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Exploring A 1988 Atari PC & The GEM Desktop


Part 1: Jack Tramiel vs. IBM - The Atari PC Story:

At CES 1987, two years after the Atari ST, Jack Tramiel’s Atari unveiled their 8088 powered turbo XT PC range. In this episode I explore the Atari PC3 and check out GEM, the original desktop environment!


In part 1 we learned all about the story behind Atari’s IBM compatible PC range and how it all came about as a result of Jack Tramiel’s self-proclaimed war on the computer industry.

In this video I thought I’d take a look at the software side of this Atari PC3 from 1988, which as we discovered last time, is equipped with an 8MHz 8088 CPU, 640k of RAM, onboard EGA graphics, IBM compatible 8-bit expansion slots, a 30MB Seagate RLL hard drive and a 360K 5.25” floppy drive.

It also has this rather nice amber monitor, which we’re certainly going to be seeing a lot of in this video. So let’s have a poke around the hard drive and a dig through the included boxes of floppies and see what we can find.

So the first thing of interest is this menu system which definitely isn’t a standard DOS or Atari PC thing. It was actually reasonably common for people to create their own launchers like this for DOS back in the day and there were a few commercial options available as well. But for now we’ll check out what the previous - presumably Dutch - owner of this PC had set up.

The first option is WordPerfect, which was an incredibly popular DOS word processor back in the day known for its low memory footprint, high performance and lots of features, which lead to it becoming a de facto standard in the pre-Windows days, beating its main rival WordStar in pretty much every respect. So it’s a good choice!

Sadly, there’s also some pretty prominent phosphor or screen burn on this lovely amber CRT, and it’s something that these old monochrome displays were very susceptible to. It’s a shame but it is what it is.

There’s some more bad news too… Google Translate tells me that there’s a data error, and this is going to be a bit of a recurring theme here I’m afraid, but cancelling that does get us into the editor itself eventually after some pretty horrific noises from the hard drive. I did try opening files but that disk error thwarted me every time, so I guess this user’s personal documents are safe for now.

“Alright then, keep your secrets”

OK, so the next option is “games” apparently, and the owner of this PC was certainly a big gamer, with 26 different games installed - one for every letter of the alphabet.

I thought I’d check out Tetris but… After some more of that rather terminal hard drive noise, I’m afraid that’s a no go. Shame, as I was hoping it would summon Taron Egerton who’d then proceed to port it to the Gameboy by mashing a few keys but I guess we can’t have everything.

That is how it happened, right?

Fortunately PC-MAN is a much happier story, and it runs great and looks great on this amber CRT. This Pac-Man port from 1982 by Orion Software - who were well known for their high quality unlicensed arcade conversions - was unusual for such an early game in that it didn’t rely on the PC’s system clock for timing so it ran at the correct speed on a wide range of hardware - even, I’m told, in a DOS environment on a modern PC.

Many turbo XT machines like this one had a physical turbo button to slow down the clock speed if things designed for the original 4.77MHz IBM PC ran too fast or even broke, and on the Atari this is done in software by typing in a command on the command line. But like I said, no need for that here.

I should also mention that this is a CGA game, and as we’ll see there’s a mixture of text mode, CGA and EGA stuff installed on here and the Atari PC’s graphics chip handles them all just fine - and very unusually for an amber CRT - this monitor will happily receive all sorts of different CGA and EGA colour signals and display them in grayscale (or orangescale), so it’s very compatible indeed.

I wonder what “Simple Pleasure” might be? Unfortunately - or maybe fortunately - the horrific noise is back and eventually - you guessed it - there’s an error. So let’s move on.

Blockout sounds interesting - a breakout clone maybe? We’re prompted to pick a graphics mode so of course I went with EGA and - speaking of horrific noises, I heard this so I’m going to inflict it on you as well.


There’s a very cool animated intro, but the game itself seems to freeze up and just beep every time I press a key. I need to show you some footage of this because it was a new one on me and it’s actually a really nice looking 3D puzzle game. I did try launching it again in the different graphics modes and with the turbo mode off but it seems it’s completely broken on this machine - whether it’s that corruption again or incompatibility with the graphics hardware, we’ll never know. Oh well.

Here’s Software Creations’ Backgammon - now I know absolutely nothing about Backgammon and I have no idea how it works, and it seems playing it with the keyboard by typing in moves is a pretty clunky way of going about things. But I wanted to show you this one because it looks suspiciously like that screen burn that we’ve seen before - can you imagine being such a huge backgammon fan that it ends up permanently etched into your monitor? Now that’s some hardcore backgammon!

