Atari 400 and 800
Atari began development of the 400 & 800 in 1977, using the code names Candy (400) and Colleen (800). Rumor has it that these names came from some “hot” secretaries there at Atari. Candy was originally intended to be the next generation of the video game system, to replace the VCS. Colleen was intended to be the true home computer with all the bells and whistles that would make it superior as a computer to Candy, including peripheral ports and expansion capability. Some people may not know that there was actually a third machine being designed at the same time called ‘Elizabeth,’ which was the Colleen design but with a built- in 13 inch color monitor.
|Listen to our podcast episode about the Atari 400 and 800 computer here|
In early 1979 the decision on just what Candy is going to be was finally made: Candy was not going to be a ‘game player only’ machine, but was to be a low- end computer system with a built-in keyboard. However, since it is intended to be more of an introductory computer for younger children, it includes a unique keyboard design with a spill proof membrane. Candy will also have an SIO port for peripherals.
Since the game player system design had been moved to a personal computer, it was no longer a replacement for the VCS, which was to keep Atari’s consumer gaming products well ahead of the competition. With that, the first step towards the demise of Atari’s domination in the console market had been taken.
Discussing the unique, small- wedged shape design of the Atari 400, and its keyboard, Doug continues: “Candy was meant to be a laptop computer. This is before LCD displays and such. What I mean is, it was designed to be able to sit in your lap, but connected to a TV. It was a game console, but could use the same cartridges as the other system and it had a keyboard I also designed the spill proof membrane keyboard.”
Kevin McKinsey explains the whole background behind the look of the Atari 800: “I wanted something that would look like a futuristic typewriter. A design that was easily recognizable and approachable by ordinary people who already knew what typewriters were.”
the USB and SIO ports have a lot more in common than anyone might imagine: Joe Decuir helped with some of the work on the SIO design and today Joe holds several Patents in the design of the USB port as well. Essentially, the SIO port is the Great Grandfather to today’s USB ports.
- Both systems use a 1.79 MHz 6502 CPU, along with various co-processors (a rather novel feature for a home computer) that share various computing tasks such as graphics, sprite collision, and sound.
- The 400 comes with 8K RAM, 16K for newer models; The 800 has 8K, expandable to 48K
- Both systems possess
- 10K ROM
- 40×25 text display, along with various bitmapped graphic modes up to 320×192
- 128 color palette
- Four sound voices spanning a 3.5 octave range
- The 400 has a 61 key membrane keyboard. The 800 has a standard style 61 key full stroke keyboard.
- Although they both supported a video output for an NTSC color composite monitor, they also were able to connect directly to a TV antenna input. This was one of the first “out of the box” computers to do so.
- The 400 had a single cartridge slot, usually used for game cartridges or for a BASIC cartridge. The 800 had two cartridge slots, called “left cartridge” and “right cartridge” respectively. The right cartridge slot was intended to support any left side cartridges, but very few right side cartridges were made.
- Behind the 800’s cartridge slots, there were memory expansion slots which used specially designed cartridges to increase the maximum RAM.
In 1966, Nolan Bushnell saw the early computer game of Spacewar! being played at the University of Utah. He thought that there was a definite potential for a commercial coin-op version, so he partnered with Ted Dabney several years later to work on a hand-wired version which would play on a standard black and white television. The final product was called Computer Space and was released in 1971 by the coin-op game company Nutting Associates. The game was not a success in their standard markets, taverns, so the team looked to create an easier game, and they started their own company, Atari in 1972.
Atari hired Al Alcorn as their first design engineer, and when Bushnell saw a demonstration of the Magnavox Odyssey game console, he decided to have Alcorn produce an arcade version of the Odyssey’s tennis game. This product would go on to become Pong and eventually Magnavox sued Atari and won. Atari had to pay them a licensing fee after that. Many people believe that Atari invented “Pong,” but this was of course not so, plus, the Magnavox Odyssey came to market three years before Atari’s Pong game console.
Atari’s Pong console did well and was upgraded a number of times, then in October 1977, the company released the Atari 2600 or VCS (for Video Computer System) and it became the most successful gaming console of its time. Also noteworthy is that Jack Tramiel stormed out of a January 13, 1984 meeting of Commodore’s board of directors, and never returned to the company. Later, in July of 1984, he purchased the Consumer Division of Atari, Inc. from Warner Communications. He renamed it Atari Corporation, and went on to produce the 16-bit Atari ST line of personal computers. We’ll discuss the 2600, ST and much more in later episodes.
ASAP (Atari Software Acquisition Program) – Perhaps one of the earliest attempts by a computer manufacturer to tap the general public for useful and productive software.
Geared more toward software genres other than games, Atari promoted contests and offered software publishing opportunities under the Atari Program Exchange (APX) moniker for anyone from professional software writers to simply even the most savvy armchair developer. Atari was looking for more business, educational, and personal finance applications to augment their library of software that was on the verge of being completely overrun with games.
Not that games weren’t a good way to exploit the capabilities of the early Atari line of computers, but having a substantial productivity software selection lends professional credence to something that would have been otherwise considered to be a glorified video game machine.
- Altirra – http://www.virtualdub.org/altirra.html
- XFormer – http://www.emulators.com/xformer.htm
- Atari800Win Plus – https://atariage.com/5200/emulation/atari800_tutorial/
- Atari800MacX – http://www.atarimac.com/
- Raspberry Pi
- Atari800 – Atari800 is an Atari 800, 800XL, 130XE and 5200 emulator for Unix, Amiga, MS-DOS, Atari TT/Falcon, SDL and WinCE – http://store.raspberrypi.com/projects/atari800
- There are also emulators that will run on iOS and Android. Check your system’s app store for details.
Interesting History about the Atari 400/800
|Back in October 1982, the Harris’ department store in San Bernardino, CA, gave away an Atari 400 with the purchase of a 32 piece Towle sterling silver dinnerware set. Retail price of the dinnerware sets started at $1299.|
|Also in 1982, the Live Oak Elementary School in Santa Cruz, CA was doing something that was somewhat unusual. While other schools having computers in their classrooms were typically stocked with Apple or TRS-80 computers, a slowly growing trend at the time, Live Oak had eight Atari 400 computers set up in the school library for student use. Of course… these computers were for “learning purposes only!”|
|The Atari 400 was offered as an option for a specialized robot called DC-2, or Drink Caddy 2, created by the Robot Factory in 1982. We’re not sure if the Atari actually performed any function in the robot other than to give people something to do when the robot came around to them at parties.|