October 7, 2016

C:\RETRO ROO> Atari XEGS Reboot, Part 1: 8-bit Nostalgia

Decades in the making, now the moment of truth. Plugs seated, power anchor dropped, and after a not-so-confident yielding press of a bloated candy-like teal button, and subsequent moment of silence, one thought remains: I need proof of life. But, suddenly the room is quiet no more. Ah yes, I remember that sound! An unsophisticated but satisfying reminiscent rumble emanates out the speaker of an old cathode ray tube. I think I have my answer. And after an old friend electrifies back into existence, he fearlessly asserts that he is “READY”.


Okay, he was never very chatty.

Some of you may already know what I’m talking about, but for the rest, I won’t keep you guessing. I recently unearthed my old Atari XE Game System (XEGS).


Atari XE Game System (XEGS), including keyboard and joystick. There was also a light gun (not pictured) which I’ll have to dig up.

This system was a Christmas present from my parents when I was about 12 or 13. It was a present that I definitely knew about ahead of time, as I remember ogling this system on multiple occasions at a local “Clover” department store. I know the XEGS was released in 1987, and (I think) that is the year I got it. But, it’s possible it was 1988. I also remember gazing at the Atari 300 baud modem that Clover sold that would have worked with this system, but alas that never came to be.

That keyboard is really horrible! At the time I didn’t know any better, but trying to use it now, the feedback is nonexistent. The keys are mush. There’s nothing satisfying about pecking away on that keyboard.


Atari XEGS Console

Here are the Atari XEGS specifications (from the Owner’s Manual):

Technical Information

Processor 6502C microprocessor, clock speed 1.79 Mhz
Custom Chips GTIA: graphics display
POKEY: sound generator control
ANTIC: screen and input/output ports
FREDDY: memory system control
Memory 64 kilobytes of RAM
34,048 bytes of ROM (including the operating
system, ATARI BASIC, and Missile Command)
Display 11 graphics modes
256 colors
320 x 192 pixels, highest resolution
40 columns x 24 lines text display
5 text modes
Sound 4 independent sound voices
3.5 octave range
Input/Output Keyboard port
TV output
Composite video output
Audio output
Controller ports
SIO port
Cartridge interface
Power In connector

I remember that my XEGS was once repaired. I’m not sure what year it was, probably around 1989, but it was taken to a local “Atari authorized” computer repair shop. It was located in one of those storefronts built into the front of an old house. You know, the kind of place you’d expect to be a barber shop or something. I don’t have a vivid memory of what was wrong with the XEGS, I believe the power light lit, but nothing happened. I don’t remember what was done to repair it. Back in those days, there’s a pretty good chance a component or two was replaced on the motherboard or a daughterboard. Back then, this stuff was expensive, so rarely was an entire motherboard swapped out. Anyway, the system ran fine for years to come after this repair. And obviously over a quarter century later, it still works!


Atari XEGS Console


Rear of Atari XEGS, showing composite audio, video, along with television port with channel selector switch.


Rear of Atari XEGS, showing power port and SIO (Serial I/O) peripheral port.


Atari XEGS keyboard port


Atari XEGS joystick ports


Atari XEGS cartridge slot

After blowing off the dust and hooking it up, all while reminiscing, it was time to find out if this nearly 30-year-old computer had the will to live.


Seeing the soft blue glow and the word “READY” transports me back to a time of computing innocence and wonder. The computer is now booted into Atari BASIC, awaiting my commands. While I would never trade a modern computer and access to the internet for something so technologically unripe, I’m reminded of the sense of awe and fascination at the possibilities when staring at those five unassuming characters. It is now up to me to create something, to build something from scratch. Aw hell, do I even remember any of the commands?

With the Internet now in its third mainstream decade, it is difficult to remember a time when a computer existed as an island. Sure, there were online dial-up modem services like CompuServe, Prodigy, America Online (AOL), and countless bulletin board systems (BBS’s), but for many who owned a computer in the 1980s, and even the early 90s, most of the work done on that computer was isolated from other computers and other computer users. Typically the only time 1’s and 0’s exchanged hands was the computer equivalent of the “mix tape” swap, loading an assortment of programs and games lovingly onto a floppy diskette.

