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Saturday, June 23, 2018

Retro Gaming Nerds Presents - The Atari 8 Bit Computer


Everyone associates Atari with the seminal console, the Atari 2600.  However, during the late 1970's and through the 1980's Atari was well known for their user friendly model of computers commonly referred to the Atari 8-Bit Family.  The first in the line, and perhaps the most well known, was the Atari 400 and 800 computers.  When did these machines hit the shelves, and what influence did they have?

The Atari VCS/2600 was released in 1977.  Already famous for their home PONG consoles, Atari became a big player in home electronics entertainment with the release of their popular console, dominating the market for years.  However, during 1976 Atari was working on the designs for a line of 8 Bit computers built around the MOS 6502 processor.

Atari initially knew what they wanted the machine to do.  They wanted it to be user friendly, game friendly, and budget friendly.  Atari also knew they wanted to make sure that there was a choice for consumers where the computer answered consumer questions (assumed by Atari themselves), "What can this computer do for me?".  Thusly, Atari decided to make two machines that worked nearly identically, but also ensured functionality specific to the needs of the consumer.

The Atari 400 computer initially shipped with 4 KB of ram, but by 1980 was maxed out to 16 KB of ram due to falling prices.  The Atari 800 initially shipped with 8 KB, but just like the 400 shipped at 16 KB.  However, the 800 had slots built in under the top hood where you could expand the memory to a whopping 48 KB of ram using three DRAM at 16KB each.

What separated the Atari 8-Bit computers from other home computers of the time was their ability to play games that were not only on par, but surpassed the best games on the market at the time.  This was thanks to being one of the first computers of the era to include custom co-processors built in to handle graphics and audio.  Atari also had the computers come pre-equiped with 2 (400) and 4 (800) controller ports.  Many of the games are very close to their arcade originals.  The "killer app" for the Atari 8 bit computers was considered to be "Star Raiders" due to being an in depth space combat simulator.

Due to the Atari SIO serial bus system, an early analog to USB, users could easily swap in peripherals using a plug-n-play method.  This made adding in new hardware extremely easy allowing users to expand they life of their machines significantly.

Over the course of the 1980's the Atari 8 bit line of computers expanded into the XL and XE line of devices.  Each iteration was essentially the same architecture except for more memory, increased processor speed, slimmed down construction, etc.  Games would work forward compatible (with limited backwards compatibility in some titles), and they would take advantage of the new hardware to bring expanded gaming experiences to the user.

Atari found popularity not just in the United States, but also throughout Europe.  The only real competition that Atari ever faced was with the Commodore 64 due to that computer having similar functionality, and a competitive price tag.  Atari also had a 16 Bit line of PC's, the ST line, that was released initially in 1986.  The 8 Bit line finally came to a close in 1992.

One particular version of the Atari 8 Bit computer family that made a viable attempt to cash in on the huge library of games, along with compete with Nintendo's NES console was the Atari XEGS.  This system was essentially a full Atari XE computer that could be used without the keyboard as a stand alone gaming console.  With the Keyboard attachment, it opened up the doors to users to have an affordable computer in the home, compatible with many XE hardware peripherals.  Another console predating the XEGS was the Atari 5200 that was based around a stripped down version of the Atari 400 that was a commercial failure due to the terrible analog controllers.  Even though many of the games for the console were ports from the 8 Bit computers, the cartridges were designed to be larger.

Many people have fond memories of these classic computers.  Amazingly, a large number of these machines still function as they did all those many years ago.  You can still find these computers on eBay for a reasonable price.

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