It says something about the IT industry’s state of life-cycle maturity that something as retro and nostalgia-soaked as the Commodore computer name is being revived (again) in an effort to tap into the deep-seated yesteryear longings of a certain type of gadget consumer.
With the smartphone market in an apparent creative stasis when it comes to really introducing something new and truly innovative in the past couple of years (let’s face it, that last iPhone launch was far from exhilarating), and the technical differences between phones in their respective price categories narrowing to almost negligible, it makes strange sense that one possible way to differentiate your smartphone offering in an overcrowded market would be to associate it with something retro.
Could dissatisfaction with the stale state of the smartphone market actually open up a viable niche for retro in a category long obsessed with ‘bigger, faster, better’ products?
The Commodore PET smartphone does not look so radically different from many of the other mid-price smartphones already on the market. It does many of the same things too and runs on a custom version of Android Lollipop. So how does this smartphone channel the spirit of Jack Tramiel’s long-gone computing machines of the 1970s and ’80s?
Hardware and features
The Commodore PET has a 5.5-inch IPS 1920×1080 pixel resolution display made of Gorilla Glass 3. It has a 1.7 GHz Mediatek 64-bit octa-core processor with ARM Mali T760 GPU and a generous 3000 mAh battery. The phone’s main camera uses a 13-megapixel Sony sensor and can make images up to 4096×2304 pixels, and videos up to 1080p HD. The PET has dual-SIM 4G connectivity. The phone also has two emulators, and this is the retro cherry on top, which enables it to run classic Commodore and Amiga arcade games.
What’s the consensus?
The Commodore PET only gets a release in parts of Europe later this week, with other parts of the world slated to follow, which means solid testing of the phone has been minimal so far.
Over at ArsTechnica, the critical reception has been muted, with an acknowledgement that this is a nice enough phone, but what potential buyers will really care about is what it does with the Commodore games legacy:
OK, so the two Italian entrepreneurs behind the PET might be playing on nostalgia just a tad in order to sell a few smartphones, but at the very least it’s powered by some respectable hardware…
That’s nothing the world hasn’t seen done better in other smartphones before, though.
But Wired did get to meet the two Italian entrepreneurs behind this new iteration of the Commodore name and try out the prototype before its commercial release. The initial impression is that this is a solid phone but nothing special:
The new Commodore PET is an Android phone of rather common design. It is well-built, with an aluminum frame and interchangeable polycarbonate covers.
In fact, it would be hard to imagine there would be too much fuss made about the launch of this phone if it didn’t have the Commodore name attached.
In the Wired article, writer Maurizio Pesce traces some of the twists and turns in the Commodore tale, from founder Jack Tramiel’s acrimonious departure in the mid-80s through to the slow death rattle of the company in 1994, followed by the patent and trademark horse trading that saw the Commodore name occasionally resurface before disappearing again on several occasions.
That’s where things stood until March, when Massimo Canigiani and Carlo Scattolini registered Commodore Business Machines Limited in the UK. The Italian entrepreneurs claim to have acquired rights for the brand and trademark in the mobile industry in 38 countries, including the US.
While the design of the phone does not try to emulate the distinctive look of the old Commodore (how would that even work?), it does try to emulate the look and feel of the old games in as authentic a manner as possible – and isn’t this the reason why you’d be even contemplating getting this phone?
Although nostalgia is not the core of the product, there is of course room for retro gaming. The Commodore PET runs a custom version of Android 5.0 Lollipop and two preinstalled emulators. They weren’t finished on the prototype I used, but I’m told they’ll be customized versions of the VICE C64 emulator and the Uae4All2-SDL Amiga emulator. The team also is working with unnamed software houses to bring some of the 1980’s best games on the PET before shipping.
Should I get one?
There is no doubt this is a niche product. It’s appealing either to the tech head who was around to experience Commodore computers the first time around, back in those golden sunrise days of the computing industry, or for younger buyers who want to indulge their retro leanings in a way that might set them apart from their contemporaries using Apple or Samsung phones.