Although I used a Commodore 64 as my primary computer for several years in the 1980s, I didn’t own all that much hardware for it. Two floppy drives, a printer, a modem and a joystick were just about all needed to keep myself entertained for more than half a decade.
People occasionally ask me if I ever owned a hard drive for my Commodore 64. I didn’t, but not because I didn’t want one. The most popular hard drive for the Commodore 64 was the Lt. Kernal, which held 10MB and cost $1,000. It would have been nice to store hundreds and hundreds of floppies on a single hard drive (instead of in multiple shoe boxes, which is how I did it), but the logistics of buying a hard drive that cost the same as my first car were impossible.
My friend Justin owned a 1581 disk drive. It was the only disk drive made by Commodore for the C64/128 that used 3.5″ disks instead of 5.25″ ones. While traditional, single-sided Commodore floppies held 664 blocks (170k) of information, a 1581 could store 3,160 blocks (800k) per disk.
I always wanted one of those drives. Earlier this week, I bought one.
The 1581 wasn’t terribly compatible with either of Commodore’s other floppy drives, meaning it wouldn’t load most multi-load games and would only run the simplest of programs. Only a dozen or so commercial titles were ever officially released on 3 1/2″ disks, and most of those were utilities. The drive was designed more for storing programs than playing them. Because of that, lots of BBS sysops ended up purchasing them (that’s what Justin used his for).
There was, at one time, a way to read and write disks designed for the Commodore 1581 disk drive on an IBM with a 3.5″ disk drive. This requires a physical drive controller on the PC (a USB 3.5″ drive won’t work), which rules out most modern PCs.
At a Commodore convention I attended in 2006, a attendee was selling used 1581 disk drives for $100. “I’ll wait until the prices drop,” I said to myself. I haven’t found one cheaper since… until this past weekend. I paid around $80 for mine, and as you can see, it’s just about as mint as a guy could hope for. The 1581’s box was wrapped in plastic, surrounded by bubble wrap, and submerged in Styrofoam peanuts. Even if the drive hadn’t worked, I feel like I got my money’s worth in packing materials.
Inside the box, the manual was still sealed inside its plastic container. I spent a few minutes pulling the drive out and hooking it up. Everything works A-OK. Thirty years of sitting inside this box didn’t hurt it at all.
From what I have read, newer DSHD diskettes (1.44MB) will work with the 1581, but aren’t as reliable as older DSDD (720KB) ones. I’ll have to keep an eye out and pick some up in the near future.
I do, on occasion, get requests from people (sometimes complete strangers) asking if I am able and/or willing to convert their Commodore disks over to usable disk images. I can, and will. Once, I had someone ask if I was able to read data off of some old 1581 3.5″ disks. Back then I couldn’t. Today, I can — another feather in the nerd hat.