In Defense of the Atari 1200XL

Atari 1200XL badging

Atari 1200XL badging

It is an “Edsel“, an “Avanti“, or something in-between?

The Atari 1200XL has always had a sullied reputation with the Atari community as a crippled machine that was too expensive and which nearly killed Atari.  I think, taken in context with the time and place, the 1200XL was a semi-crippled machine (crippled from Atari’s flawed Sweet-Sixteen strategy), that was too expensive to build (because of Sweet-Sixteen baggage), but which actually helped save Atari’s home computer business.  Let’s take a look at the evidence.

Originally designed in the mid-to-late 1970’s, Atari’s first home computers, the 16k 400 and the 48k 800, were bulky and expensive to manufacturer.  As the 1980’s dawned and FCC rules regarding the amount of RF shielding personal computers were required to have were relaxed, Atari began to consider replacements.  From April through June 1982, Atari drafted new specifications, dubbed the Sweet-Sixteen Project.  True to their 400/800 roots, this new line of Atari 8-bit computers would include a low-end 16k computer, the Atari 1000, and a high-end 64k Atari 1000X.  Both would feature new, streamlined, enclosures by Ragen Cheng – head of Atari’s industrial design team.  Internally, the system would include built-in diagnostics, enhanced peripheral connections and an ambitious new expansion connector.

One of the most attractive of the 8-bit computer designs, the Atari 1200XL, by Regan Cheng.

One of the most attractive of the 8-bit computer designs, the Atari 1200XL, by Regan Cheng.

By mid-June 1982, the last revisions has been made, and things were set.  Work began on a series of add-ons for the new Atari 1000 line of home computers.  This is why the entire line of Atari XL peripherals are numbered in the 1000’s, not the 1200’s.  The 1010 Program Recorder replaced the 410. The 1050 disk drive supplanted the hulking 810.  The sleek 1030 modem in place of both the 830 and 835.  The cornerstone of the lineup was the Atari 1090 Expansion System. A 5-expansion-slot beast, the 1090 could become PC-compatable by simply adding a daughterboard with an Intel CPU.

The Sweet-Sixteen strategy called for Atari to be competitive in the home computer market through Atari 1000 systems.  And, the Atari 1090 expansion box would allow Atari to play in the more ‘professional computer’ market, dominated by the IBM PC and the Apple II line.  The entire plan might have been brilliant, and maybe even successful, had it been initiated in August 1981 as a response to the launch of the IBM PC.  Rather, it’s arguable that the announcement of the Commodore 64 in December 1981 and the rapid rise of IBM as a player are what spurred Atari into action.  In late summer 1982, the decision was made that the new Atari 1000 computers would be announced at the winter CES show in January 1983, and shipped shortly after.  Then, all hell broke loose.

The cartridge port, and controller connections, for the Atari 1200XL

The cartridge port and controller connections for the Atari 1200XL

In September 1982, the Commodore 64 was released for $595, $300 less than a 48k Atari 800.  The C64 was a smash hit right out of the gate, and sales of the Atari 400 and 800 cratered – along with nearly every make of home computer.  Through the holiday season, Atari was forced to price cut 400/800 stock to the point of losing money on every unit.  That old 1970’s heavily shielded design was coming back to haunt them.  The only companies seemingly unaffected by Commodore’s price war were Apple and IBM.  Within months Atari was suddenly bleeding money at a time of year when it should be the most profitable.  Atari opted for play defense by releasing a C64 competitor quickly, hoping that would buy enough time for them to create a plan to deal with the threat from Commodore.

The Atari 800 was too expensive to manufacturer at 48k to sell at $595.  And the nearly-in-production 16k Atari 1000 was too memory constrained.  The only option was to modify the 64k 1000X design to make it as inexpensive to manufacturer as possible.  Unfortunately, this accounted for little savings, and only by crippling features that could not be removed from the basic system design.  For example, perhaps pennies-per-unit were saved by:  Leaving the +12V SIO connection un-wired, even though completely capable, or not connecting an improved chroma video circuit already on the motherboard.  Even by losing the external expansion bus connections entirely, this new computer was practically destined to lose money.  Enter the 1200XL, Atari’s bridge to continued life in the 8-bit computer world.

"Don't hate, celebrate!"

“Don’t hate, celebrate!”

Announced at a press conference in mid-December 1982, the Atari 1200XL’s first contribution to the bottom-line may have been to chase off any last-minute holiday 400/800 buyers with the promise of a better computer just-around-the-corner.  Who knows how many people said, “Screw waiting for Atari” and bought a C64 instead.

