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Why did Atari make the 400 have a membrane keyboard?

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1 hour ago, kiwilove said:

I can't remember if this would have significantly cut down the pain of typing it in?

I can promise you, it really did!

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On 10/27/2020 at 6:16 AM, gilsaluki said:

I sold my Honda 50 minibike ...

Don't you wish you had that Honda 50 now.  Those suckers are collectable now, and expensive in good condition.

I received a Honda 50R for Christmas in 1983.  I only rode it a handful of times so it is in near mint condition still in my parent's basement.  I would rather have gotten a computer.

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1 hour ago, kiwilove said:

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?

 

Except Analog programs used a checksum app to make sure you didn't make any errors. So if you used the shortcuts the app didn't work.. and you definitely needed the app typing on a 400. 

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On 10/27/2020 at 12:03 AM, ACML said:

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.  

I was begging for a 400 in '80/81, even a VIC-20 when they came out, finally got a T/S 1000 in '83 on clearance, after they were discontinued*, and bought my own 130XE with paper route money I saved up in 1985.

 

Though these days I own an Incognito 800 and maxed-out 1200XL with PBI now, my 130XE long sold, and I would never go back due to the cheap build quality and mushy keyboard (compared to 800 and XL line), but if it weren't for the under $200.00 price point of it in 1985, I wouldn't have gotten an Atari. Even a reduced 800XL. I wanted a 128K computer since that was the new Apple IIe/c standard I used at school by '85, and wouldn't have settled for less. So I would have saved up for a Commodore 128 or an Apple IIc. That was the plan until I read an article about the "new" Atari and Jack Tramiel taking over, and their new 128K 6502 machine (the same as the Apple Ie/c and Microsoft BASIC available as well). I could afford it right away! And so I thank God that Jack released a cheap, 128K version of the Atari 8-bit line, otherwise I would have settled for less in the more expensive machines, IMHO now, and never known, probably, just how great Atari 8-bits are and I've always felt I made a wise choice, I think it;'s the best 8-bit ever. Even if it didn't take over the market like I thought it was going to do, with Jack destroying his old computer and company in sweet revenge...that part I didn't get right...

 

*It was my birthday and my parents gave me $100. We went out shopping for me, and I came across the T/S 1000, the 16k ram pack, and about a half dozen programs for less than I had on me, in a clearance bin. Already having dreamed of my own computer for years, in '83 even a Timex/Sinclair 1000 was a dream come true, since my parents refused to buy me a computer. I had never heard of it before, but there it was, a genuine computer in my current price-range! I couldn't pass it up and I loved that computer more than it deserved, until the 130XE came into my life.

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8 hours ago, Gunstar said:

I was begging for a 400 in '80/81, even a VIC-20 when they came out, finally got a T/S 1000 in '83 on clearance, after they were discontinued*, and bought my own 130XE with paper route money I saved up in 1985.

This was the boat I was in in 1983.   Wanted a computer, but it had to be affordable or my parents wouldn't get it.  Liked the Ataris, but I didn't want the membrane keyboard,  I wanted a 'real' keyboard, and the chicklet keyboards some computers had wouldn't cut it either.

 

The Vic20 was my leading contender, but I wasn't crazy about its 5K RAM.   Luckily the Atari 600XL came out in time for Christmas and that's what I ended up with.   16K Ram wasn't a lot, but it was enough to write my own BASIC programs or type-in programs.

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10 hours ago, Gunstar said:

And so I thank God that Jack released a cheap, 128K version of the Atari 8-bit line, otherwise I would have settled for less in the more expensive machines, IMHO now, and never known, probably, just how great Atari 8-bits are and I've always felt I made a wise choice, I think it;'s the best 8-bit ever.

It was a huge frustration to many of those who (like me) loved the Atari 8-bit line that in 13 years of production the only significant evolution was to make the original 800 design cheaper to produce, with little-to-no functional enhancement of either hardware or firmware.  Not improving that unnecessarily creepingly-slow floating point ROM while somehow managing to partly use up an expanded ROM by replacing the Memo Pad with something even more functionally useless (Self-Test) being perhaps only the most inexplicable and unforgiveable example...

 

On the other hand, that the essential 800 design was able to endure pretty much unchanged for 13 years in production, and leaves a legacy to this day, is undeniable testament to its brilliance.

