The History of Atari Computers

Atari hasn't always been all about gaming. From the late '70s to the early '90s, the company produced a series of interesting and unusual desktops and laptops, including one that had a starring role in 'Terminator 2.'

Atari's PC Evolution

It's a name that's legendary in the world of video games: Atari. But few people today remember that the former video game giant once made computers, too. For 15 years (1978 to 1993), Atari designed and produced four distinct lines of PCs: the 8-bit "Atari 800" line, the 16-bit ST line, the PC compatibles, and the 32-bit series.

Although Atari started off strong in the U.S. PC market, the company soon faltered in the face of shake-ups in the game industry (its core business) and stiff competition from IBM PC compatibles. In Europe, Atari held on to a niche of dedicated fans for years until finally shutting down its PC division in 1993. In the following slides, you'll see just about every production computer model that Atari ever released over that 15-year period.

When you're done, feel free to share memories of your favorite Atari computer in the comments.

Special thanks to the folks at, who scanned many of the images used in this slideshow. All photos by Atari, except where noted.

Atari 400 / 800 (1979)

Atari's 8-bit computer line began as a next-generation follow-up to the groundbreaking Atari 2600 video game console. Upon seeing Apple's success in the early personal computer market, Atari executives ordered their engineers to turn the new hardware into a personal computer system, which became the 800. Originally retailing for $1000, the Atari 800 shipped with 8KB of RAM, upgradable to 48KB. Its little sibling, the Atari 400, shipped with less RAM and a flat membrane keyboard for $550.

Check out our complete teardown of the Atari 800 for more.

Atari 1200 XL (1982)

Atari upgraded its 8-bit computer line in 1982 with the 1200XL, which featured 64KB of RAM and a simplified internal construction wrapped in a sleek new case design. Even though the 1200XL incorporated what may be the best-feeling keyboard of the series, it also became known as a highly flawed machine. A new OS introduced frustrating incompatibilities with existing Atari 8-bit software, and the closed case allowed no serious expansion. Sales of the original 800 actually went up after the release of the 1200XL, sending Atari back to the drawing board.

Atari 600XL / 800 XL (1983)

The Atari 600XL and 800XL systems, released in 1983, fixed some of the 1200XL's problems. The 600XL (a replacement for the Atari 400) included 16KB RAM, and the 800XL had 64KB. Both incorporated a 50-pin Parallel Bus Interface (PBI) on the rear, opening the door to sophisticated future upgrades.

Photos: Adam Jenkins, Marcin Wichary

Atari 65 XE / 130 XE (1985)

After Warner Communications sold the consumer portions of Atari to Jack Tramiel in 1984, Tramiel canceled many existing projects and began working on a new machine to best the upcoming Commodore Amiga. Meanwhile, he replaced the 8-bit XL series with two new models: the 65XE, with 64KB of RAM, and the 130 XE, with 128KB. Both were compatible with existing Atari 8-bit software.

Atari 520ST (1985)

The launch of the Macintosh in 1985 set off a race to create a new generation of 16-bit, GUI-based PCs. Atari designed its own such computer, the 520ST, and launched it in March 1985. It was an amazingly cheap $799 bundle that included a 360KB floppy drive, a mouse, and a monochrome monitor. (For an extra $200, you could get a color monitor.) The 520ST packed 512KB of RAM and incorporated a colorful graphical windowing system called GEM.

Just as the Macintosh platform quickly dominated the world of graphic design, the Atari ST found its strongest niche in music production due to Atari's inclusion of two built-in MIDI ports, which was unusual at the time.

Atari 1040STf (1986)

Unlike the 520ST, which relied on an external power supply and floppy drive, the 1040STf integrated those two components into one case. It also upped the RAM to 1MB, launching for $999 in 1986 as a complete system with a base unit, a monochrome monitor, and a mouse. The 1040STf was Atari's most popular PC in the United States during the 16-bit era.

See our complete teardown of the Atari 1040STf for more information.

Atari Mega ST 1 / Mega ST 2 / Mega ST 4 (1987)

As the ST gained traction in the music world, it also became popular as an inexpensive desktop publishing machine, particularly in Europe. To cater to that market more directly, Atari released the modular Mega ST line. The computers included either 1MB, 2MB, or 4MB of RAM; a detachable keyboard; and a new "blitter" chip to accelerate on-screen graphics. The company also launched a low-cost laser printer around the same time to complete the package.

Atari PC / PC2 / PC3 (1987)

By 1987, the IBM-PC-compatible market had exploded into a cornucopia of unauthorized PC clones made by dozens of manufacturers, each united by MS-DOS and the x86 CPU architecture. Atari decided to try its hand at a PC clone in 1987, releasing the Atari PC, an 8MHz 8088 machine with 512KB of RAM and a 360KB 5.25-inch floppy drive in a Mega ST-style case. Later that year, the company released the PC2 (which sported a larger case and two floppy drives) and the PC3 (which used yet another case and included an internal hard disk).

Atari XE Game System (1987)

By 1987, everyone was a little jealous of Nintendo's blockbuster success with the NES. The Japanese game company had widely released its console in the United States only the year before, but had already sold millions of units while single-handedly reigniting the video game market. Hungry for a piece of the new business, Atari dipped into its musty archives and pulled out a few tricks, including the 7800 and a new console--the XE Game System--based on its aging 8-bit computer line. Plagued with ancient software and yesterday's arcade ports, neither one performed as hoped.

