Atari 8 Bit Computers - 1979-1987
(Officially discontinued 1992)
"We've brought the computer age home."
In 1977 shortly after Warner bought out Atari, the brass at Warner decided
they wanted to enter the then new personal computer market. At that time, personal
computer's were still in their infancy and just beginning to grow out of the
hobby roots. More established companies were beginning to release computers
of their own such as Commodore with their Pet computer, Radio Shack/Tandy with
their TRS80 Model 1, and Apple with their first Apple II model. Nolan Bushnell,
still in attendance at Atari, was very much against entering the computer market.
His vision was for a purely home leisure/entertainment market and he felt that
entering the computer market would spread Atari to thin. Some people have suggested
that in actuality maybe Nolan felt some sort of allegiance to former Atari
employee (and Apple co-founder) Steve Jobs. In any case, the clash between
Nolan and the Warner brass on this topic was just one of many issues that lead
to Nolan setting himself up to be fired from Atari.
With Ray Kassar now in charge, Atari set about creating a special home computer.
Because Atari was chiefly a video game company, they wanted their computers
to be easily used for playing games on. This meant hi-resolution graphics and
great sound. Ray also had the idea to have the computers be thought of as a
home appliance of sorts, something anybody in the household could easily used.
So, they were also designed with the ability to plug in both dumb and "intelligent" peripherals
such as joysticks and disk drives - all without having to have a lot of technical
knowledge or a carload of money. Things that were all uncommon in these early
Using some of the engineers from their Grass Valley think tank (who had previously
been behind the design and programming of their Atari 2600
they set about creating what would become the Atari 400 and 800 computers.
Hey you got your computer in my game machine! You got
your game machine in my computer!
The Atari 400 and 800 computers were considered ahead of their time. Using
special co-processors to free up the main CPU (which would later duplicated
and expanded when some of the designers created the Amiga computer after leaving
Atari), this allowed for fast and responsive graphics, sound and peripheral
access by not burdening the CPU by having everything processed by it. Also,
borrowing some ideas from their Atari 2600 game console, they added
hardware based player and missile control. The advantage was that it made games
easier to program, giving the programmer easier collision detection and control
over your character on the screen. Unheard of in personal computers at the
time (everyone else needed to actually do this on the software end, which meant
it slowed down gameplay), it was just another feature to prove that Atari was
serious about gameplay on this computer. Atari also programmed in special character
graphics, which allowed basic graphics programming and special characters using
their special ATASCII code.
This meant that for any programs running on their computers, ready made graphics,
text, and special characters were available for anyone to use.
An Atari Computer Cartridge
Going with their ease of use policy, Atari decided to forego the common personal
computer feature of having to open up the computer and plug in special cards
when you want to expand your computer. Instead, they had several methods of expandability.
First and foremost were the cartridge slots (1 in the 400 and 2 in the 800),
that could be used to to plug in ready made games and software. Second, were
the special SCIO ports (the precursor to today's USB ports) that could be used
to plug in Atari made devices such as floppy drives, printers and modems, all
of which were intelligent and handled things that most other computers needed
extensive software for. Plug any device in and go, truly plug and play! Third
were the joystick/controller ports, of which there were 4. These used the same
standard plugs as found on the 2600
The 400 model was considered a pure gaming computer, coming with a bare 16k of
memory and a membrane keyboard. It was intended as an introductory model in to
the world of computing, and it's membrane keyboard had children in mind. The
800 model was considered the real computer and with it's 48k of ram it was intended
to compete against the Apple II. It's list price of only a $1000 helped as well.
Staying In The Game
By 1981, Atari computers had become a standard just behind Apple's Apple II series.
While not as successful as they had hopped, it still enjoyed a strong and loyal
following. However, by 1982 a new generation of home computers were emerging
with more memory as a standard. Commodore had released it's popular game computer
the Vic20 in 1981, which became a warm-up for the legendary Commodore 64 that
was released in 1982. The commodore had many similar characteristics to the Atari
800, however it came with a standard 64k of memory, a slightly higher resolution,
a more advanced custom sound chip, a more compact look, and a competitive price
because of it's off the shelf parts.
Atari decided to fire back with it's own upgrade, the Atari 1200XL
the Atari 400 retired the year before and the 800 now to follow, Atari felt it
needed a worthy follow-up. Designers were brought in to give it a sleeker and
more technological look. The 2nd cartridge port was removed and the remaining
one was moved to the side. 2 of the joystick ports were removed, and all expandability
was removed. Extra function keys were added however (such as a help key), and
the computer came with a standard 64K. However once it hit the market, it was
soon found that much of the vast array of Atari software already out there would
not run on the 1200XL. Combined with it's lack of expandability, it became an
immediate flop and was sold for less than a year. People actually ran out to
buy from the remaining stock of 800 models before they disappeared.
Atari Learned from this mistake quickly and followed up later that year with
the Atari 600XL and 800XL. The 600XL was the replacement for it's venerable 400,
but now included a regular keyboard and the ability to expand up to 48k. The
800XL replaced the original 800 model, coming with 64K and expandable to 128K.
Both retained the sleek new look and extra function keys of the failed 1200XL,
however unfortunately they also both only had one cartridge slot and 2 joystick
ports. The missing cartridge slot was replaced with a new expansion slot called
the Parallel Bus Interface. Unfortunately, the only thing ever released for this
new port was the ram expansion cartridge for the 600XL.