Atari 1200XL Commodore 64 Atari 800XL
CPU MOS 6502C – 1.75MHz MOS 6510 – 1.023MHz  MOS 6502C – 1.75MHz
RAM 64KB 64KB 64KB
ROM 16KB 20KB 24KB
GPU ANTIC (Video & Display Lists)
GTIA (Output & Sprites)
320×192 @ 16 colors max.
VIC-II: 320×200 @ 16 colors max.  ANTIC (Video & Display Lists)
GTIA (Output & Sprites)
320×192 @ 16 colors max.
Sound POKEY – 4 Voices over 3.5 Octaves SID 6581 – 3 Voices over 8 Octaves  POKEY – 4 Voices over 3.5 Octaves
Expansion Cartridge Port Cartridge Port
Expansion Port
Cartridge Port
Interfaces Atari SIO
Atari Monitor Port
RCA A/V Port
Cassette Port
Controller Port (2x)
RCA A/V Port
Atari SIO
Atari Monitor Port
RCA A/V Port
Price (at Launch Date) $899 (March 1983) $595 (August 1982)
Drops to $200 (June 1983)
$299 (September 1983)

Formally demonstrated at the Winter CES show in early January 1983, the Atari 1200XL went on sale in March for a laughable $899.  Commodore’s response was to drop the price on the C64 to $400, and allow people to trade-in old video game consoles for an additional $100 off. Even as a stripped down 1000X, the 1200XL would never make money at $595, let alone $400-300.  The unexpected, and successful, rebate program hurt Atari badly, removing VCS/2600/5200 customers from the market, while stealing market-share in home computers.

Very quickly Atari developed a new home computer strategy.  By the 1983 Summer CES show, Atari was ready to show off the 16k 600XL and 64k  800XL.  Both were more compact, and far less expensive to manufacturer. The 1200XL was scheduled to be discontinued by late-summer or early-fall 1983, mere months after release.  Atari planned to replace it with two high-end models, the Atari 1400XL (basically, a design closer to the original 1000X, but with a modem – go figure), and the 1450XLD – with build-in disk drive.  Commodore’s response was to drop the price on the C64 to $200.  Continuing Atari’s streak of bad luck, production delays with the 600 and 800XL’s forced the 1200XL to soldier on until late 1983.

Atari’s entire plan to compete with IBM and Apple with the 1400XL, 1400XLD and 1090 Expansion, died in the face of the price war with Commodore, and was shelved before production.  By the end of 1983, Texas Instruments had abandoned their home computer division, which was a strong contender for marketshare leadership only a couple of years before.  Radio Shack, while continuing the Color Computer line for a number of years, began to shift more and more emphasis toward their PC Clones.   Only Atari, with it’s inexpensive-to-build 800XL, would be left to compete with Commodore in the ‘home’ computer market.

The back of the Atari 1200XL, and its various ports.

The back of the Atari 1200XL, and the various ports.

The 1200XL has a mixed legacy with the Atari community, often seen as the “Edsel” of the Atari 8-bit line-up, even by AtariMuseum.com.  I think this is unfair.  Taken in context, the 1200XL is more akin to Spartans at Thermopylae. A force hastily put together and scarified against an unstoppable enemy – Commodore and the 8-bit Computer Price War – to buy enough time to mount a credible defense.  The 1200XL was just that although, admittedly, it didn’t perform as heroically as the Spartans.  The system’s reputation is also marred by exaggerations about software incompatibility.  While technically true, changes to the entire XL line affected very, very few programs, and generally those that did not adhere to Atari programming specifications.  It is a situation similar to how Workbench version 1.2+ for the Amiga 1000 broke compatibility with a handful of early Electronic Arts games.

There is also the notion that the lack of expandability drove customers away from the 1200XL.  I think the success of the equally hard-to-expand C64, as well as the 600/800XL computers, disprove that.  There is even the urban legend that Atari 800 sales spiked, and people hoarded them, on the announcement of the 1200XL. This doesn’t take into account the severe price reductions on both the Atari 400 and 800. Few will spend $899 for a 1200XL, when there’s an Atari 800 sitting there for $400.

