Software

Using an Atari for something other than games

As I mentioned before, there were a plethora of word processors available for PCs in the 1980's beyond the basic Microsoft Word we've all come to know. You didn't have to just stick with a PC however - you could also use a computer like the Atari shown here.

As I mentioned before, there were a plethora of word processors available for PCs in the 1980s beyond the basic Microsoft Word we've all come to know. You didn't have to just stick with a PC however -- you could also use a computer like the Atari shown here.

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I used the example of the limited word processor options today to illustrate just how little choice there is in PCs today. If you go back almost 25 years, you can see there was even more diversity. Beyond the basic platform choices of Windows, Linux, and Mac that we have today, you had dozens of other hardware platforms.

The ad here is for a word processor running on an Atari computer. The program in question is Atari Writer. As you can see by the ad, it's not very fancy. It uses the large block letters typical of 8-bit computers of the day. This limitation was due mostly to the resolution of the TVs they were typically attached to. Additionally, as you can see on the screen, the feature set is probably equivalent to edlin in DOS.

Some of you may have forgotten, or not even have been aware, that Atari did more than just build gaming consoles. They also created several lines of computers, mostly for home use.

The computer shown in this ad is an Atari 800XL. It debuted in 1983. Like other Atari computers, it wasn't terribly successful. The most successful computer that Atari sold wound up being the Atari ST line, which competed heavily with the Amiga. Try as it may, however, Atari created almost a dozen different models of home computer only to wind up nearly bankrupt and being a niche player. By 1992, Atari was out of the computer hardware business.

Our pitchman for Atari is Alan Alda, who had just come off a successful run from the TV series M*A*S*H. Nowadays, his interactions with computers are a little different when he's hosting Scientific American Frontiers on PBS.

With any luck, we'll get ahold of an old Atari computer to add to our Dinosaur Sighting and Cracking Open series.

20 comments
yooper
yooper

I spent a half hour looking for a video by Donnie Iris called "Do you compute?" It used to be on Youtube but I can't find it. In the video, it shows him tapping away on an Atari 1600XL.

sboverie
sboverie

I had an Atari 800 that I souped up. I bought an 80 column graphics adapter that looked good on a monochrome screen, perfect for word processing. I also belonged to an Atari computer club in the Denver area, one of the members came up with some cool mods that allowed us to change the left/right cartridges or switch them out completely. One member was a transplant doctor who made slide presentations using his Atari 800 and taking pictures, this was before Power Point. Gaming on the Atari 800 was great for the time. I also learned how to program Basic because computer mags at the time had programs printed and we would have to key in the program manually and save to tape or diskette. I found a lot of the programs had goofy errors that added to the usual typos to make a program work badly. At its peak in the early 80's, there were lots of games and serious programs like Visicalc, operating systems like Fortran, Forth and assembly. All in all, it was an excellent beginner's computer. It was cheap enough and rather durable. It was also under powered (48K ram when 64K was standard on TRS80 and Apple II).

donengene
donengene

The Atari XT that came out around the time of the original Nintendo, was kind of like this. You could get a floppy drive for the xt and it ran an os similar to dos but with its own commands. It did have a built in word editor. The nice thing was that it came with a keyboard already and you could use the joystick like a single button mouse. You could switch to playing games relatively easy. It was esentialy an embeded os. You could make some of your own games in a what was like basic. It wasn't very popular, I think it was Atari's last effort for a Personal Computer machine, I don't even remember there being an atari console after that.

awcourt
awcourt

I received one of the Atari 800XL's as a hand me down from one of my older brothers. It's what I learned to do my first coding on(copying out of the old computer magazines no less!). It even had the 5 1/4' drive and the Cassete tape drive! I was the coolest kid on the block! I may have to go bring it down from the attic and fire it up for old times sake. Anyone know the shelf life for data stored on memorex cassete tapes?

John Sheesley - TechRepublic Pro
John Sheesley - TechRepublic Pro

Atari created more than just gaming consoles. They also had an entire line of home computers. Not nearly as successful as their 2600, the Atari computers had their own happy little niche. I showed an ad for an Atari 800XL featuring a word processing application on Classics Rock: http://blogs.techrepublic.com.com/classic-tech/?p=198 Atari's main competitor was the equally nichey Amiga. Ultimately, the Amiga was able to shake off the Atari line, but wound up becoming a footnote to computer history as well. Did you ever have an Atari ST, XL or other home computer? If so, what did you think of them?

THX 1138
THX 1138

You obviously don't remember the Portfolio, which was the smallest PC to be brought out and it was the size of a VHS tape. It used full DOS and used card inserts for full programs. I had a 1040 and bought my brother who was in investing a Portfolio and he loved it. Used it for quite some time. By the way Atari COMPUTERS used TOS and it was quite smooth running and the programs that were produced for the Atari were small clean and elegant, not like the overloaded pigs that have to be installed with numerous CDs. Two floppies used to do the job. The last of the useful computing, and the start of MicroShaft!

TroyW
TroyW

You don't remember the Atari 7800, Lynx, or Jaguar consoles, or the various machines in the ST line, all of which were made by Atari after the time of the original Nintendo? The 7800 competed (and lost to) the original Nintendo, the Lynx competed with the original Gameboy, and the Jaguar was promoted as the worlds first 64 bit console and was up against the 16-bit Sega Genesis/Mega Drive and Nintendo Super Nintendo/Super Famicom when it was released in 1993/1994, with advertisements that are easily remembered to this day, with the tag line of "Do the math". The original Atari corporation lasted until 1996, but really struggled, and it was pretty obvious when the Sony Playstation became a sales success that Atari wouldn't last much longer, which turned out to be the case. Such a shame that companies such as Atari and Commodore that were so important to the industry in the 70s, 80s and early 90s, have now become forgotten footnotes in the history of the industry, when they should be mentioned in the same breath as the original Apple machines.

THX 1138
THX 1138

I spent quite a few years using the 1040 and that had to be one of the best computers of its time and it was great having a friendly desktop and icons to work with. I did Desktop Publishing for a sideline business and the variety of material that I produced using Calamus was indescribable. Getting past the price tag of $600 just for the program was the hard part, but it won rave reviews from many sources. An Atari system was once actually profiled in a PC mag article as being the best choice for DTP which surprised quite a few DOS Freakoids. I only switched as it was a nuisance changing the formatting when saving in RTF, for work and then in return to home. Almost forgot, the Stacey was scooped up by bands as it was an incredible music platform, and when Atari went under there was a feeding frenzy for them that almost got ugly.

kurt.houghtaling
kurt.houghtaling

Yup. And I made hardcopies with a daisywheel printer. Challenging to come up with ways to make type-written characters lay out equations with various mathematical symbols. Anyway, I liked the Atari design a lot more than its more popular competition from Commodore, and it was way cheaper than an AppleII. I even wrote an AtariBASIC program to invert matrices up to 51 x 51 -- all in 23KB. The times; they have changed.

dleippe
dleippe

Ted Hoff designed the Intel 4004 and 8008 microprocessors then went to work for Nolan Bushnell at Atari. Steve Jobs's first job out of college was with Atari. He wrote Breakout. Another Atari employee, Joe Decuir, created the Serial Bus and Parallel Bus. Later at Microsoft Joe patented USB. Jack Tramiel, was the last owner of Atari. During his tenure the ASCI bus was created and later became the SCSI bus. The ST, TT, and Falcon were the most popular PC equivalents made by Atari. Atari's computer business ended in 1993. The last great Atari product was the Jaguar 64 bit game console. Except for a shortage of games it was way ahead of its time. Fermi Labs in Chicago put two Jaguars together and made a 128 bit computer to capture sub atomic accelerometer experiments in real time. Yes, Atari also made game computers. My ST, Mega ST,TT, and Falcon all still work well. Look Ma...no viruses!

risely
risely

Cut my teeth on a 520 then a great big 1040. There was a program a bit like MS Publisher, that allowed me to replicate text in a way I have not been able to do since with any other program I have tried. Ned

bvalantinas
bvalantinas

I loved my Atari ST. It had a GUI way before Windows,a color monitor, a 2-button mouse, and 1 whole MB of RAM. I used it all through college with an Okidata 20 printer and a 300 baud modem. Lots of cool games too. Sundog and Dungeon Master to name a couple of favorites.

s-f
s-f

I ran a Bulletin Board System on a Atari 800XL for about 4 years... (Pern BBS in Virginia) I still remember tweaking Carina so it would run just the way I wanted... Loved that system, and it never crashed... I also had a 800 and an 512 ST upgraded to 1024... The only problem I had with the ST was the addin memory had to be re soldered in every year or so... :( Ironically, I used the ST mostly as a Mac with a Mac emulator popular at the time... (I did do a lot of midi music with Music Studio too) Happy times...

rhisiart22
rhisiart22

My first computer was the Atari 400. I got an Atari 800 about a year later. I used them to log into the college mainframe rather than wait in the line for a time limited spot in the crowded and cramped terminal room in the library. I will pull one of them out every now and then for some good old school non-graphics loaded game play.

TroyW
TroyW

Yup, I had one of the very first Atari home computers, the Atari 400. I loved it, despite the HORRIBLE membrane keyboard, the graphics and sound were a lot of fun to play around with in BASIC, and it was surprising the effects you could get out of it, particularly if you used a little assembly language. It's what sparked my interest in programming and in computers in general, and gave me a better understanding of how they work. Without it, my life would have turned out very differently, of that I have no doubt.

Wally Bahny
Wally Bahny

Other than the typical 2600 and 5200 gaming consoles, I also had an Atari 400 (I think it was) that could run games and program in Basic. It's where I first learned to program.

mike
mike

During the 80's I owned many Atari Computers including the 800 XL, numberous 1040ST's, MegaST's, MegaST2, and the Falcon. Up until recently I still had a 1040 ST with the 250MB External HDD that was used prior to the Internet to Run a Local BBS, when 250MB was huge in the world of storage capabilities. Before I donated it to a collector, I fired it up one last time to reminise, and it went through it's 3+ minute load and right into BBS mode with no errors. Those were the days. I still have all the gaming consoles in the game room and I still ocassionally dust off and play with the 2600, 5200, Jaguar, and Lynx. Those "dinosaurs" will always have a place in the game room. I wish now I would have hung on to that 1040ST.

yooper
yooper

So true! Sometime read the history of CBM Commodore business machines, wow! The same is true for Atari and the other great minds of that time!

fabianmejia
fabianmejia

Oh yes, I had a 130 XE, I really miss that computer. It was awesome, It had color, sound, Joystick, and disk unit. I learned programming here, not only text but also creating music and cool graphics.

THX 1138
THX 1138

I know what you are talking about, and I have the honour of still running a 1040 with an external hard drive the size of a small minivan. It still runs my laser printer that is bulky, slow and the quality depends on the day. I had the 1040 running Calamus last week, and doing good old DTP just like the old days in monochrome, but fun nonetheless. Remember the slogan they used? Something along the lines of "The only computer for a Buck per Byte" when they tried to keep the price as reasonable as possible. I am actually looking for a collector who won't sell, rather refurbish the 1040, Syquest 88 MB Replaceable platter drive, laser printer and extras. I want to see it appreciated, not recycled.

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