THE ATARI® GAZETTE
ATARI COMPUTERS: THE ULTIMATE TEACHING MACHINES?
John Victor, President
Program Design, Inc.
11 Idar Court
Greenwich, CT 06830
The first microcomputer systems were not designed with any particular purpose in mind. They were all-purpose machines. As a result, they had to be designed for all possible configurations with plenty of slots for memory boards, large power supplies, cooling fans, etc. First generation computers were expensive, and many users were paying for features they did not need.
The next generation of microcomputers eliminated the big boxes of the first generation computers, and the video terminal and computer were combined into one unit. Tremendous cost reductions were achieved, but the results were definitely not all-purpose machines. Rather, they were devices targeted for use by schools, small businesses and software hobbyists. The Radio Shack TRS-80, Commodore PET and apple computers became the top sellers of this second generation.
With the introduction of the Atari line of computers we are seeing a third generation of microcomputer — not just from the hardware end but also from a marketing approach. These computers are slightly cheaper than those of the previous generation. The major difference is in the configuration and the application for which the systems were designed. A recent article in on Computing described the Atari computers as hybrids — a cross between a video game and a small computer. Actually the systems have incorporated the best features from both creating a true personal and home computer system. These systems are excellently suited for the educational and recreational interests of the consumer market.
The Atari computers can be operated in three distinct modes: (1) as a regular BASIC-speaking microcomputer, (2) as an audio-visual teaching system, and (3) as a regular Atari video game machine. In addition to the normal computer functions the Atari computer can run an audio cassette from within a BASIC program or along with its educational ROM cartridge. The marketing people at Atari have obviously discovered the consumer market for educational materials (which is easily 10 times as large as the school market).
For the last few months I have had the opportunity to use both the Atari 400 and 800 models for program development, and I will relate some of my discoveries about the possibilities of these systems in a series of 3 articles. The first will cover an overview of the Atari system, the second will cover Atari BASIC, and the third will cover applications for this type of system.
THE ATARI AT A GLANCE
MICROPROCESSOR: 6502. (It is my understanding that a second 6502 handles the video display and graphics.)
MODELS: 400 and 800. 400 is non-expandable with 8K memory. 800 is expandable with plug-in modules.
PRICE: 400 is in $500 range — 800 is in $1000 range.
VIDEO: User's color TV set. Connects thru built-in RF modulator (FCC approved)
LANGUAGES AVAILABLE: BASIC supplied in plug-in ROM
BASIC GRAPHICS: Full color. Several different graphics modes — low to high resolution. Pseudo-graphics and special characters available in text modes.
TEXT: 3 text modes with different type sizes. Upper and lower case, reverse characters, special characters, control characters, 40 by 24 display in regular type mode.
SOUND: 4 sound registers and bell.
MEMORY: 800 can be expanded to 48K thru memory modules.
PERIPHERALS AVAILABLE: game paddles, cassette storage, disk drive, printer
CASSETTE: Dedicated unit supplied by Atari. 600 baud. Recording method similar to Kansas City standard.
The most important feature of a computer is not to be found in the computer itself, but rather in the company manufacturing the computer. The failures in most other small computers has not been in the basic design but rather in the type of support the computer gets from its creator.
For example, the TRS-80 design is essentially very good. The failures of the system can be laid to Radio Shack (and its parent company Tandy) which I like to describe as a "19th century company trying to deal with a 21st century technology." Radio Shack has done well marketing and servicing the TRS-80. However, when it came to research, development, design, and other creative activities, the company was in well over its head. (Note that the basic design came from outside the organization!)
Atari, in contrast, is well suited for this type of business. Their internal structure is unbureaucratic and solutions oriented. I believe that their top management understands the electronics and the marketing of electronics.
This is not to say that Atari hasn't made mistakes, or won't make mistakes. What I will say is that this company learns from its mistakes. They are strictly a class operation.
Atari's crucial edge in this business is that they understand the importance of software. To this end they are supporting software development from both within and outside the company. In contrast, Tandy and Commodore seem to be discouraging the outside development of software with a lack of regard for making hardware and software changes compatible from older to newer machines.
ATARI 400 AND 800
The Atari computers come in two models: 400 and 800. The 400 is much less expensive and is non-expandable. It also uses a flat, solid state keyboard. The 800 is very much like the Apple II in appearance, and is expandable using plug-in cartridges.
The non-expandability of the 400 is a problem. When working in BASIC, the operating system gobbles up almost 3K of the computer's memory leaving 5K for the user to work with. I don't think that 8K is enough — 16K would have been much better. Otherwise, the system is OK. I happen to like the solid state keyboard if the choice is between it and an inexpensive mechanical keyboard like the one on the Ohio Scientific Challenger IP. (Solid state key beeps when hit.)
The modular construction of the 800 makes expansion the simplest thing imaginable. Add more memory? Even the most technically naive consumer can do it without bringing the computer back to the store!
Since the language ROM is contained in a cartridge, it will be a simple matter to change languages with this system. If this system had been available for the TRS-80 Level I and II, then there would now be ten times as much software available for the Radio Shack computer as there now is.
There are three modes of program storage for the Atari system: plug-in ROMs, audio cassette, or disk. The plug-in ROMs are great for mass market programs such as microchess. However, they are expensive and must be manufactured in quantities of around 30,000. Most applications programs would not qualify for this type of storage. (The decision of Texas Instruments and other companies to make their systems primarily ROM based may very well eliminate most of the software support for their systems!)
One of the best features of the Atari computer is the audio cassette storage capability. Atari obviously learned from the mistakes of Commodore and others regarding cassette recording formats. They picked a highly reliable system based on two tones for encoding digital information — 0 is represented by one tone, and 1 by another. The cassette unit supplied has the audio controls removed.
The cassette format is unaffected by small differences in recording level, drop outs, head misalignment, dirty heads, etc. — all of the things that would reck havoc with a PET, Apple or TRS-80 tape. However, this system cannot tolerate speed variations. Cheap cassette casings and home-brew duplications will not go over very well with this sytem.
There is also another problem: the computer must see a program within so many seconds of a CLOAD command. Therefore, the tape must be carefully positioned before loading a program.
The Atari cassette unit is stereo—one track records digital information for program storage and a second can play back audio video recording. This system can play a voice to go along with educational programs under computer control. The voice is played back through the user's TV set.
The Atari disk system transmits data serial fashion. This makes data transfer much slower than a system (such as Apple's) that transmits data in parallel. This was done so that the Atari system could gain FCC approval—a parallel connection produces too much radio frequency interference.
NEXT A REVIEW OF ATARI BASIC AND GRAPHICS
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Program Design, Inc.
11 Idar Court
Greenwich, CT 06830