Buying a computer in 1982 for those who have not experienced it

When it comes to discussing computers, it is probably difficult for the younger generation to put themselves in the shoes of a 1982 teenager or very enthusiastic adult. No, "Stranger Things" does not describe with complete accuracy the atmosphere of the 80s. Today the computer connected to the Internet is ubiquitous. It's something really commonplace, found almost everywhere and used by everyone, including your grand parents (and that's great). In 1982, the situation was very, very different.

If you were a teenager, you first had to convince your parents that it was an investment for your future, for your academic success — and certainly also promise not to play video games with it all the time, because, of course, a computer was nothing like a video game console, right? If you were an adult, you obviously did what you wanted with your money, but you might had to convince your other half. When you finally bought this microcomputer (1) in a specialised shop, you had to explain to your friends and family "what for?" and justify the expense. If you had one in the living room, it was really incongruous, abnormal. An almost futuristic gadget, like in a Jacques TATI film. You had to constantly defend yourself to visiting friends who discovered "the beast". In February 1984, the "SVM" magazine made this topic its monthly cover: "What to do with a family microcomputer?", which proves that the subject was still worth discussing and was not taken for granted to everyone. BTW, the proposals, were: 1. Educate your children. 2. Manage your budget. 3. Play video games. 4. Learn to program. 5. Word processing. 6. Searching databases.

(1) Yes, we used to say "microcomputer" and not "computer". There were "mainframes" (in large companies), "minicomputers" (for universities, scientists, etc) and "microcomputers", for the home.

Few people had a microcomputer at home, and as a matter of fact few people wanted to have one at home. Truth be told, very few people immediately understood its purpose or interest, except for the "video game" activity. "I wouldn't know how to use it!", "You'd better go outside instead of staying in front of this machine all day!", "It's a gadget, it's useless!", "Go play with your friends!", "What about your homework?", "It's certainly the future, but I'm out of touch.", "It's for playing video games, right?", "You're going to damage your eyesight!", "Programming? What does it even mean?" were common unpleasant remarks. In short, a microcomputer at home (not to be confused with a games console) was for a very limited audience of connoisseurs.

The choice was really difficult to make, as the offer was so varied. In addition, new manufacturers appeared every six months or so, new computers every three months or so, which could make yours completely obsolete in no time. Picking the right one was crucial. Today, in short, you choose between Windows and MacOS. Full stop. The rest is irrelevant, secondary. You might also consider ChromeOS or Linux as alternatives. That's it, all there is to consider. You can "beef it up" later if your computer is too lightweight for your needs, or blissfully continue to use your 5- or 10-year-old computer. You can easily take your documents, photos, videos, data, games, programs and peripherals with you if you change computers. Before MS-DOS/Windows and MacOS uniformity won the game, none of this was possible: this was all science fiction in 1982.

First of all, there was no graphical interface, everything was done with commands to be typed, which you had to discover, understand and memorize. When you turned on the computer, you often found yourself directly in the BASIC programming language. By the way, it was obvious, taken for granted that you were going to learn a programming language. If the goal was just to play, you had to buy a game console instead. Worse: each manufacturer had its own Operating System and Disk Operating Systems (usually, several), very specific, very linked to the bare metal hardware of the machine. Apart from the microprocessor (6502, Z80, etc) and the physical format of the floppy drive (5"¼), these microcomputers had hardly anything in common. All machines of different brands were (almost always) totally incompatible with each other when you switched from one brand to another. At a manufacturer, compatibility between different models was not always guaranteed, there were no golden rules, you had to check it (e.g.: Commodore Vic-20 & 64 are incompatible, idem for Apple II and Macintosh). So, the choice was difficult. It was a real commitment, a well-considered decision. It was a relatively expensive hobby so you coudln't change your mind every month or so.

The pace was also radically different and it's hard to imagine "that constant rush" today. Between 2015 and 2021 (that's 6 years), we went from Windows 10 to Windows 11. Hardly enough to raise an eyebrow. Between 1979 and 1985 (also 6 years), we went from the Atari 400/800 to the Atari 520ST and everything in-between. That was a huge revolution! Every month, every year, computers got much faster, had more memory, higher screen resolutions, more simultaneous colours, more sprites (players-missiles), more specialised processors. There was always something exciting happening. Every two years at the most, you wanted, you needed to change your computer. The one I'm using to write this article is 7 years old, but I have no need to change it: it is still very powerful and meets my needs perfectly.

