The Atari 800/XL//XE series may be the most underrated 8-bit computer line of the 1970s and 1980s. Yes, I said 1970s, as it debuted in 1979. But while the Atari 800XL is perhaps the most popular machine from that family, and it’s better in most ways than the Atari 800, the 800 has its own advantage too. Let’s look at the Atari 800 vs 800XL.
Atari 800 vs 800XL: Memory
The most important difference between the Atari 800 and 800XL is memory. The Atari 800 maxed out at 48K of RAM, which was a lot in 1979. But memory prices fell rapidly in the early 1980s. And in 1982, Commodore threw Atari for a loop by releasing the Commodore 64 for $595. While that’s a staggering price today for a computer of that relative power, in 1982, it was unheard of. Immediately the Atari 800 went from being arguably the best computer on the market to looking quaint.
Stuffing 64K of memory into a 6502-based computer like an Atari 800 or Commodore 64 takes some doing, because I/O chips need memory space too. The rival Zilog Z-80 CPU had a separate way to address I/O chips, but the cheaper 6502 didn’t.
Commodore had to get creative to put 64K of RAM in the Commodore 64, and that meant overlapping the memory and I/O chips and switching them out.
To bring the 800 series up to 64K, Atari had to do some similar trickery. They were able to maintain software compatibility with the older machine, but not to add another 16K of RAM to the older 800.
There are ways to add more memory to an 800, but they are usually incompatible with the XL and XE.
Outfitted with 64K or more, the XL and XE series were very capable machines, and even though Commodore and Apple outsold them, they maintained a cult following. Arguably the C-64 had the superior sound chip but Atari’s POKEY chip was the second-best of its generation. Even though I’m a Commodore fan, I have to admit Atari had a leg up on graphics.
There’s one additional subtle difference between the 800 and 800XL. The 800 could output both standard composite and separated composite video, what we now call S-Video. The 800XL didn’t have both of the separated composite pins connected. You have to mod your 800XL to get that capability back. They can use the same video cable, but the XL is composite only.
This is only an issue if you have a display with S-video inputs, or want to use your Atari with the very excellent Commodore 1702 monitor.
Atari 800 vs 800XL: multiplayer gaming
The Atari 800 had one very innovative feature that Atari had to sacrifice to add more memory. The Atari 800 had four controller ports, so you could connect four joysticks or other controllers to it for multiplayer gaming. This was a feature we wouldn’t see again in a successful mainstream platform until the Nintendo 64, which appeared well into the next decade.
There weren’t a lot of games that used this capability, but the most famous one was M.U.L.E., published by Electronic Arts. M.U.L.E. was the brainchild of the legendary programmer Danielle Bunten Berry and her brother Bill. The 800 is the best platform to play M.U.L.E since four players can play rather than two, when you play it on a later XL or XE system or C-64.
But if you’re looking to play later Atari XE/XL titles, the 800XL or an XE is the better choice, since later Atari software took advantage of the additional memory.
When it comes to the Atari 800 vs 800XL, there’s one more factor that comes into play. The 800’s presence. The 800 was a dark, C-64-like beige. It was also a large hulk. It was an inch and a half taller and nearly four inches deeper than a C-64, while being only a half-inch narrower. The internals were encased in an aluminum chassis that protected the motherboard and easily facilitated adding memory modules on plug-in cards. It also had two cartridge slots. It looks like an early home computer. Big, overbuilt, and overengineered.
The C-64 was anything but svelte, but it was also anything but overengineered. Every decision that went into that machine was to hit the $595 price point as a summer 1982 release, and to decrease in price rapidly. The Atari 800 wasn’t going to be able to compete with that.
The 800XL came out in 1983 with an updated look in a much smaller, less overbuilt package designed to compete in a price war rather than to survive World War III. It lost the second cartridge slot and came in a sleeker, two-tone off-white and black case that was slightly smaller than the C-64. Commodore could have made the C-64 smaller, but they reused the earlier VIC-20′s case with slight modifications to save time and money. Remember, price point.
The XL looks like a 1980s home computer. The 800 looks like a 1970s home computer.