Atari 2600 Teardown



Teardowns provide a look inside a device and should not be used as disassembly instructions.

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.

Edit Step 1 Atari 2600 Teardown  ¶ 

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Edit Step 1 Atari 2600 Teardown  ¶ 

  • Atari 2600, with AC adapter and iconic joystick controller.

  • Does the 2600 have a hardwood finish? You are correct sir!

    • Video game consoles these days may not have a sense of home decor, but some computer companies still believe in the aesthetics of wood paneling.

  • At its release, the 2600 sold for $199. In today's coin, that's $696. In comparison, the launch model of PlayStation 3 cost only $599. Prices are coming down!

  • As soon as users figured out that the Atari 2600 could play more games than just Pong, the 2600 became massively successful. It went from selling 250,000 consoles in 1977 to 1 million units in 1979.

Edit Step 2  ¶ 

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  • From its release in 1977 until 1983, the Atari 2600 was officially called the Video Computer System, in response to Fairchild Semiconductor's Video Entertainment System. The console was later renamed after its model number, CX2600.

  • Instead of following the trend of building a limited number of games into the system like the Magnavox Odyssey 100, the Atari 2600 used removable cartridges to store games like Space invaders, Pac-Man and Pitfall!

  • Each player could select the difficulty of the game they were playing by simply flipping a switch from "A" to "B". Which one was harder is anyone's guess.

Edit Step 3  ¶ 

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Edit Step 3  ¶ 

  • There are four screws holding the upper and lower case together.

  • Hmm, these screws in the back are at an odd angle: almost 30 degrees off of vertical! Strange.

  • With such a large console, there must be a ton of awesome components inside...

Edit Step 4  ¶ 

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  • ...Or not. Seriously? That's it? The case design team must have wanted to give lots of breathing room to the motherboard team, just in case. (Actually this is the third version of the internal hardware, the first took up much more of the case.)

  • Jay Miner was able to integrate the display and sound chip into a single IC, thereby reducing the footprint of the motherboard, but the case size still seems rather hyperbolic.

  • 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. Now those case screws make sense!

Edit Step 5  ¶ 

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  • Finally, cables that are not soldered to the board! (Take note, Studio II.) The RCA cable is easily removed.

  • The motherboard easily lifts out, as there are no additional screws or clips holding it in place. The only thing securing it down were the angled screws we removed from the outer case.

  • The motherboard measures 9.75" x 5.25" and the lower case measures 13.75" x 9.75".

    • The case of the 2600 is 2.6 times larger than the motherboard!

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  • The motherboard of the 2600 is dominated by an ominous metal box, likely the EMI shield covering the ICs.

  • Our efforts to access the brain of the Atari are temporarily thwarted by four metal tabs.

    • A few short twists with pliers and the EMI shield lifts free.

  • Atari gets a +1 on repairability for not soldering the shield to the motherboard, as some recent manufacturers have done.

Edit Step 7  ¶ 

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Edit Step 7  ¶ 

  • Brains!

  • The Atari 2600 boasts:

    • 1.19MHz 8-bit processor

    • 128 bytes RAM

    • 192 x 160 pixel resolution

    • 128 colors, with max 4 colors per line

    • 2 channel mono sound

  • Unlike most earlier consoles -- where the games were stored on internal chips -- the Atari 2600 stored games in Read Only Memory (ROM) chips housed in external cartridges. This allowed for a potentially infinite number of playable games for the console.

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  • The top two chips are the 6532 Ram-I/O-Timer (RIOT) chip and MOS Technology's 6507 CPU (a slimmer version of the more popular 6502). By the current revision, they were manufactured by Synertek and Rockwell, respectively.

  • Atari's custom chip, the Television Interface Adapter (TIA) is the moneymaker of the 2600, as it allowed for multiple colors, increased graphic capabilities, and sound.

    • Because memory was so expensive during the 2600's design, the video processor has no external RAM. As a result the CPU must send video data to the TIA one line of video at a time.

    • There are six components of video that the TIA can create: The playing field, Two sprites (8 pixel lines), a "ball" (single pixel), and two "missiles" (two pixel lines). Combinations of these elements allowed for the complex video games witnessed in the 2600.

Edit Step 9  ¶ 

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Edit Step 9  ¶ 

  • With the EMI shield removed, all the components of the motherboard are visible.

    • Color tint adjustment

    • Sound tuner

    • RF modulator

    • Cyan Engineering TIA custom chip

    • MOS Technology 6532 RIOT (manufactured by Synertek)

    • MOS Technology 6507 CPU (manufactured by Rockwell)

    • Voltage regulator (manufactured by Texas Instruments)

Edit Step 10  ¶ 

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Edit Step 10  ¶ 

  • The back of the Atari 2600 Motherboard has exactly nothing interesting on it, except a great appreciation for through-hole soldering and hand drawn circuits.

  • This model was revision 13. How lucky!

Edit Step 11  ¶ 

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Edit Step 11  ¶ 

  • Behold the Atari in all five of its parts!

  • 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.

  • We're sad to say that we don't have parts for the Atari 2600, but we do have a brand new game console parts store to help keep your (slightly more modern) consoles running.

