What for?

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, used by everyone, including your grand parents (and that's great). Everyone knows what it's for, at work and at home. (Almost) Everybody has one , with a tablet and a smartphone. (Almost) Everybody knows how to start it{1} and do 2-3 simple things with it. In 1982, the situation was very, very different.

{1} Note that, 40 years later, computers are everywhere, but very few people really know how they work. Modern OSes, on computers or smartphones, offer a very simplified "user experience", accessible to all. Everything is fine, as long as there are no technical problems...

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, this microcomputer{2} was nothing like a video game console, right?

{2} 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.

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 computer 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 his excellent book "Atari Age: The Emergence of Video Games in America", author Michael Z. Newman recalls the novelty of a computer when the first "home computers" appeared in 1977. People had to be explained clearly what they could be used for. It was absolutely not obvious.

When the home computer emerged as a consumer electronics product around 1977, it was introduced to the public as an object with multiple overlapping functions, meanings, and identities. Unlike the utopian rhetoric of Stewart Brand and Ted Nelson, many applications of the home computer promoted in advertising and marketing discourses emphasized the use of the computer as an instrument of white-collar information labor serving institutions as much as individuals, and productivity as much as creativity. Not all of the multiple uses of the home computer were to be equal, and not all users were expected to share the same interests and expectations. The more legitimate and adult uses of the home computer for work, business, and household management were combined with the more juvenile uses of the computer for video games, and the serious and fun uses might be in competition with one another. As the product cost hundreds of dollars, the buyer would typically be a middle-class or wealthy adult, and the potential range of users might include children and their parents.
Was the computer an instrument of work or mainly another way to play Space Invaders? Was it useful or merely amusing? Was it for adults or children? Did it belong in the kitchen, home office, living room? Was it for play, creativity, schoolwork, household management, or most basically for learning to use computers? The answer to these questions was generally: yes, the home computer was to be all of these things and more.

Few people had a computer 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! In two weeks it's in the box gathering dust",
— "Go play with your friends!",
— "What about your homework?",
— "You are constantly on that machine and you're isolating yourself, it's obvious",
— "It must consume a lot of electricity!",
— "It's certainly the future, but I'm out of touch.",
— "What about the radiations it emits? I saw something on TV about this",
— "It's for playing video games, right?",
— "You're going to damage your eyesight!",
— "You're going to damage the television, with these images that stay on too long! I read this in a newspaper",
— "I already put up with this kind of machine in the office, I don't want to do it again at home!",
— "Programming? What does it even mean?"
... were common objections and remarks. In short, a computer at home (not to be confused with a games console) was for a very limited audience of connoisseurs.

Who is it for? For which audience?

An interview of Conrad Jutson, Atari Vice-President of Marketing, published in the magazine: "Compute!" (Issue #5, July-August 1980), Pages 16-17 gives us a profile that the marketing department has identified as the target for Atari computers:

If we were to profile the personal computer buyer in the early 80's, it would be a male or female head of household, most likely in the managerial, administrative or professional position, typically earning over $25,000 per year{3} and falling into the 25 to 50 age bracket. Most likely, this person is already familiar with what a computer can do and can, in the home environment, identify a need for computing to address various problems and functions.
There are several millions of these households in the US that fit into the demographics I've described. I don't believe personal computers will ever be an "impulse item" off the shelf, partly because of the expense. So the logical question becomes: "Why should I buy a personal computer and what will it do for me?"

{3} 2024 equivalent is $96,100 per year or 87,400 € or £75,900

Which one?

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.


For those on a very large budget, computers running Digital Research's CP/M were an alternative to be seriously considered. Launched in the mid-1970s, they were aimed at the small business market, freelancers, scientists or senior company executives who needed a computer at home to prepare reports, etc. This "CP/M standard" was reassuring, it gave the impression that one could not go wrong: all these computers, slightly different from each other, used the same Operating System, CP/M, which gave access to an impressive catalogue of software.


However, by 1982, the CP/M star was starting to fade seriously: the system was already 8 years old and serious competition was coming. We didn't know it at the time, but MS-DOS/IBM PC DOS, launched the previous year, would sweep away everything in its path within a few years. However, computer manufacturers continued for some time to offer or promise a "CP/M module" for their home computers, to give them a "professional" image.

To give an example of products that were actually marketed and very popular, at Apple, some CP/M cards for the Apple II (like the Microsoft Z-80 SoftCard, 1980). This opened up a whole new world of professional possibilities for the Apple II.

To give an example of a promise never kept, at Atari, the 1060 CP/M Add-on (never released, 1983) and then the 1066 CP/M card for the 1090 XL Expansion System (both never released, 1983-1984).

In addition, complete CP/M systems were, by their nature, quite expensive as they typically included a computer system, one or two floppy disk drives, sometimes a hard disk, a terminal with its monochrome monitor and mechanical keyboard, and often also a dot-matrix printer. This was a very expensive package. Second-hand offers{4} were beginning to be found at reduced prices, but still much, much too expensive for a private individual.

