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LostRanger22

Why did Atari make the 400 have a membrane keyboard?

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I can't understand the wisdom in it, i just can't. Did they not use the TS1000 to get a feel for how bad a design decision that was? Why didn't they just offer the 800 right away, then move on to the XL/XE series? What was the point of the 400? I get for games but for programming? I'll take the vastly inferior Vic 20 any day

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Someone smarter will answer this officially, but as I recall the 400 was supposed to be a games console - no keyboard.  As things progressed the 400 became a cost reduced 800 computer.  This was before anyone had done this (VIC-20 didnt exist), so if you couldnt afford the Caddy of computers 800, the 400 got you in the door to play games which was its intended target.

 

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The main reason I'd think they did this is simply cost.  Surely a membrane keyboard is considerably less expensive than a regular keyboard like the 800 has.

 

 ..Al

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40 minutes ago, LostRanger22 said:

I can't understand the wisdom in it, i just can't. Did they not use the TS1000 to get a feel for how bad a design decision that was? Why didn't they just offer the 800 right away, then move on to the XL/XE series? What was the point of the 400? I get for games but for programming? I'll take the vastly inferior Vic 20 any day

The 400 and 800 were designed in 1978 and 1979. The TS1000 did not and would not exist for a few years, and in fact, that machine was merely a rebranded and co-marketed version of the ZX-81, which came out 3 years after the 400/800 started as a design project. 

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As stated above, the original plan for the Atari 8-bit computer line was for the 400 to have 4K of RAM and be a games console without a keyboard and the 800 to have a basic 8K of installed RAM, (expandable to 48K) and be a general purpose home computer. 4K sounds silly, particularly when the more advanced graphics capabilities of the machine required more than 9K video RAM (inclusive of player/missile graphics) but RAM was still very expensive in the late 70s and the 2600 games console managed with only 128 bytes!

 

During pre-release development, the price of RAM fell to the point that the 400 could be released at a competitive price with 8K and soon thereafter 16K RAM as standard.

 

Atari executives had meanwhile been blown away by the Star Raiders game, which was by far the most advanced games application developed pre-release, and realised correctly this would be a killer app for the 400. Unfortunately, Star Raiders required 8K of RAM and a keyboard to play.  Hence the 400 had to be rapidly redesigned to have a cheap keyboard, and coincidentally could  reasonably be launched as a budget general purpose computer for programming with a BASIC cartridge and 8K of RAM.

 

Opinions vary on the usability of the 400 keyboard.  As membrane keyboards go, it's about as good as they get. I did an awful lot of typing on mine before eventually replacing it with a 3rd party 'proper' keyboard and for me it was acceptable for programming- certainly wouldn't have dreamed of swapping my 400 for a VIC-20!

 

Remember too, that you're not going to be typing in and editing hundreds of lines of code with only 1K (for a 4K machine) or 5K (for an 8K machine) of free RAM to play with under BASIC and a cassette player to store it on! 

 

Edited by drpeter
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...and just to add to the "cost cutting", go look at the price of the 400's and 800's. I got my 800 for Xmas 1982 and it was like $899. I sold my Honda 50 minibike and only got about $300 to put towards that computer so that gives you an idea of the cost of this stuff. A Year later and that 800xl was around $300 bucks. Heck, my dad was pissed when he asked the store if they were going to drop the price of the 800 after Xmas. They told him, "no" and then they droppedit $100. If I would have told him they dropped the price $400 (and with more RAM), he would have lost his mind (except for the more RAM thing since he had no idea about computers and still doesn't). So, I think you can see why Atari made a system with not only a membrane keyboard but also it lacked an extra cartridge slot and an easy way to expand the RAM. As previously mentioned, it was supposed to be the successor to the 2600 and probably would have been pretty successful...if they gave it an expansion port to play 2600 games. Unfortunately, that became the 5200 which came out much too late...although if I were a parent and I just got my kid a 2600 two years earlier, I doubt I would have gotten him the upgrade but people new to gaming consoles probably would have.
Lots of stuff makes sense if you just have all of the facts.

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1 hour ago, drpeter said:

Opinions vary on the usability of the 400 keyboard.  As membrane keyboards go, it's about as good as they get. I did an awful lot of typing on mine before eventually replacing it with a 3rd party 'proper' keyboard and for me it was acceptable for programming- certainly wouldn't have dreamed of swapping my 400 for a VIC-20!

 

 

I bought my first 400 (and modded, too) a couple of years ago and was pleasantly surprised by the keyboard, which is pretty responsive for what it is. Then again, we've been trained to accept crappy, flat, non-mechanical keyboards for quite a few years by laptop makers and smartphone screens, so maybe the 400 was just way, way ahead of the curve. :D

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Just now, Sugarland said:

As was already said, it was to keep cost down but still allow the 400 to play Star Raiders.

 

Exactly! 

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Thank heavens they made a 400 or I'd would have never had the chance to get involved in computers in 1981.  The Atari 400 with 16K RAM, BASIC cartridge and a 410 was down to $400.  The 800 and Apple II were way out of the price my dad would entertain.  The Atari 400 with 16K was the first "really useful" home computer that was also "really affordable".  With 16K, you had a machine that could do meaningful work.  I was introduced to computing in high school which had a computer lab (1980) that had Apple IIs.  I might have lost my interest in computers (I was a senior) and moved on to something else.  I probably would be doing something else right now.  I'm an aerospace engineer and I like to think my 400 had something to do with that.  The 400 made it possible for this American middle class kid to own a real computer in 1981.  

