Random Retro – Using GEOS in 2020

Random Retro – Using GEOS in 2020

In this article…

IntroductionBooting UpgeosgeoWritegeoPaint


This time in Random Retro I am writing about GEOS, a graphical user interface (GUI) for the Commodore 64 and 128. I decided that it might be interesting for me to actually write this blog in GeoWriter, and word-processor for the GEOS environment. I am using the C128 version so that I can take advantage of the 80 column display. I did find some software in where I can convert the GeoWriter format to .txt. That being said if you wish to read this article in the original GeoWriter format I will be posting this article onto Commodore based BBS’s at the following boards

Insert Boards Here ( I haven’t posted the original geoWrite file anywhere yet, but if there is a BBS you would like to see it, please coment below.

If you ask the average person which computer was first to have a GUI, you would most likely get the Apple Macintosh as a response. As a lot of you may know, that is not correct. The first commercially available computer with a GUI was the 1979 PERQ workstation, manufactured by Three Rivers Computer Corporation. It’s design was heavily influenced by the work at Xerox PARC, which had created the first GUI as we know, it was developed on the Xerox Alto Computer. Xerox eventually commercialized the Alto in the form of a new and enhanced system — Xerox 8010 Information System — more commonly known as the Xerox Star. These early systems spurred many other GUI efforts, including Lisp machines by Symbolics and other manufactures, the Apple Lisa (which presented the concept of menu bar and window controls) in 1983, the Apple Macintosh 128k in 1984, the Atari ST with Digital Research’s GEM, and the Commodore Amiga in 1985. Vis ON was released in 1983 for the IBM compatibles, but was never popular due to its high hardware demands. Nevertheless, it was a crucial influence on the contemporary development of Microsoft Windows.

GEOS was originally designed for the C64 released in 1986, enhanced versions of GEOS later became available in 1987 for the C128, and in 1988 for the Apple ][ family of computers. A lessor known version was also released for he Commodore Plus/4.

GEO closely resembles early versions of the classic Mac OS and includes a graphical word processor (GeoWrite) and paint program (GeoPaint). It was amazing what GEOS could accomplish on machines with 64-128k of RAM, and 1-2 MHz of 8-bit processing power.

GEOS versions:

1986: GEOS for Commodore 64

1987: GEOS for Commodore C128

1988: GEOS for Apple ][, V2.0 for C64, V2.1 for Apple ][

1989: GEOS V2.0 for Commodore C128

Dozens of official and third-party applications and other products were produced for GEOS. Among the most important and popular were the following:

geoBasic – geoCable – geoCalc – geoChart – geoDex – geoDraw – geoFax – geoFile – geoFont – geoLabel – geoPaint – geoPaint – geoProgrammer – geoPublish – geoSpell – geoWrite – geoWrite Workshop – geoRAM – Writer 64 (Timeworks)

OK, enough with the long introduction, lets get into the software and see what it was like. I will be describing V2.0 for both the C64 and C128, mostly to show and compare the difference between 40 columns, and 80 columns. I am using Vice as I do not own a C64, but either way GEOS is best experienced with 2 drives.

Booting Up

first screen on the C64

Upon booting up your presented with screen that truly embraces the term desktop as the first thing that you notice is a large pad-like image with icons in it. This pad is showing you the contents of the disk currently selected, with the disk icons to the right of pad. Instead of a scroll bar that you might be familiar with, if there are more than 8 files on the disk, you have to flip the page, located at the bottom left corner of the pad to see more files. If you only had one disk drive you could still copy files by dragging a file outside the pad, swap disk, and drag he file back onto the new pad. On the desktop portion of the screen also has a printer icon at the bottom left, and a trash icon. Respectively dragging a file to these icons would either print or trash the file. On the top right hand corner of the screen is the date and time, and of course every time you start your computer you would have to set the date and time, as there were no clock battery on the Commodores. and finally at the top is the classic menu bar that everyone if familiar with. In the menu bar from left to right you have geos / file / view / disk / select / page / options. As you can see with the screenshots, the C128 in 80 columns makes GEOS look much better, not only you have more real estate for text, but it also looks crisper, with more contrast. Now you can change the appearance of GEOS, and I will be explaining that was well.

first screen on the C128


I’m going to start from the top at the menu bar, and at the first menu item “geos”. The geos drop down menu presents us with 6 items; “GEOS info”, “deskTop info”, “select printer”, “select input C=I”, “preference mgr”, “pad color mgr”, and “alarm clock”. The C128 version has one extra item “switch 40/80” which simply switches the desktop 40/80 columns.

geos info

The geos info item just brings up some information about GEOS.

