IBM PCjr

IBM PCjr with a memory “sidecar” (Source: Rik Myslewski)

In 1981, IBM released the Personal Computer (PC) 5150. It was an instant success with business users, and clones. However, most home users were still using their Apple II’s and Tandy microcomputers, which could play their favorite games and cost a fraction of what the PC 5150 cost.

Once clones started churning out their own [cheaper] PC-compatibles, computer game companies created a wide variety of games for MS-DOS. Productivity software also became more relevant on the PC, as companies ported their software previously designed for other machines, such as VisiCalc and the Apple II, to the PC.

By 1984, IBM decided to join the home computer market with the PCjr. It boasted plenty of features which IBM thought it would make a hit with home and small business users. The PCjr was manufactured by Teledyne in Lewisburg, Tennessee for IBM. In March 1985, the PCjr was scrapped and it wouldn’t be until 1990 when IBM created a new consumer-grade computer: the PS/1. The internal IBM codename for the PCjr was “Peanut”.

Features of the PCjr

The PCjr had some features which made it similar to other consumer-grade computers on the market at time, such as the Apple II and Tandy TRS-80. For instance, there was a cartridge port on the PCjr.

Memory expansion of the PCjr was easy. You could purchase expansion modules from IBM, which simply plugged into the side of the machine. However, the external ports were mainly proprietary, which did not allow for external drives.

Lastly, the biggest feature which came with the PCjr was perhaps the PCjr’s biggest failure. The Freeboard was a wireless chicklet-style keyboard which came bundled with the PCjr. It allowed you to use the PCjr from a distance, such as if it was connected to a television set. However, people were not accustomed to a chicklet-style keyboard, although other companies, such as Sinclair, tinkered with it. Also, the PCjr was plagued with interference issues, especially from bright fluorescent lighting. However, IBM did decide to place a keyboard port on the back of the system unit for a wired keyboard.

Another failing feature that some other microcomputers at the time, especially consumer-grade models, had also suffered from was the use of proprietary ports and expansion. Unlike the IBM PC and PC-XT, the PCjr was filled with proprietary ports making it difficult to upgrade without the proper plugs and expansions.

What’s Inside?

The PCjr included the same processor that powered the PC 5150 and PC-XT. The processor was an Intel 8088 clocked at 4.77 MHz.

The PCjr included 64KB of memory, and used IBM’s PC-DOS operating system (a variant of MS-DOS.) Graphic output was the Video Gate Array, more commonly known as the Tandy Graphics Adapter (TGA.) The power supply was external.

The base configuration of the PCjr, the model 4860-004, with 64KB of memory and no floppy drive, cost $669 (equivalent to $1,549.50 in 2016.) A model which came with additional memory, 128kb and a floppy disk drive, cost $1,269 ($2,948.72 in 2016.)

Due to the rapidly increasing demands for additional performance and processing power, the PCjr was the last computer in the IBM PC line to use the Intel 8088.

Failure and Removal from Market

The PCjr was over hyped by IBM. Upon announcing the computer, which was highly publicized by IBM, many claimed that it would revolutionize the home computer market and possibly destroy Apple, Tandy, Commodore, and the other manufacturers. (This hype was known as the “Peanut Panic”.) IBM paid companies to create software for the computer, including educational (edutainment) and various other game titles. (One of the biggest, most well known games designed for the PCjr was King’s Quest I.) IBM missed the important Christmas marketing season due to production setbacks, but that did not stop ComputerLand and related stores from selling gift certificates for the computer.

IBM continued to use the infamous Charlie Chaplin character, played by Billy Scudder, which they also used to market the original PC 5150 and the PC-XT.

The machine is considered one of the largest flops in the computing industry. The keyboard was highly criticized (even being called “useless”.) The overall machine was treated like a toy by many in the industry due to limited hardware expansion, and the machine wasn’t even compatible with a lot of the software released for the PC and PC-XT. The biggest issue which resulted in the failure of the PCjr was its price tag.

In late 1984, namely around Christmas, IBM saved the PCjr by slashing prices and redesigning the keyboard with more traditional key switches. The PCjr outsold the Apple II series and even the Commodore 64. However, the PCjr was still failing and IBM put the nail in the coffin in March 1985 by discontinuing it. Unsold inventory was sold throughout late 1985.

IBM would later attempt to re-enter the consumer (home/small business) market with the PS/1. The PS/1 (Personal System/1, like its bigger brother, the PS/2) suffered from a couple of the same things that the PCjr did: the use of proprietary ports, for instance. While the PS/1 could be considered a greater success to IBM than the PCjr, the PS/1 failed in the market place due to stiff competition from te large number of competitors in the PC-compatible business. Click here to learn more about the IBM PS/1.