Dialing Into the Past: Exploring Atari Connectivity in the 1980s”

March 31, 2024

Travel back to the 1980s, a time when connecting Atari computers to the digital world was a costly endeavor. In this article, we explore the evolution of modem technology, from basic acoustic coupling to sophisticated smart modems of the 1980s. Atari users navigated through the complexities of connectivity, considering features against financial constraints. From the simple ATARI 830 MODEM to the advanced SMARTMODEM by Hayes Microcomputer, Inc., users faced challenges in accessing online networks. Fast forward to today, where loyal Atari 8-bit computer users rely on the Fujinet hardware device to connect to straightforward networks like TNFS, highlighting the journey from past limitations to present-day convenience.

The ATARI, with 48K bytes of memory could store about the same amount of text as a 15-page document. You could think of your display screen as a window” through which you could see this information, about one-quarter page at a time. What was the point? Well, the time had come when, for the price of a cheap suit, you could expand your computer’s access to millions of pages of memory, instead of just 40 or so. We are talking about the MODEM. Let’s de-mystify the modem, explore what it was, what it did, and then look at a few of the modems that were available for the ATARI.


Here were some terms you would find in the world of modems:


By then, you might have been interested in buying a modem, and wondering what features were important. Here were some things you should have been aware of.

Acoustically-coupled modems, the ear-muff” type, were the first on the market, and were still the cheapest. They had definite drawbacks. Stray sounds in the vicinity of the modem could and did leak past the muffs and could affect data transmission. Also, using the acoustical modem was awkward, since the correct end of the phone receiver had to be inserted in the correct end of the modem. This sounded minor, but the error was easily and frequently made. Still, acoustic modems did work, were inexpensive, and might have met your needs.

Prices for direct-connect modems seemed to be dropping, and the higher degree of reliability for them made it difficult to recommend anything else. If you thought you would be even a semi-serious on-liner,” you should have thought in terms of a direct-connect, plug-in modem. Your data would have been cleaner, and the benefits of uploading and downloading data over networks, with the new information utilities (see separate article, this issue), or with other individuals, would have repaid the extra investment.

Some modems had status indicators.” When the modem was in use, it was often important to know what the status of your connection was. Was the modem ready?” With a direct-connect modem, was the simulated receiver” on the hook or off the hook? Had there been an accidental disconnect? Was the other end answering? The more information provided by the modem’s status indicators, the better.

Some modems had autodial/autoanswer.” You could dial a phone number from your ATARI keyboard! Admittedly, this was a luxury, but if you used a modem a lot, it was a nice feature to have. Autodial allowed you to store telephone numbers in your software program and have the modem do your dialing for you. This eliminated the need for a telephone near the computer, as long as you had a phone cable long enough to reach your telephone jack.

Autoanswer was only needed for the serious application of data communications such as operating a bulletin board service, or otherwise responding to the incoming call of another computer. Think of the possibilities, though! You could call your own computer from any remote terminal, or even from a phone booth with one of the miniature modem-terminals recently announced.

Other features to look for included:


A word about cables was in order. Modems had to be connected to your other equipment, and to the telephone line. You would have thought that an expensive item like a modem would have come with the appropriate cables. Not always so, and the price difference between a more expensive unit with cables and a less expensive one without, might have been misleading (some cables cost $50!). Also, some modems were designed to hook up more simply, eliminating some cable requirements. Before you bought, you would have determined your complete system requirements and compared the price for all pieces. You would have wanted to include software costs, too, (see separate article, this issue).

All modems, once the proper connections were made, would have performed their primary function of data communications, so the bottom line in any decision should have been —quality, price, and extra features. You would have probably found your use of a modem would have been greater than you then expected, so be open to the more capable units. Any modem could have worked with the ATARI, if properly connected, but some had been built specifically with the ATARI in mind. We would have discussed the principal ones here.

ATARI 830 MODEM ($199.00 | $700 USD in 2024)

The ATARI Modem, sold by ATARI, was a Novation CAT” modem in ATARI dress. It was a standard acoustically-coupled modem with only very basic features. It was fine for a beginning user or someone with limited needs.