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On 10/27/2020 at 2:25 AM, drpeter said:

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

I wonder if this is the only documented example of a home computer's hardware being fundamentally redesigned to accommodate a specific game. Can anybody think of another example?

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22 hours ago, drpeter said:

I wonder if this is the only documented example of a home computer's hardware being fundamentally redesigned to accommodate a specific game. Can anybody think of another example?

Pong?  :P

 

Anyway the first time I saw a Atari 400 was at an electronics store (Tanner's) in Dallas, TX with Star Raiders.   It was on a projection TV.   I just flew around, blasting asteroids, not realizing there were shields, a galactic map, or enemies.  Just thought it was 3D asteroids.   I was sold on the computer for that alone. 

 

 

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My very first home computer was the Atari 400 back in early 80's. The Membrane keyboard was not bad in my opinion, I liked the look of it and back then it look kinda futuristic to me.  I did learn program BASIC on that Atari 400 and did write several games on the 400 back then. Sadly all my old programs from early 80's was lost due to data loss on old cassette tapes..

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On 10/26/2020 at 7:01 PM, Geister said:

It was aimed at kids with their grubby sticky fingers and spilled drinks.

I think that was one of the main factors why the 400 has a membrane keyboard, Atari even demonstrated it in a promo film:

 

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Joe Decuir addressed this question in an interview. The Atari 400 was intended to be a console. The membrane keyboard was attached in order to support games like Star Raiders, without the need to plug in a separate keypad.

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On 10/28/2020 at 2:28 PM, oracle_jedi said:

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.

While I wouldn't have chosen the VIC-20 over the 400, due to its technical limitations, how is CBM BASIC odd in comparison to Atari BASIC?  CBM BASIC is MicroSoft BASIC, which was pretty much the standard at the time, and it ran faster on a slower CPU than Atari BASIC did on the 400's faster CPU.  It also has standard strings and string functions, for example, unlike Atari BASIC's unusual implementation.

 

As for the keyboard, I used an identical one on a Commodore 64 for a bunch of years, back in the day, and had no complaints.  I learned to type on it, programmed and did pretty heavy word processing and other productivity tasks on it, and although it is far from the best keyboard, I much prefer it to the "Type 4" (Mylar) keyboard on my 800XL, as well as the modern Chicklet-like laptop keyboard I'm typing on right now.  For that matter, it's better than most Atari keyboard types that I've used (I like my 800's keyboard more, but the XE series keyboard is yeesh!).

 

Personally, I couldn't imagine putting up with the 400's membrane keyboard for everything I did back then (or now).  It's acceptable for playing games that require a keyboard, as long as the hard playing is done with a joystick or other external controller, that is, and for very light computing tasks, but that's all.  It would have slowed me down greatly and wasted a lot of my time, frankly.  It all depends on what you need a computer for.  The VIC-20 might not have had much to recommend it, even back in the day (besides its price point), but its BASIC and keyboard (both the same as the C64's) were fine.

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11 hours ago, Robert Cook said:

While I wouldn't have chosen the VIC-20 over the 400, due to its technical limitations, how is CBM BASIC odd in comparison to Atari BASIC? 

Not sure about the VIC-20 but on the C64 it didn't support sound and graphics. You could use abbreviations for commands but IIRC those would stay in the listing rather than expand. 

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On 10/27/2020 at 2:06 AM, LostRanger22 said:

Did they not use the TS1000 to get a feel for how bad a design decision that was?

You can't really compare the TS1000/ZX81 keyboard and the 400's keyboard. The ZX81 was the very first machine I tried to program and that mushy keyboard without any feedback would drive you crazy. I was lucky to get an 800 but my best friend had a 400 which I occasionally typed on, and it wasn't half as bad as the Sinclair.

 

On 10/29/2020 at 6:20 AM, drpeter said:

Yep. Easy to forget what a substantial investment a home computer was in those days. 

I only realised that years later but what my father spent on an 800/810 combo in 81/82 would have bought us a very nice used car. At least he got a tax break by declaring it a business asset for his office.

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12 hours ago, Robert Cook said:

While I wouldn't have chosen the VIC-20 over the 400, due to its technical limitations, how is CBM BASIC odd in comparison to Atari BASIC?

