The Atari 2600 power supply wasn’t as durable as the rest of the Atari 2600, which is nearly bulletproof. By far the most common issue with the Atari 2600 is a dead AC adapter. Fortunately, a suitable Atari 2600 AC adapter isn’t hard to find, even today.
After you replace it with something new, or at least newer, a dead Atari console usually springs right back to life. And if you’re wondering, the same problems apply to Atari 2600 clones like the private-label Sears Video Arcade and the Coleco Gemini and they can also use the same replacement power supplies.
First things first: While it’s prudent to suspect a 40-year-old AC adapter is no longer working properly, if you’re only getting a black screen out of your Atari, make sure you’re connecting it to your TV correctly.
Two strikes against the original
The original Atari 2600 power supply was a linear AC adapter. Better and more reliable switching adapters became common late in the 2600’s heyday. In 1983, the Atari 2600 had bigger issues. Trust me, I remember.
The second problem is that people left the original Atari 2600 AC adapter plugged in all the time. Nobody I knew ever unplugged theirs, except for that one time when they moved it from the TV in the living room to the one in the basement, and then when they unplugged it and boxed it up for the last time.
So those power supplies spent years of converting standard household 110v AC current to 9v DC whether something needed it or not. Eventually, many of these poor things gave up the ghost.
The manual that came with the system did tell you to unplug the AC adapter when you weren’t playing, but who ever looked at the manual once they had it set up and working? No one I knew.
Suitable Atari 2600 AC adapters
The original Atari 2600 manual contains a stern warning: Use of any AC power adapter or TV/GAME switch box other than those designed for use with your 2600 Video Computer System may damage the system.
That’s true. The two main things you have to be worried about are the type of power and polarity. DC is good. AC is bad. And the polarity matters. Center must be positive.
Other than that, the Atari 2600 isn’t picky about its power. Get the specs within what the 7805 voltage regulator inside the system expects, and you’ll be fine, whether the AC adapter you use was originally intended for a game system, a router, or something else.
It’s so popular that you won’t go wrong buying anything off Ebay labeled as an Atari 2600 power supply. Get a new one to actually use. If you’re concerned about originality, get a vintage one to keep.
If you want something right now, most universal AC adapters with multiple tips and adjustable voltage will work just fine. Just set it to 9 volts DC, and the center tip positive.
Scrounging from your junk box
If you want to scrounge in your junk box, you may have something suitable as a replacement Atari 2600 AC adapter.
The Atari 2600 needs at least 7.5 volts and somewhere between 200-400 mA depending on the cartridge you’re playing. The original provided 9 volts at 500 mA. A little bit more amperage is fine. The Atari 2600 will only pull as many amps as it needs. Theoretically you can go up to 35 volts, but keep it below 12 volts to avoid overheating.
A 1-amp unit is overkill. Theoretically, when a device pulls well below the rated amperage, the AC adapter can deliver more voltage than you intend. That said, as long as you use a 9-volt adapter, the Atari 2600 still has enough headroom to tolerate that overvoltage.
The other things to concern yourself with are the tip and the polarity. It uses a standard 3.5mm jack common in audio applications. The tip is positive.
These rules are the same as substituting any other AC adapter.
Where the Atari 2600 AC adapter plugs in
The Atari 2600 power supply plugs into the back of the unit, near the center. It may be labeled “power adapter” or simply “power.” Regardless of how it may be labeled, it’s the only port that looks like the audio jack on a phone or MP3 player.
Caring for your Atari 2600 power supply
The manual says it, but I’ll repeat it here. It’s best to unplug your Atari 2600 AC adapter when you’re not using it. This saves electricity and increases its life expectancy. The 2600 itself is rather durable, so with a reliable power supply, you can expect it to last indefinitely, especially since it won’t get the kind of use today that it got in 1981.