Monday, June 29, 2009

The Fairchild Channel F

The Channel F was designed by Jerry Lawson using the Fairchild F8 CPU, invented by Robert Noyce before he left Fairchild to start his own company, Intel. The F8 is very complex compared to the typical integrated circuits of the day, and had more inputs and outputs than other contemporary chips. Because chip packaging was not available with enough pins, the F8 is instead fabricated as a pair of chips that had to be used together to form a complete CPU. The graphics are quite basic, although it is in color which was a large step forward from the contemporary Pong machines. Sound is played through an internal speaker, rather than the TV set.
The controllers are a joystick without a base; the main body is a large hand grip with a triangular "cap" on top, the top being the portion that actually moved. It can be used as both a joystick and paddle (twist), and not only pushed down to operate as a fire button but also pulled up. The unit contains a small compartment for storing the controllers when moving it: this is useful because the wiring is notoriously flimsy and even normal movement could break it
This was released in August 1976 under the incredibly vague name "Video Entertainment System." Predictably, this name turned out to be too similar to another console, the Video Computer System released by Atari around the same time, so Fairchild was forced to change the name to the Channel F. Atari then changed the name of their system to the Atari 2600, but Fairchild didn't bother changing theirs back because, really, what would be the point.
The Channel F was groundbreaking in that it was the first console to use cartridges with the games on them (it came out before the Atari, and everything up to that point had been like the Pong machines, where the games were programmed into the console and those were the only ones you could ever play.
It didn't help that the wiring in the Channel F was apparently as brittle as uncooked spaghetti. Also, while the controllers were the closest thing to a wired Wii-mote at the time in shape at least, they didn't have a base. That meant you couldn't rest it on your stomach along with your drink and a bag of chips.
Fairchild, not content to lose to Atari, came back with the Channel F System II in 1979. A whopping six games were released before it was put out of its misery.

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