As it currently stands there are two ways to get that sweet 80 column text on the Atari 8-bit computers.
First way is to get a hold of a XEP80 (currently rarer than hen's teeth). The XEP80 was an odd beast created by Atari that attached to the joystick port of the Atari and then attached to a monochrome monitor. This little device gave true, and very clear, monochrome 80 column text when ran with the appropriate software. Downside was you had to have two monitors to make it work properly; one attached to the XEP80 and another attached to the standard video port of the Atari.
Another way is by using GRAPHICS 8 and a 4 character wide font. This may not be ‘true’ 80 column text but properly used could be very effective with caveats. It works fairly well on an unmodified Atari IF you have a B&W TV or, even better, a monochrome monitor. A color TV, LCD TV/monitor or even some composite monitors, not so good due to artifacting effect inherent to the Atari.
The above screen was created on an LCD TV using the BASIC program Easy80 easy80.zip from Antic magazine. Easy 80 creates an 80 column text for BASIC programs using GRAPHICS 8. Note the color bleeding of the artifacting. Readable, but not that great. On old style color CRT TVs the bleeding effect could be even worse.
One way to clean up the artifacting effect is purchase a video board like the Sophia or VBXE. These boards produce sharp VGA screens but must be installed inside the Atari and are a bit expensive.
You could also use a S-video cable with your XE or properly modified XL. S-video creates a sharper image than just the standard Atari composite but finding a new TV/monitor that still supports S-video is getting extremely rare. But you can still find S-video cables for the Atari throughout the internet for sale. If you have a XE or XL modified for S-video and an S-video TV i would recommend getting one of these cables as it is a bit sharper than composite only and can support 80-column.
Or you could go the way I did.
Little background. The US 600XL only comes with an RF connection. It’s a good RF video signal, as RF signals go, but it’s still RF with all the inherent problems of interference and just plan poor video quality. So after looking around at all the options that I could afford, I choose the UAV board to replace the RF. (Here is my post on installing the UAV.)
While installing my new UAV chip in my 600XL I once forgot to hook up the color line and what I got was very clear mono B&W.
Below, The line is supposed to be connected to the screw connector at the top to supply the color signal to the UAV. Not attached gives a B/W screen and if you are still in the process of installing the UAV and didn’t notice the disconnected line can scare the bajibious out of you.
Well if you read over my post on installing the UAV you’ll see it got installed OK and all was right with the world.
But that got me thinking, what would using the above Easy80 column look like if I disconnected that line. Would it clear up the screen and show a sharp Atari 4 pixel wide font 80 column text in all it’s glory? Well, yes.
What I had stumbled upon was Luma only display, a well worn technique used by Atarians since, forever. Screen graphics with intensity only data and no color data. Perfect for 80 column text!
IDEA! What if I put a switch on the back of the computer to turn off color line when I wanted sharp 80 column text.
Inside modification where I bypass the line to a switch.
The switch is on the right where the channel select switch once was. Down is color and up is B/W. Works well with my composite connection on my LCD TV (see other UAV install post why I settled on composite.)
Now I’ve been told you can do the same thing by creating a Luma cable for the XL and XE. What you do is create a cable using pin 2 (ground) with pin 3 (sound) for sound and pin 4 (luma) with ground to video. Don't use the composite or chorma lines.
I’ve tested this with ‘THE LAST WORD’ word processor which is an 80 column word processor and it looks great but it doesn’t work with Atari Writer 80 as that requires an XEP80 to work.
So there you have it, simple 80 column for the Atari.