Console: Fairchild Channel F
Manufactured By: Fairchild Semiconductors
Year Released: August 1976
Discontinued: Late 1982
Price: $169.95 ($691.04 w/inflation)
Units Sold: 250,000
Fairchild Semiconductor released the Fairchild Channel F in August 1976, and it retailed for $169.95. Fairchild Semiconductor was initially going to call the console the “Video Entertainment System” or “VES”, however when Atari released the “Video Computer System” or “VCS” (later known as the Atari 2600) the following year, Fairchild decided to rename the system as the “Channel F”.
The Fairchild Channel F holds a very important distinction in being the very first ROM cartridge based video game console, as well as the first console to use a microprocessor. Up until this point all consoles were Pong clone type systems with built in programmed games. Enabling the ability to use interchangeable ROM cartridges was a new concept to video games, and would help extend the entertainment value of the console.
The Fairchild Channel F ended up selling around 250,000 consoles, second only behind Atari’s VCS console at the time. It was designed by Jerry Lawson using the Fairchild F8 CPU, hence the name “Channel F”. The F8 CPU at the time was very complex compared to the typical integrated circuits available. Fairchild ended up having to fabricate a pair of chips in order to complete the F8 CPU because the chip packaging wasn’t available.
By 1979 Fairchild Semiconductor sold the rights to the Channel F to Zircon International. Once Zircon bought the rights, they redesigned the system as the “Channel F System II”. The main differences with the new redesigned console included:
- Removable controllers instead of being wired in.
- The controllers are now stored in the back of the console
- The sound now comes directly from the TV signal rather than speakers from the actual console like the Channel F System I had.
The Channel F System II was designed by Nick Talesfore at Fairchild who actually designed the first Channel F console. Only six more additional games were released for the Channel F System II, and unfortunately the first video game crash hit which lead to Zircon throwing in the towel and giving up support for the Channel F System II.
The Channel F is a very retro 70’s looking console with a false wood trim finish, and a large dark plastic lid. The lid removes to allow storage for the two wired-in controllers.
The front of the Channel F consists of a cartridge slot on the right with an eject button to release the games, along with a five buttons on the left.
These buttons include a yellow reset button, and buttons 1-4. Each button has a number of functions including the ability to select a game, select a time limit, an the unique ability at the time to “hold” or pause the game. The back of the console has the wired-in AC adapter and wired-in RF connector that connects the signal to the TV. This is convenient because you can’t lose them, however if the wires were to ever get cut or damaged, it is difficult to repair.
The Channel F model I has a built in speaker for the sound, and both models include two built in games; Hockey and Tennis (both of which are Pong clone type games).
For the time the color palette that the Channel F has was impressive having the ability to display eight different colors.
The controllers are one of my personal favorite style of retro controllers, and are very easy to handle. Each controller includes a handle to grip on, and at the top are a triangular “cap” that can be moved like a joystick in eight different directions. The cap also can twist like a paddle, and also be pushed in to be used as an action button.
Later on Zircon would release the “Channel F Jet-Stick” that offered a special action button located on the front of the joystick, and would release this style of controller for the use on an Atari 2600.
Only 26 games (termed “videocarts”) were released for the Channel F. Twenty by Fairchild, and the remaining by Zircon. Games were priced at 19.95 (in today’s dollars including inflations that’s $81.12 each!). Each videocart has a 70’s style art design, almost like something from The Partridge Family. The Videocarts are yellow and include a protector dust flap to help keep dust from getting on the ROM board. These videocarts are similar in size and design to a standard 8 track cartridge, and several videocarts were capable of playing more than one game. Each videocart is individually numbered which makes collecting fun.
The Channel F is an important console in video game history because it was the first with a microprocessor and the first to use interchangeable ROM cartridges. Atari at the time the Channel F was released in 1976 was still developing the Atari VCS (2600), and they felt rushed to released the Atari VCS to the market to compete with the Fairchild. Because of this, Atari was forced to sell to Warner Communications to help gain needed funding and capital in order to release their console in time.
I really like the game Space War which includes two players who control space ships. The object of the game is to hit your opponent and use various objects on screen to help protect your ship.
On a scale of 1-10 and 10 being the rarest, I give the Channel F a 6/10, and give the Channel F System II an 8/10. Expect to pay around $100 for a Channel F System I with some games, and over $200+ for a Channel F System II.
- CPU chip: Fairchild F8 operating at 1.79 MHz (PAL gen. 1: 2.00 MHz, PAL gen.2: 1.77 MHz)
- RAM: 64 bytes, 2 kB VRAM (2×128×64 bits)
- Resolution: 128 × 64 pixels, approximately 102 × 58 pixels visible depending on TV
- Colors: eight colors (either black/white or four color max. per line)
- Audio: 500 Hz, 1 kHz, and 1.5 kHz tones (can be modulated quickly to produce different tones)
- Input: two custom game controllers, hardwired to the console (original release) or removable (Channel F System II)
- Output: RF modulated composite video signal, cord hardwired to console
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