The Atari 800 and 800XL were the work of Texas Instruments and the Atari company. They were fairly equal, but the Atari 800XL had more graphics modes and two less joystick ports. They were considered superior, by some, to the Tandy, Oric and Lynx computers. The Atari 800 was introduced in 1979 and the 800XL came in later in 1983. They were both 8 bit computers.
The year was 1979 and John Travolta was singing his heart out with Olivia Newton John. But some geeks over at Atari and Texas Instruments had been thinking about advancing their line of computers about a year earlier. The Atari 800 was being released as the successor to the Atari 400. It was a low and flat computer like others of its day. The 400 had been marketed as a gaming computer but the 800 and 800XL were targeted to regular computer users. As such, the 400 was about half the price of the 800.
The keyboard and case for the Atari 800 and 800XL motherboard were one piece in their construction. Like so many other computers of the time, they were covered with a beige plastic exterior. Atari made the 800 with a much better keyboard than its predecessor. Atari also put more memory into the Atari 800XL than they did into the 800. The XL came with 64 kilobytes of random access memory ( RAM ) while the 800 came with up to 48 kilobytes of RAM. The central processing unit for the Atari 800XL was a 6502, the same as in the Apple IIe. It was running at 1.79 megahertz. It was accompanied by a 24 kilobyte ROM. External accessories could include a 1010 cassette tape program recorder to play and save games. a large trackball, and the 1050 5.25 inch floppy disk drive. The Atari 800s had a pop-up door on the front that uncovered the slots to plug in game cartridges. There were two slots included. The older Atari 400 had a smaller pop-up door that revealed just one slot.
The built-in operating system for the Atari 800 and 800XL was BASIC. The XL model had another operating system called “Atari XL” on a diskette as well. The operating system could be disabled on startup by holding down the OPTION key. A built-in diagnostic system was installed in the 800s and there was always the HELP key if a user needed it. The 800XL operating system was not all that compatible with the earlier 400 series. Atari recognized that and created a “translator disk” that would fix the problem.
The Atari 800 and 800XL never came with monitors because the buyer was supposed to hook them up to a television or other monitor. The 800 series was hailed as having great color when shown on a TV screen. The prices were better than Apple’s prices and yet there were great games included in the deal, such as PacMan. As good as the 800 and 800XL were, Atari did not seek to follow them up. Instead they went into the arcade business.
The Atari computers are in high demand today because many older computer enthusiasts grew up using one and want to relive those great times. Even though the performance and power is negligible by today’s standards, playing through Adventureland or Pitfall can bring back some great memories. You can pick up a good working Atari 800 with some peripherals and games for under $200.00.
3 thoughts on “Atari 800 and 800XL”
The information about Texas Instruments in this article is in error. TI had no hand at all in the development or production of the Atari computer line. TI was attempting to produce its own line at that time and both companies were struggling to produce machines that would plug into a TV for a monitor and still pass stringent FCC tests. The only connection I’m aware of is that an Atari engineer suggested a fiber optic link to the TV versus a coaxial rf line. That was rejected by Atari as likely to be rejected by the FCC. The same engineer observed the fiber optic idea in conversation with a TI engineer in a social setting and TI thought it was a great idea, ran with it, and was denied by the FCC. This resulted in a significant delay for TI in the release of the 99/4a machine.
In my humble opinion, the Atari 800 still has the best design of any computer, to this day.
And, that’s comming from a Commodore fanatic…
The biggest issue with the XL series is they were incompatible with some of the games written for the 400/800. Atari had moved some of the routines around which caused certain games to not run. Atari released translator disks which loaded the original 400/800 operating systems allowing the games to run.