Gaming

Time for some TLC on an Atari 800XL

With my “new” Commodore 64 getting a lot of attention lately my collection of Atari machines were being a little neglected so I decided to do some much needed work on my Atari 800XL. This was one of the first computers I had picked up when I returned to retro gaming and even then it needed some work with dust, grime and even coins(!) stuck inside the machine.

Previously I had only done a cursory clean (it was working after all) but I had some concerns about the broken cartridge guide connector which is a piece of moulded plastic that helps cartridges sit correctly when plugged into the motherboard. As the cartridges are inserted into the top of the machine (through the metal doors on the top, see pic below) it’s a part that really needs to be 100% to make sure that the connection works as expected and doesn’t make users try to jiggle things around and put pressure on the motherboard.

Though more than thirty years old, you can still get original replacement parts thanks to Best Electronics who are one of a small number of retailers who have access to a lot of original stock from the time when Atari computers were still new. For owners needed just the right parts to fix their machines they are a valuable resource.

After a good clean the 800XL was looking pretty good.

There are a lot of guides on the Internet for cleaning up old gear including the popular retrobrighting method but that wasn’t something I needed here as any discolouration was minor. This particular machine’s problem was that it had permanent marker used across the top of its casing and despite past efforts by the owners to remove it there was still a lot of it there amidst the grime.

Having a child prone to using markers at the worst times (and in the worst places) I fell back to a tried and trusted method of using a “magic eraser” which is a sponge/scourer specially designed to clean up tough to remove marks from walls. For parents who unfortunately have children that like to extended their artistic talents beyond paper it can save you a lot of frustration and can keep those walls looking clean for a long time.

I only needed a small section from the magic eraser and cut off what I needed (it’s a one use item) before dampening it with a tiny bit of water… just enough for it to do its job. The end result was actually better than I thought it would be and I was able to get it looking pretty clean after only five minutes of work. Seeing as I wanted this machine to be the main Atari 8bit I used having it look its best made this totally worthwhile.

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Next was to disassemble the Atari so that I could get to the cartridge guide. This required a couple of steps and was more time consuming than I had initially thought. After removing the top of the outer case I then needed to take apart the substantial shielding from around the motherboard. Unlike the C64 this was a serious bit of work and really showed how the 800XL’s build quality was a step above its more popular relative.

With the shielding gone it was easy enough to remove the cartridge guide as it was a snap in piece. With the motherboard exposed I decided to also make an additional change by removing the cabling for the RF modulator. The output had been rewired but as this wasn’t needed anymore due to the monitor connection now being the preferred option. A quick snip with pliers and it was gone and it made working on the computer so much easier to reassemble too.

Once the machine was back in one piece and looking a lot tidier it was finally time to hook it up to television and see if all of my work paid off. That of course means playing some games!

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First up was to plug in a couple of cartridges to confirm that the guide is doing its job correctly. First was Miner 2049er which worked perfectly then a longer test with Pastfinder to let the machine run for a while with an active display.

While I had the machine set up I thought it worthwhile to plug in my SIO2SD drive and see that working too. Good idea I did that as I then found that a couple of pins in the SIO (peripheral) port were bent and needed to be gently realigned. I’d previously only used cartridges on the 800XL so missed this one entirely until now. Once it was straightened I was able to plug the SIO2SD in and it worked first time.

Back when I posted a video showing my 130XE in action I mentioned that I thought there were some minor software incompatibilities (maybe related to the Atari’s Player Missile Graphics) so I specifically tested out both Ghostbusters and Miner 2049er and it looks like the 800XL resolves the problem nicely. I might have to put together another video showing the difference. Maybe see if I can get Alley Cat working too…

With my work now complete and seeing some positive results with my test games I’m thinking this will definately be my primary machine for Atari 8bit games. I also picked up a vinyl cover for it with my parts purchase from Best Electronics so it can safely sit at a desk ready to go. After so many years in a box it’s about time for the 800XL to get some fresh air and the attention it deserves. πŸ™‚

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8 replies »

    • Thanks! I’m still amazed these old machines work as well as they do… some have required a little more attention that was outside my own skill set but this one was built solidly and it was a great feeling to open it up and see how it had all held up despite what it initially looked like on the outside.

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  1. Pastfinder! Immaculate taste, that’s such a great game.

    I recently re-acquired all my old Atari 8-bit and ST hardware that I grew up with, and it pretty much all still works… except for the 1050 disk drive, which seems to have given up talking to the computer in the last month or so. The older 810 still works, but that doesn’t read double-density disks… better than nothing though!

    Oh, the joystick port on the later model STE (i.e. one of the models with the stupid under-case ports) is buggered, too, but the side ports on the older 520ST still work fine, so I can play most stuff. Might have to try and pick up a 1040 STFM at some point for those sweet 1MB enhancements to games without the STE’s compatibility issues.

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    • Nice to hear you’ve got your hardware back! I’m surprised that the 1050 drive had died… Always seemed like those things were bulletproof. The computers though are very solid. πŸ™‚

      My goodness those joystick ports on the STFM/STE are a nightmare! I think they’re even worse now my hands have another 20+ years to them. Port extenders go a long way to helping I have to say.

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      • Yeah. I’ve read all sorts of ways to “fix” them. I have some port extenders, but unfortunately I think the joystick port is already a bit “loose” so they don’t actually help much. Apparently doing a bit of soldering inside the machine can help enormously, but 1) I don’t own a soldering iron and 2) I’m scared!

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        • You’re right – once the problem is there it might be time to fix and you really need to be able to use those ports on the ST. I wish I had the skill with a soldering iron as I’ve been relying on friends and contacts to help me out. Thankfully there’s still people out there who know what they’re doing. πŸ™‚

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    • Thanks! It’s been great knowing that I’m not the only one with memories of the old Atari machines. Apart from a couple of Atari user groups in .au it was C64 all the way.

      I’m rapt I have a working QuickShot II Turbo and always keep it close – it’s still one of the best joysticks you could ever plug into one of these. πŸ™‚

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