Orphaned Computers & Game Systems

Vol. II, Issue 5    August 1998

An Introduction to Classic Atari Magazines

by Adam Trionfo

There is so much information available on the Internet, I sometimes forget that even one issue of Compute!'s Gazette or Antic contains more useful information than many of the websites put together that are devoted to either the Commodore 64 or Atari computer. Back issues of those magazines are getting difficult to acquire, but they are worth the effort. For those of you who have heard of Atari Age but never Antic, Ahoy! or Compute!, this article will serve as an overview of some of the more interesting magazines for the various orphaned systems.

Magazines that are dedicated specifically to Atari 8-bit computers include Antic, ANALOG, Atari Connection and Current Notes. There have been others, but they were short-lived and not nearly as good as the four mentioned. That list also does not include magazines such as Compute! or Softside, which also featured many articles and programs for the Atari range of computers, among others.

Antic and ANALOG had the widest distribution among the Atari 8-bit magazines. Like in most magazines from the first home-computing era, there were articles included that dealt with programming. However, the main reason to get these magazines, it seemed at the time, was for the software. For an average price of three dollars, you could pick up an issue at the local bookstore that contained type-in programs that could be entered, most often in BASIC, and saved to disk or cassette for later use. The programs required hours to type in and de-bug. The worst part of it wasn't the typing, but locating the mistakes apparent at runtime. There were many programs that I spent hours typing in but which never correctly ran, due to typos.

Eventually, most magazines adopted checksum programs that allowed listings to be entered with the risk of errors reduced. The way it worked was, at the end of each program line a comment with a number was compared with a number that appeared on the screen when you pressed ENTER. If these numbers differed, there was an error in that line. This took most of the frustration out of entering programs. The only thing left to do was devote the time required to actually type the listing -- Which brings up the cover-mounted disk.

Cover-mounted disks were introduced to eliminate the need to type in the programs. A disk issue usually cost about four times as much as its paper counterpart. It was well worth it, even if only one program was going to be entered. The time it saved outweighed the extra cash.

As the magazines evolved, so did the cover disks. They originally contained just the type-in programs, not utilizing the extra disk room. Most publishers utilized the space by combining three issues for one disk. But that meant that if you got a magazine that had a program you wanted, you might have to wait three months before the disk came out, even as a subscriber to the soft version. Eventually, though, the magazines began to provide a disk with each issue, which made more sense. The extra room was utilized for such things as menus and disk-only programs, which were often too large to be included as type-in programs in the magazines themselves.

In hindsight, one of the best reasons to look through the classic magazines isn't the type-in programs, but rather the interesting articles. Some of them are very dated, while others are as fresh as if they had been written yesterday. All of them were very important at the time, though.

An article explaining how to use an outdated terminal program with an Atari 800 and a 300-baud modem to connect to CompuServe is hardly worth the reading effort anymore. But it was very useful when it was written. In comparison, an article explaining the basics of a display list in machine language for the same computer isn't going to diminish in applicability; it is still quite useful. Many of the techniques discussed are very clever and are unlikely to be found anywhere else. It makes these magazines invaluable.

But there is one more inclusion that I find interesting: the reviews and advertisements. Where else will you find the public's initial reaction to a new product? What did people think of the Atari 1200XL when it was released? For that matter, what did the reviewers think of the 1450XLD, a product that was never released? The only place where you can find the answers are in the pages of these old magazines.

But where can these magazines be purchased? That is the problem. They are very difficult to find. You might happen upon a few magazines at your favorite flea market or thrift store, especially if there is some classic computer lying nearby. If you would like a complete collection of them, it will require work and persistence to get them from friendly Internet users. Good luck! -- AT