Sunday, 3 November 2019

Atari 400 / 800 (1979)

Atari 800 (1979)
Introduced November 1979

In the late 1970s the microcomputer revolution had been kicked off by the holy trinity of the PET, Apple II and TRS-80 which all launched in 1977. Then – as now – two years is a long time in technology and even those these computers well selling well in in 1979 there were better machines coming along.

Atari was an established player in the consumer electronics market since the early 1970s, but although they were eager to capitalise on the new microprocessors launching in the later part of that decade they had taken a different path with the Atari VCS (later called the 2600) launched at the same time as rivals were launching home computers instead.

The Atari VCS was a significant hit, however Atari’s own engineers though that it would have a very limited lifespan (although in fact it was in production in one form or another for 15 years). Development of an improved version based on the VCS architecture started immediately after the product was launched.

When the Atari 400 and 800 were launched two years later it turned out that the VCS had evolved into something very much more advanced. Based on the popular 6502 processor, both the 400 and 800 were fully-featured microcomputers much like the competition, but they also came with a convenient cartridge slot like a games console… which most of the competition did not.

During the design phase it was envisaged that the 400 and 800 would be quite different computers, but in the end they were fundamentally the same. The main differences were that the 400 had 16KB of RAM, a single cartridge slot and a membrane keyboard compared to the 800’s 48KB of RAM, two cartridge slots and a traditional mechanical keyboard.
Atari 400 showing cartridge slot (1979)

At launch the 800 was priced at $1000 with the 400 coming in at $550. Because you had to add a monitor plus some sort of storage (i.e. a cassette or disk drive) then it could add up to being quite an expensive system. However, the hardware was much more sophisticated than earlier rivals.

Featuring two graphics support chips (ANTIC and CTIA) plus another I/O chip that handled sound and everything else (POKEY) plus four joystick ports and a serial expansion bus, these 8-bit Ataris were easily more capable than the first-generation of microcomputers they were up against. They made excellent games machines, but they were also capable of doing everything that any other contemporary microcomputer would do.

FCC regulations of the time basically mandated that the whole computer be hidden inside a cast aluminium block, making the Atari 400 and 800 especially sturdy. These regulations also led to the development of a novel serial bus (called SIO) that allowed components to be daisy-chained to a single interface port on the computer itself. This solution was ahead of its time and is conceptually similar to the way USB peripherals work, but it had the disadvantage of making plug-in devices much more expensive.
Atari 130XE (1985)

Still, the advanced features of the device made the Atari 400 and 800 very popular, but high production costs meant that Atari made little – if any – profit from them at the beginning. A brutal price war in the early 1980s hit hard, but Atari fought on with the cheaper but more sleek "XL" line (notably the 600XL and 800XL). The 8-bit Atari range had an unexpected boost with the fall of the Iron Curtain in the late 1980s which led to huge sales success in these emerging markets due to the low-cost nature of these computers with even cheaper “XE” machines (the 65XE, 130XE and 800XE) plus a games console based directly on the same architecture (XEGS).

In all there were three generations of the Atari 800 and its siblings, with production lasting until 1992 – the same year that Atari finally pulled the VCS games console. The popular Atari ST – based on the Motorola 68000 – was launched in 1985, giving the company a new lease of life into the 1990s.

Today the Atari 800 is more readily available than the 400 for collectors, with prices varying between tens and hundreds of pounds depending on condition and peripherals. The later 800XL is much more common and tends to be cheaper. Alternatively various emulators are available if you want to try it that way instead.

Image credits:
Bilby via Wikimedia Commons
Rama & Musée Bolo via Wikimedia Commons
Multicherry via Wikimedia Commons

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