The Atari 800XL, My First Computer

The Atari 800XL

Atari 800XL Picture Courtesy Wikipedia

Everyone can recall their first car, a first school, and a first phone, but today I am going to reminisce about how I first got started into computing.  In 1986 my brother and I received our first computer as a gift; that computer was the Atari 800XL.  Back then there were many players vying for home computing supremacy.  IBM may have ruled the office with the IBM PC, and Apple may have ruled some homes and schools with the Apple II, but in most of my friends homes back in the day it was one of two computers: you were either an Atari 8 bit person or a Commodore person. My family had already owned an Atari 2600, my Dad really liked the idea of using the Atari game controllers on our computer for games; since he really liked playing Atari with my brother and I, he thought that the 800XL would be a good computer to get us started with.

The Atari 800XL was released in 1983 and was an evolution of the Atari 400 and 800 which were Atari’s first computing systems.  The 800XL was very similar to the Atari 800, but it was smaller than the 800 and had a new Parallel Bus Interface which I never used.  Any peripherals that my family had were based on Atari’s SIO (Serial Input Output) interface, which let you daisy chain peripherals way before Thunderbolt did.  SIO was designed by Joe Decuir who also has a hand in the design of USB!  Unfortunately, SIO required some chips that made it more expensive to make peripherals than it was for the Commodore systems.  Even so, I had a Tape Drive (Atari 1010), a letter quality printer (Atari 1027), plus a unique printer that had more in common with a plotter than a printer in the Atari 1020.

Of course, we also had many games for the system and software.  Most of the games were delivered in cartridge form, however I did have a game or two that I had to wait 30 to 40 minutes to load from the tape drive!

Today you can relive some of the Atari 8 bit glory by running Colleen on your Android based phone; it’s free on the Google Play Store.

That’s how I got started in computing.  What was your first system?

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About the Author

Joel McLaughlin
Joel is a consultant in the IT field and is located in Columbus, OH. While he loves Linux and tends to use it more than anything else, he will stoop to running closed source if it is the best tool for the job. His techno passions are Linux, Android, netbooks, GPS, podcasting and Amateur Radio.

14 Comments on "The Atari 800XL, My First Computer"

  1. The first one I bought for myself was an Apple ][+ when they were new. It was a great system for pretty much everything. In schools I used mostly PC and VAX and IBM mainframes. From there I inherited a Mac Plus, then bought a Mac Classic and a HP200LX handheld PC.

    • Nice! We had Apple II’s and IIe’s with the occasional II+ thrown in there. I always wanted a IIgs but never got one. Another dream was a Next computer which I guess I sort of had when I bought my PowerBook considering how much of Next OS is in Mac OS X.

  2. My first was a Commodore 64 in 1982, followed by a Commodore 128D in 1986. I still have both of those. One friend had an Atari 400 with that speedy tape that we played Star Raiders to no end on back in 1979. That was my first introduction to personal computers. 😉

    • I LOVED Star Raiders. I played version 2 of that on the 800XL. Did you know that the home computer video game for the Last Starfighter was supposed to be Star Raiders 2?? They cancelled it and rebranded it Star Raiders 2. Ahh Memories! 🙂

  3. A TRS-80 Model I with a cassette tape drive that you could pay $20 for tapes with basic programs that took a half hour to load while you watched the asterisk blink. This was a particular favorite: I copied hundreds of pages of BASIC code into that bad boy. And then I upgraded to…a TRS 80 Model III.

    • Mine was a TRaSh-80, too. It was a BIG deal when I coded it to loop my name across the screen. 😉

      • 10 For x=1 to 10

        20 Print “Gear Diary Rocks!”

        30 Next x

        40 End

        You can actually play around with my initial programming environment on this cool little simulator here:

        • 🙂

          Never had the Trash80.

          Atari DID have one I WANTED so bad but it never came out publicly and that was the 1450XLD. It had a floppy drive integrated! 🙂 I never had a floppy! Always wanted one though.

          Then that was followed by the Atari ST line. Always wanted one.

  4. Nostalgia! The 800XL was also my first computer. It was a Christmas present from my parents that was purchased at the local K-Mart. There weren’t too many gaming stores at the time, so I saved many a transcribed BASIC programs typed in from magazines on generic 60m and 90m cassette tapes. (…and that is likely where my carpal tunnel began).

    • My first resume ever was done in Atari writer. Also remember writing book reports in high school using the printer.

  5. My first computer was a Timex Sinclair 2068 I got as a hand me down from my brother. Ahh, loading software from cassette tapes, making sure the volume on the tape player was set just right!

  6. My first computer was a Timex Sinclair 2068 I got as a hand me down from my brother. Ahh, loading software from cassette tapes, making sure the volume on the tape player was set just right!

  7. stevenshytle | June 19, 2013 at 5:37 pm |

    Atari 400 and then the 800XL. My love of the database began there. BASIC was the language and G.I. Joe action figure dossiers were the data.

  8. Although I first learned to program on a Commodore PET at school, our first home computer was the original Atari 800. My parents sprung for the full 48k RAM and the 410 cassette tape drive. Later I got the 1050 floppy disk drive to cut down the lenth of program loads from minutes to seconds. I actually still have all of that gear, plus an 800XL I picked up many years later.
    I still play lots of those old Atari 2600 and 800 (8-bit) games, though mostly in emulation these days (it’s just more convenient). To this day, the original 8-bit Star Raiders remains my all-time favorite video game. I still love that game!

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