Welcome back to my continuing quest to show off the home computer era (which roughly lasted from 1975 to 1994) and its enormous variety of wondrous MOS6502 based machines!

Todays machine was made by Atari, a company well known to Commodore fans for its pivotal role in the Amiga saga and affairs over at Commodore itself. Their wonderfully different 8 bit machines may not have been as popular over here as the ones made by Commodore or Sinclair, but are definitely worth a look!

In the 1980’s Atari was a very different beast from the software publishing behemoth it is today. Back then, it was known for its arcade machines, consoles and of course its 8 bit computers.
The Atari 65XE (source: Jeroen Knoester)
Above: The Atari 65XE in all its glory.
In 1985, Atari released the Atari 65XE, a computer designed to look like and released alongside its ’big brother’ - the Atari ST. The 16 bit revolution was about to begin, but there was still plenty of room for 8 bit machines like this! Featuring 64 KB of RAM and more graphics modes than you could count (though a lot of them were of limited utility or just plain weird), it was based on the successful Atari 400/800 design from 1979.

The Atari 8 bit family is a wonderfully complicated affair: It offers both lots of different colours, but only few of them on screen at the same time*. It offers hardware sprites, but only a maximum of 4 of them*. It has a high screen resolution of 320x192, but use of that resolution is limited to very few colours and modes.

In short, it has that same brilliant-but-flawed-in-some-way thing going that the superlative original Commodore Amiga chipset has: the Amiga has a high resolution graphics mode of 640x512, but that mode uses so many resources the CPU effectively grinds to a halt**. It has sprites, but they are only 16 pixels wide**. It can display all of its 4096 colours on screen at once, but the screen mode used to do so carries so many limitations that you can really only use it for pictures, not anything that moves.

Not so strange if you consider that the Amiga was designed by the same people that designed the 8 bit Atari machines, which in itself makes it a very worthwhile machine to examine!
Why it is interesting:
  • It’s a good example of the redesigns that 8 bit machines underwent as the 16 bit era started
  • Its complicated, yet flexible design means that new ideas are still being developed even today
  • It’s designed by the same people as the Commodore Amiga!
Notable software available includes:
  • Boulder Dash, which was originally made for the 8 bit Atari line and later ported to just about every platform in the world
  • An amazing Wolvenstein 3D clone, found here, showing off just what 8 bits can do!
  • A brilliant version Space Harrier, which can be found here. It does require a big flash memory cart to run, but even so - it is a great conversion!
Some Atari 65XE trivia:
  • Despite featuring a chipset designed in 1979, it has many advanced features. Some of which (like hardware sprites and the high amount of available colours) were not or only partly implemented in computers that were released even years later.
  • It is widely seen as inferior in some ways to the earlier Atari designs, mostly based on the cost-cutting design. Technically it is as capable as it’s earlier siblings and features more RAM, but the case and general design where cheaper than before.
  • The Atari 65XE and 130XE were the first to be released by the new Atari Corporation under Jack Tramiel (of Commodore fame).
Interesting sites about the Atari 65XE include:
Personal notes on the Atari 65XE:
  • I got this machine in 2010 at a retro computer fair, in box.
  • Until I properly read up on it, the differences between all the models were not very clear - Atari had several computers which were very similar in specs but all had different designations.
  • Being used to Commodore computers, I found the huge number of cartridges available for the Atari rather neat. Saves a lot of waiting on disks or tapes!
*) Careful use of raster interrupts and the display list do let you display different modes/more sprites, but the basic limitations (largely) remain intact on a scan-line basis. Use of interlace adds whole new possibilities, but that does go for all the other 8 bit machines as well and I’ve always considered it ’cheating’ of sorts - even when I use it myself :)

**) For the high res mode I am assuming an unexpanded Amiga, I am aware that Fast RAM makes things better. Sprites on the Amiga are just plain weird though: as tall as you like, but very thin. Only 3 colours, but you can get 15 colour sprites - by halving the amount of sprites available per scan-line!