List of Home Computers By Video Hardware - The Importance of Having Capable Video Hardware

The Importance of Having Capable Video Hardware

Early home computers all had quite similar hardware, (and software) mostly using the 6502, the Z80, or in a few cases the 6809 microprocessor. They could have only as little as 1 KB of RAM or as much as 128K, and software wise, they could use a small 4K BASIC interpreter, or an extended 12K or more BASIC. So the basic systems were quite similar, except for one part of the system, the video display hardware. Some systems proved to be much more successful than others, and careful observers will see that the most successful systems had the most capable video hardware. The reason for that is that the success of the home computer was mostly determined by the kind of games you could play on it.

If you wanted to run a nice video game on a home computer, all the other specifications of the system, such as the CPU, the kind of BASIC, even to a degree how much memory the system had (if had at least 32K or more) did not matter much. What mattered most was what kind of picture could be put on the screen, and how easy or hard it was for a programmer to get enough capabilities out of the video hardware to create the effects necessary for the game.

A case in point is the Commodore 64. Its microprocessor lacked advanced math functions and was relatively slow. In addition, the built-in BASIC interpreter lacked any sort of graphics commands, as it was the same version that was developed for the older Commodore PET (a computer without any high resolution graphics capabilities at all). However, these drawbacks were of little consequence, because the C64 had the VIC-II chip. When accessed by machine language programs, the graphic capabilities of this chip made it practical to develop arcade-style games. Additionally, specific machine language coding exploiting quirks of the VIC-II chip allowed for special tricks to draw even better pictures out of the VIC-II chip. The comparatively large memory and the audio capabilities of the C64 also lent themselves well toward the production of desirable games. A negative example was the Aquarius by Mattel which had such incredibly limited video hardware (for the time period) that it was retracted from the market after only four months due to bad sales.

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... One major problem that early computer video hardware had to overcome was the Video bus arbitration problem ... The problem was to give the video hardware (VDU) continuous read access to the video RAM, while at the same time the CPU also had to access the same RAM ... time slots for the VDU and RAM was hard to implement because the logic circuits, and video memory chips of the time did not have the switching speed they have now ...

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