These computers were the mainstay of the Atari computer line for the next two
years, and though not as popular as the original Atari 800, they kept Atari up
among Apple and Commodore.
In 1984, the 2nd Great Video Game crash occurred, and Atari was hit hard. New
updates to the Atari computer line were in the works but were soon scraped. Warner
was looking to unload Atari, and on July 2nd, 1984 they found a buyer.
Over at Commodore, it's founder and president Jack Tramiel was in trouble. He
and his family were being thrown out by the board of directors. With his fortune
at hand, he and his sons were looking to start a new brand of computers based
on next generation technology that would be a 16 bit update to the popular Commodore
64. However, they needed manufacturing plants, warehouses, distribution channels,
etc. Enter Atari.
Atari was being split in to several pieces by Steve Ross, one of the Warner brass.
The coinop division was sold to Namco, with Warner still retaining 40% ownership.
The computer and home video game system division were sold to Jack Tramiel for
$240 Million in stocks with Warner retaining 25% of the new company. Jack called
his company Atari Corp. and as part of the deal promised to still support the
8bit line. However, video games fell by the wayside because of contract disputes
between the new Atari Corp. and GCC, who had built the next generation Atari
Power Without The Price
While working on the new 16 bit computers, Jack went ahead and kept his promise
to still support the 8 bit line, by developing two new 8 bit computers. Using
his tried and tested low price with a lot packed under the hood strategy (that
had worked with the Commodore 64) he had the 600XL and 800XL scaled down and
re-designed. The result was the Atari 65XE and 130XE.
The 65XE and 130XE made their debut in 1985 (with the european model of the 65XE
being called the Atari 800 XE) with the XE standing for X
The lower end of the line, and considered more of a gaming computer (as all previous
low end Atari models were), the 65XE came with 64K of memory and no expansion
bus. The 130XE came 130K of memory, some enhanced memory access circuitry (which
was never really used), and the expansion interface used in the XL series (Parallel
Bus Interface) was dropped. An expansion bus was only added to the 130XE after
many of the people in Atari user groups complained. So Jack threw in an Enhanced
Cartridge Interface (ECI), which was nothing more than a cartridge slot that
could double accept other devices as well (though Atari never made anything for
it). The look of the two new models was a bit of a sneak peek at the new 16 bit
series. Not as futuristic looking as the XL series, these new casings had a modern,
high-density molded plastic look.
This Is The End?
The XE series lasted for about two years before Atari Inc. fully shifted it's
efforts to their new 16 bit line. Commodore had sued Atari Corp. because many
of the Commodore engineers had left with Jack, so they felt Jack was using proprietary
information for his new computers. They also attacked by buying a company by
the name of Amiga (which consisted of former Atari engineers) who had borrowed
money from the Warner Atari to develop their new system. The deal was that if
it wasn't paid back by a certain date in 1984, ownership of Amiga and the technology
would revert to Atari. This purchase gave Amiga the money to pay back Atari (now
Atari Corp.) and have a large stream of money R&D.; Jack chose to strike back
at Commodore by countersuing on a number of issues, the Amiga deal being one
of them. They also sped up development of their own 16 bit computer to reach
the market first, now that Commodore had access to it's own advanced 16 bit technology
through the Amiga purchase. Since Jack felt the future of his Atari Inc. lay
in this 16 bit market, by 1986 the importance of the 8 bit line fell by the wayside.
The Atari ST series (both the 520 and 1040 models) became the new face of Atari
If the problems with Commodore weren't enough, Jack now had a new dilemma. After
two years of on again and off again (mostly off) negotiations with GCC, Atari
had no presence in the home video gaming market. In that time, a Japanese company
by the name of Nintendo had snuck in and revitalized the "dead" industry with
their Nintendo Entertainment System
. The contract finally
being settled in '86, Jack revived the two former Atari gaming console projects
to quickly re-enter that market. For some reason, he also decided to enter with
a third console, and the Atari 8 bit computer line was briefly reborn as the
Atari XEGS in their own update to the Atari 5200 idea.
In a move similar to what Warner's Atari had down with the Atari 5200 console
(which was an Atari 400 computer re-designed to function solely as a game console),
the XEGS (XE Gaming System) was a repackaged 65XE computer with kid friendly
pastel colored buttons. Unlike the Atari 5200 however, this was still a fully
functioning 65XE, and could accept all Atari computer devices (disk drives, modems,
printers, etc). An optional detachable keyboard was also available, as well as
Atari's first ever light gun (to compete with the NES
's lightgun). The
idea was to use Atari's already established home computer game cartridges inventory,
and the XEGS even came with the 8 bit version of Missile Command built in. However,
Jack Tramiel used extremely poor marketing tactics (as he would time and again
during his tenure with Atari) and marketed the XEGS through computer stores.
Not knowing what to do with them, many computer store owners simply let them
sit on the shelf, and the XEGS was a dismal failure.
After this last gasp, the Atari 8 bit line was finally dead as a marketable product.
Atari Inc. officially dropped all support of the 8 bit computer line in 1992
(about the same time as they dropped the 16 bit line and got out of computers
Games of the Atari 8 bits
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