Enter the Atari 400
Since I was getting bored with the Atari 2600, after a while I again started bugging my parents to get a real computer. This time it worked, because at some point my Dad came home with an Atari 400.
This would have been sometime in 1983 as that’s when prices for home computers started dropping significantly. I’m pretty sure my Dad got the Atari 400 at Service Merchandise, which had a great electronics department back then (I actually ended up working there for a bit when in college). I suspect the Atari 400 was on closeout as there was a price war with the Commodore VIC-20 and 64, plus newer Atari computer models had been recently announced.
At first it didn’t have BASIC, which was a separate cartridge purchase (unlike the Commodore VIC-20 and 64, which had BASIC built in). This meant I couldn’t really do much with this “computer”. If you turned it on without a cartridge it went into a “Memo Pad” mode where you could type, but that’s all it did.
Memo Pad did prove to be somewhat useful because I really had no idea how to type. The Atari 400 came with a horrible membrane keyboard so you had to press very hard on each key to get it register. It was nice to be able to practice with it.
We did get a few cartridges for it, which means at the beginning it served as a fancy version of the Atari 2600. And it certainly was an improvement! The Atari 400 version of Donkey Kong looked amazing compared to the ugly, blocky version of Donkey Kong on the 2600.
I was excited when we did get BASIC because I could type in and run programs, initially from the Atari magazines we had. But I had no way to save them! I remember typing in programs from magazines and leaving the computer on for days so that I wouldn’t lose them. At some point we got the Atari 1010 cassette recorder which allowed me to save programs so I could reload them later.
If you’ve never used a cassette recorder with a computer, consider yourself lucky. Those things were slow and temperamental. It would take several minutes to save a program and a similar amount of time to reload them. Loading commercial games from cassette could take 10 or 15 minutes! And sometimes it wouldn’t work and you’d have to try again. You also had to carefully keep track of the tape counter so that you could position the tape properly before loading. And the TV made a horrible screeching noise while the program was loading.
Still, I was able to use the 400 to begin learning BASIC programming. In my binder of old programs, I found this BASIC program, dated January 21, 1984, that plays music from a cassette in the cassette recorder through the TV speakers.
As you can see behind this one, I have a few other old programs, which I’ll be sharing soon.
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