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Atari 800 vs Commodore 64

The Commodore 64 was the most popular computer of the 8-bit era, and I will argue that the Atari 800 was the most underrated computer of the 8-bit era. Ironically, some of the key designers from each system ended up changing companies when the time came to design successors to these two products, so they are forever intertwined. How did these two systems stack up? Let’s look at the Atari 800 vs Commodore 64.

Atari 800 vs Commodore 64

My Atari 800 is one of two retro computers I keep set up all the time. I had a Commodore 64 growing up but found an appreciation for the 800 once I had one.

In my case, this one is personal. I don’t have room to keep every system set up all the time that I would like, but these are the two systems I have set up more often than anything else. I grew up with the Commodore 64, and never saw an Atari 800 until around 1990, when it was near the end of its life. My wife found an Atari 800 and a 400 at a garage sale sometime around 2006, so it was the first retro computer gear I bought.

Atari 800 vs Commodore 64: who came first?

Atari was way ahead of Commodore. They were also way ahead of everybody else. While everyone else was trying to figure out how to get a monochrome display on a CRT and considered sound a luxury, Jay Miner and the rest of his team were trying to design the very best machine they could with late 1970s technology at a price point of around $1,000. What they came up with does not look like a 1970s computer. Yes, it had the same 6502 CPU so many of its competitors used, but it had, arguably, the first GPU in a micro computer. And it had four channel sound that was capable of playing synthesized music. It is not an exaggeration at all to call the Atari 800 a mini Amiga. It’s clear from looking at the two machines that they had the same design philosophy, with the key difference being what was practical to implement 5 years apart, at a time when the industry was changing very rapidly.

With all due respect to the Commodore 64, there wasn’t much that was original about it. It came out 3 years later, and its goal was a bit different. The goal with it was to build a computer with 64k of RAM that could sell for $595. Whatever budget was left after paying for the memory could go into a custom chipset, but the overall goal was to be competitive more than cutting edge.

Commodore’s custom chipset was clearly inspired by Atari’s, but less sophisticated on paper. It had fewer colors than Atari, and one less sound channel, but the two machines were more evenly matched than most of their competitors.

Atari 800 vs Commodore 64: graphics

deconstructing my first computer

Here I am using a Commodore 64 in 1984. I vaguely knew what an Atari 800 was then, but in the mid 1980s, the best computer was whatever you had. Commodore and Atari were pretty evenly matched but Commodore had the price advantage.

Both machines were capable of color bitmap graphics with movable sprites in hardware, which made programming two-dimensional arcade style games much easier. The reason Commodore and Atari games tend to be a different genre than Apple II games is because of this capability. When you went to write that type of game on an Apple II, you had to handle sprites in software.

The Atari 800 certainly had graphics capability at the Commodore 64 lacked, but it came at a cost. It was difficult to program, and Atari didn’t document it at first. Steve Fulton from Into The Vertical Blank told me about the book De Re Atari, written by software evangelist Chris Crawford in 1982. Crawford said Atari wanted to keep software sales to themselves.

By contrast, the C-64 came with a manual that taught you how to program it, and it had Basic built in. Atari didn’t include Basic until the 800XL, released in late 1983.

That was then… what about now?

We can do things with both machines today that we didn’t know how to do in the 1980s. So when you push the limits of both machines today, the Atari 800 wins. The problem in the 1980s was programmers quickly learned how to use 80% of the Commodore’s capabilities, whereas they were using maybe 70% of the Atari capabilities. So the difference between the two didn’t seem as large in 1983. And in some cases, Commodore looked better.

Winner: Atari, although the margin is clearer today than it was in the 1980s

Commodore 64 vs Atari 800: sound

When the Commodore 64 came out, its engineers said its sound was 10 times better than anything else on the market, and twice as good as it needed to be. Yet it was about 1/3 the chip that Commodore engineer Bob Yannes wanted to build. The sound chip that ended up in the Apple IIGS, about 4 years later, was closer to what he wanted to build in 1982. The industry was changing fast.

Atari’s chip was probably the second best on the market at that point. Saying that Commodore’s chip was 10 times better than Atari’s chip might not be fair. It was better. But maybe not 10 times.

And in a lot of games, it didn’t matter. Take the theme song to the classic game M.U.L.E. It’s different on the two machines. Which one is better probably depends on which one you grew up with.

Today, computers just play back sound like a recording. It wasn’t that way in the 8-bit era. You had to program the individual waveforms. Atari could produce four sounds at a time as opposed to three from the Commodore. But the Commodore could produce more complex waveforms. So the Commodore could make sounds that the Atari could not.

