Atari 800 XE Laptop

“Making Of” Story

After building my very first portable,-the Atari 2600 VCSp, back in 2000 (ever notice how awkward of a year that is to say?) I had a couple of “dream projects” to follow it up with. One was a Nintendo portable, which strangely took 4 years to manifest itself. The other was something I consider impossible at the time – an Atari 800 computer laptop. My ultimate dream portable!

A little back-story… The Atari 800 was my first computer ever and also my first “gaming system” This was back when I was 11 years old I believe. Yes Atari tried to make people think it had educational purposes and all that but let’s face it – the 800 had some AWESOME games and that’s what people remember it for. Of course I tried my hand at programming the thing – again to make games. I never got past BASIC but that didn’t stop me from wasting more hours than I’d care to admit plugging away at it. Some of my stuff was, well, playable (see “Stripfunmaze” demo), most of it never finished. Actually I learned a lot of basic computer concepts that I feel really gave me and edge 10 years later when I got into graphics design and the kind of stuff I do now. But anyway…

Ever notice cave paintings look EXACTLY like kid's artwork? Weird...
The first advertisement for an Atari computer I ever saw. The figure on the left is clearly Alan Alda – oh yeah, dead ringer.

I used my old beige 800 all the time and actually kept it actively hooked up from when I got it in ’87 up til ’96 when it finally conked out. The video card of all things! (aka ANTIC) Then while looking for movie props in a junk store I found a “new” Atari 800 and they charged me an entire $2 for it! I used the ANTIC card from it to refurbish my original 800 and it was brought back to life! Even now it sits next to me on the same desk as my “real” (ha) PC. That thing is a tank! I bet it could effectively stop most small arms fire at least!

So I guess I’ve established I’m a fan of the system. As with the 2600 I wanted to “do something” in honor of it. The natural idea was to make a laptop version but this idea had some major hurdles, much more than say a 2600 portable. Such as:

  1. 1Screen. Needs to be decent-sized, and you can’t use laptop screens, the format is completely different (Ataris of course use old RF switchbox or composite video signals)
  2. Power supply. Needs to, well, work. And fit.
  3. Which Atari to use. Can’t be a 1979 “tank” model like mine. An 800XL or XE Game System? (XEGS)
  4. Disk drive! How the heck do you make an old 5.25″ disk drive portable? (answer: you don’t, without a wheelbarrow)

I’ll discuss how I got around each hurdle in the order I hurdled them… I started this project in late spring of 2003 so it’s been a long time coming!

Disk Drive Replacement – Summer 2003

Not only were the old Atari disk drives hard to find (working) but the disks themselves seemed to fail after a while. I dunno – I had a 1050 and an 810 and they both had problems of some sort and eventually died. My first idea for the laptop was to use some sort of modern [PC] laptop hard drive since they were small. Naturally this would require some sort of “Atari-to-IDE” interface, so I decided to type that into a search engine and see what popped up.

I was actually kind of surprised when something DID come up – a site called “Mr Atari’s Homepage” This guy had created what he called “MyIDE” interface which, well, lets your Atari 8-bit computer use an IDE hard drive. You can build it yourself inside the computer (internal) or buy a cartridge version from him (external). I decided to build my own of course (it’s actually pretty simple) but it did require a new OS chip. (operating system, similar to a BIOS chip today) Mr. Atari had made a new OS that acts like the old but also has the hard drive support built in, so the machine thinks it’s just a really big disk drive. This allows you to boot right up from the hard drive if you wish. Pretty slick, if you’re into the Atari computer at all you should definitely check his site out.

So I ordered an OS chip from Mr. Atari, got the other parts I needed off Digi-Key and found myself an Atari XEGS on eBay. I picked the XEGS because it was the last model Atari 8-bit computer (released as a “game system” but still a computer) Therefore I knew it’d be the smallest and easiest to hack. Plus it had those “awesome” pastel Miami Vice-colored buttons…

A long lost ad for the Atari XEGS – Pastel Button Edition

I also got myself this cool thing called an “SIO2PC” cable. It connects to your Atari’s disk drive port and the other end goes into your PC. Your PC then “emulates” a disk drive (or anything else really) and the original Atari can’t tell the difference. This allows you to run downloaded disk images on an actual Atari or make images of your actual disks before they die. I figured such a cable would be handy in this project (and I sure was right) Plus all my disk drives had conked out, as mentioned. Again if you still like your Atari computer you owe it to yourself to plunk down $25 for one of these.