“GEOS Kernal designed by:

Brian Dougherty Doug Fults

Jim Defrisco Tony Requist

Copyright 1986, 1988, Berkeley Softworks”

deskTop info

This brings up information about the authors who wrote the deskTop application.

“GEOS deskTop designed by

Brian Dougherty, Doug Fults

Upgraded to V2.0 by

Gia Ferry and Cheng-Yew Tan

Copyright 1986, 1988, Berkeley Softworks”

select printer

This is where you select the printer you have installed on your Commodore. The printer drivers that comes with GEOS is Star NL-10, MPS-803, and ASCII Only. I spent an hour playing with this as Vice also emulate printers. I found the best option that worked pretty damn good was using the Star NL-10, and setting Vice to print in graphics mode. Vice then prints a document to a .bmp file in which it also emulates the dot-matrix look. It looked pretty cool.

select input

This is where you select the input device one would like to use with GEOS. The choices are Joystick, Comm 1351, and Comm 1351(a). By default GEOS uses the joystick, as this was the most common device most people had. Comm 1351 is the driver to use the Commodore 1351 mouse. This worked quit well in Vice and i what I have chosen to do my review.

Preference Manager for the C64 version

preference mgr

This brings a dialog where you can configure the mouse and look of GEOS. The C64 differs from the C128 as you can actually change how the pointer looks by drawing it in on the C64. Here is where you can configure the acceleration, max velocity, and min velocity for the pointer. You can also change the colors of GEOS to your own liking. I have always liked the Commodore blue combo, so I have set my colors to resemble that. For the C128 I changed the colors a little different but similar idea.

Preference manager for the C128 version

pad color mgr

The pad color manager allows you to change the color scheme of the pad itself, here you can also have different colors for different file types, and well as the pad color. I chose no color as it was better suited for the color scheme I chose for deskTop. There are no options for the C128 in the 80col mode due to limitations.

alarm clock

This works as you would expect, expect for on the C128, for some reason was I unable to set an alarm. I also tested to see if this would work while your in an application like geoWrite, and it does, so that’s good.


The file drop down menu also works like you would expect. The items in this menu affect the the file you have selected, also I have also noticed that you are unable to select more than one file for operation.

open C=Z

duplicate C=H

rename C=M

info C=Q (this one i unique as I am sure that the C64 itself did not have much meta data attached to files the type of information of a file like this does.

print C=P

delete C=D

undo delete C=U


The pad is also able to display files in different ways. The items in the “view” drop down are as follows:

by icon – This is the default view and displays files in an icon format, which can display eight icons.

by size – This view list files in a list view that shows the name of the file, the size, and the type of file it is. Also in this view there is no page flip corner, but instead arrow keys at the bottom of the pad which scrolls the items in the pad one line at a time.

by type – This view is exactly the same as the previous view, only sorted by type.

by date – This view is the same as “by size” and “by type” with the only difference is instead of displaying the file type it displays the file’s date and time of creation.

by name – This view is exactly the same as “by size” and “by type” only sorted by name.

I prefer any of the list views on he C128 because of the 80col display, but I think h icon display is more pleasing on the C64.


The items in the “disk” drop down menu affect disk operations.

open C=O – This is useful if you close the disk

close C=C – According to the manual, it is recommended to close the disk before removing the disk from the drive. This is so if you have any open files, or files that need to be updated as it is not saved.

rename C=N – This renames the selected disk.

copy C=K – This copies the disk.

validate C=V – This is used to check the disk for possible errors, and if the damage is minor will repair it.

erase C=E – This erases the contents of the disk, and is faster than formatting the disk.

format C=F – This will format the disk to a GEOS formate disk.


all pages C=W – This selects all files that are in all pages of the pad. Note you can move files to the border while the files are still on disk. This helps with the way you want to select your files.

page files C=X – This selects all the files that are on the page of the pad your viewing.

border files C=Y – This selects all the files that are placed on the border of the pad.


