Reviewer: Jack Schofield
Magazine: Your Computer
Date: November 1983
Jack Schofield puts the Atari 600Xl through its paces.
It is almost unheard of to get a new home micro for review and be able to write half the review on it. It was possible with the new Atari 600XL, thanks to its software compatibility with the previous 400 and 800 models. Most home-micro companies throw their existing users on the scrap-heap when they bring out a new machine. Atari has kept faith with its.
As well as using AtariWriter - a word processor on a ROM cartridge - I tried a number of Atari games including Donkey Kong, Defender, Qix and Caverns of Mars. The Thorn-EMI River Rescue cartridge was tried: it also fitted and worked. There must be some independent programs which use illegal entry points that will not run on the new micro, but I did not find any. Therefore when the 600XL's packaging claims over a thousand items of software are available for it, that is probably a conservative estimate.
What is more the 600XL also worked happily with Atari's existing range of peripherals including the 810 disc drive, 410 cassette recorder and joysticks.
But if the 600XL merely offered a reprise of the 400 and 800, Atari would not have bothered to launch their new line, which also includes the 8OOXL, and the 1400 and 1450 which are still to come.
There are numerous ways in which the 600XI. is a far better machine than the 400 which it replaces:
- The 600 has a real full-stroke typewriter keyboard, instead of a touch sensitive one.
- The design of the case is much smarter - with its clean lines, two-tone finish and gleaming function keys - than the oddly- shaped "technoflash" 400.
- A new edge connector/expansion bus has been introduced to allow a plug-in upgrade to 64K RAM. It also allows the addition of the expander box to provide other options such- a 128K ram-disc, hard disc, flat-screen TV interface, IBM PC add-on, IEEE-448 interface and a few other fancy gadgets.
- A composite video monitor output has been added alongside the PAL UHF output port on the back.
- A new Help key brings up a self test of the RAM, keyboard, four sound channels and graphics.
- A new 24K ROM includes the 10K operating system and the Basic which is now built in instead of being on a separate cartridge.
- The Basic has been further - apparently completely - debugged.
- The addition of four new graphics modes using the existing Antic custom chip and GTIA custom graphics chip.
In addition, the 600XL brings with it a new range of peripherals in the same two-tone black and grey style. These include the 1050 double-density disc drive with DOS3, 1010 dedicated cassette recorder - which now has two standard serial ports - Super Joysticks, Trak Ball, Touch Tablet, and three new printers.
One printer is the 1025 80-column dot- matrix; another is the 1020 four colour printer/plotter, which is like the Tandy/Oric/Sharp models. The third is a letter quality printer, the 1027. It may only do 20 characters per second, but it plugs straight into the 600XL, the print quality is outstanding, and it should cost only £299.
Peripherals to follow are a sophisticated light pen and an 80-column CP/M add-on, both of which I have seen running with an Atari 800.
Last but not least, Atari has redesigned the main board to make it smaller, cheaper and easier to manufacture than the 400. This has enabled the company to add the real keyboard and improve the design while remaining competitive on price.
Not much has been sacrificed from the 400. The rock solid aluminium interior casing has gone, to be replaced by tin sheeting folded over the main board. Also the 400's four 4-bit joystick ports have been reduced to two.
The Atari 6OOXL is a 16K home micro- which uses the popular 6502C cpu with a clock speed of 1.79MHz. It also features three custom-designed chips called GTIA - graphics display - Pokey - sound generator - and Antic - graphics modes and screen I/O. These provide four channels of programmable sound, including distortion to control sound quality, plus 16 graphics modes.
The modes. range from 40 characters by 24 lines of text to a maximum resolution of 320 by 192 pixels, which is close to the resolving power of the average TV receiver.
All but four of the graphics modes also allow a four-line text window on the screen. The maximum RAM used by any mode is 8K. Different graphics modes can be mixed on the screen at the same time.
Each mode brings with it a set of default colours, but these can be changed. A total of 256 colours are possible - 16 shades of 16 colours. Without machine code routines, 16 colours is the maximum you are likely to use at once, and they must then all have the same intensity. Another easy option is having 16 shades of the same colour.
Compared to the 400 and 800, the 6OOXL has four extra graphics modes numbered 12 to 15. Actually these already existed as Antic modes. The change is that they have been made readily accessible to Basic without complex machine-code programming.
In addition there are numerous other facilities including player-missile graphics, which is the Atari name for sprites, or you can have four sprites and four two-bit missiles. The character set is redefinable.
Sounds - including the keyboard click - are output through the TV monitor, so they can be as loud as this permits. The Atari cassette recorder is a stereo model with a sound track as well as a data track. As the cassette motor can be controlled from the console, this means speech and sound effects can be synchronised with programs and output through the TV.
This facility is used in some games such as Moonbase Io, and in educational programs such as Atari's Conversational language- learning series.
The Atari micros are well known for their sound and graphics capabilities and the 6OOXL comes up to scratch.
Atari has obviously taken to heart the rejection of the 400's keyboard: the one on the 600 is superb. The matt finish, the clarity of the labelling and the quality of the touch show a lot of thought has gone into the design.
In addition, Atari has corrected the solitary placing error in its previous models: the Atari logo key, which gives inverse video, has been moved to the other side of the right shift key. It no longer carries the Atari logo, but graphically declares its function.
There are 57 typewriter keys plus five brushed silver function keys including Help and Reset. A Caps key toggles the character set between upper and lower case. A Control key allows the set of 29 graphics characters to be entered directly, though these are not marked on the keyboard.