Once I had the parts I wired it all together, put in the new OS, attached an old 150 meg IBM Thinkpad drive and fired it up. Couple problems right away. First, no BASIC (should be built-in for an XE) I figured this was some sort of bug and just plugged in my old BASIC cartridge from the 800 for the time being. This allowed me to run the disk drive detection program (off the PC using the SIO2PC cable) but problem was it didn’t work. No drive detected. I thought I had a working laptop drive but perhaps I was wrong…

“Oh no ” it’s thinking “I’m screwed now – Ben owns me.”

Here you can see the XE motherboard, complete with most everything it originally came with from the factory. I hadn’t begun to chop stuff off but I did have the IDE interface hooked up (hint: it’s all the scraggly wires) The basic idea was to keep everything flush, or no higher than, the highest things on the motherboard. In this case that’d be the main IC’s and capacitors. I knew when this thing got “laptop-a-rized” I’d need it as thin as possible.

But of course that didn’t matter yet because the drive detection wasn’t working. So while I waited for that problem to magically fix itself I decided to start hacking. Even back then I knew this would be the ultimate hard-core project of my game-hacking career, so I threw out all the stops – I decided to remove an entire laptop hard drive-sized chunk of the board so a drive could lay flush alongside it.

Apparently I took this photo during an eclipse, sorry.

There it is – with the upper right hand chunk missing. There wasn’t much there anyway, just the RF box, A/V jacks and joystick ports. Well, that is sort of a lot – I guess I did end up doing a good deal of “surgery” to repair all the traces that were cut off from the procedure. Shoot, I can’t quite recall, it was over 2 years ago. Still I made sure everything was flush and flat so it wouldn’t get in the way later. Of course in the final design this empty space ended up being used for the batteries instead of a hard drive but that’s another story. I replaced the original SIO (disk drive) port with a more modern DB25 printer port (like on a PC). Mostly because it was thinner. I built an adapter that plugs into it when I want to use original equipment or my SIO2PC cable.

Alas, summer flew by and I knew my dream of taking an Atari 800 XE laptop to Classic Gaming Expo ’03 was going down the drain. The project fell by the wayside… adrift in a sea of… eh, adriftness until…

“Making Of” Story continued…

It was now the year 2004. Time flies when you’re soldering and drinking MGD. I’d done several other projects since starting the XE Laptop, started writing a book… Heck I even made progress on “Port Washington” during that time! So for the Atari, I felt kind of guilty for “letting it rot”, so to speak. I decided I take another crack at it…

Compact Flash IDE Adapter – Summer 2004

I can’t remember quite where but I came across a Compact Flash-to-IDE adapter. It was only like $6 so I bought one. Later on I’d learn a Compact Flash is pretty much pin-compatible with an IDE device which explains why the adapter was so simple (and cheap) Still it gives you the connectors between the two which is important I guess. I’m not THAT good at soldering!

Click photo to find one on eBay! AUTO SEARCH is awesome!
A photo of an adapter I grabbed off the net. Surely it’ll increase sales so they won’t care. (Click photo to find one on eBay, opens in new window, yippee have fun)

My thoughts were that even a small (say 16 meg) CompactFlash would be WAY more than you could probably ever fill with Atari stuff. (and I was right) Plus I figured the power draw would be a lot lower (a laptop IDE drive is about 500mA @ 5 volts) So I wired up the Compact Flash to my Frankenstein-esque Atari to see what would happen…

Low and behold it sort of worked! I still had to use my BASIC cartridge but I could “see” the drive (CompactFlash) and even format it and such. It was kind of buggy though, and the formats didn’t always stick. The power consumption of the Compact Flash was only about 50mA, ten times less than a hard drive. I was sold, except for the bugginess and the still-missing BASIC…