Every BASIC dialect is weird compared to the one that you are used to 🙂

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My high school computer lab had I think six 400s and four 800's that were somehow "networked" to a stack of four of 810s (I don't remember the details).
We'd fight over who got to use the 800s, but the 400s weren't that bad to type on if you were a bad typist anyway. Our teacher always made us write out our programs on paper first and only when he approved it did we get to type it in and try it. We worked in teams of three and I remember him "rewarding" teams that came up with the best solutions by letting them use one of the 800s to type it in. 

I personally think the video showing the mom wiping the ice cream off the 400 is an example of marketing recasting a cost reduction as a feature. Yeah sure, it would be easier to wipe ice cream off of a 400 keyboard, but the membrane keyboard was originally selected for lower cost.

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29 minutes ago, dkerfoot said:

but the membrane keyboard was originally selected for lower cost.

And the sealed nature reduces/eliminates the issues with oxidized contacts.

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I used the 400 keyboard to type in hundreds of magazine type-in BASIC programs as well as programming games and got totally used to it.  The audible "click" you heard after typing each letter provided the feedback you needed to type while not even looking at either the screen or keyboard.  I would look at the magazine while typing and didn't make too many mistakes.  After pressing the Return key after each line, if there was a syntax error the BASIC editor would let you know.

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10 hours ago, slx said:

Not sure about the VIC-20 but on the C64 it didn't support sound and graphics.

Oh, that.  Maybe it's just me, but I've never found system-specific graphics and sound commands that were added to many BASIC interpreters all that useful.  To really get anything done on home/personal computers back then required machine language, which I promptly learned to program in when I finally did get my first computer.  Slowly plotting pixels and drawing lines in BASIC using graphics commands and such was quaint at best.  I hardly think that these extensions or lack thereof determine whether any particular implementation of BASIC is "whackadoodle" or not.  CBM BASIC V2 on the VIC-20 and C64 was pretty solid, as these things go.

 

BASIC is virtually identical on these two computers.  It didn't have graphics commands, but there was a "quote mode" that was customized for these computers, allowing embedded control codes to change character colors quickly on the fly without additional commands, as well as reposition text output.  With their redefinable character sets (a powerful feature they share with the Atari 8-bits) and color RAM, PRINT statements in BASIC are probably more useful than graphics commands, anyway, if one chooses to write programs in BASIC.  Some POKEs are required, of course, as they would be in Atari BASIC, as well, which didn't have nearly enough commands to cover all that these computers can do (it has no player-missile commands, either).

 

10 hours ago, slx said:

You could use abbreviations for commands but IIRC those would stay in the listing rather than expand. 

That's not true.  All commands in CBM BASIC V2 are tokenized and subsequently expanded in the listing in exactly the same manner, whether they were abbreviated when entered or not.  Abbreviations were done by using Shift with the final typed letter, which cut the parsing of commands short but resulted in the very same tokens and lines of code being generated.  For example, using the upper/lower case set, an abbreviated poke command would look like this: 10 pO53272,21.  What ends up in memory is exactly the same as though one had instead typed: poke53272,21.  The tokens are all single bytes, by the way.

 

10 hours ago, zzip said:

Every BASIC dialect is weird compared to the one that you are used to 🙂

It's true enough that each BASIC implementation has plenty of quirks, but from what I've seen, some are more oddball than others, and in that context anyone who uses Atari BASIC lives in a proverbial "glass house", at the very least.  And that's OK.  I'm just sayin'. 😉

 

8 hours ago, dkerfoot said:

My high school computer lab had I think six 400s and four 800's that were somehow "networked" to a stack of four of 810s (I don't remember the details).
We'd fight over who got to use the 800s, but the 400s weren't that bad to type on if you were a bad typist anyway.

In one of my junior high math classes, we used to fight over who got a PET 2001 with its bloody awful Chiclet keyboard (I'd take the Atari 400's keyboard over it, no question) or a far superior CBM 3016 (there were a bunch of each).  Then we'd fight over the Ouranos tape. 😁  In another class we'd fight over who got the color monitors (Amdek Color-1) with the Apple IIe's.  And in high school, when it came to terminals connected to the PDP-11/60, sometimes we'd even fight over green versus amber versus white (actually rather bluish) monochrome terminals.  There were no Ataris, unfortunately, or else I'm sure that we'd have fought over those, too!

