in a coffee shop typing on a Model 100. I still have one in my garage. I need to see if it works (my dad left batteries in and they leaked). I new reporters who loved them: instant on, compact, quiet typing.
    • Re:Model 100 (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Cornwallis ( 1188489 ) on Friday August 03, 2012 @09:18PM (#40874735)

      Exactly. I get a kick reading the poseurs knocking the TRS-80.

      The thing was mass-produced and worked. You could hack it. My Model 100 still works after almost 30 years of use. Four AA batteries runs the thing for weeks. I could and did access CompuServe with its built in 300baud modem. Just a few years ago I found a mod that allowed me to solder a Blusmirf Bluetooth chip to the ancient UART allowing me to pair to my desktop and even telnet to a RS6000 we were using.

      The thing is slow, clunky (but with an absolutely great keyboard) and I still use it for note taking... because, as a tool, it works.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday August 03, 2012 @08:33PM (#40874475)

    The fascinating thing about this period of time is how close Apple came to disappearing altogether.
    While early sales of all personal computers were slow - sales were measured in thousands - it looked like the battle was always Commodore vs Radio Shack. Some magazines ignored Apple because they sold so few machines.
    What changed everything was the development of Visicalc. According to Brian Bagnall's "The rise and fall of Commodore", Dan Bricklin wanted to develop Visicalc on a Commodore PET but they were too popular for him to get any time on them. He used an Apple II because no-one else wanted to write software for it and so it was always available.
    Visicalc went on to be the application that changed personal computing forever - business' bought Apples by the bucketload to run visicalc- and elevated Apple from being insignificant to being the dominant selling machine.
    While Visicalc saved Apple, Dan Bricklin has always denied that Visicalc had any effect on Commodore or the TRS 80, and that they were responsible for their own demise.
    Having read the Commodore story (Bagnall) and Apple's story (too many books to mention) I look forward to reading the book mentioned in the article - 'Priming the pump' and getting another perspective on that period of time.

    • by cpu6502 ( 1960974 ) on Friday August 03, 2012 @09:58PM (#40874959)

      >>>visicalc- and elevated Apple from being insignificant to being the dominant selling machine.

      Interesting revisionist history. Here are the top selling ("dominant") consumer machines according to ars technica:
      1977 TRS-80
      1978 TRS-80
      1979 TRS-80
      1980 Atari 800
      1981 Atari 800
      1982 Atari 800
      1983 Commodore 64
      1987 Commodore 64
      1988 IBM PC + clones
      and so on.

      Now do you see any place where Apple II was dominant? No. It was always 3rd place behind the other brands. (Mainly because the pricetag on the Apples and Macs was too high for average people.)

      • by HonkyLips ( 654494 ) on Friday August 03, 2012 @10:14PM (#40875041)

        The Apple II was dominant in terms of income, if not sales units. If you're referring to Jeremy Reimer's article you'll read that in 1980 Apple's turnover was $200 million, Radio Shacks was $175 million and Commodore's was $40 million. It might not have sold as many individual units but they made Apple a lot more money.

        Sales figures for the PET weren't kept, but it is interesting that in 1982 Commodore sold more Vic 20s in 6 months than Apple sold Apple IIs in 5 years.

        Figures are here: []

        • To be honest, until Reimer published those figures, I'd always believed Apple's claim of being the "best-selling personal computer", and it still seems to be a widely-held misconception. From where I was sitting (school), it sure looked like it too.

  • I had a different (6502 based) system but my dad bought me the TRS80 BASIC programming book. It was the only BASIC reference I had so I effectively learnt programming from it. Six months later I had exhausted the possibilities of BASIC and got into machine code.

  • And I quickly outgrew it. Had to upgrade it to 16K L2 - then the EI, modem, speech input, disk drives. I had the whole 9 yards.

    And yes, the lowercase mod was simply a chip piggyback - did it myself.

    With Level 2 BASIC I learned to poke short routines into memory so they'd run faster.
    • I'd forgotten about the speech synthesizer. Someone had dumped a fully-loaded Model I system on my school, so the 'computer club' quickly dug into to see if there were any good games. We were playing a "Star Trek" style game when all of a sudden a giant ASCII alien appeared and started yelling - everyone jumped out of their seats.

      There was also a neat drawing/animation program where you could create blocky movies. However, by the the system seemed so out of date, we spent most of our time trading Apple disk

      • Yeah, the speech synth could be set to read off the screen. The speech recognition was pretty interesting too. Not to mention you could control X-10 style outlets with the cassette port.

        And I used that computer to figure out Sprint's pass codes for their dial through long distance service.
  • It was more popular than the Commodore PET, which was also available in the late 70's, but I don't think it ever matched the popularity that the Apple ][+ (and later, 2e) achieved in the early 1980's.
  • We had 8 of them in my Jr. High math class. Not content playing Oregon Trail, I started learning BASIC and transferred over to my dad's IBM PC. That was my beginning of a wonderful career in IT.
  • Written by the last of the TRS-80 fanboys. And why did it not get the "respect it deserved"? From the authori's own article:

    A bevy of games were available, too, despite the fact that the computer did only black-and-white graphics at 128-by-48, which was bare-bones even back then.

