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Fairchild Channel F: The Truth About The First Cartridge-Based Console

Have you ever heard of the Fairchild Channel F? If you haven't, it's not surprising. In 1976, the first cartridge-based video game console was released — to little fanfare. A year later, it would have sold a mere 250,000 units, and would ultimately be discontinued.


Not only was it the first console to use programmable cartridges, but it was the first console with an included microprocessor. Of course, that kind of advanced technology came at a price. The Fairchild Channel F cost $169.95 upon launch, equivalent to over $700.00 today.

For all its foibles, the Fairchild Channel F was instrumental in introducing cartridge gaming to the world. A year later would see the Atari 2600 (at a similar price point), which would go on to sell over 30 million units. The Fairchild Channel F would be relegated to a small, obscure speed bump in history, unable to compete with the 136 games that the Atari 2600 released.

The games of the Fairchild Channel F

There were a total of twenty-seven games released for the Fairchild Channel F. That included games such as Tennis (preloaded), Hockey (preloaded), Tic-Tac-Toe, Video Blackjack, Shooting Gallery, Backgammon, Drag Race, and Pinball Challenge. This may not sound exciting today, but it was exciting then. And "Channel F" stood for "Channel Fun" — who wouldn't love that?


So, why did it fail?

In reality, it was just timing. The Fairchild Channel F was so quickly lapped by the Atari 2600 that it didn't have any room to grow. The Atari 2600 essentially did everything that the Fairchild Channel F could do, but much better. It had more games and better games — at relatively the same cost. This competed directly with the numbered cartridges of lackluster games that Fairchild was able to provide.

The big nail in the coffin: the Atari 2600 had better sound and graphics.

Gone and Mostly Forgotten: The Fairchild Channel F System II

That's not to say that Fairchild just gave up. In 1979, the company did redesign the Fairchild Channel F and launch the Fairchild Channel F System II. This console was specifically designed to compete with the Atari 2600, and had new features, such as television audio, to try to compete with the superior audio of the Atari 2600. Still, it folded after six games were released.


The Fairchild Channel F was a failed experiment, which might have been more popular had it not had major competition. But just like Betamax and VHS (and Blu-Ray and HD-DVD), it was a situation of parallel development, in which the technology that was able to move ahead faster was adopted — and the technology that fell behind was forgotten.

Today, you can find the Fairchild Channel F system on eBay going for $1,000 new or $300 used — if you just want to own a part of video game console history.