Atari 2600 Teardown

September 1, 2010 Hardware, Site News, Teardowns — Miro

Welcome to day three of our week of game console teardowns. So far we’ve taken apart the Magnavox Odyssey 100 and the RCA Studio II; the Atari 2600 is next! We partnered with PC World for this teardown to bring you a peek into another staple of game console history.

Originally labeled as the Video Computer System (VCS), the Atari 2600 was released in 1977. By that time, microprocessor-based hardware had been popularized with the Fairchild Channel F, and the VCS was Atari’s first foray into that technology.

The system was originally released with all six switches on the front of the console, however, the console was redesigned in 1980 with only four of the switches on the front, and the other two on the back. The console featured here is a post-1980 model.

Teardown highlights:

  • The Atari 2600 sold for $199 in 1977. In today’s coin, that’s $696. In comparison, the launch model of PlayStation 3 cost only $599. Prices are coming down!
  • Initially the public did not know that the Atari 2600 could play games other than Pong. It took a couple of years for the console to became massively successful — Atari went from selling 250,000 units in 1977 to 1 million units in 1979.
  • The case design team must have wanted to give lots of breathing room to the motherboard team. The case of the 2600 is 2.6 times larger than the motherboard!
  • Jay Miner was able to integrate the display and sound chip into a single IC, thereby reducing the footprint of the motherboard. Yet the case size still seems rather excessive.
  • With a design that is unseen in just about any other electronic device, the motherboard is propped up and sits at an angle of 30 degrees inside the Atari.
  • The motherboard easily lifts out, as there are no additional screws or clips holding it in place. The only thing securing it down were two angled screws we removed from the outer case.
  • Atari gets a +1 on repairability for not soldering the EMI shield to the motherboard, as some recent manufacturers (Apple, Palm, Motorla) have done.
  • The Atari 2600 boasts:
    • 1.19MHz 8-bit processor
    • 128 bytes RAM
    • 192 x 160 pixel resolution
    • 16 colors (but only 4 on screen at once)
    • 2 channel sound
  • Unlike most earlier consoles — where games were stored on internal ICs — the Atari 2600 stored games on Read Only Memory (ROM) chips housed in external cartridges. This allowed for a potentially infinite number of playable games for the console.
  • Because memory was so expensive during the 2600’s design, the video processor has no external RAM. This means that the 2600 never generates an entire frame. Each line of the picture is generated individually and output to the TV sequentially to form a complete image.
  • We give the Atari 2600 a big plus for repairability. Every component is attached via through-hole solder, so replacing a burnt out resistor or IC is quite feasible.

The tiny motherboard in the large housing

The final layout