  • Keep an eye on our teardown page or blog for a detailed look at another retro game console tomorrow!

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Comments Comments are onturn off

Your IC ID on this teardown is incorrect.

The Rockwell chip in the middle CO10745 is the 6507 CPU

The Motorola CO10444 is the TIA and the Synertek is the 6532 RIOT IC



The CPU Shack Museum

John, · Reply

Agreed, and I don't get how you guys came to the conclusion of "a great appreciation for [...] hand drawn circuits".

I see nothing but straight lines, which very well could be neatly hand drawn, but just as easily could be CAD'ed.

But otherwise I love your teardowns of classic hardware. Keep them coming!


Perhaps they meant to suggest that the traces were laid out manually using a CAD program, as opposed to auto-routed?


The 6507 isn't just "slimmer", it has a smaller address space and no interrupts.

mattack, · Reply

It is said to be a 6502 die inside of a smaller package without all of the pads bonded to pins.


Also, the TIA is not a 6505 as Step 9 states. According to Hyperlink (last image) the 6505 is only 28 pins (the TIA is 40), and according to Hyperlink the 6505 is a feature-reduced version of the 6502 CPU, much as the 6507 is.

ajfranzman, · Reply

The Playstation 3 comparison should include the fact that the 2600 came with controllers for two players (two joystick and two paddles) and a bundled game. Adding an extra controller and game would make the inflation-adjusted Playstation price nearly the same as the Atari.

Jonathan Kagle, · Reply

In regards to the difficulty switches, switching to "B" was the easier setting and switching to "A" was the harder setting. Some examples:

Missile Command:

A: Make the missiles you launch slower

B: Make the missiles you launch faster

Space Invaders:

A: Makes your base bigger (and most likely to be hit)

B: Makes your base smaller


A: UFOs appear

B: UFOs does not appear

Hopefully the information I provided here will help those confused with the difficulty switches.

Jon Fukumoto, · Reply

The "anyone's guess" comment was inappropriate. The system owner's manual mentions in section 5 that position "A" is generally more difficult than position "B". Every game instruction manual described exactly what the functions of the difficulty switches were for that game, if they did anything at all. There are a few games which were inadvertently made with difficulty settings reversed from the standard.

ajfranzman, · Reply

Dude. No one cares.

Project Mayhem,

The case design seems unusual even when you consider the original, 6-switch model. See here:

cityzen, · Reply

The reason for the case being so large was that originally it included two speakers for stereo audio output. These were deleted at the last minute in favor of mono audio through the TV as a cost-saving measure, but the very earliest 6-switch consoles have circular-layout speaker slots in the top and support posts cast into the case bottom. In fact, it took Atari quite a long time to completely close off the speaker slots, as even some of the 4-switch models (like the one used here) still have them. I've even seen case tops with speaker slots on only one side!


Here's a much better picture of the insides of a 6-switcher:

I guess that the round tripods near the front of the case were for holding the speakers.


This photo should be replaced, as it shows incorrect routing of the RF cable (apparently someone has opened this console before). From the RCA socket on the motherboard, the cable should be placed thus: first, it should go toward the *front* of the console (from a player's perspective; i.e. "southwest" as the console is positioned in the present photo) alongside the main EMI shield, and between that shield and the RF modulator unit. Then it should turn 90 degrees toward the player's right and be pressed into the slot in the top of the fat round post. Then it should make another gentle 90 degree turn to head toward the rear of the console and be pressed in place between the small hollow post and the fin beside it, which supports the case top. Proceeding rearward, the cable may either be pressed between the pair of fins, or between the rightmost fin and the case side (as the pair of fins are actually a bit too close to one another) before winding around the remaining plastic bits to finally make its exit from the rear of the case.

ajfranzman, · Reply

The three main chips are socketed (!) for easy replacement.

Jonathan Kagle, · Reply

Yes, socketing the chips DID make replacement easy. However, because they are of the DIP (Dual Inline Package) design, they have one annoying flaw: They tend to "walk" out of the sockets over time. Here's how it happens: When you turn the system on and off, the internal circuitry heats up and cools down. This causes expansion when heated, and contraction when cooled. Over a period of time, this causes the chips to "walk" out of the sockets, causing bad contact and the system will fail to power up. The solution is to open it up and reseat the chips back into the socket. This is one annoying thing about that design. The original IBM PC had a lot of sockets for its memory, and when the event I described happens, the computer would refuse to power up. That's the reason why SIMMs and DIMMs were introduced.

Jon Fukumoto,

It's interesting to note that the 6507 was a 6502 with some data lines deleted. This meant that the 2600 can only access up to 4K. However, some companies used a bank switching technique, so some cartridges had as much as 16K! That was quite a bit in those days, as memory was pretty expensive.

Jon Fukumoto, · Reply

Pretty sure that the 6507 in that picture has a MOS Tech mark on it, not Motorola. The chip on the bottom (which I think is the TIA, not 100% sure) appears to have a Motorola mark on it, though.

Dennis, · Reply

Indeed, Motorola did not make the 6502/6507, although they could have. The history is interesting:


Oh, and the 6507 has a Rockwell logo on it. Rockwell licensed the 6502/6507 and eventually came out with their own versions. Synertek was another licensee.


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