Atari PC4 (1987) / PC5 (1988)

The PC4 launched as an extension of the aforementioned PC2 and PC3 series in 1987, but differed significantly in that it included a 16MHz 80286 CPU and 1MB of RAM. The PC5 shipped in 1988 with a 20MHz 80386 CPU and 2MB of RAM. Since Atari concentrated sales of these computers in Europe, they are difficult to find in the United States.

Atari Transputer Workstation (1988)

In 1988 came the release of Atari's strangest (and now rarest) production computer, the Atari Transputer Workstation (also known as the ATW-800). The workstation, which ran the Unix-like "Helios" OS, incorporated numerous simple CPUs in a parallel configuration that could then be networked with other Transputers to form a massive parallel network. The concept seemed promising at first, but ultimately it failed in the face of ever more powerful (and much cheaper) stand-alone CPU systems.

Atari Portfolio (1988)

In an era of abundant experimentation, Atari released what was then the world's smallest MS-DOS-compatible PC. The $399 Portfolio was about the size of a VHS videotape, and it incorporated a nonbacklit monochrome LCD screen, 128KB of RAM, and removable storage on battery-backed memory cards. Although it was relatively well received in the press, it didn't set the world on fire--but it did help hack an ATM in Terminator 2.

Atari 520STE / 1040STE (1989)

In 1989, Atari upgraded its classic 520ST and 1040STf computers, producing the 520STE and the 1040STE--the E standing for "enhanced." The 520STE shipped in the larger 1040STf case with an integrated floppy drive, but it included only 512KB of RAM. The 1040STE kept the same case, adding two new extended joystick ports and internal RAM upgradability via SIMMs. Both machines included the "blitter" graphics acceleration chip introduced in the Mega ST a few years before.

Atari Stacy (1989)

The Atari ST line welcomed its first portable member in the form of 1989's Stacy. At a time when the Macintosh Portable sold for $6500 to $7300, the $1995 Stacy seemed like a bargain. For that price you could buy a Stacy with 2MB RAM, a 20MB hard disk, and an 8MHz 68000 CPU. Unfortunately, the Stacy wasn't too forgiving on the C cells that powered it: Fresh batteries would last only about 15 minutes in the machine, making it far less portable than most users would like.

Atari ABC 286-30 (1990) / ABC 386SXII / 386DXII (1991)

By 1990, Atari's PC-compatible line began to more closely resemble other PC clones. The systems used mostly off-the-shelf parts, and sold with far more configurable options. The ABC (Atari Business Computer) 286-30 shipped with a range of CPU and storage choices, offering an 8MHz to 20MHz 286 CPU and a 30MB to 60MB hard disk. It also included Atari's first PC-compatible 3.5-inch floppy drive.

The ABC 386 series--Atari's last foray into PC clones--included either a 20MHz or 40MHz CPU, 1MB or 2MB of RAM, and a 40MB or 80MB hard drive. The ABC 386 PCs were the only Atari computers to ship with Microsoft Windows--version 3.0, in fact.

Atari TT030 (1990)

After years of selling ST-compatible computers with 8MHz Motorola 68000 CPUs, Atari released a new high-end desktop publishing workstation called the TT030. For $2995, it included a 32MHz 68030 CPU, 2MB RAM, a 50MB SCSI hard drive, and a new OS all wrapped up in a stylish new modular case. Atari engineers went to great lengths to keep the system compatible with ST software. Unfortunately for Atari, the ST line had long since been eclipsed in market share by the Macintosh and by cheap PC clones, so the TT030 remained a niche product that sold mostly in Europe.

Atari Mega STE (1990)

The Mega STE, released in late 1990, represented the last gasp of the 16-bit Atari ST desktop line. It shipped with the fastest 68000 CPU of the series at 16MHz and included 1MB to 4MB of RAM, a 40MB to 80MB internal hard drive, and an internal 3.5-inch floppy drive in a modular TT030-style case.

Atari ST Book (1990)

In December 1990, Atari released an ultrathin laptop in its Atari ST line in Europe. Unlike the hefty Stacy before it, the ST Book was amazingly thin and light for its time. By omitting an internal floppy drive, Atari was able to make the ST Book just 1.4 inches thick and less than 5 pounds. However, the ST Book's extremely fragile plastic case and LCD screen were prone to breaking, which may be why the company limited its production to an astonishingly small 1000 units.

Atari ABC N386SX (1991)

All of the previous Atari computers in this slideshow were, as you might expect, designed and built by Atari. The ABC N386SX was a different story entirely. This system was made by SOTEC, a Japanese PC manufacturer. SOTEC sold the same model itself, and Atari's only contribution was to put its label on the computers it sold. The ABC N386SX, which shipped in the summer of 1991, was Atari's only PC-compatible laptop. At its heart lay a 20MHz 386 CPU, 1MB of RAM, an internal 3.5-inch floppy drive, and a 20MB hard drive. Few bought it, and even fewer remember it.


Atari Falcon030 (1992)

The 32-bit Falcon030 was Atari's very last stab at the personal computer market before the company shut down its PC division to focus entirely on its upcoming Jaguar game console. The $1299 Falcon030 incorporated a 16MHz 68030 CPU, an internal IDE hard drive, advanced graphics modes, and--most impressively--the ability to both output and digitize CD-quality audio. The Falcon030 fared well with the same MIDI-sequencing crowd that had previously adopted the Atari ST platform, but it failed to attract people deeply entrenched in Microsoft's software ecosystem. Due to its quirky, spunky design, the Falcon030 is a favorite among Atari diehards today.

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