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The 400 was this poor college student's ticket to the wonderland of 6502/ANTIC/CTIA/POKEY programming and Star Raiders gaming in 1980. The membrane keyboard was well done, with raised edges and speaker clicks which you could feel and hear. It served me well for two years until the 800 became affordable.

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7 minutes ago, ClausB said:

speaker clicks which you could feel

I think nowadays they call it 'haptic feedback' 😄

 

As was said, way ahead of the curve....

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The 400 wasn't suppose to have a keyboard. It was suppose to be the new 2600. But Star Raiders was so good and needed a keyboard so they compromised and went with a membrane keyboard.

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Remarkable, I also had a Honda 50 mini bike, which we sold around the time I got ... the overpriced and somewhat incompatible 1200 XL. 
 

I never could’ve dealt with a membrane keyboard though. I Typed so many reports, documents, and programs back then.

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12 hours ago, LostRanger22 said:

I can't understand the wisdom in it, i just can't. Did they not use the TS1000 to get a feel for how bad a design decision that was? Why didn't they just offer the 800 right away, then move on to the XL/XE series? What was the point of the 400? I get for games but for programming? I'll take the vastly inferior Vic 20 any day

Consider the age of the system,  and look at the competition and you'll notice that crappy keyboards were common on the cheaper home computers before 1983ish

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1 hour ago, Allan said:

The 400 wasn't suppose to have a keyboard. It was suppose to be the new 2600. But Star Raiders was so good and needed a keyboard so they compromised and went with a membrane keyboard.

Did it really need a keyboard, or just more buttons on the controller?   They did eventually bring it to the 2600 with that gamepad thingy.

 

If they had stuck with the "400 is a console"  maybe the 5200 debacle could have been avoided...

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1 hour ago, Cafeman said:

Remarkable, I also had a Honda 50 mini bike, which we sold around the time U got ... the overpriced and somewhat incompatible 1200 XL. 
 

I never could’ve dealt with a membrane keyboard though. I Typed so many reports, documents, and programs back then.

It was a fun little bike. I found one that looked like mine. In kindergarten I asked my dad if he would build me a motorless go-cart. As a kids imagination will do, the go-cart became more like a car over time until years later I saw one of those go-carts in the Sears catalog. When I was about 10 my dad got me that minibike and he got himself something a little larger. I guess I didn't get the go-cart because he thought I'd get run over or decapitated going under something. 😄
This isn't mine but here is what mine looked like.

 1970 Honda 50 Motorcycles for sale

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I look at the 400 -- in it's stock state -- as a game machine with an advanced/extended controller (the membrane keyboard), not as something to program or do word processing on. However... if one wanted a real keyboard for the machine (and many did), there were many 3rd party keyboards to choose from, as can be seen in this thread: Atari 400 Aftermarket Replacement Keyboard Thread.

 

I love the 400, for it's small size, simplicity, and styling; and the keyboard fits it perfectly for using as a game machine. Those who wanted more could buy an 800, or add a keyboard to their 400. It's as simple as that.

 

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On 10/26/2020 at 6:06 PM, LostRanger22 said:

 I get for games but for programming? I'll take the vastly inferior Vic 20 any day

 

With just 5K of RAM, a cramped 22x23 screen and that whackadoodle CBM BASIC V2, yeah good luck with that.   Even the keyboard, the one feature where the VIC did well, was actually pretty awful.   The positioning was amongst the worst of any full travel keyboard.

 

 

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I typed many magazines worth of programs into my 400 back in the day. It really wasn't so awful, especially since most people still used manual typewriters at home.  Strong fingers! Price difference between a 400 and an 800 was enough most of us would never have gotten a computer without the 400. In fact I only knew a few people in my area that even had a computer at all. It was a surprise Christmas morning when I got the 400 hooked up and discovered that all it had was memo pad.. and couldn't really do anything with it.  I had to wait until the family could afford some game carts and an educator system to really do anything.

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Something to remember about the Atari 400 and typing in Atari BASIC - is that you did not have to type out the whole instruction word - that a shortened form was available to use to save on keystrokes.  Not that I had a 400 and did so.  I can't remember if this would have significantly cut down the pain of typing it in?

The humble 400 is still wanted today - because I am after one (or two?).  And I never owned one before.  Not for typing any programs in though - that would be kinda torture today.

 

Harvey

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1 hour ago, chevymad said:

Price difference between a 400 and an 800 was enough most of us would never have gotten a computer without the 400.

Yep. Easy to forget what a substantial investment a home computer was in those days.  The 400 launched in the US at $500, the equivalent today of $2000 or (£1500 in the UK)- which in 1979 was also a much larger proportion of disposable income than $2000 today. Plus you needed to buy the BASIC cartridge and the 410 recorder on top of that as bare minimum, taking the inflation-adjusted outlay up to ~$2500 or £1900. The basic Atari 800 and the Apple II at $1000 cost the equivalent of $4000 or £3000 today.

 

These were not easily-affordable items.  They were about half the cost of a family car (basic new Ford Escort in 1979, $1900).

 

So scrimping wherever possible on cost to bring them into the reach of typical families made perfect sense.

Edited by drpeter
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