Television standards have changed in a few ways since 1977, when Atari released the Atari 2600. Even if you have a CRT from the 1990s, it might not have an obvious place to hook it up. But it’s possible to connect the Atari Video Computer System to modern TV sets. Here’s how.
It’s possible to connect an Atari 2600 to a TV using an RCA to F connector to plug straight into the antenna jack. This works reliably and the connector usually costs less than $6.
Today you can buy a flashback console that contains a selection of games and uses a more modern connection method. And that can be a lot of fun. But Atari had the largest library of its generation, so it’s entirely possible your favorite games may not be on that device, and using the vintage hardware with the decades-old cartridges does feel more authentic, even if you don’t have it set up in a wood-paneled room with a big console TV anymore. So if you want to connect up your old one, I don’t blame you, and I’ll show you how.
The connector fits, but it doesn’t work
Atari 2600s have an integrated RCA cable that fits in the composite or component inputs on modern TVs, but the signal isn’t compatible. The cable is designed to connect to the antenna connector, because in 1977, that was all that televisions had.
You can modify an Atari 2600 to output pure composite. I will assume if you’re reading this, you don’t want to open up your Atari 2600 and solder in it. Most people don’t have those skills, and some people don’t like modifying vintage equipment.
I’ll show you how to connect it without modding your console.
Will Atari 2600 work on a modern TV?
In a word, yes. Even though analog TV was largely discontinued in 2009, a few low-powered stations were permitted to continue, and modern TVs still pick up those signals. What does this have to do with Atari VCS? The Atari 2600’s RF signal behaves just like an analog TV station operating on channel 2 or 3.
But that still leaves a second problem. Atari consoles tended to outlive the TVs we connected them to. And the antenna connections on TVs quietly changed during the decade. Even on most TV sets made in the late 1980s, there’s no place to plug the Atari switchbox in. In the 1970s, antennas used flat, twin-lead 300 ohm antenna wire that connected to the back of the TV with two screws. To connect an Atari or another video game system, you simply spliced the switchbox in, connecting the switchbox to the screws on the back of the TV and the antenna to a set of screws on the switchbox.
Newer TVs use a 75-ohm coax connector. Coax cable is less prone to interference, making it much easier to install, so the industry shifted to coax. Late in the Atari 2600’s life, it was possible to buy switchboxes that had both 75-ohm and 300-ohm connectors on them, so you could connect them to newer TVs that had coax connectors on them. These 300 ohm switch boxes turn up on Ebay from time to time. But there’s a better, cheaper way to connect Atari to modern TV sets.
If you’re thinking about trying to adapt a Nintendo NES switchbox for it, that’s a nice idea. But there’s no way to make the two compatible. There are adapters to make them fit together but the Atari video signal isn’t quite strong enough to get through.
Connect Atari to modern TV sets with an F connector adapter
The round antenna connector on modern TV is called an F connector. To connect an Atari to modern TV sets, you can use an adapter that converts the TV’s F connector to an RCA connector.
In the old days you could go to the local Radio Shack and buy part# 278-0475. For most people, that’s not an option anymore. But you can get them on Ebay. If you want to be sure you’re getting the right thing, look for an Atari F plug adapter. If you’re willing to hunt, you may be able to get a better price if you search for an RCA female to male F connector. Just make sure whatever you buy looks like the picture to the right. It’s OK if the color doesn’t match, but the connectors need to look the same. The price can vary a bit of course, but you should be able to find one for around $6.
Once you get the adapter, screw the adapter onto the round antenna connector on the back of your TV, then plug the RCA cable from the Atari into the adapter. Tune your TV to channel 2 or 3 manually, insert a cartridge, and turn on your Atari. Try both channels, since it’s not always clear on all models which channel the Atari wants to use.
If you can’t tune your TV channels manually, run a channel search using your TV’s on-screen menu with the Atari connected and powered on. Once it finds the channel the Atari is using, you’ll be able to view your Atari on your newer TV. If you don’t see an image, you may need a new AC adapter. The Atari Video Computer System was pretty reliable, so there’s a good chance once you have a video adapter and a good AC adapter, it’ll be right back in business.
Other consoles from the same period
The good news is, the same adapter will work with any other game console that used the same switchbox. So if you have an Intellivision, Colecovision, Odyssey, Pong, or pretty much any pre-NES console, you can use the same adapter with it too. The only difference is going to be the channel you tune to, since some channels tuned to 2 or 3 and others tuned to 3 or 4.
Many home computers from the era can use that connector too, though there are better options for, say, a Commodore 64 or Atari 800/XL/XE. But I’ve certainly connected my Atari 800 that way more than once.