How Atari took on Apple in the 1980s home PC wars

Atari 400 (1979) with a membrane keyboard and single-width cartridge slot cover (Photo by Evan-Amos - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
Atari 400 (1979) with a membrane keyboard and single-width cartridge slot cover (Photo by Evan-Amos – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

“Forty years ago, Atari released its first personal computers: the Atari 400 and 800. They arrived in the fall of 1979 after a prerelease marketing campaign that had begun the previous January when the company unveiled the machines at what was then called the Winter Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas,” Benj Edwards writes for fast Company:

Atari initially marketed the 800 and its lower-cost counterpart, the Atari 400, as “second-generation” PCs—productivity machines with enhanced graphics and sound capabilities over the 1977 holy trinity of personal computing: the Apple II, Commodore PET, and TRS-80. The company intended them to crunch home budget numbers just as often as they simulated space battles… And due to restrictive FCC rules that precluded the open expansion slots on the Apple II, Atari designed a suite of intelligent plug-and-play peripherals linked together by a serial IO bus that presaged the ease of the much-later USB…

At launch, the Atari 800 retailed for $999 with 16K of RAM (about $3,387 when adjusted for inflation), and the Atari 400 with 8K retailed for $549 (about $1,861 today). Compared to a game console such as the Atari VCS at $190, that was expensive, but it undercut the 16K Apple II’s $1,195 retail price in 1979.

MacDailyNews Take: This is a fun read and, as some of us were original users of our personal trinity — Atari 2600, Commodore 64, Apple II — it brings back very fond memories!

24 Comments

  1. I was a Commodore first had a Vic 20 then Commodore 64 with a floppy drive and a dial up modem – eventually a PC. Honestly I always felt the Amiga was ahead of its time. I went to Apple once Apple switched to Unix. Those days were definitely fun.

    1. I had the pleasure of owning an Atari 520ST. Which I upgraded to 2.5 Meg RAM, requiring me to hardwire a SIMM expansion card inside it, directly soldering on the motherboard

  2. I bought an 800 through the mail in 79 and it arrived the day I was leaving Everett, WA with my wife and daughter for a 2 week vacation. No fear of connecting it to my moms TV when we got to San Diego.

    When the expansion module came out, I spent many a night on month trying to connect to a fellow owner in New Jersey through a Hayes modem. I had a $133 phone bill that month.

  3. My father taught computers (they called it “data processing”) at a vocational high school so he was always bringing early Apple gear home for the summer. As kids we were introduced to the Apple II and then later the Macintosh. It made me an early diehard fan of Apple that has continued for my entire life. We absolutely loved our Atari 2600 game system but I barely remember that Atari had home computers until I saw this post.

  4. Can’t remember if It was an Atari but when I was way small I remember the Pong game

    Smack the paddle : ‘Tok”
    Wait wait wait wait
    Opponent smacks the paddle. : “Tok”

    Tok … … … Tok …. … … Tok … … … Tok

    We thought that was epitome of excitement
    Lol

  5. Amiga 1000 thru Amiga 4000 great OS/Hardware, third party software and hardware (Video Toaster, Lightwave 3D, the Atari was really good for music production in it’s day I miss all of the American companies that designed a OS with hardware.

  6. I was a Commodore user. My father bought a VIC 20. I later got a C64. And I had to save money for a long time to get an Amiga 1000. Sometimes I think how Amiga could have been today if Commodore still existed.

    1. Unfortunately. we know exactly where they would end up with Commodore. I think if Irving Gould had been kidnapped around 1986, and Thomas Rattigan was allowed to keep full control, I would be using my Amiga 10,000 and laughing at all the puny Windows users.

      1. I’m not so sure it was even composite? I think it was any tv with a cable coax input, or antennae terminals. That’s what my 800 had, a little box with the cables to connect to the antennae or you could connect the coax direct if the tv had a coax terminal, which mine did not. The you had to tune to the correct channel the Atari was setup to use. Maybe it also had composite but I don’t think those were common yet in early 80’s.

  7. Yes, those were the days. My PC evolution started with a TRS-80, then Apple II, then Apple II GS, then several Microsoft clones, and now finally a 27in. dual screen iMac (because of the OS) with all the memory and storage I could afford. What was most impressive in those early days is how much you could actually program with only 16k of ram. Coders then really knew how to optimize their programs!

    1. Well, except Atari had better graphics, color graphics and sound. It blew Apple 2 away for a few years for non business applications. Funny to think Apple wasn’t the best “graphics“ computer at the time. Apple were more business machines and the games and graphics programs kinda sucked compared to Atari and C64 at the time.

  8. Yes, remember those days like it was yesterday. My younger brother bought a TRS80 and years later I bought a Lisa. Then bought the first Mac (Hello), skipped the SE and moved on to the Mac IIFX fully loaded for eight grand. It is absolutely amazing the firepower eight grand buys you today compared to Tech all those many years ago….

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