Atari Basic programming has progressed so much further from the earliest days when it was introduced on an Atari 2600 game program for the VCS machine. Be sure to read more about this on the History of Atari page. This section discusses the Atari 65xe Computer in general.
It likely wasn’t popular since the world was not yet used to programming, especially trying to stand out among a system name for mostly gaming. However it did get several things right such as introducing input/output and passing values to a stack for saving and retrieval.
Yet my adventure was not to begin at that time, even though I was already experiencing signs of a huge amount of respect for this system, I was not yet tuned to the world of bits and bytes because I was caught up too much in the game fantasy. However, after making my first purchase around November of 1986, everything changed and I saw the magic of what it meant to program a machine, and make it dance! Feel free to check out my Atari Basic Programming page for more.
Making your own Programs
So I hope you find this guide inspirational, and that my years of making mistakes, and working to improve over time could be any type of persuasion to get you started on an adventure of either just enjoying programming like I do, or even possibly considering it as a future career. You can make a good living from this skill, once you move onto other software languages.
So before we begin to explore the world below the keyboard and understand how to construct statements that can be pinned together to make program lines, I felt it was necessary to introduce this machine to you. There is a page for the Atari 65xe Computer that will provide an introduction for this amazing machine that I’m sure you will find beneficial.
Atari Personal Computer’s History
First some history, though the original Atari personal computer was launched around 1979. It derived from a 6502 CPU from MOS Technology and operated at around 1.79 MHZ. The first system was called the Atari 400. During that season, Atari sold around 2 million units through department stores and dealers. I picked mine up at a department store called Children’s Palace.
Because this website is dedicated primarily to the Atari 65xe, I’d now like to introduce this incredible machine. It was released publicly in 1985, and sparked a close resemblance to the Atari ST computer. It contained 64KB (kilobytes) of RAM (Random Access Memory). In Germany and Czechoslovakia (according to wikipedia), it was called the 800XE.
The hardware is surrounded by a cast plastic casing unit, contains a plastic keyboard set, 5 console keys (Help, Start, Select, Option, and Reset), which were mostly used in gaming and applications. It contained the ATARI logo embedded above the keyboard with the title name 65XE extended to the right. The upper half of the unit contained an air vent, which was quite uncommon for computers during this age. Likely this may have been due to the excessive issues with the PCB board and other components. I cannot begin to tell you of all the repairs I sent my through in the early years. In case you missed it there is an Atari 65xe Motherboard page that will shed more light on this.
I was fortunate to get possession of an Atari 65xe after all these years. I was surfing through the Facebook marketplace about a month ago (in February 2019), and I met up with a guy that said his father was into major old 8-bit machines.
I was blown away when I met this man. His house was completely dominated by old Ataris, Commodore 128/64 components, Kaypro, CPM machines, old apple Apple laptops, and so on. Said he used to be an engineer. I got an 2 Atari’s from him (Atari 65xe and XE Game system), a ton of disks, several amazing Compute! books, and other Atari devices for around $120. Can’t wait to meet up with him again as he is having a house sale of his old computers by May this year.
Atari Rear Connectors
On the back rear side are several places used for expanding the unit and providing connections for devices on the Atari 65xe personal computer.
First there is the peripheral port on the far left. This port is used to plug in a cassette recorder, disk drive, modem, or a printer. This was actually an incredible feat of marketing since a single cord could manage multiple devices connected to 13 pins.
Atari Game Cartridges
Next to this is a 30 pin connector for cartridges. The original systems required a Basic cartridge when you wanted to program in the Basic language. However, since Basic was built into this machine, it made games and applications quite popular instead. This also allowed a game to instantly begin running (just like on the Atari 2600 and its other family units), since it didn’t required loading a program from scratch and instead utilized specific hardware chips to manage the memory. Some of my first games were E.T. Phone Home, Joust, and Dig Dug. Ah, I can still recall the pleasant moment when I heard the built in sound chip mimic the alien’s voice!