Even Atari’s current website perpetuates many of these myths.  Hobbyists clamor for expansion ports, not the average consumer of home computer products. By the end of 1983, hobbyists were not driving the industry any longer. Much of the growth in computers at this time was driven by console gamers upgrading to computers as prices dropped throughout the year. One can easily presume that, had Atari featured a cost-competitive alternative to the C64, they would have had a much easier time keeping VCS/2600 & 5200 owners ‘in the family’. Simply put, Atari spent far too much time eyeing the positions of IBM and Apple, and far too little time considering the ways that Commodore could eat-their-lunch. Atari lost the ‘8-bit Computer War’ to Commodore, not because of the 1200XL’s lack of expandability (or the 800XL’s, or 600XL’s, or 130XE’s, etc), but because Commodore owned the company providing one of the most expensive parts of the C64; its CPU.

The Atari 1200XL has one of the best and most comfortable keyboards I've ever used.

The Atari 1200XL has one of the best and most comfortable keyboards I’ve ever used.

Generally, criticism of the Atari 1200XL boils down to the unfulfilled promise of the Sweet-Sixteen Project, especially among Atari enthusiasts.  Realistically, the strategy was doomed to failure anyway.  The business-world was only beginning to embrace desktop computers, due to presence of IBM. IBM would go on to release the PC-AT design in April 1984.  This would have allowed them to drop the price on the original PC to ward off any theoretical threat the Atari 1400-line or 1090 would have on their business.  The simple fact that, for PC compatibility,  you would have to buy the Atari, the 1090 and an Intel CPU daughterboard, would make Atari’s professional and business solutions far too expensive. As a matter of economics, business simply would have gone – as they historically did anyway – with PC’s and PC Clones. Apple, being Apple, was too far entrenched in academia for Atari to make inroads there.  The only viable option left for Atari Home Computers was to take the fight right back to Commodore, and the 1200XL provided the time for them to do just that.

In its short run, Atari ended up producing around 105,000 Atari 1200XL’s.  After building the first 78,500 in the US, Atari moved production to Taiwan to make another 26,000 units.  The fact there was a second production-run, which ended in June 1983, indicates to me that Atari is likely to have sold very nearly all of those 105,000.  Certainly the 800XL was more successful, as a function of it being one-third the cost of a 1200XL.  By comparison, world-wide sales of the $280 800XL were 500,000 units in all of 1984.  Were the 800XL as cost-constrained as the 1200XL, I seriously doubt it would have mustered sales over 105,000 over the same period of time.

Atari 1200XL logo, close-up

Atari 1200XL logo, close-up

The truth is, in spite of management-ordained shortcomings, the 1200XL is one of the most beautifully designed of all of the 8-bit era computer systems.  The cartridge-slot-on-top design of the 600/800XL is utilitarian and ugly, and destroys the esthetics of the sleekness of the XL line.  The 1200XL’s keyboard is strong, but also has a softness that’s almost velvety… it’s simply comfortable and a pleasure to type on.  The legacy of the 1200XL should not be tied-up in ‘what could have been’ and the Sweet-Sixteen Project.  It should be viewed as the machine that allowed Atari enough time to develop a strategy to stay alive.  The strategy they chose, while it scarified much, did allow Atari to continue as the only viable challenger to the home computer dominance of the C64.  A “Macintosh” to Commodore’s “Windows”, as it were.

It’s a proud heritage, and one the Atari community should embrace when considering the Atari 1200XL1.

References   [ + ]

1. eBay Referral Link

Mike Knotts

Mike Knotts was born in 1968 in a small town in southern Indiana. Even when very young, Mike showed a love for all-things technical and sci-fi. Moving with his family to California in the early 80's, he eventually graduated from UC Santa Barbara with a degree in History. Rather than put that to good use, Mike continued to pursue his passion for technology by working for early, regional ISP's in the mid 1990's. He currently resides in the Pacific Northwest, where he works as a project manager for an Internet startup. Mike is a co-founder of Geekometry.

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6 Responses

  1. Maury Markowitz says:

    “Generally, criticism of the Atari 1200XL boils down to the unfulfilled promise of the Sweet-Sixteen Project”

    I think this sort of criticism totally misses the point. While all these points may be valid, they are all inside-the-box. Even had they made the perfect Sweet 16, it was, as you note, just as doomed.

    No, the problem here is not what the 1200XL was, but what Sweet 16 wasn’t. They had three years between the 400/800 and Sweet 16. In three years Moore’s law gives you 4 times as many transistors for the same price. The real issue is “what did they do with three years”? The answer appears to be “basically nothing”.

    They could have done better sprites, rather than the bizarre screen-filling system in GTIA. They could have put in better sound, and/or MTS support (which was being finalized just then). They could have made a new BASIC, preferably one that was MS compatible and much faster (and left the original in there too in ROM). They could have included a machine language monitor like OmniMon instead of wasting ROM space on that moronic self-test. They could have added mini RS-252 and/or centronics ports, which would have gone a LONG way to making it a more practical platform. They could have increased SIO speed, through software alone. They could have included something like fastchip to improve performance. They could have added an 80 column mode, either through a separate card like the various ones out there, or through a new mode in ANTIC that only went out the monitor port.

