How to build a modern-day PC into a replica of the Commodore 64
Many people wax poetic about the polite ’50s, the radical ’60s, or the wild ’70s, but for nerds, the 1980s was the best decade. A full-on war raged in the new category of “personal computer,” no one operating system ruled the world, and, man, you could walk into a Toys “R” Us and buy the world’s all-time bestselling PC: the Commodore 64.
Whether you want to relive the golden age of PCs or you weren’t alive for it, Commodore USA (no relation to Jack Tramiel’s original Commodore International) offers its Commodore 64x to recreate that 1980s experience.
The main difference between the original C64 and this replica is the latter’s ability to take standard PC industry components. Is the Commodore 64x case/keyboard a perfect recreation of the original? No, but it’s damn close. I’m not judging this by my faded memories of the C64 I owned in 1982, either. See how closely the inset shot of the original resembles the new C64x?
What’s Inside the New C64?
I had envisioned using a Core i7-2600K with a notebook GeForce graphics card in the C64x, but I quickly realized that heat would be a serious issue in this thermally constrained PC, which has one puny 4cm fan handling all its airflow. I also considered a mobile Core i7, but the cost and scarcity of parts made me ditch that approach. In the end, I decided that an AMD E-350 Fusion APU would be the most cost-effective and reliable route.
The best candidate for the job? Zotac’s Fusion ION‑ITX T Series. The board features AMD’s E-350 Fusion chip, built-in Wi-Fi, and, best of all, a 90-watt external power brick. Because the C64x doesn’t have much room, running an internal power supply is out of the question. Pico-ITX PSUs are an option for standard boards, but that would require cutting a hole into the chassis to route the wiring. The Fusion ION‑ITX T Series takes care of that in one swoop. Thermals also shouldn’t be an issue with its integrated heat pipe and heatsink. My previous experience has taught me that the E-350 runs super cool for an 18-watt part.
For storage, I opted for Seagate’s Momentus XT hybrid drive. It gives the C64x some SSD-like performance but is cheap enough that I can afford to give the machine 750GB of storage space. A Silverstone slot-fed DVD burner rounds out the package, but we did have to add an NZXT internal USB expansion module and an old-style Molex Y power splitter.
For tools, a standard Philips-head screwdriver and a small jewelers Philips-head screwdriver are required for the build. I also had to round up a set of system screws, as well as a set of screws that are typically used to mount an internal 5.25-inch optical drive.
You’ll need to unscrew six screws along the perimeter of the C64x first (image A). Then carefully remove the keyboard and place it aside. Now, find a cassette tape player and put in your favorite mix tape of Olivia Newton-John, Survivor, Joan Jett, the J. Geils Band, and the Human League. Yes, all the top artists of 1982.
2. REMOVE THE DRIVE TRAY
Unscrew the four screws under the C64x. Note: You will probably have to loosely hold the four nuts inside the case to get them loose. Once the screws are out, remove the tray and mount the 2.5-inch drive (image B). The drive tray is countersunk to fit countersunk screws. Since Commodore USA doesn’t include these parts (when they say bare-bones, they mean it), we used four fine screws of the type that comes with a 5.25-inch optical drive to hold the drive in place. This will cause the tray to ride a little higher than it should, but don’t worry: The loosey-goosey build quality of the drive opening means the tray should still fit it. Mount the drive tray back in place and screw it into the case using the four screws and nuts.
3. INSTALL THE OPTICAL DRIVE
We couldn’t find a 170KB 5.25-inch floppy drive, so we settled for this Silverstone slot-fed DVD burner. It comes with four tiny screws. Place the drive in the cage and screw it in place with the jeweler’s screwdriver (image C). Now plug in the HDD power and SATA cable as well as the ODD power and data cable.
4. INSTALL THE ALL-IN-ONE MOTHERBOARD
Install the I/O shield by sliding it into the slots at the rear of the C64x. Now gently slide the Zotac motherboard into place, making sure the two Wi-Fi antennas feed out the holes in the I/O shield (image D). Take four screws from your spare parts box (because why would Commodore USA bother to include them in the box?) and gently screw the board in place (image E). The board doesn’t have metal standoffs, so you’ll be boring the screws into plastic. Do not over-torque the screws or you will strip out the mounts.
5. INSTALL THE RAM
Install the pair of SODIMMs by placing them into the slots while carefully making sure the notches in the DIMMs line up with the notches in the slots. Apply pressure with your thumbs on the corners until the arms snap into place (image F).
6. EXPANSION NEEDED
Since the keyboard is internal, it hooks directly into a USB 2.0 header. Unfortunately, the system’s internal media card reader also requires a USB 2.0 header, but the Zotac board we selected has only one internal USB 2.0 header and a USB 3.0 header. To get around this, we used an NZXT 1U01 USB expansion module. The 1U01 needs power, so take the Molex Y-cable splitter and plug it into the Molex output on the motherboard (image G). Now take the Molex-to-SATA power connector that came with the motherboard and plug it into one end of the Y-cable splitter. Plug the other end into the 1U01’s power pass-through and then plug into the optical drive’s Molex cable.
7. HOOK UP THE KEYBOARD
The USB cable isn’t labeled, but the wires indicate what functions they do. The red wire is power and the black is ground. Look at the USB pin-out chart we’ve provided (image H) and match the keyboard connector that has the red wire with one of the +5V pins and then plug it in (image I). If you’re still skittish, you can grab one of those USB header adapters that ship with MSI and Asus boards. Plug the power switch and power LED into the board’s front-panel connectors (image J).
8. BACK TO THE FUTURE
You’re ready to turn on the Commodore 64x. If you’re wondering where the power button is, it’s the red LED dome on the right-hand side.
1)This little fan can get whiny, so use a $7 Zalman Fan Mate 2 to lower its RPMs.
2)The Zotac Fusion ION‑ITX T Series wraps the GPU, CPU, PSU, MOBO, and heatsink into one nice little attractive package.
3)The slot-fed optical drive can be substituted for a standard tray drive or skipped completely, but it wouldn’t be quite as classy. Now if we could only fit a 5.25-inch floppy in there.
An Elegant Weapon for a More Civilized Age
The original Commodore 64 packed a 1MHz MOS 6510 processor, which probably has one hundredth of the power of the CPU in your printer. Next to that, the AMD’s E-350 “Brazos” would appear as magic from the gods. In our world, though, the E350 is pretty far off the power band as you can see from our tests. The E-350’s main weakness is its x86 performance.
The Fusion APU is faster than a dual-core Atom 330, but beefier parts such as Intel’s Core i5-2430M—even with the i5’s low clocks—will leave it in the dust. Where the E-350 in the C64x does well is in 3D performance—its integrated graphics solution has enough power to run older games such as Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare at lower resolutions.
The real beauty of the E-350 is its low temps. At 18 watts for CPU and GPU combined, it really stays cool. In our experience, it’s far cooler than Intel’s own low-voltage 35-watt dual-core Sandy Bridge chips. The E-350 isn’t about blistering performance, but neither is the C64x. It’s about the cool factor of having a retro exterior with modern computer brains.
Zbox Plus Nano XS
1.6GHz AMD E-350
1.2GHz Intel Core i5-430UM
1.3GHz Intel Atom 330 w/ Nvidia Ion
1.6GHz AMD E-450
Photoshop CS3 (sec)
Quake III (fps)
Quake 4 (fps)
Best scores are bolded.
So that's our new, modern Commodore 64 build. What do you guys think? Let us know in the comments.