Sierra! Intriguing. Now they made some pretty awesome point and click adventure games back in their day so I was expecting good things. However, what I got was… Solitaire. Moving the cursor around with the keyboard is an exercise in frustration so let’s get a mouse plugged in, and I spotted earlier that there’s a Microsoft mouse driver set up for COM1, so I guess I’ll have to dig up a 25 pin adapter and get one hooked up.

Ah, here’s one.. I thought I’d actually found 2 but what on earth would you use that for? Answers on a postcard please.

The COM1 port is labelled “modem” on this machine, but it’s just a bog standard RS232 serial port. Of course, we’ll also need a mouse mat, so it’s time to bring back an old friend. Now I feel at home.

So, an XT-class PC with an actual mouse. This would have been a real luxury back in those days, and despite it being a bit on the slow side, it does work fantastically well with this solitaire game, and I imagine this would have been hours of fun back in 1988 - at least when they managed to tear themselves away from backgammon for 5 minutes. My only other complaint is that in Klondike which I’m playing here and is the solitaire game that was famously included in Windows going back to version 3, the aim of the game is to alternate between the black and red cards - and that’s not easy on this monitor.

Speaking of games that don’t translate particularly well to this display, there’s also Battle Chess on here, which is a fantastic game, but it’s pretty difficult to tell the two sides apart. Also, the animations are painfully slow - but, again - that’s just how things were and we damn well liked it. I imagine a full game would probably take the best part of a day at this speed.

Anyway, that’s enough fun and games, I know the real reason you’re still here is…

…application software!

The next thing on the DIY DOS menu is “Norton” and it turns out that this is Norton Integrator. You’ve probably heard of Norton Antivirus and maybe even Norton Disk Doctor if you’re getting on a bit like I am, but Integrator is actually a menu system for Norton Utilities. The original Norton Utilities was released in 1982 and included things like a file undeleter and automated corrupted file repair, and this later release from 1987 adds a load more useful disk utilities and would have been indispensable for the discerning DOS user.

Disk Information, for example, is quite interesting - we can see all of the parameters of that Seagate 30MB hard drive, and with all those errors popping up left right and centre I thought it might be wise to run Disk Test and see what it makes of it all. After about 10 minutes of scanning - including getting stuck a few times - it eventually just locked up, making this horrific beeping noise. Yeah, I think it’s beyond help.

Adressen is some kind of address book software and if you’re thinking that this looks pretty blurry and out of focus, it actually looks that way in real life too. I’m not sure which graphics mode this software is using but evidently the monitor doesn’t like it very much, but I suppose there must be some compromises if you’re basically going to support everything.

I did manage to work out how to navigate this with the help of Google Translate but didn’t manage to get it to show me any actual addresses. There’s an option to print them all but I don’t have a suitable printer to hand. To be honest it’s probably for the best, I’m not sure how interesting a list of some random Dutchman’s addresses from 1988 would really be - plus there’s the whole GDPR aspect to consider.

The last 3 menu options are to quit to DOS, browse the A drive and… End. Which runs the PARK program to physically park the hard drive heads, essential when shutting down a machine of this age to prevent damage to the drive if it gets knocked or even moved.

I had a good poke around in DOS to see what I could see but there’s not really anything that’s not already part of the menu system. Oh - apart from that Infocom Treasure Chest collection of text adventures that I discovered in the first video. I had a bit of a play with Zork in that one, and the funny thing is, it turns out that none of the others actually seem to work, so I guess I got very lucky.

This PC was very kindly donated to the channel by my good friend and long time patron Gary - for which I am incredibly grateful of course - and when he bought it he got 2 boxes of disks with it, and part of my plan for this followup was to go through them and see what was on them. Well - spoiler alert - they’re not very interesting - in fact most of them are games and backups of stuff that’s also on the hard disk. But I’ll show you a few that caught my eye and then I thought we’d check out GEM, which was the original desktop environment that Atari shipped with these machines.

I did find this copy of Afterburner and it has a really cool cracktro on it too - but for the life of me I just can’t get the actual game to work, despite the fact that there are instructions on the disk. Here’s what the CGA version looks like in action and it’s really cool, so I’m hoping to spend a bit more time on this one after this video and see if I can get it up and running.

Maybe it just doesn’t like this version of DOS.

There are a lot of disks with personal documents on - obviously I’m not going to show you those and they’re all in Dutch anyway. But I do now know the identity of the original owner. He was indeed Dutch and it seems he was 58 in 1994 because - well - that’s one of the questions on his tax return from that year, which it seems he filed with this very PC.