The Control key also allows four-way cursor movement through the excellent full-screen editor. Other keys include Esc, Tab and Break.
The shift keys are huge, and with the 16.5mm-long space bar make the 600XL a delight for touch-typing.
The rest of the case is plastic and very rigid round the outside, though slightly squashy in the middle. The old hinged lid has gone, and a couple of sprung metal lips protect the cartridge slot on the top. The two joystick ports have been moved to the right side of the console. All the other ports, plus an on/off switch, are on the back. A plastic cover protects the board's expansion bus.
Built into the case
The PAL circuitry is built into the case, though the power supply is external.
All round the 6OOXL displays a high standard of design and finish.
As it dates back to 1979, Atari Basic is by now quite a well known dialect. It offers rather better support for the hardware than Commodore Basic, but it is poor compared to. BBC Basic. It has no structured commands. Mind you, it is only 8K, not a 16K Basic as on the BBC.
The advantages of Atari Basic are that it provides syntax checking on line entry and superb editing facilities. It also provides long, meaningful variable names, and some useful error trapping. As it offers string splitting rather than string arrays, maybe it will appeal to Sinclair ZX-81 and Spectrum owners looking for an upgrade.
There is no single key keyword entry, but there is a quick alternative: abbreviations can be used instead. For example, you can enter GR. for Graphics, SE. for Setcolor, DR. for Drawto, F. for For and N. for Next etc. Basic expands these when you list the program.
Graphics commands are Graphics, Setcolor, Color, Plot, Position, Locate and Drawto, which draws a line. The only sound command is Sound, which has four parameters to control the four separate voices. These govern the channel number, frequency, amount of distortion - for different sound qualities - and loudness.
Duration has to be controlled via delay loops. While the hardware produces nearly nine octaves if you Poke it, the Sound command offers 255 frequencies - only 3.5 octaves.
Other commands are pretty much as expected, including Read, Data and Restore, Paddle and Stick commands, the usual built-in functions, and Pop. Machine code routines can be called using USR. There are eight streams or channels which you can open and close to control I/O conveniently. Commands for Saving and Loading with tape and disc are plentiful.
The few bugs in the original Basic seem to have been cleared up. A naked Input no longer causes a lock up, and the unary minus works correctly. Dimensioning a string larger than memory now produces an error message. If there are still bugs in the Basic, I could not find them.
The 6OOXL runs the standard Benchmarks a tiny bit quicker than the 800. However, Atari Basic is still slow, and far too slow for action games unless you are a clever programmer or use machine code. Also the Basic does not offer commands to control the player-missile graphics. These are supported by other Basics such as Basic A+, Basic XL and Microsoft Basic, but they could only be used on ROM cartridges.
Other languages currently available for the 600XL are Pilot, a Macro-assembler and an assembler editor. I doubt whether the 6OOXL Basic could be used with any of the Basic compilers.
There are three alternatives in the form of three new language cartridges on the way:
- Atari's Microsoft Basic is being issued on ROM as Microsoft Basic II.
- There is an outstanding Atari Logo which I have toyed with, and which is nearly ready for release.
- The original author of Atari Basic, Optimized Systems Software, has written a fast new games language called Action, which has just been released on ROM in the USA at $99 - $65 discount.
With the 64K upgrade, of course, a large number of languages become available, including several versions of Forth.
As has been mentioned, the 6OOXL is heir to a vast range of Atari and independent software. It has more games available than any other micro, including the Spectrum. It also runs most of the world's best computer games, including Star Raider, Eastern Front, Way Out, Zaxxon, Zork, Donkey Kong and most arcade favourites.
Mind you, they are mostly American and very, very expensive. Most of the best games either require a disc drive and the RAM expansion, or else you have to pay £24 to £30 for the ROM cartridge version.
The 6OOXL is potentially a great games machine, but buying software puts it way above Spectrum price levels.
There is a smattering of home finance and educational software available from Atari and third parties. The excellent Atari Home Filing Manager - a computerised card index - only requires 16K, and the AtariWriter word processor is a ROM cartridge so it runs on the 600XL. It should therefore be usable as a home machine, not just for games.
From the business point of view the 6OOXL does not have enough RAM for serious work. VisiCalc requires at least 48K, so that is out. Most of the other business software such as the Chipsoft accounting and ledger packages require discs and/or Microsoft Basic.
With DOS loaded, the 6OOXL leaves only 7.5K of program space, which is not enough for such applications. No doubt the serious user will not mind shelling out the extra £££ for the 64K Atari 8OOXL.
The documentation supplied with the review machine was sparse. There was a tiny Reference Guide to keywords "for experienced Programmers", but the promised Owners' Manual was missing. Atari seems to be implying that as there are about 50 books available, you ought to go out and buy one. At least it recommends what is undoubtedly the best book about the Atari, Your Atari Computer by Poole, McNiff and Cook (Osborne/ McGraw Hill).
Considering the high quality of the documentation Atari supplies with its games this seems a very odd line to rake. At any rate, better budget the £10.95 cost of Your Atari Computer in addition to your 6OOXL.
- The Atari 600XL is a well-designed, thoroughly debugged machine with an outstanding specification at a reasonable price. It already has huge amounts of software and peripherals available.
- The basic machine is expandable to 64K and Atari will offer an 80-column CP/M upgrade with a Z-80 running at 4MHz. It could thus grow into a business machine.
- While the entry price is low, the 600XL is a luxury machine and will cost you many times its price in software and accessories.
- So far Atari has not achieved the kind of market share in the UK which as a $2 billion corporation it enjoys in the rest of the world, but the 600XL could change that.