 

8 hours ago, dkerfoot said:

Our teacher always made us write out our programs on paper first and only when he approved it did we get to type it in and try it. We worked in teams of three and I remember him "rewarding" teams that came up with the best solutions by letting them use one of the 800s to type it in.

Yeah, my AP Pascal teacher was like that with the Mac SEs we used.  The difference wasn't in the keyboards, but whether a particular Mac had a hard drive or not.  And if we did a really good job, he might let us use the LaserWriter (Ooh!) instead of the ImageWriter to print it out.

 

8 hours ago, dkerfoot said:

I personally think the video showing the mom wiping the ice cream off the 400 is an example of marketing recasting a cost reduction as a feature. Yeah sure, it would be easier to wipe ice cream off of a 400 keyboard, but the membrane keyboard was originally selected for lower cost.

Of course.  It was obvious even when I was a little kid drooling over these newfangled computers.  To be honest, I would have gladly put up with the 400's keyboard if it meant that I would have a computer at all, let alone such an otherwise advanced one for the time.  But I still had to wait, and by the time that I could actually have a computer of my own, it no longer made sense to compromise usability so much.  Even as a child, I didn't like the 400's membrane keyboard, even though it was probably the best of its kind.  But if it had been a viable option for me in 1979 while the 800 was not, then in all honesty, I would have been all over the 400.  If I couldn't get used to the keyboard, then I would have replaced it (the keyboard) eventually.  Computers were so pricey before Commodore's savage scorched-earth price war (Yay?).

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I don't know if it was just me, but when I started looking for a computer, I never saw any 400's in

the shops, it was always just 800's and Acorn Atom's, as I had previously had use of a Commodore Pet

(borrowed from work), I was already spoilt  using a proper keyboard, so even if I had seen a 400,

there was no way I would want that keyboard, so expensive 800 is was (and no regrets there :) )

 

This was in the UK, so not sure what sort of numbers of 400's were available.

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8 hours ago, Robert Cook said:

Oh, that.  Maybe it's just me, but I've never found system-specific graphics and sound commands that were added to many BASIC interpreters all that useful.  To really get anything done on home/personal computers back then required machine language, which I promptly learned to program in when I finally did get my first computer.  Slowly plotting pixels and drawing lines in BASIC using graphics commands and such was quaint at best.  I hardly think that these extensions or lack thereof determine whether any particular implementation of BASIC is "whackadoodle" or not.  CBM BASIC V2 on the VIC-20 and C64 was pretty solid, as these things go.

 

 

 

CBM BASIC V2 is an implementation of Microsoft 8K BASIC.  As such it is extremely limited.

 

It does not support IF..THEN..ELSE.   It does not support user defined functions.  It amounts to PRINT, GET, a few arithmetic functions, GOTO/GOSUB, IF/THEN and a FOR/NEXT loop.   Not much else.

 

It is why Microsoft released 12K Extended BASIC, and many home computer manufacturers (e.g. Tandy, Dragon, Oric) used 12K BASIC or 16K BASIC as those dialects included a more comprehensive implementation.   Commodore could have delivered a more comprehensive implementation - and indeed they did on the PET (CBM BASIC 4.0), the C16/Plus (CBM BASIC 3.5) and the C128 (BASIC V7) -  but on the VIC20 and C64 we got stripped down bare bones BASIC 2.0 because Jack wanted to keep the costs low.   

 

The original point here was that the VIC20 was a better machine for the budding programmer because it has a "real keyboard".  

 

That real keyboard isn't very good.   Better than the 400's touch panel, but not really by much considering its anti-ergonomic curve and the height at which the keyboard sits due to the deep case.  But sure, a better option for the budding programmer than the 400s pregnant speak-and-spell approach.

 

Commodore BASIC is a poor dialect to learn BASIC.   On the C64 you got Simon's BASIC that went along way to adding in what was missing, but the VIC got the Super Expander, which just added some RAM and graphical commands or the Programmer's Aid Cartridge which added some useful utilities.  You could not use both at the same time even with a multi-cart expander as they conflict in memory.  Neither one was likely to help you become a good programmer.

 

Add in the VIC's limited screen size and user RAM, and few considered the VIC as a tool to learn programming, despite what the Commodore marketing people said at the time, or how many copies of "Introduction to BASIC - Part1" they bundled in with a VIC, a tape deck and a cassette of Hoppit, Race and Type-a-Tune.

