How to disassemble an Atari 2600 VCS

Whether you’re looking to clean it or service it, sometimes it’s necessary to take apart an Atari 2600 console. The iconic older models can be a little tricky to take apart and put back together, but they aren’t super difficult. Here’s how to disassemble an Atari 2600 VCS.

An Atari 2600 or VCS is held together by 4-6 screws on the underside. The two screws at the front of the console sit at a conventional 90-degree angle, while the rear screws sit at a tricky 60-degree angle.

Opening the case

how to disassemble an atari 2600
An Atari 2600 isn’t necessarily difficult to disassemble, but the various models do come apart and go back together differently.

To open an Atari case, remove the screws on the underside. The Phillips-head screws on the front and the back are different. The front uses standard screws, but the back uses self-tapping screws. Sometimes the screws in the back are shorter than the ones in the front. Keep them separated to make your life easier.

The front screws are easy to remove. The back screws can be a bit trickier. The hole has an angle at the back. Hold the screwdriver at the same angle as the back of the hole to line it up with the screw. If you come at the screw from a 90-degree angle, you risk stripping the head.

On 6-switch models, there are two additional screws in the middle of the case. These hold the motherboard in. It’s best to leave those alone until you get the case apart.

The case snaps together fairly tightly, so it can take some gentle prying to separate the two halves. Pry it apart with a plastic tool, like a spudger, a putty knife, credit card, or a guitar pick to avoid marring the case. A standard slotted screwdriver or butter knife works of course, but you probably don’t want to scar the case for life.

On 4-switch models, the motherboard slots into the top half of the case. On 6-switch models like the heavy sixer, the board with the switches sits in the top half while the main motherboard screws into the lower half.

2600jr caveats

The later 2600jr model looks like it should be easy to take apart since it’s just four screws and the motherboard is flat. But there are three clips on the front that hold the front of the case together. Pop the clips by pushing a slotted screwdriver into the slots on the far left and right and the one in the center. Then the case opens pretty easily. If you force the case open, you’ll probably break at least one of the clips, and then the case may not close tightly.

Removing the motherboard

On 4-switch models, the motherboard just lifts out once you separate the two halves. It sits at a tricky angle, but there’s nothing but gravity holding it in.

On 6-switch models, there are two boards. The whole assembly is secured to the lower case with two screws on the underside. Then it just lifts out. If you want to separate the two boards, the daughterboard attaches at a 30-degree angle to the motherboard with two screws. Remove those screws and unplug the ribbon cable to remove the daughterboard.

The 2600jr motherboard is held in by two plastic clips on either side of the board. Spread the clips slightly and the board lifts out.

You won’t usually have to remove the metal shielding to get at the three main chips, but if you do, simply untwist the tabs holding the shield together on the 4-switch or 2600jr board, then pry the top off. A nonmetallic tool is best for this. On the 6-switch model, the can is held together by six screws on the underside.

Typically the components you’ll have to clean, adjust or replace most frequently are outside of the metal shroud.

The motherboard connects to a video cable via a standard RCA plug. Unplug the video cable from the plug, and then you can remove the motherboard and thread the plug out the opening in the underside.

Once you separate the electronic components from the case, you can clean them separately. Here are some tips for cleaning the board(s). I find tricks I use for cleaning vintage computers work fine on Atari VCS cases too. Usually the case needs more help than the boards.

Reassembling a 4-switch Atari 2600

As with most things, I find reassembling the Atari 2600 VCS harder than disassembly. I thread the RCA cable through the lower portion of the case and leave lots of slack. The end that looks more finished, with a plastic boot around the plug goes to the outside. The end that just has a metal connector without the boot goes inside. Plug the cable into the board, but don’t secure the cable into the provided slot for it just yet.

Next, position the motherboard into the upper part of the case. You may have to flip switches to get them to fit in while you line the ports up with the holes in the back. Once I get the ports into position, I flip all the switches to help hold the board in place.

Now pull most of the slack out of the RCA cable and press it into the slot that holds it. This keeps you from damaging the cable by pulling it out too far.

In the underside of the case, there are usually two toothpick-like structures to hold the board into place. Sometimes there’s only one, but it’s possible the second one broke off in the one I observed like that. Push the front of the case top into the lower half of the case while trying to keep the board at about a 30-degree angle. Once that slots together, the back of the case usually pops together pretty easily. Flip the console over and make sure you don’t see green printed circuit board covering the rear holes of the case. It’s OK if you can see a little bit of board in the holes, but if you see a lot, you need to realign the board.

Secure the front of the console with the two regular screws.

The tricky back screws

Replacing the screws that go toward the back of the unit is tougher. I find a magnetic screwdriver works best for this part, and no, I’ve never damaged a console or a computer by using a magnetic screwdriver. I push the screw straight down, then angle the screwdriver up against the back of the case. Tighten the screw gently, since the odd angle does make it easy to strip a screw. But since I figured out that trick, I haven’t had much trouble driving the screws at this angle.

Reassembling a 6-switch Atari 2600

I thread the RCA cable through the lower portion of the case and leave lots of slack. The end that looks more finished, with a plastic boot around the plug goes to the outside. The end that just has a metal connector without the boot goes inside. Plug the cable into the board, then position the motherboard into the lower half of the case and secure it with the two machine screws.

Next, position the daughterboard onto the motherboard assembly if you separated it, and reattach it to the metal can with two screws. Then position the whole assembly onto the lower case and replace the two screws from the underside.

Position the top of the case, making sure it lines up with the front, the switches, and the back, in that order.

Flip the console over and make sure you don’t see green printed circuit board covering the rear holes of the case. It’s OK if you can see a little bit of board in the holes, but if you see a lot, you need to realign the board.

Secure the front of the console with the two regular screws.

The tricky back screws

Replacing the four screws that go toward the back of the unit is tougher. I find a magnetic screwdriver works best for this part. I push the screw straight down, then angle the screwdriver up against the back of the case. Tighten the screw gently, since the odd angle does make it easy to strip a screw. But since I figured out that trick, I haven’t had much trouble driving the screws at this angle.

Reassembling a 2600jr

The 2600jr is probably the easiest of the three types to reassemble. Pop the board back into place in between the two clips, then attach the thin ribbon cable from the select and reset buttons to the slot on the right-hand side of the board. Snap the two halves of the case back together. Flip the unit over and replace the four screws. That’s it.

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