In 1994!

To save you the maths, if he is still around he’d be 87 today.

There are quite a few WordPerfect documents and things on these disks to do with accounting so maybe he was an accountant?

But if you’re thinking this chap’s life in the late 80s and early 90s was all accounting and backgammon you’d be dead wrong, because nestled among these disks here I found a list of cocktail recipes! It includes a copy of the PC-Write word processor and literally one document that’s just a huge list of cocktail recipes in Dutch and there are some absolute classics in here. Evidently a man of good taste.

Other than that though it’s mainly utilities, Norton, copies of DOS, that kind of thing, and the one original system disk included was this one - it’s a Microsoft GW-BASIC “interreter” disk. Someone commented about this on the original video and I did some digging and the site has a scan of this with the same typo, so I guess it’s original. Unfortunately it’s the only original system disk in these boxes, but AtariPC does have images of them so that’s what I used to get GEM set up on here.

Now, I didn’t want to mess about writing 5.25” floppies and the hard drive in this is failing anyway, so I decided to stick my XT-IDE in here on the off chance that it might still be working. It’s a modern solution that allows these ancient PCs to boot from a CompactFlash card or a newer IDE hard disk. I thought I’d somehow managed to fry mine when I was working on my 286 project but it seems to have miraculously come back to life which is great news for this already delayed video. I’m very glad I checked as it’s going to save a lot of hassle.

There’s a CompactFlash card in here and it seems it’s running IBM PC-DOS 7.1. There are various reasons I like to run this on these older machines - it’s a much more modern DOS than the 3.2 that shipped with this Atari PC, and has support for newer DOS utilities, bigger partitions, Y2K and whatnot but still has a very low memory footprint.

Eventually I’ll set up a card with a replica of the original software setup on it as it would have left the factory, as it’s a unique machine and that aspect of it is well worth preserving.

A big part of that setup of course would have been GEM - or Digital Research’s Graphics Environment Manager. This mouse-driven GUI was released in 1985 and actually predates the original release of Microsoft Windows by a whole 8 months, and is probably best known as the UI on the Atari ST, so it makes sense that Atari would have gone with this for their PC range 2 years later.

Now, by this point GEM had actually been completely redesigned to remove a lot of the advanced functionality. Wait, what? Yeah… There’s a really interesting and twisted tale involving Steve Jobs, some technical thievery, and a few lawsuits for good measure, and I’m going to take a much deeper dive into that story and spin that off into a separate video which will be along very shortly.

But the long and short of it is that this is the cut down lawsuit compliant EGA version of GEM 2 from 1986, and it includes GEM Write, a basic word processing package, and GEM Paint, which is actually quite a nice paint package for its day. Kind of wasted on a monochrome monitor but I suppose they more than likely would have been printing in monochrome too so still a useful thing to have. Unfortunately it seems the original owner of this machine was a big command prompt fan as it had neither this nor Windows on it, so this is a pretty sparse vanilla install from the system disks I found on

One really cool thing about these disks is that Atari mouse support is included, so I’ve finally been able to ditch that Microsoft serial mouse and use this machine as Tramiel himself originally intended. This is the Atari ST mouse, model number STM-1, which was rebranded as the PCM-1 for use with the PC, and it even has its own special port on the side of the machine alongside the industry standard XT keyboard connector. It needed this because it’s a quadrature mouse which works differently to a standard PC serial mouse.

If that whole legal situation back in 1985 hadn’t have happened then GEM would’ve looked like this - I had to jump through some hoops and switch back to the other mouse, but the original release can be made to run on this machine. As you can see, you can drag the windows around and resize them and everything, which you can’t do in version 2 onwards. A bit of a shame that they had to lose all of this and ST users in particular would have found themselves very at home.

In addition to GEM Write and GEM Paint which Atari included with their PCs, there was a whole suite of useful applications released alongside GEM back in its day, including word processors, graphics packages and desktop publishing software, and there’s a dedicated presentation package and even a flat file database too, and most of these predate their Microsoft Office equivalents. But the story of GEM is well outside of the scope of this video and I can’t really do it justice here, so this will just have to be a tantalising glimpse of the wonders that GEM had to offer for now and I’ll be following up in some future videos so be sure to subscribe to the channel so you don’t miss those.

But, that’s a pretty in-depth exploration of everything that this Atari PC3 had to offer, so I think that’s a good place to stop for now. I hope you’ve enjoyed checking it out with me, big thanks as always to my supporters whose names you can see on screen as I speak, and of course big thanks to you for watching, and I’ll hopefully see you next time.


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