Ode to the Model 4D

So it’s being reported that Radio Shack may be sold. No deal, yet; just that they are, as they say, “exploring strategic alternatives.”

Radio Shack’s computers always had a Rodney Dangerfield “don’t get no respect” problem. People who weren’t even born when the TRS-80 was still in production call it the “Trash-80” today when it’s brought up. As someone who owned a few TRS-80s over the years—and whose first computer, indeed, was a TRS-80 Model I—this always rankles me a little. (Never mind that TRS-80 owners often called it that, too.)

It’s just amazing looking back now at how far computers have come: a decade ago, getting a Pentium III at 600 MHz and 128M of memory was pretty kick-ass. Five years before that we were just getting used to Windows 95 running on our Pentiums (no roman numerals yet) at a blazing 75 MHz, Intel had introduced USB but nobody had the foggiest idea what to do with it, and somebody had bought the assets of Amiga just to screw with its diehard fans before tossing the corpse to somebody else—well, okay, we’re still doing that today.

And a quarter-century ago, the TRS-80 Model 4D, the last and best of its line, had a 4MHz Z80 CPU, monochrome character-based graphics (crappy even then), two 360K floppy drives, and 64K—note that’s a “K,” not an “M”—of RAM expandable to 128K, all for the low price of $1199.

And it was great.

This was the sunset of the 8-bit computing era. There were more glamorous machines out there—nearly everybody had better graphics, Commodore and Atari had big name games (in all its history, I believe the TRS-80 had a grand total of two official ports of coin-op arcade games, Frogger and Zaxxon), the Apple II was eminently more hackable. But the TRS-80 had what I’d argue was the best 8-bit CPU architecture ever produced, and LDOS—a third-party operating system repackaged as TRSDOS 6 by Radio Shack—did astounding things given the hardware. Device-independent I/O with filter chains, file-based logical drives (roughly akin to virtual disk images today), a “job control language” more sophisticated than DOS batch files, system-level keyboard macros, and even limited background processing akin to MS-DOS’s “Terminate and Stay Resident” programs (remember those?).

I kept using my TRS-80 Model 4 up through 1991, having swapped out the Z80 for a 9 MHz HD64180 CPU—a Z80 clone with a few more instructions and more sophisticated memory handling—and upgrading to a then-whopping 320K of RAM. For a while I ran a BBS on it that kept the entire OS and the message index in memory, and PC users asked how it was so fast. I wrote some of my early stories on it, some using an obscure word processor called LazyWriter and later, since the Model 4 could also run CP/M, a less obscure one called WordStar.

In retrospect it seems nuts to so tenaciously cling to the trailing edge of technology, but I was poor then, and would barely have been able to afford to put together a “white box” PC clone. Worse, MS-DOS came out unfavorably compared to TRSDOS and Windows came out unfavorably compared to the Mac. Eventually, of course, I did put together a “white box” clone… and I ran Linux on it. (The SLS distribution, kernel 0.99.something. Came on three dozen floppy disks.) And frankly, it’s kind of fun to be able to do stuff with hardware that other people routinely dismiss.

So if Radio Shack truly goes away, I’ll miss them. But I’ve missed the store I grew up with for years. They always seemed to be either a few years ahead of their time—they were selling a multiuser Unix workstation in 1982!—or a decade behind. The decision to drop all their goofy store brands like Archer and Realistic and Optimus, regardless of how strategically sound I’m sure it seemed at the time, drove a stake through the heart of their corporate identity. They stopped being the place you go to get Radio Shack stuff—and while a lot of their stuff was crap, they always had a few gems hidden on the shelves—and became an uncomfortable amalgamation of a cell phone store and the electronics aisle at Target.

But what I’ll really miss them for is—yes—the Trash-80. There were other paths to discovering a love of computers, but you won’t convince me there were any better ones.