Atari PC1: The Atari IBM-compatible

Atari made a line of PCs in the 1980s, which seems contradictory because it is. Atari was known for doing its own thing, not for copying the rest of the industry. In the context of the time, it’s possible to understand why Atari did it. But in hindsight, it’s easy to see why the Atari PC1 was a mistake and how it impacted the rest of the line.

Atari made several PCs, including the 8088-based PC1, PC2 and PC3; the 286-based PC4, the 386-based PC5. But their lack of expandability and difficulty competing on price limited their appeal.

The ups and downs of the PC1

Atari PC1
Atari’s foray into PCs made sense because everyone was getting into PCs at the time, but their early stumble with the PC1 and the combination of pricing pressures and being relatively late to market doomed them almost from the start.

Atari’s first PC eventually became known as the PC1. The PC1, introduced in 1987, sported an 8088-2 CPU and a highly integrated motherboard for the time. Building in video, serial and parallel ports and a disk controller allowed Atari to make the system smaller and cheaper, and the system fit nicely in an Atari Mega ST case. Atari also included ports so you could plug in Atari ST-compatible external floppy and hard drives into the system. Its $599 price was competitive for the time.

But there were problems with this approach. First, the presence of only one floppy drive was a problem. A single-drive PC wasn’t very useful in 1987. Popular PC software frequently used two drives. So by the time you bought the PC1 and an external floppy drive, the system wasn’t any more compact than a more traditional PC and it lost most or all of its price advantage too.

Second, the PC1 didn’t have internal expansion slots. Atari built EGA graphics into the system, but in 1987, VGA graphics came out. If you had expansion slots, you could upgrade to VGA. But not with Atari. A year or two later when sound cards started appearing, the PC1 didn’t have anywhere to plug one in.

Even in 1987, consumers regarded PC compatibles as a safe choice because you could plug upgrade cards into them. The PC1 didn’t have that, so it didn’t sell like similarly priced PCs of its era did.

The Atari PC2 and PC3

Atari announced a much more traditional PC line in November 1987. The PC2 had the same specs as the PC1 but shipped in a traditional PC case, with room for two internal drives and four expansion slots. This made the machine much more future-proof because you could add a hard drive controller card, a VGA video card, and a sound card and still have a slot left over.

The PC3 was a PC2 with its memory expanded to 640K and a factory-installed 20 megabyte MFM hard drive.

There was nothing inherently wrong with the PC2 and PC3, as they delivered everything someone expected from an IBM PC clone of the time. But by the time the machines shipped in the first quarter of 1988, they weren’t exactly price competitive. The PC2 sold for $1,000, which was close to the list price of a comparable Tandy 1000, but Radio Shack frequently had its computers on sale. Atari also faced pressure from lesser-name clones like those from Leading Edge.

Had the PC2 and PC3 come first, they might have done better. The PC1 quickly developed a reputation for not being expandable. And that made it easy to write off the subsequent machines too, even though they were better.

The Atari PC4 and PC5

The Atari PC4 was a 286-based AT clone and the PC5 was a 386-based PC. Atari deserved credit for keeping up with the times, introducing them in November 1987, only a few months after IBM introduced its first 386. But Atari couldn’t compete on price with these machines either, so they didn’t sell very well.

Atari ABC series

Atari also produced its ABC (Atari Business Computer) line of 386-based PCs in the early 1990s, in both 20 MHz 386SX and 40 MHz 386DX variants. But at the time, IBM and Compaq led a crowded field of business PCs, so the Atari ABC line didn’t sell in great numbers. If you wanted a PC and didn’t want to buy from those two, other companies like DEC, HP, and Unisys had more momentum moving downmarket from large computers to PCs than Atari had moving from the home market into business PCs. If you were willing to take a chance on a nontraditional vendor, there were dozens of other second- and third-tier PCs who would meet or beat Atari’s price.

Atari’s foray into PCs made sense because everyone was getting into PCs at the time, but their early stumble with the PC1 and the combination of pricing pressures and being relatively late to market doomed them almost from the start. Atari-branded PCs are rare and expensive today.

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