Atari's New Top-Line Home Computer
Tom R. Halfhill, Features Editor
Atari, Inc., enters the new-computer sweepstakes with a high-end home model that improves on the Atari 800 while retaining full compatibility. A new series of peripherals rounds out the Atari line.
Let's get the catch-phrases out of the way first: "1200XL," "64K," "software/hardware compatible," "under $1000."
There. With that off our chests, we can sit back and take a closer look at Atari's new entry into the high-end home market.
Mindful of the growing competition, Atari took pains not to share too much of the spotlight. Knowing that competitors were unveiling several other new home computers at January's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas (see coverage elsewhere in this issue), Atari beat them to the publicity punch. The Atari 1200XL was announced at an early December press conference in New York.
What's the 1200XL like? Very much like an Atari 800. Basically, the new machine is an upgraded version of Atari's former top-line model, the 800 (which is not being dropped, according to the latest word from Atari).
Inside, the Atari 1200XL comes with 64K of memory, unexpandable, just like the machine it most likely will be compared to, the Commodore 64. Like the 64, the 1200XL actually has much less Random Access Memory (RAM) available for BASIC language programming, after overhead for the Operating System, BASIC, and screen memory is subtracted. Both computers are "64K" machines in the sense that they can address a total of 64K memory. The 1200XL's Central Processing Unit is a 6502 microprocessor chip — the same as in the 400/800, and functionally identical to the 6510 chip in the 64.
A Friendlier Keyboard
As you can see from the photo, the most obvious changes are cosmetic. The 1200XL's sleek, low-profile case is remarkably similar to an Apple II's, right down to the mock vent slots in the sides. The 1200XL, though, has a polished metal frontpiece around the keyboard. Atari devotees also will notice some interesting changes in the keyboard.
First, the four console keys found to the right of the keyboard on the Atari 400/800 — START, SELECT, OPTION, and SYSTEM RESET — have been moved above the keyboard and recessed into the case. They have been joined by four new programmable function keys — F1 through F4 — a HELP key, the inverse video key, and the BREAK key formerly found in the upper right corner of the keyboard.
The HELP key serves two purposes. With certain programs, it will call up instructions for baffled users. It also runs diagnostic tests on the computer's memory, audio/video and keyboard systems, and verifies that all external wiring connections are intact.
The new function keys also add some features. The keyboard can be shifted into a European character set (from the regular graphics set) with special symbols for currency and grammar. Another key disables the entire keyboard so that programs which are running cannot be interrupted by accidental keystrokes. Still another key shuts off the screen to prevent permanently "burning in" the image on the TV when the computer is left unattended for long periods. This is like the 400/800's automatic "attract mode" which constantly changes the screen colors if no keys have been pressed for a few minutes.
Two additional lights, labeled LI and L2, located near the new power indicator, show if the keyboard-disabling function or European character set have been selected.
The main keyboard layout has also been improved. Both SHIFT keys are now extra-wide, and the inverse video key (also known as the "Atari logo key") has been moved away from its bothersome position next to the right SHIFT key — no more accidental inverse video when reaching for SHIFT. The CONTROL, TAB, ESCape, CAPS, and DELETE BACK SPACE keys have been widened, the last one extending over the spot vacated by the old BREAK key. The cursor-control keys now work without pressing CONTROL, although this isn't apparent by looking at the keyboard.
Another interesting keyboard change that will be immediately noticed by Atari veterans is the absence of the usual "beep" when a key is pressed. But the controversial little beep is not entirely gone. Instead, it now emanates from the TV speaker, so at least it can be turned down, or off altogether.
One Cartridge, Two Joysticks
The cartridge slot — notice the singular — has been moved from beneath the top hatch of the 400/800 to the left side of the 1200XL. It is no longer necessary to open a door to plug in ROM cartridges. Atari apparently elected for just one ROM slot on the 1200XL because only one cartridge has ever been marketed for the 800's extra right slot — and that cartridge is not made by Atari.
Atari also moved the controller ports from the front to the left side, and reduced their number from four to two. This means you can plug in only two joysticks instead of four, and four paddles instead of eight. Atari is silent on its rationale for this move. Some of Atari's own games (e.g., Asteroids) are designed for up to four joysticks.
Like the Atari 800, the 1200XL works with either a TV or video monitor. Like the GTIA-equipped 400/800, the 1200XL displays up to 256 colors. On the audio side, there are still four sound channels as found on the older models.
Atari is promising delivery of the 1200XL late in the first quarter of 1983.
Color Printing And Plotting
Atari also has introduced a new line of peripherals designed to match the new computer. They will also work with the 400/800. In addition, the peripherals have built-in interfaces for the 1200XL, so the new computer does not need the 850 Interface Module.
There's the Model 1010 Program Recorder, a repackaged 410 Recorder that will retail for $99.95; the Model 1025 80-column dot-matrix printer, a 40-character per second device that accepts fan-fold tractor paper, single sheets, or rolls, $549; and the Model 1020 40-column color printer/plotter.
This interesting peripheral prints four-color text and graphics on 4½″ wide paper. Under program control, it can draw to any set of X and Y coordinates, and change the size and typeface of text. The rotary print head accepts four snap-in pens available in 16 colors. The printer/plotter will retail for $299.
All the peripherals are promised for delivery in March and April. Atari also is hinting that a redesigned disk drive is on the way.
E. T. Phone Home!
Besides all the new hardware, Atari has also introduced some new software with the 1200XL. The Programmer, Communicator, and Entertainer Kits have been updated and joined by a new package, the Home Manager Kit. This includes two disk-based programs, Family Finances and The Home Filing Manager. (Prices not yet available.)
New games include E.T. Phone Home!, adapted from the film (no price yet); and Dig Dug, Galaxian, Defender, and Qix, all home versions of the arcade games ($44.95 each). Juggle's Rainbow and Juggle's House are the first two programs in a new Early Learning Series ($29.95 each). Additions to Atari's line of home management/personal development software are Family Finances, a two-disk package ($49.95); Timewise, an electronic calendar ($29.95); Atari Writer, a cartridge word processor that can save text to disk or cassette ($79.95); and Atari Music 1, a music-theory teacher aimed at third-graders to adults, the first in a new series of Music Learning Software (no price yet).
All the software is promised for delivery throughout the first quarter of 1983.