The Atari 400, 800, XL & XE Range

I must confess that i am a great admirer of  Atari and what they have achieved over the years.  With the era of cartridge gaming, consoles starting to slowly fade i.e. the 2600, 5200 and the 7800.  Atari along with other major companies introduced a completely new platform of gaming in the form of home computers.  The Atari 400 & 800 were just two systems that came from a large range of 8-bit computers created by Atari and released in 1979.

My first contact with these machines was in the early 80’s, at the time I was an avid Commodore 64 user but  i can clearly remember being pleasantly surprised when  i was introduced to Atari 800 and the 800 XL  were i saw that the system’s features were quite comparable to that of the Commodore 64.  Over the next few months it became apparent that there was quite a battle building between these two rival systems for superiority and there were really only a few key elements that separated them.

1981 Atari Computer Ad: Stock Analysis / Space Invaders

The Atari 800 XL’s party piece was that it featured  a pallet of some 128 colours enabling it to produce some brilliant shaded graphics within its games, were as the Commodore 64 only had 16 colours and was quite limited. However, the Commodore 64 was armed with a SID Chip (Sound Interface Device) and was able to provide superior sound capabilities producing some spectacular music and sound effects within its games which the Atari could not compete with.

The Atari range started with the arrival of the Atari 400 and 800 systems in 1978.  The names originally referred to the amount of memory, which was 4KB of RAM in the Atari 400 and 8KB RAM in the Atari 800. These first two systems were also known in house as Candy and Coleen after two secretaries who were working within Atari (this would be thought as being very sexist today and possibly frowned upon).  The low-end version known as Candy, and a higher-end machine known as Colleen. Atari 400

The Atari 400 was a fairly basic system that was aimed at a younger audience and purely as a games machine.  It featured a membrane keyboard (similar to that of the Philips G7000), internal slots for memory that were not user upgradeable,  one game cartridge slot and 4 controller ports for joysticks.

The Atari 800 however featured a proper full travel keyboard and four memory cartridge slots that was user upgradable, two game cartridge slots and 4 controller ports for joysticks.

Atari 800 & cassetteUpon purchasing my Atari 800, the system came with two cartridges, a BASIC computing language cartridge and the game Donkey Kong.  The cartridges were to be inserted into one of the two cartridge ports situated under a front cover just behind the keyboard.  The cartridges had ‘LEFT’ and ‘RIGHT’ printed on them so they were inserted into the correct slot.  Just behind the cartridge slots was another cover, this could be opened by twisting two small lugs to release the rear cover revealing four accessible memory ports, this is were the computers memory sticks resided.

Different size memory sticks can be interchanged (i.e. an Atari 48K systems memory would consist of three 16K RAM cartridges to make up the 48K memory) 8K, 10K, 16K and 32K cartridges were also available to enable the systems to be very versatile and fully expandable.                                                                                                                                                                     Atari memory cartridge

In 1983 Atari introduced the 600 & 800XL machines with subtle differences.  It was about the same time as FCC ratings were introduced specifically for digital devices in homes and offices.  One of the ratings, known as the Class B, mandated that a device’s RF emissions were to be low enough not to interfere with other devices, such as TV’s and radios.  These computers needed just enough shielding to prevent interference (both ways), to prevent any emissions from leaking out.  This requirement enabled lighter and less expensive shielding to be installed than that of the previous 400 and 800 computers.

Atari began two new projects, Sweet 8 (or “Liz NY”) and Sweet 16.  The aim was to make upgraded versions of the 400 & 800 whilst reducing cost and making them easier to build.  The result of this was to allow a number of separate chips in the original systems to be condensed into one.  The 400 & 800 had individual circuit boards mounted inside and outside the internal shield, the newer versions were lighter and a lot less complex featuring a new design single board with a new chip set (this meant fewer chips) which could be encased in a thinner and cheaper shielding, preventing any emissions to escape.

Atari also ordered a custom version of the 6502, initially labeled “6502C” but eventually known as SALLY to differentiate it from a standard 6502C (which added a single pin that allowed four support chips to be removed). The SALLY was incorporated into late-production 400/800 machines and all subsequent XL/XE machines and Atari 5200/7800 game systems.

The Atari BASIC computing language had now been built into the system and the PBI at the back of the machine to allowed for external expansion. The 600XL, 800 XL and the 1200XL  all looked nearly identical but were smaller back to front, the 600XL being somewhat smaller than the 800XL front-to-back and the 1200XL the largest.

atari 1200xl

The 1400XL and 1450XLD both added a built-in 300 baud modem and a voice synthesizer, and the 1450XLD had an enlarged case to included a built-in double-sided floppy disk drive on one side and a blank to hold floppies on the other which could be removed to allow for a second drive to be installed.  Other prototypes which never made it to market include the 1600XL, 1650XLD, and 1850XLD.

Although Commodore emerged intact from the computer price wars, fighting inside Commodore soon led to Jack Tramiel’s ousting. Looking to re-enter the market, he soon purchased Atari consumer division from Warner for an extremely low price.

Jack Tramiel’s Atari Corporation produced the final machines in the 8-bit series, which were the 65XE and 130XE (XE stood for XL-Expanded).  They were announced in 1985, at the same time as the initial models in the Atari ST series, and visually resembled the Atari ST.

Originally intended to be called the 900XLF, the 65XE was functionally equivalent to the 800XL minus the PBI connection.  The 65XE (European version) and the 130XE had the Enhanced Cartridge Interface (ECI), which was electronically almost compatible with the Parallel Bus Interface (PBI), but physically smaller.

The ECI was located next to the standard 400/800-compatible Cartridge Interface and provided only those signals that did not exist in the latter.  ECI peripherals were expected to plug into both the standard Cartridge Interface and the ECI port.  The 130XE was shipped with 128 KB of memory, accessible through bank-selection.

1050 disk drivew

During the lifetime of their 8-bit range, Atari released a large number of peripherals:

  • Several  dedicated cassette tape drives were manufactured over the years mainly the Atari 410 &  1010 model. All were similar, and capable of recording at 600 bit/s on a standard audio cassette.
  • Various 5.25-inch floppy disk drives like the Atari 810 and 1050 models were also produced including single, enhanced and true double-density models.
  • Several printers of various types; dot matrix, thermal, 4-color plotter and letter-quality daisy wheel.
  • Modems, including one model with an acoustic coupler and other direct-connect models.
  • Other peripherals, including a Centronics/RS-232 expansion system, numeric keypad, memory module, touch tablet and an 80-column display module.

It was on January 1st, 1992 when Atari corp officially dropped all remaining support of the 8-bit line and a day when my heart sank.  I think that this was a fantastic era of video gaming and one that will be missed.  I still use these iconic machine from week to week and although today we have the Playstation 3 and the X-box 360 but i feel that something, somewhere along the way has been lost.

Written by: Tony Lyon

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  1. JOHNNY JOHNSON September 17, 2016 |

    I bought a 400 in ’82 at Toys-r-us. It didn’t have any cartridges, but I could program it in Basic. I also upgraded the keyboard to a regular spring-loaded key. Later, I was able to upgrade the memory from 16K to 32K by simply inserting a small board. I upgraded it once more to 48K, but this required a solder connection.

    I was going to convert my board games into computerized versions, but without any graphics. I was a novice and unable to keep up with the commercial products becoming available.

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