{4} In the mid-1980s I was given a Logabax LX-500, with two floppy disk drives, a hard disk (5 MiB?) and a 132-column dot matrix printer, all second hand of course. I regret that I got rid of it 15 years later.

Well, let's be clear, these CP/M computers were for professional use only, which implied a monochrome 80-column text mode computer and that's it. VisiCalc, WordStar, dBase and MS-Basic was the available menu. No fancy graphics modes, no sound capabilities, no joysticks and no video games (is "Hangman" considered a video game?).

So, in summary, these CP/M computers were not at all aimed at the same market as those who wanted to buy their first computer, the enthusiasts and the newcomers to computing.

Not CP/M? What then?

Once the CP/M machines were eliminated, there was still the choice of home computers manufacturers. That is, those offering systems at all price points for the home user, in the range of 1.000-15.000 FRF (in USD: $100-$1,500). At the entry level, almost a "proof of concept", there was the Sinclair ZX81/Timex Sinclair 1000, which was very popular in the UK. At the top end of the range, there was the well-regarded, moderately powerful but ludicrously overpriced Apple II Plus (or the Apple IIe{5} later in early 1983). In between the two extremes, there was a wide range of offerings.

{5} Don't get me wrong: I love this machine and its wonderful mechanical ALPS keyboard. I own two Apple IIe and one Apple II Platinum. But I have to be objective: at the time of its release, it was simply a computer that was absurdly overpriced for what it was — that is, a machine that was superbly upgradeable thanks to those expansion cards that made it successful over a decade, but really, really rudimentary in its design. To understand me, try running the conversion of an arcade game with lots of fast-pace actions, scrolling and fabulous sound, to see what it looks like, sounds like, feels like on an Apple II.

Where to start? What should be considered first when comparing "candidate computers"? Perhaps the ease of use of their Operating System? Well, 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{6} and Disk Operating Systems{6}, very specific, very linked to the bare metal hardware of the machine. Apart from the CPU/microprocessor (MOS 6502, Zilog Z80, etc...) and the physical format of the floppy disk drive (5"¼), these computers had hardly anything in common.

{6} Usually one OS, but several DOS. The OS may evolve and new revisions of the machines from the manufacturer may implement newer versions of that OS, but it is still the same OS, often backwards compatible with older revisions. On the other hand, for DOS, it is more difficult, there were no absolute rules. The new DOS may be backwards compatible with the old one, or not at all — often to provide new features or take advantage of a new floppy disk drive.

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. For instance, the Commodore PET & Commodore 64 computers are software-incompatible, idem for Apple II, Apple III, Apple Lisa and Macintosh.

So, the choice was difficult. It was a real commitment, a well-considered decision. It was a relatively expensive hobby so you couldn't change your mind every month or so.

For many people at the time, it was the very first computer. How could you know if it was something truly exciting or a whim, a fad you were going to give up quickly? So, it made sense to start with a computer that was powerful but not overpriced. Something decent that could be upgraded easily if you were really interested in computers and programming. Something reasonably priced that you could put back in the box without regret if a computer wasn't for you after all. If after two rounds of mini-golf you want to start 18-hole golf, you're probably not going to buy $5,000 worth of equipment, right? That was the exact same reasoning back then.

For this reason, many users — at least in Europe — started with a computer and a cassette tape player/recorder. The cassette tape player/recorder offered the most economical means for saving and loading programs and other kind of data. A floppy disk drive was more or less the same price as the computer, so it was really a big expense. And the diskettes were expensive too. The cassette tape player/recorder, on the other hand, was much cheaper, and it used simple audio cassettes, which you could find anywhere, for very little money. After a few months, when you had a finer appreciation of your new passion, if you could afford it, then it was time to invest in a floppy disk drive, a printer, etc.

The pace of novelties and new releases was also radically different. 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 year, every three months, computers got much faster, had more memory, higher screen resolutions, more simultaneous colours, more sprites (players-missiles in Atari's vocabulary), 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-year old, but I have no need and no desire to change it: it is still very powerful and meets my needs perfectly. No task requires more power than what I have.


In his excellent book "Atari Age: The Emergence of Video Games in America", author Michael Z. Newman reminds us just how much Atari computers stood out from the crowd. They were very different from other computers on the market, simply because their manufacturer — Atari, a major player in the video games industry — knew exactly what was needed to give them a technical superiority:

The Atari 400 and 800 computers were introduced in late 1979, at the same time as Atari was establishing its place as a commercial powerhouse within the Warner Communications conglomerate, its sales revenues surging. The Atari computers were marketed aggressively, though they were never as profitable as Atari's stand-alone video game console [Atari VCS, later renamed Atari 2600]. But despite the commercial fortunes of the 400 and 800, the reputation of Atari as the leader in home video game consoles undoubtedly helped to promote the computers as technologies integrating play with other uses of computing. The technical superiority of computers for gaming made these models appealing as platforms for play while also opening up programming or other applications to home game players.

