In 27 years, computers have gotten denser, hotter, and more frustrating.

Atari 1200XL
Dell Inspiron 1525

Bill Kendrick
July 2009

Update 2012.April.30

This past weekend I got my original Atari 1200XL (the one my parents bought me in 1983) back from my friend Bob (bob1200xl) Woolley. I had given it to him to fix the keyboard and maybe do some other random upgrades. We lost touch for a few years, and he gave me the 1200XL shown in the photos on this page. Recently, I decided to encouraged him to dig around for mine, just in case he still had it sitting around. (Telltale wear and tear on the keyboard, and specific upgrades he had done for me back in the 1990s, were the clues that helped find it.)

I started when I was 7

Not counting the hand-me-down Timex Sinclair 1000 that I got when my older brother upgraded to a Commodore 64, my first computer was an Atari 1200XL 6502-based 8-bit computer. The first time I touched an Atari computer was at a Sears Roebuck, if I recall correctly. There were a number of XLs set up, and I tapped out a little "enter your name" program in BASIC, only to be disappointed a cryptic error message 1 and therefore unimpressed.

Much to my surprise, I received one from my parents as a Christmas or birthday gift, thanks to encouragement from my older brother. I was quite happy, and enjoyed the color, sound and relatively huge amount of RAM... all things the TS 1000 lacked. I eventually got a cassette drive, and within a year or so, I convinced my folks to spend $150 for a disk drive.

CS degree without a "real" computer

Fast-forward to 1998 and I'm graduating from college with a Bachelors degree in Computer Science. I made my way through college with Macs in the school's labs, my roommate's Windows95 laptop (and based on that horrifying experience, I vowed never to use Windows), the Solaris server in the CS department, and my trusty Atari 1200XL and a pair of 800XLs I picked up along the way.

Alright... and the IBM PS/2 a friend gave me a few years earlier, too. That system, however, was relegated to two jobs: (1) dial into the Solaris box at school and (2) act as a virtual floppy drive for my Ataris.

At some point, I handed my beloved first real computer to Bob Woolley, an Atari hacker with a penchant for 1200XLs. He had applied a few minor hacks, and was to (if I recall correctly) jam an IDE hard drive into my 1200XL for me.

Multiple moves around California, a marriage, a son, and numerous jobs later, and I finally tracked down Bob again and convinced him to give me my 1200XL back. Or just any 1200XL. They have absolutely the best keyboard, and with the itch I've been having to program an Atari again (my last and best game was Gem Drop from 1998), I wanted a system that wouldn't harm my wrists.

I forgot how big it was

My current computer is a Dell Inspiron 1525. It's a beast, in my opinion. It's heavy, it's hot, and between the hardware and the recent Linux kernels and such in Ubuntu, it can barely keep playing sound and/or connecting to my wireless network.

When I brought the 1200XL I got from Bob home, I couldn't help but compare the sizes. I immediately thought of all those tech. website reviews where they stack cellphones on top of Gameboys and netbooks, to give an idea of sizes.

I decided: why not ignore the fact that my first computer and my latest computer are 27 years apart? Why not stack them on top of each other, take some silly photos, and put up a chart comparing how many kilo-whatsits of X the Atari had to how many giga-whosits the Dell had.

So you have it... a brief comparison of the classic and short-lived Atari 1200XL to the modern and also short-lived Dell Inspiron 1525.

Note: I'm comparing the specs of my particular systems. In the 1200XL's case, this includes a 512KB RAM upgrade that Bob apparently installed over a decade ago, as well as the SIO2SD device I use, which lets you use a Secure Digital (SD) card as though it were a set of floppy disks.


  Atari 1200XL In modern terms Dell Inspiron 1525 In 1980s terms
CPUd 1.79MHz MOS 6502 0.00179GHz 2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo 2000MHz
(1117 times faster)
RAMb 512KB (upgraded from 64KB) 0.5MB 2GB 2097152KB
(32768 64KB computers)
Display 13" NTSC composite CRT   15.4" LCD  
Diska 192KB 5.25" floppy
or up to 16MB disk images on SD
or 16MB
120GB 7200RPM hard disk 117,187,500KB
(over 30,500 double-sided disks)
(or 7,152 16MB disk images)
Max Resolution; Max Colors 320x192 pixels; 256 colors   1280x800 pixels; 16777216 colors (16 Atari displays; impossible)
Video Out NTSC composite (I need an S-Video upgrade!)   VGA, HDMI, S-Video  
Networking None (I had a 1200bps modem once)   Modem, Ethernet, 802.11b/g/n WiFi  
Data SIO peripheral port, controller (joystick) port (x2)   USB 2.0 (x4), mini-Firewire  
Max data throughputc 544Kbps 0.0664MB/s 50MB/s 409600Kbps
(or over 28,000 Ataris and 14.4Kbps modems)
Card Reader SD/MMC (via SIO2SD on SIO port)   SD/MMC  
Optical Drive None   DVD R/W (4.71GB) 4938792KB