New, even more custom OS – Fall 2004

BASIC was still missing. It should be built into the OS! (even the new OS from Mr. Atari) I got to thinking, the original XEGS had built-in Missile Command if you held down OPTION while starting the system with the keyboard removed (or something, I can’t remember) So the XEGS OS was probably a little different than Atari’s before it – but the OS from Mr. Atari was intended for an Atari 800 XL (older model)

The OS swapping of this project, as viewed from space

I contacted Mr. Atari and told him of the dilemma. What we ended up doing was I sent the original XEGS OS to him so he could look at it and make his new OS work with it. This took some time as he’s located in Europe, but I guess I can say this was an international project then! Turns out the XEGS had a 32k ROM (versus 16k normally) so the memory location of BASIC within it was different. Mr. Atari burnt me a new, larger OS, sent it back, and it worked in my XEGS – BASIC was back! Thanks Mr. Atari! You rule!

But the Compact Flash drive was still not working quite right. At the time my book was top priority and on a tight schedule so once again the Atari 800 XE Laptop fell at the wayside…

Wow, I’m a Moron! – Fall 2005

It was October 19th – my birthday. I decided as a present to myself I’d finally get that darn Atari 800 XEGS to work. Earlier that year while rearranging my stuff it had been consigned to the “closet of lost dreams” in a container where my other (very few mind you) failed projects go for eternal rest. (so yeah, I set it right next to the gutted Dreamcast) I couldn’t stand the fact it was doomed to that fate so I pulled it out and began wiring a new laptop drive onto it, thinking the Compact Flash idea was just not working for some reason.

As I wired up the new hard drive I realized something – I had a few connections on the Flash adapter WRONG! It wasn’t too much, basically a ground wire or two connected to the wrong spot, but I figured it would be enough to “crap things up” If you’re into tinkering at all you’d probably agree that finding a mistake you’ve made is actually a really good thing because it rules out every other [undiscoverable] possibility.

Pardon my mess
A big happy computer family! The XEGS, bottom, copying files off my PC onto its CompactFlash (near XEGS keyboard), plus evidence I truly DO have my original Atari 800 still hooked up. Like I’d make that up.

I re-wired the Compact Flash, double checked all 16 or so wires (again it’s quite simple, I’m a moron for missing that mistake for over a year) and WHAM! It worked! The drive booted fine, worked every time, found the right head cylinder sector info, everything! I was ready to go!

Designing and building the laptop case…

With the Compact Flash drive working I was ready to continue. Finally! The first order of business was finding a screen to use. The first noobish idea would be using an old laptop screen but that’s quite hard, if not impossible. See, the Atari puts out composite video (like the yellow jack coming off your PS2) while a computer monitor takes RGB. On top of that most laptop displays are proprietary digital and therefore only work with the laptop they come in. Some people try hooking laptop screens up to their PC’s and have a really hard time – connecting it to an Atari would be even more difficult and very expensive.

That left me with using NTSC screens, such as the displays in a car DVD player. I couldn’t use the cheap and readily available PS1 screens because at 5″ they’re way to small. The thing to think about is the laptop case is going to be the size of the motherboard at least… so you need the biggest screen possible. Another factor is overscan. Old computers and game systems assume rounder, smaller TV’s and therefore usually had a good deal of “border” on the edges since they assume this to be off the edges of the viewable screen for the most part. However modern TV’s, especially LCD’s, show pretty much every bit of a video frame making this “overscan border” even more obvious. Another strike against a small 5″ screen.

A 10″ laptop monitor would have been ideal, but again impossible. Most of the cheap car DVD player screens were 7″ widescreen – also unacceptable. Finally I stumbled across this at Radio Shack:

It’s an 8″ TFT display with a bunch of extra crap built in (TV tuner, ironically Compact Flash picture display card) The price was right, $150 after rebate… I had 2 days to decide before the sale ended. Then a sales associate got the manual out and I discovered this thing had rechargeable batteries in the base!

