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Atari 2600 jr: Introduction

This was an unexpected surprise. Canberra has a rubbish tip; well, a few, actually. At these tips, back in the day, the dumpers used to drive their cars/trailers/trucks right up to the wall'o'rubbish and offload. Whilst the father was scraping all the rubbish out and launching the bags onto the mountain of junk, the children would be scavenging through other people's discards.

I found many a thing there: old computers (286/386, at that time), model railway paraphernalia, misc. electronics, etc... After a while, too many dead bodies were being found and so they closed the dumping area off to the public. Instead, they built a concrete shed with a big mechanical compactor. Everyone's rubbish was thrown in a corridor and compacted. A truck would then drive it up to the real landfill area.

The public could no longer freely recycle other people's rubbish. It was lost once it went over the wall. An uprising occurred when an entrepreneur decided that he could form an organisation that worked at the tip under appropriate licensing (oh, I love democracy) and legally scavenge the rubbish. This was no good, unless they could actually sell it... so a 'shop' was set up at the rubbish dump. Can you believe this? We have to buy our rubbish back?

Either way... last Sunday... after 2 separate (and dismal) trash and treasure markets, I ended up at the Green Shed. I was initially looking for a bootable DOS disk... not finding much, I was disheartened and about to leave. As you exit the building, you pass the cash register, which is actually a large glass display cabinet. In it was a lost treasure. The attendant had me made: he knew I wanted it and happily quoted a price which would've doubled the takings for the day of the entire shop... but, for the unit, was half the going rate on eBay... as long as it worked!

My first Atari

Last year, I read the book: Racing the Beam. I can't remember how I came across it, but it ended up being a good read on the inner workings of the Atari. I was impressed to find out how they got around hardware limitations and changed the way kids would play games forever.

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I had never expected to own one. Especially one in this condition... It turns out this is the Atari 2600 Junior. It's the final version, slimmed down, produced somewhere between 1986 and 1991. It was brown when I got it...being in Canberra, I didn't have any tools with me, so I used floor-cleaning wipes (disinfectant was a great idea at this point) and tore the thing apart. After a good clean, it actually came up remarkably well. The best part was that the 'protective seal' was still on the steel Atari branding on the top of the case. I should've left it on there... but I really love peeling those things off!

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The whole loot included two game cartridges, two controllers (one had the screw-in joystick snapped), the base console and the wall-wart. The only thing that was missing was the RF cable. I cleaned it all at home in Canberra. Taking it apart, the solder joints looked fine... there was just a large accumulation of dust. A quick vacuum and wipe down got it into the state above.

I bit the bullet and plugged it into the wall. Toggling the power switch did nothing! Bummer... a dead Atari... I was very happy to have a new project. I popped it back open and scanned all components again. There wasn't anything obvious. I thought I'd leave it until I returned to Melbourne where I could go over it thoroughly with the multimeter. After re-assembling, I quickly tested it once more. The fourth toggle of the power switch saw the red power LED light! Ok... we're in for fun if the grime has gotten ALL THE WAY into the 'enclosed' power switch.

A more complete teardown

I returned to my workbench at home and pulled the machine apart; knowing that there were going to be gremlins in the system. Overall, it looked to be in great condition, but I grabbed the magnifying glass and inspected it all again anyway.

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The metal shielding comes off very easily. The top half is secured to the bottom half via metal tabs that have been slightly twisted. Grab a pair of pliers and bend them all straight again... you'll then find that both shields come apart with little force.

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After an inspection, I re-vacuumed the switches and grabbed a cartridge. I really wanted to check out Ghost Busters, so that was the obvious choice. Using my trusty BW CRT TV, I hoooked it all together. Scanning the UHF channel, I found no signal. I could get interference when I toggled the power switch, so I thought that I was near the right tuning every so often. I was on UHF because that's what the Commodore 64 used and I assumed that all consoles of that vintage would use the same frequencies. I was wrong. The Atari 2600 uses VHF Channel 2 or 3. This channel is selectable via the switch at the back of the console.

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Once on VHF tuning, the signal appeared easily. The console was set to Black and White, so the image was crisp! Even over RF. I wonder if these can do composite? Ghost Busters is pretty hilarious. Actually quite difficult to get started... but I think I'll write a post just for that story.

Top Push Buttons

The Select/Reset buttons to the right of the cartridge port, on top of the console, are spring-loaded via a 'sponge'. This material had deteriorated on both buttons over the decades and needed replacing.

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I happened to have some packaging material foam on hand and sliced some pieces off to replace the worn out sponge. I scraped the old sponge off first... needed a bit of elbow-grease for this ... was definitely stuck on well! Afterwards I used a bit of double-sided tape to apply the new sponge.

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Worked perfectly.

What's next?

Why, games! I've got a total of 36 to test out... so I'll flick through them and report on anything noteworthy. I also want this thing producing a composite signal... so a little research will see that occurring in no time.

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About stevenh

Trains... trains... trains... + Electronics + Japan.
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