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Commodore 64 is back, with the same ol' look but modern insides

April 7, 2011 | 12:16 pm

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The new Commodore 64 computer, first released in 1982, appears the same on the outside, but is much different beneath the surface.

It's still taupe and it's still basically a big keyboard with a full working computer sitting beneath it -- mouse and monitor aren't included.

But while it has its retro looks intact, it's also quite new, with modern features even some of today's computers (Apple, we're looking at you) haven't caught up to, such as HDMI outputs to connect to a HDTV and the option of a combination Blu-Ray and DVD player.

"It looks just like the original Commodore 64, with even the old-style keyboard," said Barry Altman, chief executive of Commodore USA, LLC, the company making the new all-in-one PCs. "In fact, that keyboard was the biggest accomplishment of all, so far. The keys look like a piece of clay that you pushed a marble into -- so it fits your fingertip."

The price for the new Commodore 64 basic model is even the same as it was for a similar base unit in 1982 -- $595.

Of course, with larger hard drives and that high-definition video Blu-Ray player, a new 64 can cost as much as $895. A $250 model will get a wanting consumer what amounts to just a Commodore 64 shell for those who want to add their own motherboard, DVD player and other innards.

The new Commodore 64 went on sale on the company's website for the first time Tuesday and sold out within about 24 hours, though Altman isn't saying just how many have been produced to date.

"We expected our audience to be the nostalgia crowd and that's true, a lot of people buying them owned an original Commodore 64 back in the '80s, like me," he said. "But we're also finding that there are young kids who are geek geniuses who have iPhones and iPads and things like that and they're looking at this thing and they're into it. They've actually been a big part of our customer base so far too. It's been a surprise."

A second run is selling now, but won't ship until about May or June, he said.

"We're having a hard-time keeping our online store up, because the servers are getting overloaded from the amount of traffic," Altman said. "That's been a bit of a surprise, too."

168694_183011405050388_181491231869072_572686_6507556_nA surprise that he said reinforces his idea to bring back the Commodore brand, which is a passion project for the man who spent 25 years working in the satellite telecommunications industry, which is where he first ran into the small keyboard-box computers.

"Almost 30 years ago, we were filing our paperwork and even payroll manually -- we couldn't afford the expensive IBM machines at the time," Altman said. "And someone showed us a Commodore and it worked incredibly well to do what we needed to do and we used it for about five or six years and then we upgraded like everyone else, but I've always had a love in my heart for that product."

Just over a year ago, Altman formed Commodore USA LLC and licensed the rights to the Commodore trademark in September precisely to bring back the old box he had a passion for.

The new Commodore 64 maintains the spirit of the old computers, he said.

"It's a good basic computer for work, for email, for multimedia use, for even basic gaming," Altman said. "It's more like a Mac Mini than a little netbook."

The new machines feature a dual-core Intel Atom 1.8GHz processor, a Nvidia Ion2 graphics chipset, and as much as 4GB of RAM and 1TB of memory. The units run on Ubuntu, an open-source operating system, but are also capable of running Microsoft's latest OS, Windows 7.

The original Commodore 64 had 64 kilobytes of memory, which was enough to do basic word processing and play video games which would be considered basic by today's standards.

And the new Commodore 64, like the old one, is built in the U.S. -- in Florida, where the Ft. Lauderdale company is based.

"It's 99% American made -- everything except the motherboard is American made," Altman said. "It just didn't seem right to have the Commodore 64 become a Chinese import, though we sell other computers that are and they're just fine. It probably goes back to a nostalgia thing, and we don't have the benefit of the less expensive labor, but we felt strongly that it was the right thing to do for this model."

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-- Nathan Olivarez-Giles

twitter.com/nateog

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