    Now I must admit when it appeared in the fall 1977 Radio Shack catalog, I was excited at the prospect of being able to purchase a pre-built computer. But then as an owner of an Atari 2600, and while waiting to save the money for a TRS-80, brochures for the Atari 800 came out, and I of course waited for that. 8x the resolution, color, hardware scrolling, hardware sprites, four-channel sound, and (gasp) pixel addressing (as opposed to 2x3 "pixel" blocks of character graphics on the TRS-80).

  • TRS-80 Model III (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Tempest_2084 ( 605915 ) on Friday August 03, 2012 @09:05PM (#40874643)
    I actually have a TRS-80 Model III (the one with the built in monitor) setup in my game room. The graphics aren't much (they're actually quite blocky), but they really did put a lot of love into those games. The TRS-80 version of Zaxxon is particularly impressive, and plays better than some of the versions on more capable systems (do a youtube search for it, it's worth checking out).

    I found my TRS-80 on the side of the road in a garbage pile in the middle of nowhere Ohio while on a camping trip. I picked it up and took it home (over the wife's objections) and found that it still worked perfectly (initially it looked like it didn't work, but it turns out that the brightness dial had just been turned down all the way and was frozen in place). I guess my TRS-80 really IS a Trash-80.
  • I don't like nostalgia unless it's mine. Lou Reed

    That said, I was born in 75. My first two computers where the TRS-80 Model 1 Level 2 (it was about 8-9 years old when I got it), and a Mattel Aquarius my grandmother won at bingo or some such. []
    My Tandy had just the monitor and cassette drive, and I did not have the game expansion for the Aquarius. Using both I taught myself basic programming, and I even had some programs on tape for the Tandy that had C-64, Pet, and Apple versions on the same cassette, I became adept at telling the difference by ear to fi

  • My very first computer was a TRS-80 Model II. It weighed in at a whopping 70 pounds with those huge diskettes. I even had the early SCSI HD which required you to load drivers via the TRS-DOS before you could access it. I also had the floppy disk expander - that huge unit with four or five floppy disk drives in it. Ah the memories .... I learned to write really simple programs in BASIC on it. My dad gave away the Model II, HD, and Floppy expansion units to the Smithsonian after being in storage for many
  • My first job was working at a music store - basically I was their (very low paid) in-house programmer, except during the start-of-school crunch time when I helped sell instruments like every other person in the store. I wrote stuff like payroll and inventory software that ran on their TRS-80, and had to serve as the data entry clerk as well. That beast had dual floppy drives... good times, good times.

  • by Dan East ( 318230 ) on Friday August 03, 2012 @09:51PM (#40874919) Journal

    Back in 8th grade (1985) I was introduced to the TRS-80 CoCo II. Our school had a lab full of them (two students per computer), and we were taught keyboarding and some basic programming. Now, up to that point, my computer experience was already pretty extensive. I owned a TI-99/4A, and the highlight of each month was receiving the next edition of Compute! so I could type in the BASIC / Extended BASIC programs. I had already written thousands of lines of BASIC code from scratch (from the time I was 10). I had a lot of experience on the Apple II and the C-64 as well.

    Now, 30 years later, I can't remember enough specifics to state the technical reasons, but as a 12 year old, I absolutely hated the CoCo II. I was not a TI-99 fanatic (I had great appreciation for the C-64, for example), so I didn't dislike the TRS-80 because of some external factor- I didn't like it simply because of what it was.

    Odds and ends I remember is that the performance was laggy and sluggish (even in the day, compared to the machines I mentioned already). BASIC syntax had some convoluted stuff going on (probably related to graphics and sound) and code editing was a chore. The hardware felt cheap.

    To compare to the other machines I was familiar with, the TI-99/4A felt very professional and refined throughout. Both the hardware, and the software. It felt more engineered and like something a scientist would use or something. lol As a 10 year old, I felt I was using a machine intended for real adults to use. It was serious and real. It had a certain rigidity that was authoritative. The CoCo felt like a toy or a gimmick in some way.

    The Apple II was similar. The hardware felt very high quality, and the OS was refined and consistent.

    The C-64 gave the impression there was always something deeper and lower-level, just waiting to be exploited. It was complicated (just loading a program off of the disc required these weird, non-intuitive parameters that neither I nor my 10 year old friends understood, like "why do you have to put ,8 after the filename?"). Compute! listings had all these pokes and peeks, directly manipulating memory. You could change the color of text using these weird keyboard combos - no other computer of the day had nearly the flexibility or flashy pizazz of the C-64.

