Watch on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J-xdIdKCo3g
Atari 2600 Junk To Museum Grade Restoration & Upgrades
I refurbished 2 classic Atari 2600 games consoles and fitted them with s-video and composite mods (UAV - Ultimate Atari Video) for use at the North West Computer Museum in Manchester, UK.
A brace of Atari 2600 consoles
You know… 2? Like a brace of pheasants? Is that an English country boy thing? I guess it is.
Anyway, the Video Computer System or 2600 has been a gaming icon since 1977. Despite its limited capabilities compared to those that came after it, this console is home to some very playable titles, like River Raid, Pitfall, and some surprisingly competent arcade conversions like Frogger, Asteroids and Space Invaders.
Over 500 games were commercially released during its heyday and there’s still an active development scene around it today. Oh - and Atari have even just announced a brand new version for 2023.
But these particular consoles, like many others out there, have suffered from years of neglect.
And this being YouTube in 2023, we can’t just go around fixing things for the fun of it these days can we? Thankfully there is an interesting story here, as I picked these up at the North West Computer Museum in Manchester when I was up there around a year ago and I’m very pleased to report that after years of delays and setbacks due to various issues outside of their control, that they finally opened to the public in June of this year!
I already have more 2600 consoles than one man could possibly need, so I’m going to fix these up and donate them back to Joe at the museum so he can put them on display for visitors to use.
With that in mind, not only do they have to look the part - they also have to be reliable and easy for the volunteers to swap out in case they do run into any issues.
So lets get these cleaned up and install some Ultimate Atari Video mods so we can get a nice crispy composite and s-video output from them.
As you can see these are 6 switch “light sixer” models manufactured by Atari Wong in Hong Kong, probably the most common version of this console that you’ll come across.
Here’s a cool fact for you - these have speaker mouldings in the top case, because Atari’s original plan was to include internal speakers much like their earlier Pong consoles. But they changed their minds at the last minute and decided to output audio through the TV via the RF modulator.
With that in mind, we’ll also have to make sure the audio makes its way to the outside world too, as the UAV mod only handles video. It’s very simple and I’ll show you how to do that shortly.
These are pretty filthy inside and out - and one of them even has a wood screw in place of one of the case screws. 2600s are always fun to work on because they all have their own story to tell.
They’re also assembled slightly differently, like the routing of this RF cable and these “Made in Taiwan” stickers on the case of this one. The switch grommets are also far more perished on this console and one of them seems to have gone missing.
The 2600 motherboard is housed inside a metal box to meet strict 1970s RF emissions regulations and this is a common theme with Atari’s early machines. Once we’ve cracked both of these open we can see that they’re essentially identical inside.
The UAV was developed by Bryan Edewaard and was sold by him for a few years until the rights were acquired by The Brewing Academy, a manufacturer and seller of all things Atari based in the US. It’s compatible with a huge range of Atari systems and features pixel re-clocking, a chroma-shaping circuit, adjustable phase and even its own onboard clean power supply, so it’s a fair bit more sophisticated than your typical ebay composite video mod.
It comes with comprehensive photo instructions and these vary by system, so always consult the manual.
…and no, I haven’t been sponsored by them - in fact I paid my own money for these just like all the others I’ve ever installed, I just install them into all of my Atari consoles because…
I just think they’re neat.
I’m working with the kit version here as I buy these in bulk as that gives the most flexibility. When soldering these up it’s advisable to avoid these tiny SMD components, as they can be a right pain to get back on if you catch one with the soldering iron.
Ask me how I know.
I’ll show you what this random bit of wire is for later.
These white PCBs may look lovely but they’re great at showing flux and scorch marks, so as I go I’m also using this bamboo toothbrush to keep things nice and clean. I really do want these to be spotless!
It’s important to get these small top jumpers right, and while it’s possible to solder permanent links in instead as I’ve done on previous projects, the jumpers do look much tidier and allow the UAV to be removed and used in other systems later on if needed.
In the case of this particular model 2600, the UAV board is installed in place of the CD4050 chip, which usually combines the video signals from the console’s TIA or Television Interface Adapter chip. But we can’t remove it completely - as it also handles the joystick fire buttons - and I have a pretty interesting way of reinstating it.
So, now we have the UAV boards ready to go in, lets get these motherboards in order.