In the hands of the right musician, the Commodore could make more sophisticated music. And there were certain Commodore musicians who could make that difference apparent, such as Rob Hubbard and Martin Galway. As funny as it seems today, it was hard to believe they could get that kind of sound to come out of a computer circa 1986 or 1987. Especially considering by that time, the chip was 4 years old.

Winner: Commodore

Speed

On paper, the Atari was about 76% faster than the Commodore 64, which seems like a huge difference. That’s like the difference between an i3 and an i7 CPU. In practice, it didn’t exactly work out that way. The Atari usually was faster, but not 75 or 76% faster, like the specifications suggest.

But today, when you are pushing the limits of both machines, having a few extra clock cycles to work with can be the difference between a special effect working or not working. So that extra headway does make the Atari machines a bit more capable. But Atari’s graphics chip interrupted the CPU more than Commodore’s did. So that’s why Atari had less of a speed advantage than the raw numbers suggest.

How we know

In 2021, some hobbyists ported Commodore Basic to the Atari 800, mostly to see if it was possible. Since the machines have compatible CPUs and very similar memory maps, and Commodore Basic was pretty rudimentary, it wasn’t very hard to get it running on the Atari 800, at least enough to run simple text-mode programs. This made it easy to determine the speed difference between the two machines, by simply running an identical Basic program on both and timing it.

Winner: Atari, but not by the margins we’ve been led to believe

Sales figures

The Commodore 64 won this battle in the marketplace. The Atari 800 family was not a flop, but the Commodore 64 went on to become the best-selling home computer of all time. Atari sold around 4-5 million units, while Commodore sold closer to 12 million.

Commodore’s marketing, while it usually left much to be desired, was effective at attacking Atari. At the time, Atari was riding high on its very successful 2600 game console. Commodore capitalized on it by positioning its computers against the game console, not against the Atari 800. The result was that Commodore went from being an also ran to owning 30% of the computer market almost overnight. But Atari was still doing well enough selling game consoles that it didn’t react strongly enough until it was too late. In effect, Commodore took out both the game console and the Atari 800 by ignoring the computer and targeting the game console. When the crash of 1983 happened, Atari fell to pieces.

Ultimately both companies failed because they were not able to replicate the sustained success of their most popular respective products. Both of them had their moments, so it seems unfair to call either of them one hit wonders, but one thing Atari could have done better was to position the 800 and its younger sibling, the 400, against the Commodore 64 and Vic 20. Because the Atari 400 vs the Vic 20 was not a fair fight and Atari had the advantage.

Tramiel’s price war

Jack Tramiel left Commodore in 1984, surfaced at Atari six months later, and started a new price war, slashing the cost of the Atari 800XL, the 800’s successor, to as little as $99, lower than Commodore dared to go with the C-64. And yet, the C-64 continued to sell. As Steve and Jeff Fulton observed, by 1984-85, there was more new software coming out for the 64 than the 800 line.

Commodore left an opening. In 1985, they released the 128 as an upgrade path. Atari answered with the XE line, still based on the 800. The 65XE was a 64K computer and the 130XE was a version with 128K. There was less difference between the 65 and 130XE than between Commodore’s models. You can turn a 65XE into a 130XE by adding an EMMU chip and 8 4164 DRAM chips. Had Atari put sockets on the board so dealers could easily offer to upgrade your 65XE to a 130XE rather than making you buy a new machine, Atari would have had a nice competitive advantage against Commodore. And it would have been a nice bone to throw dealers’ way.

I don’t know if that would have been enough, but Commodore left that opening and Tramiel didn’t take it. I also wonder if the $99 price point was offputting, making it sound like a closeout. Perhaps pricing it at $109 would have made it feel more like Atari was in this for the long haul?

Winner: Commodore, but staying in business is more important than selling the most machines

Cost

The Commodore 64 had the cost advantage. When Commodore announced the machine, Atari initially did not know how Commodore delivered a computer with 64k of memory, color graphics, and sound at the $599 price point. Of course, Atari figured out how to get into the same price range, but since Commodore had the capability to make its own custom chips, rather than having to use a third party to make them like Atari did, Commodore enjoyed better margins, at least in the early years when it counted the most.

Atari missed out on an opportunity. In 1983, Atari had production issues with the 800XL that kept them from delivering them until right before Christmas. But they were promoting the machine aggressively. Customers went into the store to buy the Atari, couldn’t get one, but there’s the C-64 at a comparable price.

Both companies cut prices aggressively, and that was why the two of them survived when so many others, like Coleco, TI, and Timex fell by the wayside. Commodore usually had a slight price advantage, but with either company, you could get the basic computer for around $200 and a disk drive for around $200, and connect it to a spare TV, and have a basic home computer for around $400, then expand it as your budget permitted.

As I mentioned before, once Jack Tramiel took over at Atari, the price advantage generally went to Atari. But by then it seems like it was too late.

