On early microcomputers it was common to have 40 columns of text with the alternative usually being 32 or 64 for technical reasons as well as ambitious 80 column models that became more common as technology improved and prices for memory and dedicated monitors came down.

But the VIC-20 had a rather small 22 column display which makes it very cramped. Did any other microcomputers settle for a simiarly diminutive text mode as the standard for programming in? The only one I can think of is the Bally Astrocade, assuming that we treat the included BASIC cartridge (which displays a 26x11 text mode) as enough to call it a microcomputer and not just a dedicated video game console.

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    That 22-column display made the VIC-20 rather pitiful for programming or any other text-based usage. Eventually, there were software 40-column modes if you had enough RAM. – Brian H Sep 29 at 19:30
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    Does the Olivetti Programma 101 count? 26-column paper. – another-dave Sep 30 at 2:25
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    Of course, several had modes with that or fewer columns that were not the default, such as the 20-column graphics modes on the BBC Micro, for just one example. – JdeBP Sep 30 at 2:39
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    @BrianH: I haven't tried it on actual hardware (just emulation), but I wrote a little e-book viewer which would show 40 columns by 32 rows on an unexpanded VIC-20, loading screens full of data from tape. It uses a variable-length code so " ", "T" and "E" would load faster than e.g. "Q" and "Z", but a typical screen of data would load in about a second. Since I didn't try it on actual hardware, I don't know how much padding would need to be needed to allow for the tape starting and stopping, but loading each screen only takes about 2 seconds. – supercat Sep 30 at 15:46
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    @BrianH: I think something like the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes would be about a tape's worth, if I interleaved two logical "channels" on each side, so that if the tape was stopped after loading a page from one channel, it wouldn't coast past the next page for that channel. To seek a page, just fast forward or rewind, hit play, and see what page shows up next. – supercat Sep 30 at 15:49

The BASIC Programming cartridge for the Atari 2600 displayed twelve characters per line.

The RCA 1802-based VIP used bitmap graphics rather than having a "text mode" as such, but the typical bit map font was five pixels wide on a 64-pixel-wide screen.

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    The more I look into the Atari 2600 BASIC cartridge the more it seems like some sort of inside joke that got out out hand, like the IP over Avian Carriers RFC that exists solely to show that it's possible though utterly pointless and stupid. – David Sep 30 at 13:36
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    @David RFC1149 and its successors were all published on April 1st, so they are jokes. However, IPoAC has been successfully implemented! – jcaron Sep 30 at 15:25
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    @David: The idea of even trying to make such a cartridge without any RAM expansion may have been a joke, but I think Warren Robinett (of Adventure fame) did better than I would have thought possible. It provided a codeview-style debugging with windows for variables, execution stack, and code with the current execution point highlighted, prior to the availability of such features on other micros. – supercat Sep 30 at 15:35
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    @David: On most platforms, showing such a display would have required having enough RAM to hold it in addition to the information being displayed, but the BASIC Programming cartridge would use 24 bytes to build up a 12-character line, display it, reuse those bytes to build up the next 24 line, display that, etc. all during the course of a frame, which is why there's a variable amount of blank space between text rows. – supercat Sep 30 at 15:38

Depends on your definition of a microcomputer, but e.g. Sharp PC 1210 (and derivatives) had 24 characters per (one) line.

PMI-80 had 9 characters per line, but you might not consider it a true microcomputer.

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  • I believe the original poster meant "on a CRT screen." By the way... whoa, I wish the English language page on that machine was as detailed as the Czech one. – JCCyC Oct 14 at 22:39

The Ohio Scientific C1P has a 24x24 text mode.

Some computers with 40 and 80 column modes could also do 20 columns such as the Acorn BBC Micro series (Modes 2 & 5), and the Amstrad CPC series (Mode 0).

The MSX computers had 32 & 40 column modes (later models also had 80 columns) but could do any number of columns using the WIDTH command. WIDTH 1 is pretty useless but works.