After a thorough blasting with the air compressor, it’s time to remove some components. Now, the UAV manual doesn’t actually say to remove these, and the reasons for removing them have been lost to time like some mysterious component removing cargo cult. People on the internet - who are always right by the way - will tell you stories of interference and cleaner signals. Either way, they’re not needed so there’s no real harm in removing them, as I’m also going to be removing the RF modulator.
As for the CD4050 chip - some people like to solder the socket included with the UAV directly on top of it, but I don’t think that looks very tidy and I’m always concerned about clearance inside that metal RF shield. So I’m removing it and fitting the socket in its place.
See, I told you I’d be removing the modulator - the component that would have originally converted the console’s video signal into an RF signal for an old style TV. I like to keep all of the parts that I remove during these mods just in case, so this will all be bagged up and labelled. Interestingly I’ve never actually come across this specific RF modulator on a separate board before, so that’s interesting - if you’re into that kind of thing.
The second one was much easier to remove - maybe I should have filmed that?
Finally, the moment you’ve all been waiting for, and I’m really looking forward to the comments on this one. I solder the CD4050 to the bottom of the board, upside down, and trim the legs off.
I know, right? Why?
Well, it’s tidy, and it doesn’t add any height to the top of the whole thing, so it’s a compact way of doing things.
Speaking of questionable soldering, while I was working on this one I spotted that the power socket was… Well, questionable. Dry joints on the power socket are a really common point of failure on the 2600, and indeed the reason a lot of them were consigned to cupboards back in the day. So I’ll reflow that to make sure the joint is nice and strong once more, especially as this is going into a museum setting where cables can get yanked around and whatnot.
So now the UAVs can go into their sockets and that small wire included with the kit - remember that? - can be connected up now. The colour signal from the TIA chip doesn’t usually get routed here, so we need to use that to pick that up like so. Easy peasy.
I mentioned earlier that the UAV has its own onboard isolated power supply, and you can’t pick 5V up from the CD4050 on this model because Atari didn’t connect it up properly for reasons. My friend Naoki did a great video where he explored this in more detail, so I’ll link that in the usual places if you’re interested.
Instead, I’ll bypass all of the shenanigans on this board and route the power wires up to where they come in from the switchboard, but first there are some small links that need to be cut on the solder pads of the UAV itself to isolate it from the CD4050’s power pins. After making sure they’re definitely disconnected, the power wires can be routed tidily to where they need to go. I can even make use of this hole left over from one of the components I removed earlier.
So there we go, two Ultimate Atari Video boards fitted and ready to go! Incidentally, if you’re fitting these in an NTSC console you’ll need to lift pin 6 of the TIA to disable the blanking signal, but the PAL version doesn’t have that, so we should be good to go - just as soon as we’ve hooked up a video output. In this case I’m using a 3.5mm TRRS connector wired for a Raspberry Pi style cable, which for some reason I have a big box of.
The first console springs to life immediately and happily boots into Frogger with no issues, so that’s great!
The second console seems to be dead - or at least I thought. It turns out that bridging the contacts of the power switch with a screwdriver brings it back to life, so we have a faulty switch. So just to make sure the UAV mod and everything else was working, I swapped over to the other switch board and it all seems fine.
These chunky metal 1970s switches may look and feel nice, but they can get full of grime and muck and the contacts can oxidise, so it’s just a case of dismantling it and giving it a good clean with some IPA. There’s also contact cleaner of course and I do indeed own some, but for some reason this completely slipped my mind at the time. Sorry Dave. It’s fine, IPA also does a good job.
Now the console powers on fine, but most games on the 2600 require the use of the “Game Reset” switch to start a new game and - that also seems to have the same issue. It was at this point I decided to just strip and clean all of the switches on both consoles - they need to be reliable after all - so I’ll get to that shortly.
For now lets get everything hooked up and reassembled - I picked up the audio from this resistor labelled R209, and that just goes out to the 3.5mm connector as-is with the same mono signal on both the left and right channels. Then I can hook up the rest of the wires for the s-video and composite outputs and neatly route them under the cartridge slot, cable tied for some strain relief - and here’s what it looks like with everything fully wired up. Neat!
