Task: clean an Atari 810/1050 disk drive head
Needed: Phillips-head screwdriver, Q-tip, alcohol
Time: 15-30 minutes
I started out back in the early 80s with an Atari 400 computer and a 410 cassette recorder for storing programs. Working with the 410 was tedious and at times painful. We upgraded the next year to an 800 and an 810 disk drive. What a difference! Being able to save and load programs from a floppy disk was pure heaven compared to cassette technology. I still have my original 800 and 810 and am very fond of the design of both. This is my favorite of the long list of Atari hardware models. In fact, I took my 810 to my high school electronics class, cracked it open, and soldered in “The Chip” from Spartan that allowed copying protected software.
The 810 disk drive is getting harder to find as they age and malfunction. You can find them on eBay for $50 to $250 depending on the condition and whether the original box is included. I purchased two on eBay in 2018 each for less than $100. There are three main issues I have found with 810 drives. First, they are kind of big and have brittle plastic which means they crack really easily. My original 810 case cracked in a move. One of the two I got on eBay this year cracked due to poor packaging. Be sure and communicate with the seller to make sure they use extra bubble wrap and an interior sturdy box with packing around that. I have five 810s and three are cracked. Second, some of them are yellowed which means they won’t match your 800 computer in color unless it is equally yellowed. I am not a big fan of the yellowing and all my 800s are pretty close to the original tan color so I notice it. There are methods using peroxide chemicals to reverse the yellowing although I haven’t tried this yet. Here is an Atari Age post on this. Finally, it is likely the 810 drive read/write head needs to be cleaned. This is true from normal use and certainly true after sitting in someone’s basement for the last 30 years. I have done this and include below some of the details on how this is done. Some general posts on repair can be found here. Here is a post about tuning the drive speed although I have never tried this. Here is the 810 operators manual and the 810 field service manual both from Atari.
Cleaning the drive head is relatively easy. The following steps can be applied to the 1050 drive as well. The first step is to remove the cover. You may first need to remove the small circular tabs on the top of the case that cover the screw holes. Remove the screws with a Phillips-head screwdriver. They are old so proceed gently. Second, gently lift the arm that holds the felt pad that presses the disk against the head and clean the head with a Q-tip dipped in alcohol. Note that the felt pad can also wear out creating unreliable contact between the disk and the head. These can be replaced. If you aren’t sure what the drive head looks like I have included a photo below that was taken from this set of Atari Age posts. That is it! Reassemble to cover and you are done. I hope your 810 works like a dream.
There is always that moment when you aren’t sure whether it is the drive or the disk that is the problem. I have hundreds of disks and more than 95% seem to have survived and still work (amazing, right?). Be sure and try a few different disks to rule that out as a cause. Disks wear out faster over the years if they aren’t protected from the elements. Also, some claim that centering the disk in the sleeve can increase the likelihood of a disk working. I never did this back in the day and don’t know if it is a real thing. My disks that don’t work appear to be DOA for the rest of time. Something to try though!