The batteries in the base. Don’t worry – I bought the thing before I opened it 😉

$150 for a screen PLUS (9) 2100mAH Ni-MH AA’s and a built-in charger – can’t beat that. SOLD! (I did find a few dead pixels later on – oh well what can a man do?) I bought the thing, took it home and DIDN’T immediately hack it apart.

“What?” you say “You, Ben, hacker of all hacks, didn’t immediately open it up? What’s WRONG you with?”

I’ll tell you what’s wrong! See the Atari 800 had this thing called “color artifacting” What happened was in its high-res Graphics 8 mode (ahem, 320×240 with 1 color) if you made vertical lines with spaces between them they’d not appear white (or the one color available) but rather green or magenta depending on whether the line # was even or odd and what version Atari it was. Thus programmers used this to add color to high-res mode games (a good example of this is Choplifter)

Again, we all know what I think of emulation...
An emulated, non-artifacting version of Choplifter. Notice all the vertical lines? On a real machine they appear as solid color. Time to save some hostages.

Thing is, emulators have to actually simulate this as it’s a feature of TV’s. Therefore my concern was this modern TFT display might not have the artifacting characteristic. So I had to test out the screen before I opened it to make sure artifacting would work. It did, thankfully, so THEN I ripped apart the screen!

Stuff Radio Shack doesn't want you to see!
The guts of the Axion TV.

How nice of them to have all the crap inside this screen be modular! The LCD portion is on the left, circuits on right. Naturally the big PCB is the main guts, gotta have that. Below it are the TV tuner and Compact Flash reader. Those can go bye-bye! What rubbish. What I actually ended up doing was using the +5 volt power supply on the screen that was intended to power the Compact Flash adapter and use it to power the Atari instead. Why not?

Truly the mark of quaility
A glued and taped LED inside the screen case. Now I don’t feel so bad about MY hot glue obsession.

Now that I had my screen I could design the case of the laptop. (As I usually say, and will say again, the screen is a huge factor in the design) My Atari 800 motherboard was currently in this condition:

The space I had cut out for the hard drive originally just happens to also fit (9) AA batteries. Obviously I subconsciously must have known that back in 2003 – clearly. At the bottom of the motherboard you can see the battery charging circuit I took from the TV, and how it goes to the power switch on the upper left. Alright, let’s get down to construction!

The keyboard!

As usual I designed everything in Adobe Illustrator and cut the parts with laser engravers and a CNC machine. I started with the keyboard, mostly because I’d never made a keyboard before and I really wanted to see it complete!

Above is the first step – tact switch placement on the keyboard grid. I used small 4.5mm switches so they could be INSIDE the keys rather than under them. This is a trick I used for all my ultra-compact projects, such as the NES Micro.

Either my keyboard construction or the workbench of the world’s most hardcore Scrabble enthusiast.

I wanted the keys to be nice so instead of making the text with decals I actually raster engraved it into the surface of the black textured plastic to create characters. This is much slower but gives them a good physically look and feel. In the upper left you can see the “key mesh”. This is a grid I cut and laid packing tape on the back of. Once a key was attached to its hollow base I then placed it into the sticky grid, as shown below:

Front and rear of the key grid. Note the holes that the tact switches fit into. So clever am I.

Next came the hard part, or rather the boring monotonous one. I had to wire up the tact switch grid to the keyboard controller in the same way it was in the original keyboard’s circuit. See below:

You know, not as hard to wire as it looks. Really. Or maybe I’ve just become numb to the process.

Note the hole in the bottom of the keyboard – this is where I intended my “Cursor Mushroom Button Knob” to go. In the olden days we didn’t have “mice” to move the cursor around the screen, no sir-ee! We had to use KEYS, and sometime we’d have to press a couple keys even! (Then walk to school barefoot uphill through the snow fighting dinosaurs) With the Atari you had to hold “Control” then press one of the direction keys (which are normally +, -, etc) This worked but was clunky.

My idea was to have a knob that you could push with your finger to “magically” make the cursor move around the screen. Since the OS was locked the only way to accomplish this was mechanically, and boy did I have a hard time getting it work!