Now, with these being socketed, there is a small risk that turning the console upside down and whacking it could cause it to come loose. It hasn’t happened to my personal consoles, but I suppose it’s a real risk when there are members of the public involved, so for extra security I’ve used a small dab of hot glue to hold the UAV boards in place.
I know, I know, people hate this stuff, but I hope it’s justified in this case.
Now it’s time to calibrate the colour. I do this by eye using the Diagnostic Cart - I’ll put a download link to that in the usual places if you have a flashcart that can run it, as it’s a useful tool to have. There is a hole in the metal RF box to facilitate calibration, but I like to do it at this point just in case there are any weird issues.
It’s generally considered best practice to let the console warm up for a few minutes, so that’s what I do even though it doesn’t seem to look any different. Of course, we’re talking about nearly 50 year old technology here so it’s not an exact science.
It was at this point I realised I’d made a bit of a boo boo with the power wires for the UAV - this back plate needs to be tight against the board as it takes the strain when a cartridge is inserted, and these will probably be seeing a lot of insertions and removals. So for peace of mind I relocated the wires slightly to keep them from getting crushed and potentially shorting out.
I promised I’d strip and clean all of the switches, and now seems as good a time as any to get that out of the way, so it’s just a case of bending the metal tabs with pliers, gently pulling them apart, and cleaning the contacts. I also bent the springy metal contacts slightly to increase the pressure. Oh, and be careful with the tiny springs in the momentary switches, they can ping off across the room and be almost impossible to find.
Ask me how I know.
So with the switches all assembled and working we’re on the home straight, and after thoroughly cleaning all of the case parts, it’s the bit that - I must admit - I’ve not been looking forward to showing you. But hey! If you’ve stuck with me this long I’m sure you’ll find it in your heart to forgive me.
I drilled holes in them. In my defence, again, these are going to a museum and I want to make their lives as easy as possible. So I just drilled a couple of tiny little holes in the bottom case where they can barely be seen…
…and I didn’t just do it willy nilly either. This was all carefully measured and marked out to make it all as neat as possible. And then, just to make these as idiot-proof as possible, I added some superglue before soldering all of the wires in place, and then a whole load of hot glue to make sure they never move and the wires never come out.
A lot of people will get to enjoy these machines that had previously been abandoned so it has to be worth it. Let’s not speak of this again.
One final thing before I get these buttoned up and sent back to the North West Computer Museum. The 2600’s orange bezel is an iconic design feature, and one of these has pretty much completely worn away. My Heavy Sixer had the exact same problem and I touched it up with these Humbrol enamel model paints - number 18 and number - nice, which I mixed myself by eye to try to match the original colour as closely as possible.
So after a quick sand down to remove the remnants of the old paint and to rough the surface up a bit for the new paint to stick, I very carefully touched up the bezel to get it looking as original as possible. It’s a little bit patchy but hey - they all are by this age and I’m not trying to fool anyone into thinking that it’s brand new. The runs scrape off easily with a knife once the paint has set. Colour wise I’d say that’s a pretty good match. Can you tell which one has been painted and which one is original?
And there we have it - two Atari 2600 consoles brought back to their former glory. They didn’t come with power supplies so I bought some brand new ones, and Joe tells me that they have plenty of Atari compatible joysticks and games, so I’ll get these back to him ASAP and they’ll go out on display for people to enjoy and learn a little bit about gaming history.
I’ll be heading over there soon to make a follow-up tour so make sure you’re subscribed to the channel so you don’t miss that, and I’ll also link my previous behind-the-scenes tour from when the museum was still under construction because that’s super interesting. But that’s all I have for now, so big thanks to my patrons, Ko-Fi supporters and YouTube channel members for making everything I do possible, and big thanks to you for watching.
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Become a Member: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCe7aGwKsc40TYqDJfjggeKg/join
North West Computer Museum: https://www.nwcomputermuseum.org.uk
Ultimate Atari Video Mod: https://thebrewingacademy.com/collections/ultimate-atari-video-uav/products/
tba-ultimate-atari-video-uav-board-for-atari-2600 North West Computer Museum Behind The Scenes Tour: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kFlS6otqN1Q
Naoki Atari 2600 Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MrdodnlBjpc
Atari 2600 Diagnostic Cart & Colour Calibration Instructions: https://forums.atariage.com/topic/270260-colour-calibration
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