Atari RF Modulator
The next connector is for the Atari composite computer monitors that managed this port. The earliest Atari computer however did not use such a display. Rather it was marketed to connect to television with the RF modulator cord. This was probably a good move to capture the attention of this computer’s immediate accessibility since it could be hooked up to any black & white television or color T.V. during the primal years.
Going further over to the right, the next area of interest is the channel connector. Now this one is an interesting thing to note since it was used to control a signal to the television interface to tune a channel to 2 or 3. So even though, a monitor connector was built into this system, Atari still left the channel connector since a majority of customers still operated the display control through their television. I can also vividly contest that I too hooked it up to a television.
Atari Channel Switch
Then we present the TV Channel Select Switch. As discussed earlier with the channel connector, this port was used to connect an Atari personal computer to your television set, using the channel selector to set the appropriate channel. It was used in the early beginning of the Atari 400 to control the reception of the computer when interfacing with a TV signal. This cord plugged into a TV Switch Box (not seen here) to establish a solid connection with a VHF antenna that was fastened to the rear of a television during that time. If you are curious, you can learn more about televisions by reading the Atari Raster Scan article.
The next connector is the Power Adapter Plug. It is used to connect the Atari 65xe personal computer to an AC power supply. I can certainly testify that their power supplies were among the best in the industry.
Finally at the far right, there is the On/Off Switch. This is used to turn the system off when next in use and was conveniently placed for easy access on the back.
The Atari Console Keys
The main assembly of the Atari computer consists of the Console Keys and the Keyboard. First we will explore the Console Keys. There are 5 keys situated on the far right side of the unit. They have a light colored display with white text for the letters. Listed in order they are:
Help– used to guide a user through application software and used during the Start Up Test (entering BYE from Basic).
Start– used in game software to begin a new game, can be embedded into programs to simulate the same, and used to Start applications with business software packages.
Select – used in both game and application software to choose an area of interest. Most commonly this could be used to scroll through assorted selections.
Option– used in games and business applications to decide from a list of other options. In games it could be used to change a difficulty level and in business software it could switch between various types of applications.
Reset – Used to perform a Warm Reset on the unit while usually keeping a running program intact. Often when running a game (with no cartridge attached), it would quit back to Basic or whatever tool is used on the system. In business applications it would exit and return to an editor or main menu.
Atari Controller Ports
With the personal computer facing you, on the right panel side there are two controller ports with 9 pins. These are used to connect your device to a touch tablet, numeric keypads, joysticks, and paddle controllers. These also are commonly known as I/O (Input/Output) ports.
In Basic you can take advantage of the Atari’s hardware to send commands to your joystick or device of interest. This was mostly made popular in the earlier days by controlling a joystick accessing the Page Type memory locations 624-647 ($270 – $287).
There is now a page called Atari Joysticks that will guide you how to set this up for your own programs. It performs this by sending electric currents to the pins on the ports that communicate with the PIA chip hardware.
The Atari 65xe Keyboard
The keyboard consists of 56 keys placed at the lower end of the computer, closer to the user. Going from the upper left to right you will find the Esc (Escape) key, number keys 1-9, and 0, Clear, Insert, Delete, and the Break key.
The next row begins with Tab the letters Q,W,E,R,T,Y,U,I,O,P, minus sign, equals, and the Return key.
After this starting at the left we have the Control key, A,S,D,F,G,H,J,K,L, semicolon, plus, asterisk, and the Caps key.
Finally we have the Left Shift key, Z,X,C,V,B,N,M, comma, period, question mark, Right Shift, and the Insert Key. Below this in the center is the space bar.
Many of these keys access different characters, and pressing the Shift and Control keys can access a different character set. This will be reviewed much later in other tutorials. Be sure to check the Atari Character Set for now. The Control keys pressed in combination with the alphabet keys and various others can be used to draw simple designs (something known as ASCII).