For over half a century, if you wanted to buy electronics parts and gadgets in the United States, one retail chain loomed large above all others: RadioShack. Its combination of distinctive, often novel products with a wide-ranging line of RadioShack-branded merchandise meant that many households in America used at least one RadioShack product regularly.
During the dawning era of the personal computer, RadioShack dipped its toes into the market with its 1977 RadioShack TRS-80 computer. This early consumer PC gained its name from a combination of the store name with that of its parent company, Tandy, resulting in "Tandy/RadioShack" or TRS. Logically, the machine gained its "80" nomenclature thanks to its Zilog Z-80 microprocessor.
Over the next six years, RadioShack introduced over a dozen different models in the TRS-80 line. As a result, we won't cover all of them here; instead, we'll take a look at some of the classic highlights of RadioShack's early computer era—a time before RadioShack's PCs transitioned into mostly IBM PC-compatible machines.
After you're done reading, feel free to share your memories of TRS-80 computers big and small. Was a TRS-80 your first computer? Let us know in the comments.
(This story was originally published on Dec. 4, 2015.)
For Further Reading: If you're interested in the history of Atari computers, check out ExtremeTech EIC Jamie Lendino's new book Breakout: How Atari 8-Bit Computers Defined a Generation, which is now available in paperback and Kindle for $17.99 and $14.99, respectively.
Radio Shack TRS-80 (1977)
CPU: 1.77 MHz Z-80A
Price: $599.95 with monitor (about $2,354 today, adjusted)
The computer that launched the TRS-80 brand remains notable as of the famous trio of first consumer PCs released in 1977—along with the Commodore PET and the Apple II. Its monochrome text-mode graphics limited its potential applications, but it still proved a success for RadioShack.
Radio Shack TRS-80 Color Computer (1980)
CPU: 0.89 MHz Motorola 6809E
Price: $399 (about $1,151 today, adjusted)
Three years after the debut of its first PC, RadioShack launched an entirely new platform, the Color Computer, which combined color graphics, joystick support, and cartridge-based media in a more user-friendly home PC for novices. Its built-in BASIC (described in a friendly, easy-to-read manual) taught a generation of RadioShack kids how to program for the first time.
Radio Shack TRS-80 Pocket Computer PC-1 (1980)
Price: $299 (about $863 today, adjusted)
The TRS-80 Pocket Computer packed a complete working version of the BASIC programming language into a calculator-sized, battery-powered package that could fit in Isaac Asimov's hand. Few Americans know that this unit is nearly identical to another machine, the Sharp PC-1211, which was licensed and rebadged for sale in RadioShack stores.
See the full ad here.
Radio Shack TRS-80 Model III (1980)
CPU: 2.03 MHz Zilog Z-80
RAM: 4K min, 49K max
Price: $699-$2495 (about $2,017-$7,201 today, adjusted)
As an upgrade to the Model I, the Model III increased its progenitor's CPU speed, disk capacity, and maximum RAM capacity, while including an RF shielding fix in its rigid chassis that allowed it to pass then-new FCC regulations. The result was an appealing and sturdy all-in-one machine that found its way into many school computer labs across the United States.
Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 100 (1983)
CPU: 2.4 MHz 80C85
Price: $599 base model (about $1,430 today, adjusted)
As one of the world's earliest true laptop computers, the Kyocera-designed Model 100 gained a reputation for quality based on its long battery life (about 16 hours on 4 AA batteries), high contrast display, and its wonderful full-stroke keyboard that was large enough to comfortably type on at a considerable speed. As a result, it became popular with journalists around the world, some of whom used it for over a decade after RadioShack stopped supporting it.
Radio Shack TRS-80 Micro Color Computer MC-10 (1983)
CPU: 0.89 MHz MC6803
Price: $119.95 (about $286 today, adjusted)
In the 1980s, when RadioShack's idea of fun was introducing six different incompatible computer platforms simultaneously, its engineers decided to gift the MC-10 upon the world. Despite its "Micro Color Computer" name, this intentionally low-cost, introductory machine was not compatible with RadioShack's Color Computer line. As a result of those incompatibilities (and its wimpy specs), the MC-10 received limited software support and vanished nearly as quickly as it came.
Radio Shack TRS-80 Tandy 2000 (1983)
CPU: 8 MHz 80186
Price: $2999 base (about $7,161 today, adjusted)
The TRS-80 Tandy 2000 marked the end of the line for the TRS-80 brand—a shift which came just as the industry began transitioning to a MS-DOS based standard pioneered by the 1981 IBM PC. As a considerably enhanced but partially incompatible clone of IBM's machine, the Tandy 2000 fared poorly in the market, but it did set the stage for the phenomenally successful Tandy 1000 (also PC compatible), which would launch one year later.