The pad consists of pages in which you can organize your files in different pages. This is useful if you would like to group files, rather the list then sequentially. In this drop down menu you can append a new page or delete a page.


In this drop down menu you can set the clock, Reset the computer, drop back into C64 Basic, and shortcuts. Shortcuts bring up a display listing the keyboard shortcut keys.


Navigation and operation is very similar to what we currently use, with some differences. There is drag a drop. Instead of holding the button while you drag icons you click once to select, click again to move the icons, and one more click to place the icon.

GEOS consists of four disks – System, Application, geoSpell, and Write Utilities.

system disk

Most of the contents of this disk was already covered as they were in the “geos” drop down menu. There are two files not yet disguised. Configure 2.0 is where you can configure the drives and the RAM expansion unit (REU). Convert 2.5 is a program that convert GEOS formate files to C64 formate files.

Applications Disk

The Applications disk consists of the following programs:

geoWrite on the C64


GeoWrite is a word processor, simpler, but yet very familiar to what we use today. This is the perfect example of the C128 shinning over the C64 with the use of the 80col display. Every other aspect of the software is the same between the C64 and the C128. Upon starting the application, your presented with the familiar menu-bar as the one found in deskTop. A tab with the title of the document is located to the right of this menu bar, and below that is a ruler in which you can control the margins. I believe this was one of the first word processors to do that on screen. Below that are the justification options, left, right, centered, and full. Finally below that is the document space. geoWrite is one of the first word processors to give you “What you see is what you get” (WYSIWYG) editing system. The menu bar consists of the following. geos / file / edit / options / page / font / style.

geoWrite on the C128


This drop down menu is pretty much the same as the “geos” drop down menu on deskTop. It has applications that can be open while you are currently in geoWrite.

geoWrite info – This is the about dialog for geoWrite and contains the following:

“geoWrite by Tony Requist

Version 2.1 for the C64

copyright 1985, 1986, 1987

Berkeley Softworks”

It looks like geoWriter was written by one person, if so that is pretty amazing.

This is how it looks when pasting an image in a document

Photo manager is less of a photo manager has you might think, and more of a clipboard manager. You can create a graphic in geoPaint, and the select a portion or all of the graphics a copy that into an album using photo manager. Once you have something in this album, you can then open photo manager insight geoWrite, select the clip you want and paste it in your document. I have provided an example. Unlike modern word processors, when you paste clip art, it takes up one or more lines. Wrapping text around pasted images wasn’t around then.

Calculator – This is just a normal calculator, its nice to see an old computer system open an app like this while your in another app. this is something that we take for granted now, but was not really an option back then. One of the things I like to do with old calculators is to divide 0 by 0 and see what the result is. Modern calculators will post and “ERR”, which is the correct answer. Unfortunately this is not the case with geos calculator, it just gives you an answer of 0.

notepad – Notepad is an application where you can store notes. Not special to us now, but having the ability to create and read notes while you in a documents allows you to review things you needed o remember, especially if you are dealing with multiple documents.


Nothing special here, this is where you can close, update, preview, recover, rename, print, and quit. It is funny how some terms are different from what we you used to. For example update is now referred to save, and rename is now referred to as “save as”. Recover is also different, as here is no undo, the way geoWriter takes care of this is by allowing you to recover you document from the last time you “updated” the file.


The edit drop down menu is pretty much the same as what we are familiar to this day with cut copy and paste.


The options menu has items that are now normally in the edit section of most programs. Items such as search, find next, “change, then find” (which we now refer to as “search and replace”), Hide pictures, open header, open footer, and select page. There is no select all, as geoWriter opens documents one page at a time.


