The Atari 800: Real Plug and Play Cartridge-Based Computing
By James Grahame
By 1979, Atari was well known for its arcade and home videogame consoles. The Atari 800 computer was an attempt to extend their success into the home computer market. It was also the first mass-market microcomputer to incorporate a custom chipset. The ANTIC chip handled video configuration, GTIA took care of displaying the video data, and the whimsically named POKEY scanned the keyboard, generated sound, and handled serial communication. Atari created their own pared-down version of BASIC, issued as a plug-in 8K ROM cartridge.
The 800’s biggest drawback was its strange serial-based peripheral system. This made add-ons extremely expensive, unnecessarily increasing the cost of must-have peripherals such as a cassette or 90K floppy drive. Its best features were the two plug-in cartridge slots under the top panel – simply plug in a program and go.
The Atari 400 was the 800’s little brother. It shared the same general design, and was envisioned as a low-cost game machine. It had an absolutely despicable membrane keyboard, a mere 8K of memory, and less expandability than the 800. To their credit, Atari offered a decent selection of their popular games on cartridges that snapped into the machine’s single cartridge slot.
The 8-bit Atari lineup went through countless changes and model numbers in the early 1980s before being supplanted by the technically superior 16-bit Atari ST series in 1985.