Task: Purchase an Atari 8-Bit Computer
Time: 1-2 hours (or longer)
If you are reading this website it is very likely that you already have one or more Atari 8-bit computers. However, if you don’t own an Atari, and would like to, I have a few tips here for how to get started. My favorite is the Atari 800 that was released along with the 400 in 1979. My first computer was a 400 followed by an 800. I personally think the design of both computers is awesome. I have an 800 on my desk now that is my go to machine. I actually still have my 800 from childhood and have picked up two more recently. However, I don’t recommend the 800 as a first Atari computer for several reasons. First, most only have 48k of RAM and thus won’t be able to load some of the later games and software that require 64k. Second, they are rarer and tend to be more expensive. Also, it can be hard to find one in good condition.
I recommend the Atari 800XL as a first 8-bit computer. This one comes with 64k of RAM and there are a ton out there for purchase. They also have nicer keyboards than the later 65XE and 130XE models. I personally like the top-loading cartridge slot on the 800XL. Cartridges are harder to insert on the 65XE and 130XE. The 800xl has a smaller desk footprint than the 800 as well. You can pair this with an Atari 1050 disk drive that has the same case design and colors. I don’t recommend getting the 1010 cassette drive. These are notoriously flaky due to aging drive belts that are difficult to replace. Cassettes are also a real pain. I also do not recommend buying a printer since the paper and ink are hard to find and many don’t work due to brittle parts. If you really want a printer I recommend the Atari 1020 because you can get all the replacement parts and supplies on the web. I will do a post about this later. So, an Atari 800XL and 1050 disk drive will get you started for much Atari fun.
There are several options for securing an Atari home computer. Where most people start is eBay. These days there are usually a dozen or more 800XLs on eBay ranging in price from $50 to $250 or more depending on the condition and what else is included. $100 is a reasonable price to pay for one of these if it is clean and in good working condition. Expect to pay $150-$200 if it comes in a box and maybe more if it is new in the box (NIB). There are some new ones that show up from time to time but they are usually expensive. The 1050 disk drive usually sells for $50 to $100 depending on the condition and whether it is boxed. So, you should expect to pay $150-$200 for both the 800XL and the 1050. Be patient. These come up all the time on eBay. Here is a link to 800XLs on eBay.
eBay is not the only game in town. If you are looking to spend less there are other options. First, there are other auction sites you can try including Goodwill and Offer Up. You can also find them on Amazon. Craigslist also sometimes has Atari stuff. Some other options are the Atari Age marketplace forum and their Facebook page. Lots of things come up here and they are often cheaper than eBay. You can also buy restored and enhanced hardware at Eight Bit Fix for reasonable prices. This might be your best bet for quality hardware.
In the early 2000s when I put much on my collection together it was possible to find Atari computers and game systems at thrift stores and flea markets. I used to routinely pick up 8-bit computers for $10-$20. Sadly, those days are long gone and it is very rare to find Atari stuff locally. The supply is dwindling due to age and nostalgic collectors with money to burn are buying up what is left. I expect the market will crash at some point but probably not in the next 10 years. I have had some recent luck putting ads in local online classifieds. I scored an Atari 400 along with a bunch of peripherals and software this summer using this approach. I also picked up an 800 and a 2600. However, it costs me $35 to run an ads covering several local towns for a week.
My best advice is to be patient. Don’t rush into any purchases. The nicest items come from collectors and they will often provide this note in the auction description to let you know it is a quality item that has been cared for. Something to keep in mind is that much of this stuff is brittle with age. Make sure the seller packs it carefully. I recommend a box within a box and lots of bubble wrap. I also recommend sturdy boxes that won’t crush under the weight of other boxes. I have had several items including an 810 disk drive arrive with a cracked case. There are many horror stories about this online. Very frustrating.