Photo gallery

55 full-stroke keys, 11 console keys

The 1200XL needs a monitor or TV, the Inspiron has a built-in LCD.

The Inspiron is slightly wider, and not as deep.

The Inspiron has dual headphone jacks, a microphone jack, and an SD/MMC card reader on the front. The Atari has cooling vents.

The Inspiron has a slot of some sort, a switch for disabling WiFi, a DVD R/W drive, an S-Video port, and two USB ports on the right. The Atari has... cooling vents.

Most of the Atari's ports are on the back. SIO, for connecting floppy drives, printers, modems, etc. An RF audio/video out (for connecting to the antenna or cable input of a TV), a composite audio/video out (for connecting to TVs, VCRs and monitors), a Channel 2/3 switch, and the power input. The Dell has only a (small) cooling vent on the back.

On the left side, the Inspiron has power input (note: optional, due to batteries), two more USB ports, VGA video output, wired ethernet and modem jacks, HDMI video output, and a Firewire port. The Atari has a pair of joystick ports and a cartridge port (for ROM-based software, like games and programming languages).

Two methods of loading software onto my Atari 1200XL. A cartridge (in this case, the excellent Action! programming environment) and an SIO2SD device: a virtual floppy disk drive that utilizes SD/MMC flash memory cards for storaging disk images or stand-alone executables.

A fancy animation playing on the 1200XL. It utilized the extra RAM to hold the pre-rendered frames (this is from a famous Amiga demo, if I recall correctly), and used some fancy interlaced graphics tricks to simulate more colors than the Atari can actually display at once.

I normally avoid mice. (The KDE desktop environment on my Inspiron can mostly be controlled without the mouse pointer, and the laptop itself has one of those annoying touch-pads. Most software on the Atari doesn't need and/or support mice.)

On the left: an old Wacom drawing tablet. On the right, an even older Atari Touch Tablet. The Wacom supports pressure sensitivity. The Touch Tablet works out of the box, and the software is on cartridge, so I can use it in about 3 seconds flat, without reconfiguring xorg.conf for the umpteenth time.

For some applications, a trackball (or, as Atari spelled it, "Trak-Ball") is preferred. (Missile Command, for instance.)

The Inspiron lacks a floppy drive, and I don't have an external one. However, comparing the size, speed, and capacity of a 2GB SD card to a 192KB 5.25" floppy, I don't actually use my Atari floppy drive, either.


1 "ERROR 9" is caused by attempting to access an array that has not been DIMensioned. Strings in Atari BASIC (as in, "INPUT A$" and "PRINT "HELLO ";A$") are actually arrays, and hence you need, e.g., "DIM A$(20)", which I didn't know, having never touched an Atari computer before, and standing around in a department store, unassisted. (And yes, I think I just hit the human limit on commas.)

a Andrew B. pointed out HDDs are in 1000s, not 1024s. Plus, my math was off. Corrected 2009-Jul-8.

b Richard B. pointed out my math was wrong for RAM, too. Also, my 1200XL is a straight 512KB (448KB of extra RAM). Corrected 2009-Jul-8.

c Kent B. pointed out that the "MB/s" was off. Corrected 2009-Jul-9.

d On July 9, Ernest A. sent this:

I just found your website via Slashdot. Allow me to mention a few more profoundly important differences between your machines' processors -- much more important, in some respects, that the raw clock rate.

When I was learning to program I was taught to avoid calling the higher math functions like the plague, and to avoid floating point numbers if at all possible. Today's young programmers don't even think about it and may not understand why there is a difference.

It is odd that despite the vast improvements in processor design, some of the best keyboards I have ever used were the old ones.

About the Author: Bill Kendrick is CTO and lead developer at Smashwords, co-founded and continues to help run the Linux Users' Group of Davis, and is the core developer and project leader of Tux Paint. He lives in Davis, California with his wife and son (and variety of Atari systems).