The technical discussions with the salespeople in the specialised shop were really something. I can only testify for what I experienced, but I'm sure some of you can relate to (some of) this. In my case, I am referring to the shops in the north of France (Lille, Valenciennes, Cambrai), which I visited as often as possible at the time, every Saturday or so. Very often, the teenager with his (2) copy of "L'Ordinateur Individuel" (1978-2009), "Tilt" (1982-1994) or "SVM" (1983-2010) magazine knew more about the machine he was after than the shop assistant. A few hard-hitting questions about RAM, number of colours, screen resolution, speed, etc... made it clear whether the hesitating salesperson was an expert in another brand of computers or an expert in hoovers and micro-wave ovens. In their defence, there were so many brands and so many models, that the salespeople could not be held responsible for not being experts on all the machines on sale in the shop. I remember "MSX salespeople" in Auchan supermarkets who had a rough time because they were hardly briefed on the subject, or salespeople who changed departments every other week at Boulanger... It was more professional in ultra-specialised department stores such as the FNAC, which made the shopping experience really pleasant and enjoyable (3). The service was certainly impeccable in the elegant lounges of Apple's exclusive resellers — where an unaccompanied teenager was unwelcome, anyway.

(2) Computer buyers at the time were overwhelmingly male. This is not a sexist remark. It was a demographic fact. Later, I had a friend who convinced her parents to buy her an Amstrad CPC 6128, but that was really an exception at the time.

(3) My PAL 800XL was bought in May 1984 at the FNAC in Lille.

The salesperson's guide to the Atari 400 home computer system

The salesperson's guide to the Atari 400 home computer system, cover

The salesperson's guide to the Atari 400 home computer system, cover

The salesperson's guide to the Atari 400 home computer system, Apple II+ table

The salesperson's guide to the Atari 400 home computer system, Apple II+ table

The salesperson's guide to the Atari 400 home computer system, Apple II+ arguments

The salesperson's guide to the Atari 400 home computer system, Apple II+ arguments

In July 1982, Atari offered its dealers a small booklet entitled "The salesperson's guide to the Atari 400 home computer system". An equivalent brochure, entitled "The Atari 800 Home computer system salesperson's guide", was also distributed for the Atari 800.

The aim of this booklet for the 400 was multiple:

At the time of writing this booklet, Atari identified the following models as plausible competitors of the Atari 400:

It is strange and almost comical — in retrospect — to realise that Atari seemed genuinely concerned about a gaming console, the Mattel Intellivision, and its upcoming keyboard expansion. The availability of this keyboard became a joke, a running gag in the industry and even within Mattel. According to Wikipedia, the Mattel Intellivision keyboard component debacle was ranked as No. 11 on GameSpy's "25 dumbest moments in gaming".

Note that at this very moment, in July 1982:

Comparison table #1

Standard feature Atari 400 Apple II+ Commodore VIC-20 Tandy TRS-80 color Texas Instruments TI 99/4A
Memory (RAM) 16K 16K 5K 16K 16K
Maximum RAM 16K 48K (1) 32K 32K 52K
Display (text) 40 x 24 40 x 24 22 x 23 32 x 16 32 x 24
Highest resolution 320 x 192 280 x 192 176 x 184 64 x 32 256 x 192
Graphics modes 9 2 1 1 2
Text modes 3 1 1 1 2
Colors 128 (LD#1) 16 16 8 16
Sound registers (voices) 4 1 4 1 3
Keys (keyboard) 61 52 66 53 48
Lower case letters Yes No Yes No Yes
Cartridge slots 1 0 1 1 1
Controller jacks 4 1 1 2 1
Custom chips 3 0 1 0 1

(1) 64K with accessory card

(LD#1) This note is not in the brochure, it is a personal remark: 128 colours with CTIA, 256 colours with GTIA and its 3 additional graphic modes.

Comparison table #2

Standard feature Atari 400 Intellivision without keyboard Intellivision with keyboard
User-Programmable Yes No Yes
Programmable memory 16K None 16K
Maximum programmable memory 16K None (2)
Display (text) 40 x 24 n/a 39 x 24
Highest resolution 320 x 192 160 x 192 160 x 192
Graphics modes 9 1 1
Text modes 3 0 1
Colors 128 (LD#2) 16 16
Sound registers (voices) 4 3 3
Keys (keyboard) 61 0 60
Lower case letters Yes No Yes
Cartridge slots 1 1 1
Controller jacks 4 2 controllers built-in 2 controllers built-in
Custom chips 3 0 0

(2) As of this printing (July 1982), the manufacturer has not specified the method or availability of equipment to expand this unit beyond 16K.

(LD#2) This note is not in the brochure, it is a personal remark: 128 colours with CTIA, 256 colours with GTIA and its 3 additional graphic modes.

Atari 400 vs. Apple II+

ATARI 400 Computer Strong Points:

Apple II Plus Computer Strong Points:

Atari 400 vs. Commodore VIC-20

ATARI 400 Computer Strong Points:

Commodore VIC-20 Computer Strong Points:

Atari 400 vs. Tandy TRS-80 color

ATARI 400 Computer Strong Points:

Tandy TRS-80 color Computer Strong Points:

Atari 400 vs. Texas Instruments TI 99/4A

ATARI 400 Computer Strong Points:

Texas Instruments TI 99/4A Computer Strong Points:

Atari 400 vs. Intellivision without keyboard

ATARI 400 Computer Strong Points:

Mattel Intellivision Strong Points:

Atari 400 vs. Intellivision with keyboard

ATARI 400 Computer Strong Points:

Mattel Intellivision Computer Strong Points: