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My 'not so' Brand Spankin' new Atari 800!

DoctorSpuds

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So… This Atari 800 computer was found in the basement of West High School in Madison WI. It was with 2 other 800’s, and 800X and a 520ST, there was also an Atari 820 printer, four 5 ½ inch floppy drives, and an Atari 850 interface. The 800X works as do all the floppy drives,the 520ST is not functioning due to an issue with the power button and likely something else,and two of the three 800”s are functioning as well, it is unknown if the 820 or 850 work since we have no idea how to hook them up and use them. It also took us quite a bit of time to figure out that the 800's had to have the front door closed to actually power on the system, we were worried that they were all broken, but as said earlier only one 800 was, and it was because the case had broken in such a way that it couldn’t power on, there is likely nothing wrong with the board and the RAM AND ROM were fine since we had to use them on the other 800 that lacked them, now the poor thing is just a caseless empty husk.

 

The Machine I purchased is working quite well (and was originally going to use it to type what you’re reading know but all the photo’s I took of the screen had much of the writing cut off, oh well). In fact I’m finding it easier to type on the 800’s keyboard than the one I use with my computer. The machine itself does have a few detractions, mainly due to age and simply being dirty, the function keys are very sticky and like to hold themselves down, this can likely be fixed with a little bit of cleaning, also the PC speaker likes to randomly beep loudly and quickly when I’m typing, I may just disconnect the thing. Aesthetically this computer looks rather hilarious, in that it is enormous. The thing is as long as an Intellivision, as deep as an Odyssey2 with The VOICE add-on and as thick and it probably weighs more than an original Xbox. Yes, I do know about how the 800 was designed to be a ‘friendly typewriter’ or something like that, but that can’t mask the fact that this thing just looks plain weird. But as it is this is a fantastic machine to both type on and play games with, I hope to expand my collection of games, though it is more likely that I will just buy an SD drive and load it up with all the software I want without spending a small fortune.

 

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The 800 was originally designed to be the next console after the 2600. It eventually got there in 1982 as the 5200, but it was intended to be released as early as 1979. The 2600 was designed with a shelf life of only a couple of years. Atari management (then owned by Warner) balked at the price tag, and decided to try to cash in on the home computer market that was dominated by the Apple II at that point instead. Nolan was really upset by this, since he knew that the bulk of profit was going to come from the software, not the hardware. He said something along the lines of if you air-dropped free game consoles into Los Angeles, you'd have complete market dominance overnight. (This is all talked about in the Stella at 20 tapes.)

 

This has completely fascinated me since I first heard about it, because if you rewind to 1979 and replace the 2600 with the 5200 at that point (we'll assume they'd have fixed the controllers), the 2600 would have exited the market and the 5200 would have been the console in place to ride the wave of the video game explosion that happened. All of the arcade ports that made the 2600 a hit would have been that much better, games with more complex gameplay and advanced graphics would've been accessible outside of the realm of home computers, and Atari would've had a far more powerful console years earlier than it did, and years earlier than any competitors.

 

All of that may not have stopped Atari from mismanaging itself into an early grave, but it's interesting to think about what the video game landscape would've been like, and how much further ahead home consoles might have been in the early 80's.

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If the 5200 had launched in 1979 as a games console and not a computer, it wouldn't be too far a stretch to imagine the 7800 being released around 84-85 to get ahead if the NES and still maintain, if not dominance, a decent share of the market. it's nice to imagine what would have been, but never was.

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According to the interviews in Stella at 20, the likeliest successor to the 5200 would've actually been the Amiga in around that same time frame, as it was developed by many of the original Atari engineers who had left.

 

The Amiga, in the early 80's... as an Atari game console. Imagine that happening, and how far the entire industry would've been propelled forward!

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The Amiga, in the early 80's... as an Atari game console. Imagine that happening, and how far the entire industry would've been propelled forward!

 

That would have been astonishing, it probably would have jumped the industry ahead by 3-5 years at least. So... a 16 bit console hitting the market BEFORE the NES was released, that would have been mind blowing.

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Then again if the 5200 had been released in 1979, it would have been a different Atari where people like Jay Miner & c:o never felt the need to leave and start their own. A big part of the Amiga/Lorraine principles are built on the same ideas as in the Atari 800/5200, so they would just as likely have improved upon the technology.

 

Lets not forget the Atari 400, which to many parts is a game console with a simple keyboard. IIRC it launched at $550 (planned launch price was $400 but they didn't meet it). Even simplified without the keyboard, perhaps no SIO bus etc, the question is if Atari had managed to sell it below $400. While the VCS wasn't cheap as well, $400 would have been Astrocade territory IIRC, far more than most families would pay for a video game so probably Warner were right there, it may just as well have spelled the end of Atari by 1981 if they were displacing the simple VCS and the sequel was too expensive for the market.

 

Sure prices would have dropped over time, but compare to how slowly the 400 and 800 dropped in price, though they improved the spec regarding onboard RAM along the way. More or less it wasn't until the big evil Commodore stepped into the market prices seem to have started to fall - and yes, I looked up this before. Of course the big price war in the summer of 1983 is something else and much later.

 

Also I think the Lorraine would've been even more unreachable as a games console in 1984. Remember that even Apple considered to power the Macintosh with the 6809 CPU until supposedly Steve Jobs himself negotiated a deal with Motorola where they could buy the 68000 for both the Lisa and Macintosh at a fraction of the list price. Possibly Motorola were planning price cuts anyway, but you might be telling the alternative story of how Atari entered the market of cartridge based video games in 1977, and two years later decided to be the premium supplier of games consoles, the ones you would dream about owning but only the richest of families could afford. Sounds a bit like much later 3DO, doesn't it?

 

Combined with other forms of mismanagement in Atari, and they may just as well have dumped the entire company in the desert where they got rid of E.T., Pac-Man and other surplus cartridges.

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Combined with other forms of mismanagement in Atari, and they may just as well have dumped the entire company in the desert where they got rid of E.T., Pac-Man and other surplus cartridges.

 

True... None of us really know what would have happened, it could have ended up all peachy and rosy for everybody involved, or it could have doomed the future of videogames as we know them. Let's leave that sort of thinking to the philosophers.

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What Atari should have done in 1982 though, is to eliminate the Atari 400 from the product list, introduce a cut-down console that takes regular Atari joysticks/paddles and the same cartridges as on the computers. They could then go ahead with the 1200XL as the top model if they liked. That means replacing the 5200 with the XEGS, five years earlier. I believe it had worked out much better, in particular if the new console had expansion options for an add-on keyboard if the user so desired.

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$400 would have been Astrocade territory IIRC, far more than most families would pay for a video game so probably Warner were right there, it may just as well have spelled the end of Atari by 1981 if they were displacing the simple VCS and the sequel was too expensive for the market.

 

This is where the division with Warner and Nolan was at, in regards to the 400/800/5200. Nolan understood that you would make up selling the console at a loss in software sales. Give the hardware away if you have to. He likened it to razors and razorblades - you don't make razors to sell the handles, you make them to sell the blades. That's where the profit is. Warner couldn't see that.

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Yeah, many people make the likening of razors and razorblades. Jack Tramiel also did once, and they're not alone. Some of the newer consoles may have sold at manufacturing cost or below, in hope to make the money on software. Actual sales figures for Atari VCS cartridges as well as the other minor players by 1979 should be possible to dig up to determine how large the market had been if the 5200 (VCS-II ?) had been sold at the same price tag as the original VCS and money was to be made on games. It is a job for another day though.

 

By the way, I'm finding the top brand razors like e.g. Gilette to be rather pricy both for the vibrating handle and the replacable razorblades, so while they lock the customer to their brand of razorblades until some OEM starts making own blades fitting the branded razor, it is not really like they're giving the razor away. Some of the minor brands which you only can mail order new blades and the quality is questionable, are doing this though so for the likeness with razors to work out, anyone selling consoles below cost to make money on software, might be tagged as sub quality.

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