 

The VIC was a toy.  Its very development codename was "TOI".  The Atari 400 was a games machine with aspirations of being more.   Neither was a sensible choice for anyone wanting to learn programming.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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50 minutes ago, oracle_jedi said:

 

The VIC was a toy.  Its very development codename was "TOI".  The Atari 400 was a games machine with aspirations of being more.   Neither was a sensible choice for anyone wanting to learn programming.

This was my dilemma back in 83.  I had just taken a BASIC programming class and I wanted my own computer, but money was tight for the family and there's no way I could ask for an Atari 800 or C64.   It looked like I was going to have to choose between the weak VIC-20 or the Atari 400 with it's unappealing keyboard.    Luckily the XL line came out just in time!  

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7 hours ago, TGB1718 said:

I don't know if it was just me, but when I started looking for a computer, I never saw any 400's in

the shops, it was always just 800's and Acorn Atom's, as I had previously had use of a Commodore Pet

(borrowed from work), I was already spoilt  using a proper keyboard, so even if I had seen a 400,

there was no way I would want that keyboard, so expensive 800 is was (and no regrets there :) )

 

This was in the UK, so not sure what sort of numbers of 400's were available.

Was the infamous original PET 2001 with the strange keyboard ever sold anywhere in Europe?  On this side of the pond, I think this is what most people think of when "PET" is mentioned.  Every model that came afterward had a "proper" keyboard in all markets, of course.  The original keyboard is unbelievably bad in every way.  It was never sensitive to begin with, and the contacts quickly corroded, forcing users to push really hard on the tiny keys, which easily lost their markings, on top of that.  In comparison, the Atari 400's membrane keyboard is actually quite good.

 

While we were happy to get to use any computer back then, playing math games and such on the 2001s was almost like punishment.  Whoever finished their in-class assignments first got to go on the 3016s, which had normal typewriter-style keyboards.  My junior high and high school (same secondary school, actually) had a lot of computer equipment, being a math and science "magnet", but even so, there was still always such a mishmash of capabilities in each classroom/lab.

 

20 minutes ago, oracle_jedi said:

CBM BASIC V2 is an implementation of Microsoft 8K BASIC.  As such it is extremely limited.

I'm well aware of its limitations, and do not dispute that it is a somewhat minimalist implementation.  Atari BASIC also suffers (in different ways) from being squeezed into roughly 8K, and adding minimally useful system-specific commands forced additional compromises on the interpreter itself, which is why, for one thing, its performance is relatively poor (CBM BASIC V2 remains better optimized).  I guess we just have a different sense of the meaning of "whackadoodle".

 

20 minutes ago, oracle_jedi said:

It does not support user defined functions. 

What kind do you have in mind?  Like most BASICs back in the day, this variant is not a structured language, but the following code, for example, works perfectly fine in CBM BASIC V2 on the VIC-20 and C64:

 

10 DEF FN RI(M)=INT(RND(0)*M)

20 PRINT FN RI(1000)

 

In this example, RI is a user-defined function that returns a pseudorandom integer between 0 and M-1 (inclusive).  This program will output a number between 0 and 999, since 1000 was passed as the parameter M.  Isn't this similar to how typical non-structured BASICs implement user-defined functions?  In any case, you say it doesn't support them at all, but that is not true--it does.  It also has a USR function (not the same as the SYS command) that calls a user-defined machine language routine that returns a value that can be used in expressions (similar, albeit not identical, to USR in Atari BASIC).

 

20 minutes ago, oracle_jedi said:

It amounts to PRINT, GET, a few arithmetic functions, GOTO/GOSUB, IF/THEN and a FOR/NEXT loop.   Not much else.

It has everything it really needs, save for the minimally useful graphics and sound commands that some other BASICs have.  The total number of keywords is 71, and for reference, here they are: ABS, AND, ASC, ATN, CHR$, CLOSE, CLR, CMD, CONT, COS, DATA, DEF, DIM, END, EXP, FN, FOR, FRE, GET, GET#, GOSUB, GOTO, IF, INPUT, INPUT#, INT, LEFT$, LEN, LET, LIST, LOAD, LOG, MID$, NEW, NEXT, NOT, ON, OPEN, OR, PEEK,POKE, POS, PRINT, PRINT#, READ, REM, RESTORE, RETURN, RIGHT$, RND, RUN, SAVE, SGN, SIN, SPC, SQR, STATUS, STEP, STOP, STR$, SYS, TAB, TAN, THEN, TIME, TIME$, TO, USR, VAL, VERIFY, WAIT.
 

