by Arthur Leyenberger
Atari recently appointed a new User Group Coordinator, Chris Roberts. The post had previously been held by Sandy Austin, and then Cindy Claveran, and has been vacant for some time. In addition to being responsible for User Croup coordination activities, Chris will oversee Atari's participation in all Atarifests and World of Atari shows.
For two years Chris was president of the Pasadena Area Local Atari Computer Enthusiasts (P.A.L.A.C.E.). He is an experienced BASIC programmer on both the 8-bit and ST computers, has run his own BBS and worked for the Federated Group. Chris is married, has three children and is a native Californian.
He has his work cut out for him. First, the User Group database is apparently out of date, so he asks that all User Groups reregister with Atari. To do so, send a card with your club name, official address, president's name and phone number and where and how often you meet. Also, a sample newsletter, if your club has one, would be helpful. This information should be sent to: Chris Roberts, User Group Coordinator, Atari Corp., 1196 Borregas Ave., Sunnyvale, CA 94086. In addition, Chris can be reached at (408) 745-2052. If individual Atari users would like a listing of the registered User Groups in their state, they need only to write to Chris at the above address and include a self-addressed stamped envelope.
In order to foster better communications among User Groups, Atari and each other, Chris plans to revive the User Group Newsletter on a bimonthly basis. Further, Atari and GEnie are working to create a User Group area on that information service that will be available only to registered User Groups. The special area will allow User Groups to get the latest news and information from Atari, receive help with technical issues and stay in touch with each other.
It's encouraging that Atari has not only filled the User Group Coordinator position, but has done so with a person who has had hands-on experience with User Groups. One of the continuing problems that has plagued Atari users for many years is getting accurate information from Atari. Hopefully, Chris Roberts will be able to resolve this problem. I wish him much success.
I've just returned from my 14th consecutive visit to the semiannual Consumer Electronics Show. As I have done twice yearly for the past seven years, I spent four days traversing the equivalent of 13 miles of aisles of some 1,300 audio, video, telephone, computer, video game and entertainment exhibits. In other words, I spent 32 hours roaming around two giant exhibit halls the size of about 17 combined football fields. Good thing I wore comfortable shoes!
Although not on display, several of the Atari folks were walking around showing the Portfolio, an under-$400 hand-held computer that weighs less than a pound and is about the size of a paperback novel.
Atari was there, but the focus (as in the past several shows) of their booth was games, games, games. Some twenty new game titles were announced for the 2600, 7800 and XE game systems. These new titles are scheduled to be available by the end of the year. Atari also announced new lower prices for the 2600 ($50) and the 7800 ($70). Further, they announced that light guns are now available for the 2600 and 7800 game machines.
To me, the silliest section of the Atari booth was the display of a full line of calculators. Why is Atari selling calculators? Atari is a lean company with limited resources. Selling calculators may not require all that much effort (the calculators are actually made by a third party that has paid for the right to use the Atari logo), but it sure dilutes the image of the company. Is Atari a computer company? Is it a game company? It's been difficult to figure this out for a long time now.
Still, there were just enough computers on hand to be confusing. In one outside corner of the booth, a lone ST, attached to a MIDI keyboard and running a MIDI program was being demonstrated. There were also a couple of IBM clones (shown previously) that have still not become available in the U.S.
Although not on display, several of the Atari folks were walking around showing the Portfolio, an under-$400 hand-held computer that weighs less than a pound and is about the size of a paperback novel. If you've read our previous coverage of this machine (when it was first shown at the Spring COMDEX), you'll recall that it is really a diminutive IBM clone since it contains DOS in ROM, has 128K bytes of RAM (expandable to 640K), an 8-line by 40-character display and a 63-key QWERTY keyboard.
The Portfolio can use either ROM cards for software or RAM cards for data storage. Two standard "AA" batteries power the Portfolio for up to 48 hours of continuous operation, and an interface jack is provided for exchanging data directly with a PC. Also, a text-editing program and an address/phone list ROM card are provided with the unit. According to Atari representatives, the Portfolio will be available by the time you read this.
Another New Video Game
The main attraction at the Atari booth was the announcement of the Atari Portable Color Entertainment System. To quote Atari, "the world's first color portable hand-held video game system." In non-PR-babble, it's a hand-held game machine that uses a 3½-inch built-in color LCD screen, can display graphics with up to 16 simultaneous colors from a palette of 4,096 colors and has a resolution of 160 by 102 pixels. The portable video game uses a 16-MHz processor, which is faster than that used by other video game machines, such as the Nintendo and Sega.
The portable game weighs about a pound and is slightly larger than a videocassette. Although it is a completely self-contained unit, it can be linked with up to eight other units for multiplayer games. The game system has 64K RAM and runs on six "AA" batteries or can be powered by an included AC adapter.
The game has an eight-way "joypad," four fire buttons, two option buttons, a pause and an on/off switch. Other features include four-channel sound, volume and screen contrast controls and a headphone jack. One innovative aspect of the game is that the screen image can be rotated 180 degrees to accommodate both right- and left-handed players.
The Atari hand-held video game was developed by Epyx, which initially had planned to sell it under their own name. In fact, it was to have debuted at this show. The rights to the game were apparently sold to Atari shortly before the start of the show. Although Atari did not publicly acknowledge that Epyx designed and developed the hardware, they did announce that Epyx will be the first company to release games for the machine. These will be available on credit card-sized ROMS that slip into the unit and sell for under $35.
When the game is released, Epyx will have five games available: Blue Lightning (a first-person jetfighter game), Time Quests and Treasure Chests (an adventure/strategy game), Gates of Zendocon (arcadelike action game) Impossible Mission (action/adventure game) and Monster Demolition (action game). Each game card typically contains 256K bytes but is capable of holding as much as two megabytes of information. Epyx's California Games (an action game already familiar to many Atari computer owners) will be bundled with the system.
Atari said they are working closely with Epyx to develop more titles for the game and also hope to interest third-party developers in the system in order to produce more games. The retail price of the Atari Portable Color Entertainment System is $150 and it is scheduled to be available this fall, in time for the Christmas season.
Nintendo also announced a hand-held video game machine at CES called the Game Boy. Already available in Japan, the Game Boy is of particular interest here since it will be competing with the new hand-held Atari model. The Game Boy is about half the size of the Atari unit and weighs about ten ounces. It operates on four ‘AA’ batteries, has stereo sound and a headphone jack. Unlike the Atari portable game machine, the Game Boy uses a monochrome non-backlit LCD screen. Two Game Boy units can be connected via a cable for two-person games, such as baseball.
The Nintendo Game Boy will retail for $90 and game cards will list for under $20. Tetris will be shipped with the unit, and other titles, such as Super Mario Brothers, will be available when the system is introduced this fall.
Comparing the Atari portable game with the Nintendo unit shows that the Atari game is easier to see because of its use of color and backlighting. Further, the Atari screen is larger than that used on the Game Boy. On the other hand, the smaller overall size of the Game Boy may make it more convenient to carry in a bookbag or a pocket.
Nintendo currently enjoys about three-quarters of the home video-game market. They will, no doubt, launch a major advertising campaign when the Game Boy becomes available. Given Atari's (non)advertising history and penny-pinching policies, it is anyone's guess what they will do to promote their portable game. As for me, I'm going to buy both.
Arthur Leyenberger is a freelance computer journalist who lives in, works in and loves New Jersey. He can be reached on CompuServe at 71266,46, or on DELPHI as ARTL.