Hands-on: The Atari VCS is a nostalgic mini-PC shrouded in faux wood and mystery

The Atari VCS nails the look of the old-school Atari console, but most of its capabilities remain a secret.

It still exists. That seems to be the message Atari wanted to send by showing up at GDC with the Atari VCS, formerly known as the “Ataribox.” Although the project was only announced last spring, I think I’d already started to think of it as vaporware—surely this isn’t real, right? But it is, or at least Atari’s still claiming it is, showing off a prototype of the Linux-based console this week.

“Prototype” is maybe too lofty a term, though. This wasn’t a computer with some rough edges, or hardware in need of a fancy case. The opposite, actually. It was a very fancy-looking case...with nothing in it. An internal battery appeared to power the front LEDs to give it the appearance it was in-use, but we didn’t actually see what it’s capable of. No user interface, no idea of what games it’ll run. This is still very much conceptual.

Atari VCS (Prototype) IDG / Adam Patrick Murray

But Atari did give us a few bare-bones details, both in-person and through an FAQ shared after our discussion. For one, Atari’s quick to reiterate that this is a modern device, not a SNES Classic-style throwback. From the FAQ, “Atari VCS will of course serve up lots of classic content. But it will do and play much more.” And later, there’s this more detailed section:

“Atari VCS is expected to ship with a variety of game and entertainment content available. Classic IP from Atari’s profile of more than 200 games...will be accessible, plus modern games (including reimagined classics) as well as streaming video, audio, and other entertainment apps.”

Games will be hand-selected and published by Atari for the VCS, but the Linux back-end will also allow more experienced users to load up other content—say, from Steam.

Atari VCS (Prototype) IDG / Adam Patrick Murray

As for the VCS’s capabilities, I was told the core of the unit is an AMD Bristol Ridge A10 APU ($89.89 on Newegg). A few reasons that’s strange. First of all, back in September we heard there was a custom AMD part at the VCS’s core. Maybe that changed, or maybe the A10 was just mentioned during my demo as an equivalent chip. I’m not sure.

Second, and weirder, is that the A10’s not a very powerful APU, especially compared to the new AMD Ryzen APUs with Radeon Vega graphics. That's only strange because Atari’s FAQ then goes on to promise “performance...comparable to a higher-end PC laptop.” Again, hard to know which will prove true, though I have my suspicions.

Regardless, it’ll also have “onboard and expandable storage,” Wi-Fi and Bluetooth support, and USB 3.0. So yeah, it’s a small form-factor computer/microconsole, powered by Linux, and presumably mid-tier performance at best (despite Atari’s claims to the contrary). Seems like the closest analog is Valve’s SteamOS and the accompanying Linux-based Steam Machines.

Atari VCS (Prototype) IDG / Adam Patrick Murray

Steam Machines didn’t exactly light the world on fire, and when I said as much to Atari I was told that the new VCS is intended for a different audience. “One of the miscalculations they [Valve] had is that the kind of audiences that are going to be interested in Steam and Steam Machines, they’re buying something that has way more horsepower,” said Michael Arzt, COO of Atari Connect. “To me, we’re much more oriented towards the casual consumer.”

Banking on one-part branding, one-part nostalgia essentially. That’s been Atari’s strategy for a few years now, with mixed results, but we’ll see whether people are drawn to the Atari VCS.

I will say I love the look of it, faux-wood paneling and all. It blends elements of the original 2600 with modern design ideas, and pulls it off surprisingly well. The peripherals are also nifty. The gamepad is similar to the Xbox One design, while the joystick uses embedded LEDs to recreate the dashed-line look of the original.

Atari VCS (Prototype) IDG / Adam Patrick Murray

If we’re just judging by the prototypes in other words, then this is an interesting little project.

There are still so few details though, so little to even discuss, it’s hard to know whether the Atari VCS has a future. Its prospects seem even worse when you look at how little success Valve, Corsair, Alienware, and other massive companies have garnered with very similar living-room-ready devices—to say nothing of the Ouya, the Nvidia Shield, and that whole Android side of the market.

Look for more details, including a preorder date, in April. Until then? Well, Atari’s going for it. The Atari VCS still exists (or exists again, depending on how old you are). Time will tell whether that’s a good thing.

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