[Gamasutra's A History of Gaming Platforms series continues with a look at Atari's 8-bit computer series. Need to catch up? Check out the first five articles in the series, covering the Commodore 64, Vectrex, Apple II, Atari 2600, and Mattel Intellivision.]
When many thirty-something gamers in the U.S. hear the words "8-bit computer," they likely picture a Commodore 64 (C64) or an Apple II. The word "Atari" is forever associated with the arcade and the Atari VCS (aka 2600), the latter of which was covered in an earlier entry in this series.
However, Atari also released a smorgasbord of 8-bit personal computers, collectively known as the Atari 8-bit computer series. The series evolved in dramatic ways, but never quite reached the same levels of popularity as Apple and Commodore systems. Nevertheless, today, the Atari 8-bit platform is as well supported as any other classic computer series.
TYPICAL SYSTEM SPECIFICATIONS
Release Year: 1979
Resolution: 80 x 192
On-Screen Colors: 16
Sound: 4 Channels, Mono
Media Format(s): Cartridge, Cassette, 5.25" Floppy Disk
Main Memory: 48KB
An original Atari 800 with the cartridge door open and BASIC inserted into the left cartridge slot.
Since Atari Inc.'s founding in 1972 by Nolan Bushnell, the company focused first on arcade video games and then added home Pong-style consoles into the mix by 1975. In 1976, Bushnell sold Atari to Warner Communications to help fund development of the "Stella" home video game project, which was released as the Atari Video Computer System (VCS) in 1977.
The VCS would come to be a breakthrough success, both for Atari and the neophyte home video game industry, but Bushnell left the company in 1978 after a disagreement with Ray Kassar, who Warner had appointed president of Atari's Consumer Division. After Bushnell's exit, Warner named Kassar the CEO of the entire Atari Corporation. Unlike Bushnell, Kassar and Warner management wanted Atari's energies to also turn to the nascent home computer market.
Under Kassar's direction, the creative and relaxed hacker culture of the company was reduced to a Dilbert-like atmosphere of disgruntled nerds and humorless suits. Atari's home computer division was launched and segregated from the home video game and arcade divisions. The VCS's successor, which was already on the drawing board, was re-envisioned as a home computer.
As opposed to competitive computer systems at the time, the "Candy" and "Colleen" 8-bit computer projects (legend has it that Atari engineers would code-name projects after attractive female employees) were designed around Atari's proven strengths in gaming.
The idea was to combine great game-playing abilities with plug-and-play ease of use. Members of the team that worked on the VCS worked on the design of the Atari computers. This team included industry legend Jay Miner, who years later designed another innovative computer, the Commodore Amiga.
The Atari 400, shown to the left with its original membrane keyboard and to the right in a modified form with custom aftermarket full stroke keyboard and open cartridge door, was intended as the entry level model of the system line.
In late 1979, riding the huge success of its VCS, Atari released the Atari 400 ("Candy") and the Atari 800 ("Colleen"). The 400 was intended as a starter computer, while the 800 was a higher-end alternative for more sophisticated users. By 1980, Atari formed a large portion of Warner Communications' total revenue and became the fastest growing company in U.S. history, mirroring Apple's own meteoric success and preceding Commodore's ascension by several years.
"The Atari 400 is a microcomputer that was designed with game-players firmly in mind. Using a 6502 microprocessor combined with 128-color capability and four, independent sound synthesizers, gaming comes quite naturally to this budget-priced home computer." - Electronic Games magazine, 1983 Buyer's Guide
The Atari 400, which used the MOS 6502B microprocessor, came with 8KB RAM (later 16KB), a cartridge port, four controller ports, television output, and a membrane keyboard. This keyboard, which featured slightly indented keys on its plastic sheet-like surface, was intended to be "childproof."
It was easy to keep clean and was resistant to the occasional splash of Kool-Aid, but was notoriously difficult to type on. With some technical effort, the memory could eventually be expanded to 48KB and the keyboard replaced, but even with those improvements the 400 still could not match the overall feature set of the 800.
The popular Atari 410 cassette recorder and 1050 5.25" floppy disk drive, the former with styling that matches the original 400/800 and the latter an aesthetic match for the 600XL/800XL/1200XL.