20 minutes ago, oracle_jedi said:

It is why Microsoft released 12K Extended BASIC, and many home computer manufacturers (e.g. Tandy, Dragon, Oric) used 12K BASIC or 16K BASIC as those dialects included a more comprehensive implementation.   Commodore could have delivered a more comprehensive implementation - and indeed they did on the PET (CBM BASIC 4.0), the C16/Plus (CBM BASIC 3.5) and the C128 (BASIC V7) -  but on the VIC20 and C64 we got stripped down bare bones BASIC 2.0 because Jack wanted to keep the costs low.

I'll take that tradeoff.  I found the C64 to be quite a useful and capable computer.  Its BASIC being somewhat limited (though not quite as limited as you seem to think) had virtually zero impact on this, and for teaching purposes, other more complete BASIC interpreters are available, generally in cartridge form.  The VIC-20 is a different matter, although I would still argue that its keyboard is alright and its BASIC is minimally adequate; where it lacks is in being a generally useful computer, which would have been nice (that's where the C64 comes in, starting with the same keyboard and BASIC).

 

20 minutes ago, oracle_jedi said:

The original point here was that the VIC20 was a better machine for the budding programmer because it has a "real keyboard". 

The VIC-20 has too many other limitations, in my opinion, to compete with the 400.

 

20 minutes ago, oracle_jedi said:

That real keyboard isn't very good.   Better than the 400's touch panel, but not really by much considering its anti-ergonomic curve and the height at which the keyboard sits due to the deep case.

It never bothered me (on the C64 "breadbox", most of which are only a touch smaller and lower than the VIC-20), but those who were bothered by the keyboard height could place a foam pad in front of the computer.  But is it really that bad compared to other computers of the time?  I mean, the Apple IIe's keyboard is only about 1/4 inch lower, and most people don't complain.  The same goes for the 800's keyboard, which I personally like, too.  The 800XL's keyboard height is only slightly lower than those (and about a 1/2 inch lower than the VIC-20's), and some examples are genuinely bad for "proper" keyboards.  When I bought mine many years ago, the only ones I had ever touched or seen had been the Mylar-based ones (I know better now, but it's all I knew at the time), for some reason, and people aren't kidding when they say you have to hit the keys dead-center or else they might stick.  I've had no such issues with any VIC-20/C64 keyboards; as cheap as they clearly are, they are fairly robust and not hard to use (for me and some people, at least).

 

But everyone's different, I suppose.  For example, I dislike IBM's classic keyboards for the PC.  Many rave over their feel and feedback, but I don't like how they feel or sound--not even one bit.  That's just me, probably.  And some here actually got used to the 400's keyboard and didn't mind it so much.

 

20 minutes ago, oracle_jedi said:

But sure, a better option for the budding programmer than the 400s pregnant speak-and-spell approach.

Yes, the membrane keyboard makes it hard to take the 400 seriously, despite the power and sophistication underneath, so it was probably a mistake on Atari's part.  Perhaps a decent or at least highly usable Chiclet keyboard would have been the right way to go, but I don't think anyone made any such thing back then (modern Chiclet-like keyboards would have fit the bill, but they would have been too expensive, so I guess not).  I don't know how Sinclair got as far as they did (in the UK and some of the rest of Europe), but then again there are so many other factors involved.

 

20 minutes ago, oracle_jedi said:

Commodore BASIC is a poor dialect to learn BASIC.   On the C64 you got Simon's BASIC that went along way to adding in what was missing, but the VIC got the Super Expander, which just added some RAM and graphical commands or the Programmer's Aid Cartridge which added some useful utilities.  You could not use both at the same time even with a multi-cart expander as they conflict in memory.  Neither one was likely to help you become a good programmer.

Well, BASIC is a poor language to learn programming on, in general, which is why I kind of treat the subject as largely moot.  This is true in an academic sense, in my opinion, and it is true in a practical sense, too (especially back in the day).