Tinfoil: Not just for Thanksgiving anymore!
The cursor mushroom button. Yes, that IS tinfoil you see.

The trick was “Control” had to be pressed and held before you could hit the other keys. My solution was to mount the knob (really just the top of a PS2 analog stick) on a spring with 2 tinfoil-covered discs below it. When you press the knob in any direction the first thing that happens is the disc connect – this is wired to the “Control” key. When you press a little harder the tact switches below click the appropriate arrow key and the cursor moves. While it’s hard for me to believe I actually resorted to using tinfoil for something I can’t deny that it works. Seriously, I probably spent a good 12-15 hours figuring out the best way to do this before I said “the heck with it!” and made a trip to the supermarket!

Building the laptop case part 2…

Time to start building the case itself! As usual it’ll be in 2 parts, the top and bottom. It’s a laptop so these halves have to close in and open up. The first side of the case, containing the keyboard and Atari, was fairly simple – 3/4″ tall walls and a front plate to hold in the keyboard.

Doubles as holiday cheese grater

The top portion would be a little trickier because it has the hinges. I used a threaded size 6 rod for the main hinge and drilled it into the case as shown.

You know the drill
Threading rods through holes is a good thing to do while watching Law & Order.

The hinges themselves had hollow sections so the wires could pass between the sides. (just like a PC laptop) There’s only 5 wires between anyways, power in, ground, power out, audio and video. It was best to keep that simple so the hinges had a chance to work and not get all bunch up with excessive wiring.

The whole system HINGES on this!
A close-up of a hollow hinge. I ran out of black wire in this gauge so I used green for ground – yeah it’s Christmas colors I guess.

The top half also contained the latch for keeping the lid shut. Here’s a close-up of it. The spring actually pushes against the screen itself (why not?), and a small button outside the case pushes the latch when you want it to open.

A ball-point pen died to match this possible
Designing hinges is fun! I didn’t even secure the rod – I’m playing fast and loose!

Here’s the top lid of the system, without the screen of course. Oh and my hand. On the right you can see the new buttons for screen functions (since the original buttons will be hidden inside the case) I used the original screens speakers and even the metal speaker mesh from its case – hey it matched my design colors, why not? Better than spray-painting screen door mesh.

If only I had longer fingers...

I then put the LCD screen and its control board into the top of the case. The ribbon cable between PCB and LCD was a bit tough to wrangle but I managed. The PCB part is just barely almost a bit higher than the sides of the case, that’s why there’s an extra raised section on the top lid (the piece with the Atari symbol), to accommodate the height. I probably didn’t need to do this, but it was a “better safe than sorry” kind of thing. Here’s the inside of the top half of the laptop:

Looks less messy in real life - no reall!
Obviously the top section with the screen is ready to go.

Here’s the inside of the base (keyboard and motherboard) side. Everything’s attached, internal controller, joystick ports, keyboard. The motherboard will fold over top (from right to left, like a book) to go inside the case. Because of this I’m forced to make wires longer than they actually have to be, but it’s worth it to be able to easily get inside the thing for all the inevitable tweaks I usually have to do.

Enough wires to give a guy a headache
The inside of my laptop or a model of a spinal cord – you decide.

…and fits inside as shown below. You can now clearly see the space intended for the battery pack. It’s a very tight fit for the motherboard, in fact all four (well, the remaining 3) corners of it have been cut down. The idea is since then screen is only 8″ I had to make the rest of the case as small as absolutely possible so the screen itself looked bigger. One of those perception things, you know? Like in that Hobbit movie.

Damn this thing was hard to build! ;)

At this point all that remains is to screw on the brushed aluminum lid panels and presto – an Atari 800 laptop! (Presto, yeah right…) In the following page are many detail photos of the unit, along with explanations of what the parts do…

Finished photos….

Well with everything done I guess all that remains is to look at some pictures of the finished unit in detail! If you’ve skipped the story and come right here I must say you’ve missed out on some awesome cave painting and Miami Vice action! But anyways…

I heart brushed aluminum. Almost more than air.