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    The MSX WIDTH command (IIRC) just set the logical line-length. It didn't change the number of columns on screen. Just restricted the PRINT command from using those columns if WIDTH was less than the real width. You could still display stuff in the restricted space by poking into the text-buffer (and those columns would scroll up with the rest as well). And, if memory serves, you couldn't set WIDTH higher than the real width. – Tonny Sep 30 at 9:03
  • That is correct about the MSX. I mentioned the actual modes and wasn't implying the WIDTH command was changing modes. – Tim Locke Oct 1 at 10:29

The Dick Smith Super 80 kit was 32x16 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dick_Smith_Super-80_Computer

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    Really? 32 rows of 16 columns? – OmarL Sep 30 at 7:59
  • @OmarL: If one were to try to interface a 2MHz RCA 1802 to a PAL television with minimal hardware, and using only one byte of RAM per displayed character (rather than using a bitmap mode) it would be limited to about 12 columns but could probably show 25 rows). – supercat Sep 30 at 15:42

The Epson HX-20 had 4 lines of 20 characters.

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  • "4 lines of 20 chars" - The same as the Psion Organiser II LZ64 - I still managed to program several games (including a scrollable "pacman") on that A, B, C keyboard! – MrWhite Oct 10 at 15:45

The Interact Home Computer System and its French reincarnation Victor Lambda had a horrible 12 lines x 17 columns text mode. In fact it had no text mode but just a 112 x 78 graphic mode with 4 colors from 8.

So, it was even worse than the VIC-20

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TI-99/4A had 24 lines of 32 columns but only 28 of them were used by the BASIC. So effectively it had 24x28. Its graphic chip was capable of 24x40 text mode but this was not accessible from Basic and required at least a memory extension (base model had only 256 bytes of memory and the 16 KiB of video memory was used for everything).

Tandy Radio Shack MC-10 and its French reincarnation Matra-Hachette Alice had also only 32 x 16.

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  • There's no theoretical reason why a RAM expansion wouod be required to use the 24x40 text mode; the hardware supports it, just none of the built-in software. A RAM expansion is only necessary because without one there is no way to execute user-supplied machine code. I believe some of the EPROM-based cartridges may have used this mode, although most used the 32 column mode because the 40 column mode couldn't support colour or graphics IIRC. It is certainly possible to make a homebrew cartridge that does so without adding RAM. – occipita Oct 1 at 10:19

Looking through the microcomputers of the 70s and 80s, I find a few which supported low enough resolutions that they could fit only 20 characters across on the screen... but other than the Vic-20, no sign of one that displayed less than 32 characters by default. Here's a list of the ones I've checked. Where there wasn't a text mode listed, just a bitmap output, I've mentioned that and assumed 8x8 character sprites:

Less than 32 columns:

  • (year) cols Machine: text modes
  • (1974) n/a Altair 8800: No video
  • (1980) 8 Acorn Atom: Bitmap 64x64 to 256x192 so 8x8 to 32x24
  • (1983) 16 Sanyo PHC-25: 16x16, 32x16
  • (1978) 20 Atari 2600: Bitmap 160x192 so 20x24
  • (1981) 20 BBC Micro: 20x32, 40x25, 40x32, 80x25, 80x32
  • (1983) 20 Acorn Electron: 20x32, 40x25, 40x32, 80x25, 80x32
  • (1984) 20 Amstrad CPC: 20x25, 40x25, 80x25
  • (1987) 20 Acorn Archimedes: Bitmap 160x256 to 1152x896, so 20x32 to 144x112
  • (1990) 20 PC: Bitmap 160x120 and up, so 20x15 and up.
  • (1980) 22 Commodore VIC-20: 22x23, 27x23
  • (1979) 28 TI-99/4: 32x24 (28x32 usable by basic), 40x24

32 columns and up:

  • (1975) 32 Smaky 2: Bitmap 256x160 so 32x20
  • (1977) 32 TRS-80: 32x16, 64x16 (80x24 on later systems)
  • (1978) 32 Smaky 6: Bitmap-over-text 256x120 so 32x15 atop 64x20
  • (1979) 32 Atari 400/800: 32x12 to 48x30
  • (1980) 32 Sinclair ZX80: 32x24
  • (1981) 32 Sinclair ZX81: 32x24
  • (1982) 32 Sinclair Spectrum: 32x24, 64x24
  • (1983) 32 Coleco Adam: 32x24, 64x24?
  • (1983) 32 MSX/HitBit: 32x24, 40x24
  • (1983) 32 VTech Laser 200: 32x16
  • (1984) 32 Sinclair QL: Bitmap 256x256, 512x256 so 42x28, 85x28
  • (1985) 32 Elektronika BK-0010: 32x25, 64x25
  • (1987) 32 Dragon 32k/64k: 32x24
  • (1989) 32 Sam Coupe: Bitmap 256x192, 512x192 so 32x24, 64x24
  • (1976) 40 Apple 1: 40x24
  • (1977) 40 Apple ][: 40x25 (80x25 with addon board)
  • (1977) 40 Commodore PET: 40x25, 80x25
  • (1982) 40 Luxor Datorer ABC 802: 40x24, 80x24
  • (1982) 40 MicroBee: 40x24, 80x24
  • (1982) 40 Thomson TO7: Bitmap 320x200 so 40x25
  • (1983) 40 Oric: 40x28
  • (1985) 40 Robotron KC 85/1: 40x20, 40x24
  • (1994) 40 Commodore 64: 40x25
  • (1984) 40 Tiki 100: Bitmap 256x256, 512x256, 1024x256, so 40x25, 80x25, 160x25.
  • (1985) 40 Atari ST: Bitmap 320x200 to 640x400, so 40x25 to 80x50
  • (1985) 40 Commodore Amiga: Bitmap 320x200 to 640x512, so 40x25 to 80x64
  • (1977) 64 Compucolor II: 64x32
  • (1982) 64 Jupiter Ace: 64x48
  • (1982) 80 Dumont Magnum/Kookaburra: (different models): 80x8, 80x16, 80x25
  • (1984) 80 Fujitsu FM-7: Bitmap 640x200 so 80x25

It seems that 32 and 40 were the standards that everyone used.

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    I'm not sure where 75x85 comes from for the BBC, but that's not a supported text resolution. It may be a miscalculation of the graphics resolution available in teletext mode (using 3x2 block graphics characters over a 25x40 screen to give 75x80 available resolution), perhaps. The BBC was also released in 1981, not 1985. The actual text modes available are the same as listed above for the Acorn Electron (which was a very similar machine in most respects). – occipita Oct 3 at 23:20
  • @Occipita You're right, it was from "78×75, 8 colours (Teletext)" which did seem a standout high amount, but too low for graphics. I forgot that teletext DID have (font-based?) graphics! :D And you're right on the 1981 date, too. Thanks for the fact-checks! Updating the answer. – Dewi Morgan Oct 5 at 14:44
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    See my answer for one system that only had 12 lines of 17 columns. The Interact/Victor Lambda. While it was extremely unknown in the US, it was one of the first computer available in France and had there a not negligible user base. – Patrick Schlüter Oct 5 at 16:18
  • @PatrickSchlüter Hrm. I admit I am tempted to add in the answers from other people here, after doublechecking them. If I do that, though, I should convert the answer to community wiki, so I don't get points for other peoples' work. And so they can fix any transcription errors I make! [Edit: done!] – Dewi Morgan Oct 5 at 16:23
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    The Sinclair QL doesn't use an 8x8 character set, instead it's 9x6. So, text resolution is different. – tofro Oct 6 at 20:22

Would the Wang 720 "programmable calculator" count? It had a cassette tape for storage, and a typeball hooked up to a plotter mechanism. I recall writing a loader that allowed several programs to be written to tape, where the loader allowed a number to be input to select which program to load.


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