 

20 minutes ago, oracle_jedi said:

Add in the VIC's limited screen size and user RAM, and few considered the VIC as a tool to learn programming, despite what the Commodore marketing people said at the time, or how many copies of "Introduction to BASIC - Part1" they bundled in with a VIC, a tape deck and a cassette of Hoppit, Race and Type-a-Tune.

 

The VIC was a toy.  Its very development codename was "TOI".

We're mainly in agreement regarding the VIC-20, although for what it's worth, it still beats the 2600's BASIC Programming cartridge (now this is "whackadoodle"!) and Mattel's attempts at making the Intellivision into a computer (and does the Aquarius even merit a mention?), which was the main competition for that segment of the market at the time, especially when Commodore went  all cutthroat with prices.  The 400's positioning as a product was different, as you mentioned: a game machine with a perfunctory keyboard for games that require one.  Then Atari made the 5200 incompatible.  All of these companies were groping around for answers and making huge mistakes, weren't they?  Even IBM, whose PC was practically the lone survivor, kicked their own behind out of the business long ago.  What a great time in its own strange, chaotic way (no sarcasm).  That's why only hindsight is 20/20.  But I digress.

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I guess we're just talking about built-in BASIC languages here; but, for completeness, Atari had two versions of Microsoft BASIC available. My point here is that, whatever was built-in, was ultimately no limitation for the machine itself.

 

In answer to BASIC in general (or any specific BASIC) being a bad starting point for programming, I disagree. It all depends on how the language is handled. Bad programming habits can be seen in any language. Good BASIC code can be written; and the benefit is that the language is quite accessible for beginners, compared to some other languages.

 

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4 hours ago, MrFish said:

I guess we're just talking about built-in BASIC languages here; but, for completeness, Atari had two versions of Microsoft BASIC available. My point here is that, whatever was built-in, was ultimately no limitation for the machine itself.

We can talk about alternative BASICs.  It's just that I had forgotten that the Super Expander cartridge (adds 3K of SRAM) has a ROM chip in it that extends the built-in BASIC to include graphics and sound commands, among some other functionality.  I don't think it adds the ELSE statement that is missing from BASIC V2, but for beginner learning purposes specifically, I will concede that graphics and sound commands can be helpful (I had argued earlier that more generally they're not all that useful for developing real games and applications on these machines, and I stand by that argument).  As for ELSE, just put the ELSE clause on separate lines below the THEN clause, and add a GOTO to the end of the THEN clause to jump over the ELSE clause (more complicated to describe than it looks--a single GOTO in the same spot effectively takes the place of an ELSE statement).  It's not ideal, but really, the ELSE statement is simply a form of GOTO, and this can be used as a teaching opportunity for program flow. 😁

 

The Atari 400 has a lot more options than the VIC-20 regarding alternative BASICs, but at least the VIC-20 has this one option.  You can still get better, more complete BASICs on the 400, while the VIC-20 has a better keyboard.  You could also replace the keyboard on the 400 with a better one, but the built-in membrane keyboard was sort of the main subject.  As some have correctly stated, the 400 was never intended for serious use, including programming--it was designed as a game console with 2600-type joysticks and a crude keyboard to play certain games that need one.

 

Quote

In answer to BASIC in general (or any specific BASIC) being a bad starting point for programming, I disagree. It all depends on how the language is handled. Bad programming habits can be seen in any language. Good BASIC code can be written; and the benefit is that the language is quite accessible for beginners, compared to some other languages.

It'll teach many things about programming that are generally useful, along with many things that are best forgotten (bad habits that need to be broken) when moving on to other languages for serious use.  While it's not going to permanently "ruin" anyone who has any kind of talent or knack for programming, it is far from the best starting point.  BASIC's accessibility and interactivity for users as an interpreted language with an immediate mode is its main strong point, but the real accessibility that accounts for its popularity is that it was relatively undemanding on primitive early computers and easy--and therefore cheap--to implement and include as part of a packaged system.  Compilers for better high-level languages to learn were hard to come by.  They existed even for 8-bit computers, but were overshadowed by the ubiquity of BASIC.

 

Maybe I'm wrong (I'm a software engineer/developer today, but that alone doesn't necessarily mean I'm right about this), but I would recommend starting out right by learning all the best practices and things that will carry over to more serious use.  Old BASICs and their line numbers and such most definitely aren't that.  Features like that are only good for nostalgia for those who experienced that stuff, but even back then, I skipped it whenever I could.

Edited by Robert Cook

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