    But they didn’t do any of those things. No, they didn’t even *think* about any of those things. All they did was put the original machine in a new box. And in the computer world, that is *not enough for three years of work!*

    What’s amazing is that the C64 came out three years after the 400/800 and was in many ways a similar machine. All it had to be was slightly better and cheaper. And it was. Atari had *one* chance to best them, and even with three years to do it, they couldn’t.

    They were focused entirely on marketing and big management issues – you know, the things management is convinced makes companies work while completely overlooking the issue that they actually have to sell a product.

    I’m actually not sure where engineering comes into this. Contemporary notes from the engineering teams seems to suggest they were busy doing other things and ignoring both he 2600 and 8-bit, so maybe we can’t pin this on management entirely.

    In any event, Sweet 16 is the failure, IMHO, the 1200XL just a symptom of the same problem.

    • Mike Knotts says:

      HI Maury,

      “I think this sort of criticism totally misses the point. While all these points may be valid, they are all inside-the-box. Even had they made the perfect Sweet 16, it was, as you note, just as doomed.”

      I believe that is, more or less, the point of my article. Old-School Atari fans, in my experience, slam the 1200XL because they wanted Sweet-Sixteen instead of a prettier 800 – and, as you point out, that’s pretty much what the 1200XL ended up being.

      I also think we are in complete agreement regarding Atari sitting around for 3 years, when they should have been engineering away. That’s what I meant when I wrote:

      “The entire (Sweet-Sixteen) plan might have been brilliant, and maybe even successful, had it been initiated in August 1981 as a response to the launch of the IBM PC.”

      In researching the development of the Amiga computer, it seems pretty clear that Jay Miner and other engineers at Atari were trying to get management to green-light new 16-bit computers during 1979 and 1980. Anecdotally, that seems to place the blame on management. From my perspective, it seems that Atari was interested in building new computers, but Warner effectively put a stop to that after the buy-out.

      http://geekometry.com/2015/01/gamechangers-jay-miner-and-the-amiga-computer/

  2. Adrian says:

    Nice article here. I would however to disagree with the point of cartridge slot on 800XL being ugly. I actually love that design. My 800XL had died and under warranty was replaced with 65XE which had similar design to ST series. Anyway, I think Ataris had most artistic design of all computers of 8 and 16 bit era.

    • Mike Knotts says:

      Hi Adrian, thanks. “Ugly” is a loaded word and I probably should have just left it at “utilitarian”, because it makes it sound like I’m condemning the entire look of the 600/800XL. I think the cartridge-slot-on-top design on the 800XL harkens back to the VCS & 2600, and, without a doubt, the 800XL is a much better looking system than almost every one of it’s competitors. That said, I think the 1200XL’s sleek lines, especially with the cartridge hidden away, make for a much more attractive design. At the end of the day, we’re talking about the difference between an A+ grade and an A/A- grade. =)

  3. Mike Knotts says:

    Thank you, I’m glad you liked the article. It was a pleasure coming to the defense of such a fine computer! I concede that critics slammed the 1200XL – No 2nd Cartridge Port, Only 2 Controller Ports! – and folks grabbing 400’s and 800’s when they could. But I also remember stacks of them sitting unsold vs. the C64 until the price cuts were announced, enabling hobbiests to stock-up on the 800. Average consumers, however, were mostly going on price, and what their kid was bugging them to get. =)

    I had not thought of the ‘free home computer for a time-share pitch weekend’ thing in a long time. Thanks for the trip-down-memory-lane! I’m glad you are enjoying working on 1200XL’s, and help keep them as fresh and authentic as possible – kudos!

  4. ACML says:

    Great article! I was into Atari 8-bits back in 1981 and I remember the bad reputation that 1200XL had when it came out. My brothers, cousin and I did run out and bought a 800 in 1983 because of the bad press on the 1200XL. I remember time-shares were giving away new boxed 1200XLs just to listen to their sales pitch. I finally got my first 1200XL in 1990 and it was eye opening. Your description of the aesthetics and keyboard are spot on. It is, in my opinion, the best designed Atari 8-bit ever made. I have since hand several come and go, doing upgrades to video (restoring chroma) and 12V power and everyone still worked. A testimate to the quality components and materials used in this American classic.

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