It is said that the 6502 was cheaper than the Z80.

As of 1978, what were the actual prices of the two chips, in wholesale quantity?

  • 3
    The Z80 does more than a 6502; it has a refresh controller on-board so using it with DRAM is easier. So it's not apples to apples. Some 6502 systems (like, I think, the Apple II) used video fetch to effect DRAM refresh but the ZX80 and '81 hit their price point by using the Z80's refresh counter for video fetching so it cuts both ways. – Tommy Apr 24 '17 at 20:41
  • 3
    @Tommy - the ZX80's video circuit is an ingenious hack that saved the need for a lot of circuitry on the board, but its use of the Z80's reresh feature is only a very small part of that, and could easily have been replaced by a single counter IC, e.g. a 74LS590, so I don't imagine much of the saving is due to this. The use of the instruction pointer to arrange for the fetch of data from memory was the main benefit. – Jules Jul 31 '17 at 20:08
  • 1
    You'd need a latch and a counter since the high part of the character graphic lookup is sourced from the refresh address, in addition to the low part effectively column counting. Plus the necessary deciding to be able programmatically to reset the counter. Though on a ZX81 you've already got a horizontal counter, so I guess you just need to switch your interrupt trigger. – Tommy Jul 31 '17 at 21:29
  • I think this question should be re-worded so that it explicitly defines the quantity of chips. I would imagine Apple having better purchasing power in bulk over some mom-n-pop computer store. – cbmeeks Aug 2 '17 at 17:50
  • 1
    @cbmeeks as long as it's apples to apples (same quantities for both CPU's base price), I think we're fine – tofro Aug 2 '17 at 18:45

The above answer gives prices for times close to the release of the chips and at dates of significant sales. But note that prices were effectively in freefall, and that every quarter year saw significant reductions in price around this time. The price at the start of 1978 is not necessarily the same as it was by the end. What we can see is that within 3 years, i.e. by 1981, the price difference had effectively vanished. See the advertisement on page 77 of this magazine, which gives retail prices of various CPUs, including:

  • Z80 $6.95
  • Z80A $9.95
  • 6502 $7.45
  • 8080A $4.45

Given that this trend was ongoing, while there may have been a significant price difference between the two chips in 1977, would there still have been by the end of 1978? It's very hard to tell without additional data that I haven't been able to find.

  • 4
    Good find! That magazine has an online archive of past issues. Notably, December 1977 lists the Z80 at $39.95, but no 6502 yet. The January issue is missing the page containing that same vendor (Quest). In February and March 1978, the Z80 was $29.95 and the 6502 was $24.50. Then in April, the Z80 was $21.95 and the 6502 was $19.95. Clearly the two CPUs are in a price war around this time. – traal Jul 31 '17 at 22:53

The MOS 6502 (1 MHz) was introduced in 1975 for a price of $25. Then in 1978 MOS agreed to sell the 6502 (1.79 MHz) and an IO chip to Atari for $12 per set (because the production cost was $4).

In 1977, the Zilog Z80A (4 MHz) was $65 for the ceramic package and $59 for the plastic version.

  • 1
    Three years apart is miles apart in CPU time-scales. Ideally, we'd have same-day price for equal quantities. – tofro Aug 2 '17 at 18:46
  • It should also be noted that Atari was, at that time, the #1 purchaser of microprocessor in the world. They were getting discounts you couldn't! – Maury Markowitz Oct 2 '18 at 13:39

Z80 Oral History - the gift that keeps giving...

Slater: Who were the primary customers early on, and what was the pricing strategy? You want to talk about those aspects, either of you?

Ungermann: We went after the PC business as we know it today. And we brought our prices down to allow us to do that very quickly. When we came out with the product, we priced the Z80 at $200 a chip, and it took us just a few days to understand from our customers that they needed a lower price to be able to go after the market. However, we also had a number of system companies that were thought that they could get the IBM software to run on the Z80. They could crack a lot of IBM markets, but that of course, didn’t ever happen, because the Z80 was not designed to compete with a mainframe.

Slater: Were there important embedded applications also?

Ungermann: Yes, there were many embedded applications.

Faggin: Yeah, one of the first customers that we had was Cromemco In fact, Roger Mellon came to the office and I remember personally selling him one Z80 for $200, and Ralph didn’t say it, but NEC was actually our first customer, and I think you sold the Z80 to the competition.

Ungermann: When we were packaging the product up for shipment, somebody knocked on the door of the office and it was an NEC guy with four $100 bills for two chips. And then right after that a very successful Japanese computer company came in with four $200 bills. That was just the start of the copying.

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