The page menu has the following items; “previous page C=-“, “next page C=+”, “goto page C=G”, “page break C=L”, “set first page”, “title page”, and “NLQ spacing”. This first four options are self explanatory.

set first page – This option sets the first page to start at any page you want. I am not sure why you would ever want this.

title page – This just takes you to the top of the page, just like what our home button does now.

NLQ spacing – NLQ Spacing is something i actually had to look up the manual for. It stands for “Near Letter “Quality”. It is used for particular printers, and can only be used with the Commodore 10 font.


This disk comes with seven fonts. The C128 comes with one extra font, BSW 128, which is the default font. The included are the following:

BSW – California – Cory – Dwinelle – Roma – University – Commodore


Items in this menu are to change the style of the fonts. These styles include “plain text C=P”, “bold C=B”, “italic C=I”, “outline C=O”, “underline C=U”, “superscript C=>”, “subscript C=<“.

My thoughts on using geoWrite in 2020 is that I am still very impressed on the C64 would have handled it, my memories the geoWrite was mostly about getting assignments done in time, thinking that my teachers would be impressed as most of the other students would have hand written their projects, not sure if that was true.


GeoPaint may seem like a simple paint program that you can compare to MS Paint, but it was a pretty significant program for the day. It may not been the most advanced program, even for its day, it was some new for most people. Upon starting geoPaint your presented with the same menu bar and a tab with the title of the page. The items in the menu bar are exactly the same as the ones found in geoWrite. There is a blank drawing space that takes up most of the screen, with a tool bar to the left. On the bottom left hand corner of the screen is where you can select between solid fill, and several types of pasterns. This can be used with the fill tool, paint brushes, or the geometry tools with fill. In the toolbox there are sixteen tools to choose from. Starting from the top left you have the move tool. This tool is not to move any object on the screen, but to move the viewfinder to a different part of the page. Next is the select tool. With this tool, you can select a rectangle portion so that you can cut or copy anything in that rectangle. This can also be used in conjuction with the photo manager, to which you can use with geoWrite. Below the move tool is the fill tool, similar to the pint bucket used in Photoshop, or gimp, this fill the select empty space with a solid color, or fill pattern of your choosing. Next to that is the spray tool, you can paint the screen is a spray fashion like a spray can. This can be used in the solid format or a pattern of your choosing. Below the fill tool is the ruler, which can be used to measuring distance. Consider that the view port is only a portion of the printable page, this can be useful to help create something accurately for the full page. Next to that is the line, — its a line tool, not much to say about that. Below the ruler tool is the paintbrush. This tool is used to draw freely on the page, and can use the brushes in the options menu. Next to that is the pencil tool. This works exactly like the paint brush tool, but with a single pixel diameter. Below the paint brush tool is the eraser tool, used to erase freely. Next to that is the text tool. By selecting a region on the page, you can use this tool to type on the screen, and have all the fonts available to you. The next four tools are the geometry tools. here you can draw rectangles and spheres in both filled and non filled options. Below are the last two tools, color and undo. Color brings up the color in the box in the bottom right corner. Undo undo’s that last thing you have done.

Disk three geoSpell

Unlike what we have today geoWriter did not have a spell checker, nor in really couldn’t. The third disk, geoSpell, is a standalone application for spell checking geoWriter files. This application had to be on a separate disk, the dictionary file alone is 96k, nearly half a disk. Upon starting geoSpell you are asked to create a personal dictionary, to work with the dictionary built in. Once everything is set up, your presented with three windows. The first window is something we are familiar with, and contains the options for spell checking and correction. It has options to “ignore”, “ignore all”, “replace word”, and “replace all words”. The second window is the dictionary. this is where you can find the word that needs correcting. The bottom window is a preview of he document. This is definitely slower than we are used to, and if you don’t have most of the word spelled correctly it has a hard time helping you find the correct spelling. I am not sure if this was ahead of the curve at the time, or if there were better options, but it sure doe make you appreciate what we have now.

Disk Four Writer Utilities

I won’t go into too much details about disk four. Not to say it is not an important disk, but it is basically a set of applications that allow user to convert documents from other word processors and basic commodore text.