Was the Coleco ADAM really expensive at first?

Listening to vintage computing podcasts when the Coleco ADAM computer is brought up, you would have thought the ADAM was ridiculously expensive when it came out.  That just doesn’t make sense to me, because when I look at the ADAM I see a robust product: keyboard, memory console with a software controlled tape deck, printer, controllers with one attaching to the keyboard to act as a numeric keypad and a built-in word processing application.  The only thing it didn’t come with was a monitor.

So I did some simple digging through the world wide web and found some things.  It seems the ADAM was going to be sold for $600, but when it finally came to market, it was priced at $749.99.  That does seem like a lot of money, but I’m thinking about this from a modern day perspective.  So I went to see the prices of other computers of the time.  In 1983, Tandy’s TRS-80 Model 4 was selling for $1999.  Also in 1983, the Apple IIe was priced at $1400.  In 1981 the IBM 5150’s base model sold for $1600.  And finally, the most popular home computer of all time, the Commodore 64 was selling for $595 when it was released in 1982.

4dc84631636e72cce1701eaf1db02007Apple_IIe IBM_PC_5150_ad_1980 computers_for_everybody_compute_aug83

Now before you send me messages about how each one of those computers would decrease in price, some dramatically, the ADAM did as well.  However, at those original prices, the ADAM looked like a great deal.  The Tandy did come with everything you needed to get up and running out of the box, but you had to take out a bank loan to get it.  The Apple IIe and Commodore 64 were computers with built-in keyboards, but the customer still needed to buy a disk drive separately if you wanted to run serious software.  The Commodore’s saving grace was that software cartridges could be inserted into the back of the unit without the need for a peripheral.  The C64 would eventually drop to about 200 dollars but adding a 1541 disk drive and printer would set the price close to, if not more than, the ADAM’s introductory price.

C64 and Coleco ADAM


5 thoughts on “Was the Coleco ADAM really expensive at first?

  1. Nice post Justin! I’ll accept that your prices are probably correct since your research is always excellent. The piece of the puzzle you’ve left out is *why* Coleco designed the system as they did.

    The Tandy and IBM offerings at the time were intended for business and scientific use. They were expensive in part because they were more capable than the ADAM and C64, but also because their intended markets could pay the higher prices without flinching. The TI 99/4, C64, ADAM and Atari 400 were the machines that were sold to the same crowd that was buying game consoles. Sure, they were made of plastic and felt like toys but they were also easier for non-techy people to start up and use. They didn’t require boot discs for the most part and they cold be a lot slower and dumpier because the price was a reasonable tradeoff.

    Now think about what a printer looked like in the early 80s. The business printers may have been a really expensive daisywheel or a reasonably expensive Epson (or similar) dot matrix. There were also typrewriter conversions – I had a converted Smith Corona. What these all had in common is they usually cost more than the complete system price of an ADAM and they printed reasonably fast and in high quality. But no one would buy one of these for their kid to write 5 page papers on. So people made printers for the home computer market. These were slower, louder dot matrix with much lower print quality or thermal printers (remember those??) that printed on fax paper or on silvery aluminum coated stock. Much cheaper if you didn’t think about the cost of fax paper but not high quality. When the schools started requiring papers to be typed you couldn’t turn in electrostatically printed aluminum-coated paper.

    What ADAM gave you was a daisy wheel printer in a package that 1) cost less than an office daisy wheel printer or typewriter conversion, 2) played games that you already had when you weren’t working on a school paper and 3) booted up as a typewriter/word processor instead of BASIC. Kids that needed a computer or something to type a paper on didn’t want to fool with boot discs and operating systems. An ADAM fired up and let you type.

    Was it loud? Yep – the loudest daisy wheel printer ever made, probably, and arguably as annoying to the ear as the infamous IDS Paper Tiger. Many companies that had them would put them in the janitor’s closet so they didn’t have to hear them. Daisy wheel printers often had sound deadening covers as well and someone made one for the ADAM printer – confirming both that it was noisy but good enough to do real printing.

    So while you’re making the point that the ADAM was a real value, I’ll argue that it was even a bigger value than you’re saying it is because it brought office quality (more or less) printing and a word processor (an expensive option on a business computer) to kids to write school, papers on. And I’ll also claim that it has one of the best keyboards ever made for personal computers except perhaps the Northgate keyboards for the PC. As long as you didn’t mind the noise, kids really loved using their ADAMs for writing papers because it was easy, effective and they got credit for having typed it. Did the noise scare small dogs a block away? Did kids lose their papers if the tape malfunctioned? We’ll pretend that didn’t happen. Besides, I’ve reattached many a C64 disk drive head for a kid or read raw data off an Apple disk to recover a lost paper.


    • Howard, I can always count on you to write thorough comments! I hesistated using the IBM as an example but after finding a few print ads where the selling point was as a home computer, I changed my mind. Oh! I will need your help for my next post.

  2. Because the most common dot matrix printers in 1983 were 7 pin dot matrix (with horrible print quality), Family Computing magazine advised me to submit a print sample to my teachers before committing to using the computer to do my assignments. Invariably the teachers were delighted with the print output of the Adam printer. And for those courses, I usually wrote a 1 to 3 page assignment. SmartWRITER actually worked quite well for that length document.

    I will say that before that I used to go over to my family’s office to use the TRS-80 Model 4, and print my assignments out on a super nice daisy wheel printer there. That printer cost more than $1200 to buy, just by itself. And my brother was relieved that I was not using computer time to do my assignments when I got the Adam.

  3. The ADAM was a great deal when it came out. As you say, the popular personal computers at the time were up into the $1200 area. And this was just for the computer: with ADAM you got a storage device, letter quality printer, and a built-in wordprocessor as well. The incredibly low price for the system was the reason for all the buzz leading up its release.

    Of course, customers found out that you get what you pay for: the data tape drive would fail, the printer’s innards would self-distruct at higher printing speeds, and the word processor was highly lacking in features.

    • I never heard of the data tape drives failing unless you mean they have eaten some of the tapes. Printer would self-destruct? That is one I NEVER heard of nor have I heard anyone say that the word processor was lacking features. Interesting.

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