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Personal Computers :: Atari 400 and 800 Computers

1978 - The Atari 400 and 800 were driven by the new CEO of Atari, Ray Kassar, who wanted to compete with Apple in the computer market.  At this time, development work was being put into the next generation video game machine to supersede the 2600, but that was all shelved, and Atari turned its resources to the computer market.

The new computer division based the new machines around the powerful MOS 6502 CPU (running at a blistering 1.79Mhz), a favourite with home computer manufacturers in the late 70's and early 80's (also popular in gaming systems, such as the Atari Lynx).  Originally codenamed "OZ", Atari renamed the 2 systems after female Atari employees (as was the tradition!); the 400 became known as project "Candy" and the 800 became known as project "Colleen".

The Atari 400 and 800 systems were some of the most powerful home computers of the day, and they became famous for their "high resolution" graphics capabilities.   Initially, the machines could only display 128 colours, but this was updated shortly after to an incredible 256 colours using the updated GTIA (General Television Interface Adapter) processor.  Sound was also impressive, with the Atari "Pokey" responsible for the 4-Channel acoustics.

The 400 employed a "membrane" keyboard, which was liquid-proof and aimed at schools, and families with young children.  The 800 was designed for the professional, and was built with a fantastic keyboard, with the keys employing an almost tactile response similar to using an actual typewriter.  Both machines were designed to be user friendly, and Atari designed a unique cartridge system similar to that used on its video game console, the 2600.  Software could come on a plastic cartridge and simply slotted into the computer, which when switched on, appeared on the screen instantly - this must have had huge appeal, especially considering the fear computers held in those early days.

Both machines were extremely well built, with the entire inside of the system made of die-cast metal, their weight alone made you feel you had actually spent your money wisely!  At over $1000.00 for the Atari 800, and just over $400.00 for the Atari 400, these machines were not low-cost devices.  In Europe, their pricing was even more prohibitive, and it wasn't until 1983/84 that they began selling in any reasonable number.

But as the prices went down, the competition went up, and the Atari 400 and 800 languished in the market-place, with no sign of a technology upgrade, or even a case redesign.  It wasn't until late 1982 that the XL range was being readied for launch, but was it too little too late?

The legacy of the Atari 400 and 800 lives on, and they were Atari's' first foray into the computer market.  This first 8-Bit line of computers spawned 3 generations and still work flawlessly today.  In fact, of all the Atari computers, these were definitely the most solidly built machines to ever leave the Atari factories.

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