Retro Home Computers – Atari 1200XL

Atari 1200XL
1982 – 1983

Atari 1200XL Newspaper Ad

Above: Atari 1200XL Newspaper Ad

In 1982, Atari’s Home Computer Division (HCD) introduced the new replacement computer to its aging Atari 400/800 line. The new computer brought to Atari’s home computers line a high-tech and sleek low profile modern look. The case design and the “XL Look” were created by Regan Cheng of Atari’s Industrial Design group. The new design took the seven separate boards that made up the Atari 800 (Main, Power, CPU, OS and 3 16K Memory boards) and integrated them into a single motherboard with 64K of memory.

Atari 1200XL Retro Computer

Above: Atari 1200XL Retro Computer

The system featured many new internal and external enhancements. Some of the obvious ones were the new function keys and built-in help key that programmers could incorporate their usage into future programs. The tangle of wires from the system were now out of the back making for a clean and uncluttered arrangement. The cartridge port and controller jacks were now on the left side of the system.

Plug and Play

The new operating system was designed for a new era of SIO “Plug n Play” devices to automatically load their device drivers and even on-board applications right into the 1200XL memory, also an International Character Set and built-in Diagnostic features were now part of the system. Other operating system enhancements were included as well.

Atari 1200XL Motherboard

Above: Atari 1200XL Motherboard

However, the downside was that many programs by both third party companies and even Atari itself were incompatible with this new operating system in the machine. The loss of two of the four original controller jacks from the earlier Atari 400/800 systems did not seem like much of a big deal to the 1200XL engineers, however the end users did seem to mind.

Fuzzy Display

The system was supposed to have a better video display output signal, however to most end users, the system appeared to have a fuzzier display then the Atari 800. The true sticking point for consumers: No expansion whatsoever. While the idea of a closed box design seemed like a good idea to Atari’s Marketing Department, the consumer felt exactly the opposite.

Atari’s whole design philosophy for their home computer line was that these would be consumer oriented and not hobbyist oriented. Therefore, that meant buffering the user from the actual electronics and chips within the machines. This design was very well executed on the Atari 800 with its easy to remove top cover and its various operating system and memory modules fitted into easy to install packages. The SIO connector also gave users a universal, easy to handle and understand expansion system.

Too Many Short Comings

Atari felt it could take this philosophy to the extreme with the 1200XL and completely cut the users off from any internal access. Even the simplest of users still wanted to tinker and expand their systems and the 1200XL just did not give them the flexibility found in Apple ][e’s, C64s or Atari’s original 800 line of computers. The collective shortcomings of the 1200XL unfortunately overshadowed its many new enhancements. Atari’s new prodigy became its “Edsil”. The introduction of the new 1200XL actually increased sales of the Atari 800. Users began to buy 800’s in fear that they would be stuck with a closed and incompatible system.