Here’s the rear ports on the unit – DC in (for charge or just running it), Compact Flash and the DB25 SIO port. The Compact Flash drive is always Disk 1 (D1:) so whatever goes on the SIO port, be it a real disk drive or an SIO2PC cable must be set at D2: or higher. I used the SIO2PC cable to copy all the files (ahem GAMES) off my PC and onto this laptop. All the file transfers had to be done on the Atari’s DOS. The SIO2PC cable is a lot faster than a real Atari drive, but Mr. Atari’s IDE interface with the Compact Flash is even faster. Perhaps the interface uses parallel instead of serial, who knows?

Top-down view of keyboard.

The keys are the same size as an Atari 800 (1979) model keyboard, about 1/2″ square. The spacing is also pretty much the same. Granted my custom keyboard can’t come close to the legendary one on the original 800, but it’s better than what came with the XEGS (or – shudder- the 400!!!)

You can also see the cursor knob (right below the space bar) You simply press this in a direction and the cursor moves – very handy if you’re into programming. Should attach one to my old 800, come to think of it.

I put an extra “Option” button near the power switch and labeled it “BASIC OFF”. With an Atari you hold down OPTION as you turn on the system to disable BASIC so I thought this’d be handy.

Player 1 joypad on left, Player 2 on right but the triggers are swapped. This makes it easier for 1 player (which is the most likely scenario anyways) to hold the unit and play since the trigger’s under their right thumb. One thing I didn’t even think about, until this was done, is how great these joypads work for Robotron 2084. Or an Atari 800 version of Smash TV, if it exists 😉

I had to have some indicator LED’s on this thing! I used the oldest crappy LED colors I could – red for POWER (reference to 800/800XL), green for disk activity and yellow for charge. Since this thing cost a fortune anyways I thought of splurging on some blue LED’s but then thought that’d be cheating as they didn’t have them back in 1979. Of course they didn’t have LCD screens either but I had to let that one slip by.

Brushed aluminum everywhere! Here you can see the joystick ports, so a friend can join in (or get their butt kicked)

The joystick ports, again more brushed aluminum. It’s not REAL brushed aluminum, rather a laser engraver plastic, but it looks really good regardless. This laptop was actually kind of hard to photograph with a flash since every surface is either glossy, metallic or reflective. Oh well, you should get the point.

Below is the Atari 800 Error list, located to the left of the screen. Obviously it’s not complete but these are the most common errors if I recall correctly.

Father??? Son????
LEFT: My Atari’s error message list, RIGHT: An error message list from my old Tandy Pocket Computer.

First and foremost it’s there to fill in the blank space (again to make the screen look bigger) but it’s also A) helpful because who the heck can remember all those Atari messages and B) a reference to the portable and pocket computers of the 1980’s such as the ones from Tandy. On the opposite side of the screen are the display and volume controls. Tapping “Display” lets you use the volume keys to adjust brightness, tint, etc.

The battery pack, and the spot it fits in on the base of the laptop.

I don’t know what else to say about this thing really. It was very difficult to build, very labor intensive – it’s easily beat the PS2 portable as the most complex device I’ve ever put together. (Port Washington the movie doesn’t count as it’s not a device)

But you know, it was worth it. The Atari 800 series computer may not be as well-remembered as the 2600 game system, but those who do recall the late great 8-bit computer almost always have great and fun memories of it. Here’s a few of mine, some of which you’re sure to relate to:

  • The first time an alien pounded on my windshield in Rescue on Fractalus I nearly crapped my pants. Literally! Resident Evil doesn’t have squat on that.
  • My first Atari BASIC program:
  • 10 PRINT “HI!” 20 GOTO 10
  • Wishing my 48k Atari 800 could run The Eidolon and Laser Chess.
  • Programming all night, then having the disk fail with a BOOT ERROR message. Prepared me for Windows!
  • Infocom text adventure games! Those were cool! As well as all the homebrew text games people made!
  • Page 6
  • The music from Ballblazer

…and the list goes on and on. Long live the 800!

BONUS!: A video of me using the Atari 800 XE Laptop. Mostly to show off the cursor knob I’m so proud of.

Atari 800 Laptop Video (15 megs, QuickTime)