    So as a 12 year old, there simply weren't any redeeming factors to the TRS-80. I knew that other computers of the era did various things better and were more fun to program and use than the TRS-80, and I complained often to my classmates, lamenting that we couldn't have TIs or C64s because they were better computers.

  • In high school this was my first computer. The Apple 1 wasn't available for me at the time and so I grew up on the TRS-80 models as they evolved, eventually, into the Model III with built in screen all looking very slick for the time. By the time my school had built a computing lab and filled it with Apple II's I had my own machines at home. When the Model IV arrived I'd moved on to other machines and was looking to my first PC (with help).

    I remember when I had to write lines (the teachers chosen method fo

  • by raftpeople ( 844215 ) on Friday August 03, 2012 @10:11PM (#40875017)
    > You are inside a pyramid, there are openings to the N, S, E and W
    > _
  • by ( 311775 ) on Friday August 03, 2012 @10:47PM (#40875189) Homepage Journal

    I can still remember how the Model I smelled.

  • by NewtonsLaw ( 409638 ) on Friday August 03, 2012 @10:47PM (#40875191)

    The TRS80 model 1 was my first store-bought computer -- I'd built my own "microcomputers" up until that stage.

    Compared to the Apple it had some real strengths: A BASIC with double-precision math, a Z80 processor (the 6502 is wicked-good but once Page 0 is used up you lose so many of those cool addressing modes so the Z80 works better in a "store-bought" machine with ROM firmware), plenty of support in magazines, and later, a brilliant disk OS in the form of NewDOS80

    I had most of the Tandy micros: The Model 1, the Model 2 (with 8" drives and later, CP/M), the Tandy 100, the Model III and later, the seldom mentioned Tandy 2000 with its Intel 80186 processor at 8MHz. That thing just blitzed all the 4.77MHz 8088-based PC clones that were around at the time.

    But those were different days.

    Before the advent of the IBM PC, every machine was wildly different and exciting. Once the "PC-compatible" virus hit, hardware became rather undistinctive and "samey".

    Good days!

  • by lord_mike ( 567148 ) on Saturday August 04, 2012 @01:44AM (#40875805)

    I wrote my first program ever on a TRS-80 color computer. It was a community computer programming course that they ran from a local school. We had to write out our programs at home on special graph paper and type it in during class. I was immediately hooked on computers and programming.

    I used to book programming time at the local library for their TRS-80 model III. It was a lousy machine compared to its contemporaries, but, it was the only reliable access I had to a microcomputer, so I cherished the few precious minutes I had available to program. I was only able to book one hour at a time, so I had to work fast and leave enough time to save the programs to tape. I remember programming some games from David H. Ahl's "More Basic Computer Games--TRS-80 Edition" which was modified to use the primitive TRS-80 graphics. I tried making a light cycle game, but failed at that attempt pretty badly. I never got it to work right. If only I had more time...

    In the early 90's, I stumbled upon an old Model III sitting on the clearance table at the local Radio Shack. They were asking 30 bucks for it. I really wanted to buy it, but my wife would have none of it. To this day, I still regret not acquiring that classic machine. Yeah, it wasn't great, but it still was an important piece of computing history... and my own.

  • My 1st computer was a TRS-80 Color computer 2. I still own it and its still in use hooked to a Tandy "Plug 'n Power" X10 controler. It runs some outside lights and the attic fans. As long as it keeps working i have no real reason to ever replace it. It just sits in the basement doing its job year after year.

    I also have another CoCo2 hooked up to my bigscreen and DriveWire4 in the living room. Every once in a while I'll fire it up and play some MicroChess or Bedlam.

    Believe it or not there is actually a small

  • My TRS-80 was actually a clone, the Video Genie EG3003. With built-in cassette recorder no less. Got mine defective from a friend who had a lightning strike nearby. I clipped all TTL chips and replaced them. To my luck, the ROM, RAM and CPU were still intact! I later expanded the system with a floppy controller, ran NewDOS-80, LDOS and TRS-DOS on it.

    There were two ways to expand the memory. You could piggy-back 4116 DRAM chips on top of the original ones, or you could clip the original ones and insert 4164

  • When I was in high school my dad's office had a couple of TRS-80 model 2s (cassette tapes!) and a model 3 (8" floppies!) and after school I'd go to his office and spend ages playing The Asylum (see []) It was awesome. Even more so than the school's sole Apple ][, the "trash 80" introduced me to programming and I taught myself z80 assembler in an effort to write my own version of Scramble (see []) as I quickly realised that BASIC was never

  • like so many others I got my first programming chops & computer knowledge from the TRS-80 my dad brought home. Did anyone else try copying the software from the back of the old compute magazines?

    I remember soldering a speaker wire up to the unit since there was no computer speakers back in the day. I described that one day to my much younger sister, and realized how silly it sounded 30 years later were a pair of speakers are $10 and actually sound good.
    Best was when we got a disk drive instead of the

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