Now that the initial nostalgia has receded, it strikes me that there’s no easy way to load data into this thing. In a world of instant knowledge and data gratification, I’m at odds. I know there are hundreds of games and programs I could download for this old fella, but how do I transfer them? See, I lack the “last mile” interconnection needed between my modern computer and my archaic buddy. I could run these old 8-bit Atari classics on my modern computer with an emulator, but where’s the fun in that?

Ah yes, I just remembered, I already have dozens of games to test out in the form of cartridges, disks, and even tapes! They are all sitting right here along with a few old owner’s manuals.


Atari 8-bit cartridges


Atari 8-bit cartridges


Atari 8-bit floppy diskettes


Atari Program Recorder cassette tapes

Now I’m now off to search for my old Atari 1050 disk drive. But wait, will it still work? No way! It’s three decades old! I already lucked out when the computer powered up, but a mechanical disk drive, how is that going to work after all these years? And what about those floppy disks? Certainly they must have degraded to a point where the data they once held is no more.

Well, while you ponder that, and while I look for the disk drive, here are a few tasty morsels.

  • The Atari 1050 disk drive was released in 1983, replacing the 810 disk drive, expanding disk capacity from 88KB to 127KB.
  • The 1050 was released during the Atari “XL” era of personal 8-bit computers that started around 1982.
  • The 1050 utilized the SIO (serial I/O) port, and up to four 1050’s could be daisy-chained together.
  • The 1050 is compatible with Atari’s line of 8-bit computers, including the series 400, 800, XL, and XE.
  • The 1050 came bundled with Atari DOS 2.5 and an incredibly detailed owner’s manual.

Atari DOS 2.5 1050 Disk Drive Owner’s Manual

And here are a few excerpts from the Atari DOS 2.5: 1050 Disk Drive Owner’s Manual:


The ATARI® 1050™ Disk Drive is an extremely efficient, high-speed memory device which greatly enhances your ATARI Personal Computer system. Your ATARI Computer’s memory retains the information and instructions you enter through its keyboard. But the computer’s memory is limited in size, and without a storage device like the 1050, its contents are erased each time you turn off the computer.

Your ATARI 1050 Disk Drive enables you to store and manage large amounts of information in separate files on diskettes. With your ATARI 1050, you can call up your files by name, copy or erase them, and manage them in many other ways.

What DOS Does

To store information on diskettes you need software that allows your computer and disk drive to communicate with each other about your files. That is where the Disk Operating System – DOS for short – fits into the picture. DOS (pronounced “doss”) is a program that enables your computer and disk drive to work together in storing, retrieving, and otherwise managing your diskette files. DOS itself is organized in files contained on the Master Diskette.

Warning: Your ATARI 1050 Disk Drive should be placed 12 inches or more from your television. Your TV creates a strong magnetic field that could affect the information recorded on your diskettes.


Control Logic 6507 Microprocessor
Diskette Format Dual-density, single-sided, 5 1/4 inch diskette
Data Storage 127 K


Number of Tracks 40 40 N/A
Number of Sectors 26 18 N/A
  per Track
Total Number of Sectors 1040 720 512
Number of Sectors 1023 719 511
  available to DOS
DOS Overhead, in Sectors 13 12 12
Numbers of Sectors Usable 1010 707 499
  for File Storage
Number of Bytes per 128 128 128
  Physical Sector
Number of Bytes of Overhead 3 3 3
  per Logical Sector
Number of Usable Bytes of 126,250 88,375 62,375
  File Storage per Drive
Encoding Method MFM FM
  Transfer Rate 250,000 BPS 125,000 BPS
Access Time
  Track to Track (maximum) 40 MS 40 MS
  Motor Start (maximum) 1000 MS 1000 MS

And here’s a random page:


Found it! Here’s my Atari 1050 Disk Drive:


Atari 1050 Disk Drive


Rear of Atari 1050 Disk Drive, showing drive number DIP switches, daisy-chain SIO ports, and power port.

So, does it still work? I wonder if all those floppy disks are still readable?! Well, that’s all the time I have for this installment of Retro Roo! If you are now fully immersed in this floppy disk thriller, please visit again and look for: Atari XEGS Reboot, Part 2: Will It Load? Those Pesky Floppy Disks!


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