The Atari 800 connects to an Atari 850 interface, which links to the Atari 830 acoustic modem; the Bell 301 phone’s handset couples to the Atari 830, enabling communication. Pictured alongside is an Atari Telelink II Computer Communications software.The Atari 800 connects to an Atari 850 interface, which links to the Atari 830 acoustic modem; the Bell 301 phone’s handset couples to the Atari 830, enabling communication. Pictured alongside is an Atari Telelink II Computer Communications software.

Since it was marketed as an ATARI product, it came with all required cables. It also needed the ATARI 850 Interface, which some modems did not, so if you didn’t have the Interface you should have seriously considered the Micro-connection modem (see below), or others that bypassed the Interface.

The ATARI 830 was a plug-in-and-go product with good documentation. You needed software with this, as with all modems, and might well have considered ATARIs TELELINK cartridge ($30) for a nice, modular system. Caution! TELELINK was a very limited program and did not allow copying to disk. It could drive the ATARI printer, but printing on-line” was expensive. The major drawbacks with the ATARI 830 were that it was acoustic and had limited features.

An alternative buy would have been the Novation CAT” if you could have found cables. Two other Novation” modems were compatible with the ATARI. One was the D-CAT, a basic direct-connect model, and the AUTO-CAT that had the autodial feature mentioned earlier. Although not considered in depth here, they were both good products that should have been considered as in the running.

MICROCONNECTION-A ($199 to $328 | $700 to $1075 USD in 2024)

This direct-connect modem was made by the Microperipheral Corp. and came in four versions all designed for the ATARI. This selection was very attractive to the prospective buyer.

For example, there was a bus-decoding version ($249) that allowed connection without using the ATARI 850 Interface. This modem could be used with as small a system as the ATARI 400 and the 410 cassette recorder. This model had a DB-25 socket that allowed connection of the ATARI printer, again without Interface. This made the Micro Connection a good candidate for a small basic system. For $79 more, this model came with autodial.

There was a plain version ($199) that did require the Interface, and for an additional $79 you could get the autodial and autoanswer features. Caution! Micro Connection’s autodial used pulse dialing (not touch tone), which could not be used with the MCI or SPRINT long-distance phone services, but you could manually dial SPRINT or MCI with this modem. If you were a heavy user of these long-distance services, this could have been an important limitation.

Microperipheral had done a commendable job of supporting the ATARI, and their own software enhanced the capability of their modem dramatically. The top-of-the-line software, called TSMART ($79.95), incorporated autodial as well as message preparation and storage features that reduced expensive on-line” connection time. You would have appreciated this after you saw your first phone bill after buying a modem.

The Micro Connection was relatively simple to connect and use. It came with extensive, if dense, documentation, which included a listing of free bulletin board services by area code (a nice touch!). Microperipheral Corp. maintained a user service accessible through CompuServe, over which you could get updates of their software. Now that was service!

SMARTMODEM ($279 | $913 USD in 2024)

This was a direct-connect modem by Hayes Microcomputer, Inc. Although it did not come as a model specifically for the ATARI, you could purchase a cable to connect it to the ATARI 850 Interface (required). The fact that this modem did not come with a cable was a serious drawback in a product that cost so much. This was not a criticism of Hayes alone, as you would have discovered when you bought your first non-ATARI printer or other peripheral device.

Hayes Stack ad by by Hayes Microcomputer Products, Inc circa 1981Hayes Stack ad by by Hayes Microcomputer Products, Inc circa 1981

Assuming you bought the Hayes Stack,” as it was also known, and were able to get or make a cable, you would have had the most flexible modem in the price range. This was truly a smart” modem. The heart of the device was a 28 microprocessor with a 2K byte control program built-in. The only switch was an ON/OFF toggle! Everything else was program-controlled or preset by you, utilizing the configuration panel under the front cover.

Here were some of the features of the SMARTMODEM:

The list went on, but the point was made. The Hayes SMARTMODEM was very versatile but suffered due to a lack of direct applicability to the ATARI. With the appropriate cable and almost any good terminal software, this modem was the most flexible.

This short article was inspired by Jon Loveless’ original article in Antic Magazine, published in June 1982.

Antic Magazine Cover, June 1982 Vol. 1, No. 2