So if the computers were so similar in capability and in price, why was there such a difference in their success?

Available software

The Commodore 64 ended up with a software library of around 9,000 titles. Only the Apple II family had more at the time. And just like today, having the larger software library provides a huge advantage. Atari’s library was closer to 1,000 titles and in early 1984 it did have the largest library of any home computer, but Apple and Commodore ended up surpassing them.

Atari started out with a larger library. Coming to market three years earlier gives you that advantage. More importantly, Atari had a nice catalog of exclusive titles. But then the crash of 1983 happened, and Atari needed to make some money fast. Noticing how well companies like Activision and Coleco did selling titles for their hardware, Atari rushed versions of its exclusive titles to market for virtually every other computer available at the time.

Atari made a lot of money over the next two years selling software for other computers, especially the very successful Commodore 64. The problem was the Atari software for the Commodore 64 was too good. The graphics and sound on the Commodore versions was better than the Atari versions of the same game in too many cases. This made the Commodore 64 look superior to the Atari 800 even when it wasn’t.

The strategic blunder was that in 1982, there were about 40 desirable games that you could play on the Atari 800 but not on a Commodore 64. The Commodore 64 had a few rather good titles, but that influx of Atari titles gave it a good shot in the arm. Atari can be forgiven for the mistake, but if you’ve ever wondered why Nintendo and Sony don’t release titles for other game consoles, it’s because they are more than aware of Atari’s mistake.

Piracy

Both Commodore and Atari had a bad reputation as a pirate’s haven. Steve told me about an Atari internal QA person leaking a copy of Lucasfilm Games’ “Behind Jaggi Lines,” the game that became “Rescue on Fractalus.” There were rumors that Commodore engineers may have cracked some games, but at least they did it on titles after they’d been released.

The C-64 had too much critical mass for publishers to ignore, but the piracy reputation hurt both Commodore and Atari in the 16-bit generation.

The disk drive

The popularity of disk drives caught both companies by surprise, but it was Commodore who really popularized the idea, by releasing a disk drive at the $300 price point. Atari’s disk drive was more expensive, partly because it was faster. Eventually the two reached price parity, but once word was out the cheapest way to get 64K and a disk drive was to go Commodore, it was hard to catch that momentum.

Steve, being an Atari fan, had nothing good to say about the Atari 810 disk drive. I think we each think the other had a slightly better drive.

Both companies had their own bespoke way of connecting disk drives and other peripherals. Atari’s method was very USB like, and that’s because one of their designers, Joe Decuir, was the mastermind behind USB. The Commodore design was designed to hit a price point, and be a cheap enough/good enough solution. Atari had the better bus, but serial buses don’t sell computers. Software does.

Winner: Call it a draw. It’s easy to trash these drives today but they seemed like a technological wonder, even with their flaws, in the early 80s.

Commodore 64 vs Atari 800 today

Both the Commodore and Atari 8-bit lines have thriving communities around them today, with new software being developed for them and new hardware products to make it possible to get them online, provide solid state storage, and otherwise make them more convenient to use while preserving that 1980s feel.

Which of the two you like better probably depends more on you than on the machines themselves. If you grew up with one, you’re probably going to like that one better. Do you like underdogs? Then you’re going to like whichever one you perceive as the bigger underdog. If you like music, you’ll prefer the Commodore. If you like graphics, you’ll prefer the Atari. It’s natural to prefer one over the other. But I’ll argue if you like one, you’re still going to respect the other.

Both of them have more than enough software to explore to keep you interested for years to come.

Conclusion

The Commodore 64 outsold Atari by a factor of about three to one. It had the right blend of capability, affordability, and available software. It wasn’t a perfect machine, but it was the right machine for its time.

The Atari 800 is the most underrated and underappreciated machine of its era. Graphically, it was the better of the two machines. Commodore had better sound, but in this generation, Commodore was the only one who beat Atari.

Atari had the faster disk drive, although neither of them were as fast as Apple or IBM in this department. Speedup products for both were available, although Commodore needed it more.

If the Atari 800 had been a little bit easier to program, Commodore would have had a hard time. Sometimes the same title on the two machines looked better on the 64 and that made the 64 look better when it wasn’t necessarily. But the 64 ended up with more titles available, so it won by brute force regardless. Software sells computers as much as anything, so that ended up being the difference. In the end, the Tandy 1000 ended up giving the Commodore 64 more problems than Atari did.

I grew up with the C-64 and I’m not supposed to like Atari. I’m the early adopter persona, so I tend to be a zealot when it comes to 1980s technology. I keep a C-64 and Atari 800 set up next to each other and they’re my two favorite 8-bit machines. My Apple IIe sits near them but mostly gathers dust. The 80s were an exciting time in computing, and both the Commodore 64 and Atari 800 played a major role in that.

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