Decision time

To put you in the context of the time: yes, the Internet already existed, but it was known, available and used only in universities, in high-tech laboratories and by the military. It was a "closed network", unavailable to the general public. Plus the "World Wide Web", with websites that could be consulted using web browsers, had not yet been invented. So we had no websites to consult, no ChatGPT to query, no Wikipedia, no Facebook, no "online" magazines, and so on. There were some discussion forums (for a fee) on the Minitel in France but computer science was not the number one hot topic of this platform (no comment).

Today Wikipedia is a mine of information if you want to discover a technical subject. At that time, the big printed encyclopedias were offering "already almost obsolete content" on all computer topics. Everything was changing so fast, all the time. By nature, a paper encyclopedia is already obsolete on all these technical topics as soon as it leaves the printing press.

Where should I start? By buying an entry-level computer? There are so many to choose from, it's hard to decide without some expert advice. So what next? The machine may offer several programming languages. Is it absolutely necessary to start with BASIC? Which language best suits my needs? Which software will be the least expensive? Should I buy software on cartridge, cassette or diskette? Should I buy a floppy disk drive straight away, or will a cassette tape player/recorder be enough to get me started? Do I need a printer right away, or is it better to wait until the price of more advanced printers drops? If I or any children in the household are tempted by games, then how do I reconcile the very tempting desire to play games all the time with the feeling that the computer should be used more seriously?

So to make a good decision, being as informed as possible, you had to :

{7} "Octo-Puce" was the Canadian French-speaking version of the Canadian English-speaking "Bits and Bytes" TV program


In summary, to make the decision to pick a specific computer was a real journey, requiring a real effort.

How much?

Let's take a very practical example to assess the price of a system based on an Atari 800 equipped with 48 KiB of RAM from 1982, for example:

  1. Step #1: To begin with, it's reasonable to start with a cassette player, the Atari BASIC cartridge with 1 book, two joysticks and two popular games.
  2. Step #2: Some time later, as you become addicted to the computer, it probably becomes essential to buy a floppy disk drive, with diskettes (as NONE are provided by Atari)
  3. Step #3: The more time you spend with the computer, the more you monopolise the family television set: a colour monitor will give you your independence.
  4. Step #4: Finally, if you can afford it, a printer will give you the feeling of having a complete system, with word processing.
Step #1Atari 800, 48K8202,6242,3982,040
 Atari 410 tape recorder76243222189
 CX40 Joystick #118585345
 CX40 Joystick #218585345
 CXL4002 Atari BASIC47150137117
 Any Atari BASIC book20645850
 CXL4008 Space Invaders3511210287
 CXL4011 Star Raiders42134123104
 Sub-Total, Step #1$ 1,076$ 3,4433,147 €£ 2,677
Step #2Atari 810 Floppy disk drive4501,4401,3161,120
 Maxell diskettes (quantity: 20)72230211179
 Sub-Total, Step #2$ 522$ 1,6701,527 €£ 1,299
 Grand Total, Step #1+#2$ 1,598$ 5,1144,674 €£ 3,976
Step #3Amdex 13" color monitor3501,1201,024871
 Sub-Total, Step #3$ 350$ 1,1201,024 €£ 871
 Grand Total, Step #1+#2+#3$ 1,948$ 6,2345,698 €£ 4,847
Step #4Atari 850 Interface169541494420
 Atari 825 80-col dot matrix Printer6302,0161,8431,567
 Letter perfect110352322274
 Sub-Total, Step #4$ 909$ 2,9092,659 €£ 2,262
 Grand Total, Step #1+#2+#3+#4$ 2,857$ 9,1428,356 €£ 7,108

The figures speak for themselves. When you compare the total with its equivalent today, you can't help but realise that it was an enormous expense. Hence the crucial importance of being well informed, and choosing "the right" computer...


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 afternoon or so. Members of my family used to take me to visit one or two shops in Cambrai (20 km from home, 12.5 miles) every week or so, just to look at the new arrivals, see what was on sale and play with the equipment on display for customers to see. It's only now, looking back over the years, that I realise how extremely understanding and incredibly patient they were, taking teenagers around with their car without ever saying "no" or getting impatient with the time I spent there.

Very often, the teenager with his{8} 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.

{8} 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 she was really an exception at the time.

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 the stores of the Boulanger chain... It was more professional in ultra-specialised department stores such as La FNAC or Le Printemps, which made the shopping experience really pleasant and enjoyable{9}. The service was certainly impeccable in the elegant lounges of Apple's exclusive resellers — where an unaccompanied teenager was unwelcome, anyway, unless he came with daddy's chauffeur.

{9} My PAL 800XL was bought in May 1984 at La FNAC in Lille.

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