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The Commodore LCD

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Intending to use pictures or text from this page? Please read this notice. Last modify 1 July 2007.

This is another well-known Commodore oddity. Happily, there is a remaining unit in the possession of the original LCD project engineer, Bil Herd himself, who graciously filled in all the missing gaps on this entry. Bil states that it could possibly still be working, and adds that as long as he does not turn it on, it will still possibly be working.

Complete Views of the Commodore LCD (.jpg)
Except for the back ports image courtesy of Bo Zimmerman, these pictures were taken by yours truly; all of ours were of Bil Herd's LCD at Vintage Computer Festival East 4.0.
Portrait (81K) | Keyboard (52K) | Side Ports (26K) | Rear Ports (27K) | Mainboard (142K) | 65C102 CPU, 6522 VIAs, 6551 ACIA (99K) | 8653 Video? (23K, see blurb) | Memory Daughterboard (136K) | Character ROM (43K)

Additional Views of the Commodore LCD
Full Portrait with Keyboard (.jpg, 45K, courtesy Steve Gray) | Screenshot and Sideports (.jpg, 14K, courtesy Jan Neuvians) | Large Screenshot (.gif, 108K, courtesy Christian Janoff) | Other Small Portraits: (.jpg, 10K), (.gif, 4K)

Press Article on the LCD: page 1 (246K) and page 2 (206K) (both .jpg, from Commodore Microcomputers, March/April 1985, courtesy Anthony Beckett). Very complete description.

Marc-Jano Knopp's LCD Page (mirrored by Peter Schepers)
Jan Neuvians' Commodore Curiosity Page (defunct, via Wayback Machine)

Computer Chronicles "Low End Computers" (1985). One of the best computer shows ever on American public television, this episode (available in multiple video formats) includes interviews with Tramiel at Atari, a tour of Commodore West Chester, and a 30 second clip of the LCD. Well worth the time to download it. Available under a free Creative Commons license. Spotted by Scott Jones, thanks much!

Introduced January 1985
Hardware 65C102 @ 2MHz (the article disagrees and says 1?); 96K ROM; 32K battery-backed RAM, expandable to 128K (adding 32K internally and 64K externally). A 300 baud modem is integrated. Power supply either via external transformer or four 1.5V NiCad batteries (the article claims alkaline will also? work -- this seems unlikely and expensive). Has serial bus ports, RS232-C, expansion port, printer port ("Centronics" but lacking standard connector), 9-pin DSUB barcode reader port, and phone, line and coupler ports (the image above shows the phone and line ports to be regular RJ-11s).
Graphics and Sound 80x16 text (on an 80x25 virtual screen); 480x128 resolution; powered by the "8653" (not the 8563, which powers video for the CBM 900 and, of course, the 128). No sound. Later developer Jeff Porter stated, however, that they were considering a cartridge for the LCD that would use a VDC chip to power an external display.
Eventual Fate Forgotten prototype. Bil estimates around four existed, with obviously one unit still known to exist for certain.

Comments
The original entry is thanks to Marc-Jano Knopp and Christian, with help from Jan, Steve, Anthony, and Scott, and finally Bil Herd himself.

Presented simultaneously with the more successful 128 at Winter CES in Las Vegas January 1985; although 6502 based, it was not intended as a portable 64. The LCD has its own version of BASIC (3.6, modeled on BASIC 3.5 in the 264 series, even though the LCD was an unrelated project) and several programs in ROM including a word processor, spreadsheet, calculator, terminal program, monitor, memopad, file manager and an address book (sounding more and more like a Plus/4 all the time!). The quality of the programs was reportedly very good, and truly integrated -- in fact, you could be in the spreadsheet and word processor simultaneously on the split screen and go back and forth.

The LCD's keyboard is also somewhat intriguing as it also has the nonstandard Selectric layout of all the other Commodore 8-bits, in stark contrast to the other, more primitive :-) laptops of the time. Commodore was also light-years ahead in ergonomics with the LCD; unlike the SX-64, which calls up unpleasant images of the Osborne-1 and hernia repair surgeries, and unlike other laptops of the day (the bust-a-gut Data General One in my collection comes to mind), the LCD weighs in at an amazingly feather-light five pounds.

The LCD supported the IEC serial bus but was going to have its own 400K 3.5" disk drive. However, the drive that eventually was identified with it was the 1561, which is actually 720K. A vapourware printer, an unknown model with apparently excellent quality, was also demonstrated.

The optics behind the LCD display were said to be extraordinarily good -- and the achievement is doubly interesting when you consider that it was Commodore itself that developed the display in CBM's very own optoelectronics department in Texas, part of Tramiel's great buy-up in the 1970s. Sadly, this promising engineering feat disappeared with the department, which was sold off shortly after the LCD's demise. Bob Russell and Bil Herd in On the Edge give a more prosaic and unfortunate ending to the LCD. Although Jeff Porter had managed to amass over 15,000 pre-orders at the CES, more than enough to satisfy the demand bar set by then-CEO Marshall Smith, Smith was reportedly told by Tandy Radio Shack management that there was no money in the LCD portable market and on the basis of that conversation, canned the line. History proves that this was obviously an out-and-out lie, as Tandy made millions from their LCD portable systems, but while Tandy's behaviour was low it is obvious that Smith should never have taken advice from the competition seriously. With no calculators or watches remaining in production, it was natural to divest Commodore of the LCD division when Smith cancelled the unit.

Bil's unit has obviously a few intermediate developmental characteristics that would not have been in a production model (were any actually made), especially the hand-lettered ICs and the ceramic DIPs. Also, the memory daughterboard is not (just) RAM; there is a string of ROM chips along the topmost row, but the Char ROM is on the mainboard and not on the memory daughterboard. It is also not clear where the 8653 was on this unit; the "8653 Video?" image shows a faint 8 on the chip marked 5707 next to the 65C102 CPU (enhanced here with high contrast and threshold-gating), making it the most likely suspect. However, it could also be the 5706 sitting near the Char ROM.

The Commodore LCD is in no way related to Commodore's other liquid-crystal display computer, the HHC-4.