Don’t call it retro. Atari’s VCS is a modern console for PC gamers

Atari feels misunderstood. The frustration was evident the moment I walked into the company’s suite at E3 2019. Its Atari VCS console has been lumped in with purpose-built retro consoles like Nintendo’s SNES Classic and Sony’s PlayStation Classic. That’s not great for Atari because, unlike those systems, the VCS will sell for real console prices. You’ll pay between $250 and $390 bucks, depending on configuration.

That’s a lot of money. It wouldn’t make sense if the Atari VCS existed just to play Atari classics. But the console is faster than you think. The console has an AMD R1606G APU that combines a quad-core processor with Radeon Vega graphics, and its capabilities are far beyond the retro consoles you’re familiar with. This is a full-blown PC in disguise.

Any way you want it

Atari’s frustration has roots in the complexity of its game console. A console is usually a simple device. You boot it up and play whatever games and apps are built for it, and that’s it. Want to play a title for some other console? Want to use an app not made for it? Well, too bad.

You can find that simplicity in the Atari VCS. It will ship with an Atari user interface that boots by default and provides a simple grid layout for games, apps, and settings. The final version of the interface wasn’t ready (and I wasn’t allowed to photograph it), but the demo version I saw looked slick and straightforward. If you’ve ever used an Xbox, or even a Roku, you’ll get it.

The Atari interface is where you’ll find the 101 games that ship with the console, including classics like Asteroids and Missile Command.  It’s also the place to launch YouTube, Twitch, Hulu, or other streaming services. None of those services are confirmed, unfortunately. Atari is still working to finalize its partnerships. Plus, Atari will be running a storefront of modern titles. The Atari interface is based on Linux, so it shouldn’t be difficult for developers to port over to the VCS.

What really sets the Atari VCS apart, though, is Sandbox mode. It lets you load most modern x86 operating systems including Windows, Linux, and Chrome OS. Unlike the highly curated Atari interface, Sandbox transforms the VCS into an anything-goes PC. Anything you can run on a budget desktop will run on the VCS.

That single feature transforms the console from another retro device into a well of possibility. You can play games on Steam or the Epic store. You can stream anything that’ll play in a web browser. You can load Microsoft Excel to balance your budget. You can even play cloud streaming services like GeForce Now, Microsoft Project xCloud, or Google Stadia. The VCS will support HDR and 4K output, so it could be a capable cloud streaming system if paired with the right television.

You can even upgrade the console’s RAM and storage space. Atari says both will be accessible by users. Most models will have free RAM slots, and all of them will have an empty M.2 hard drive. That’s good, because the console’s 32GB of built-in storage will go quickly.

Remember, the Atari VCS starts at $250 and tops out at $380. That’s not a lot of money for a PC. The AMD chip inside is no powerhouse, but it’s certainly capable of both day-to-day tasks and playing games that aren’t graphically demanding.

Easy on the eyes

Oh, and one other thing. The Atari VCS is a beautiful piece of hardware.

Atari’s look still stands out after all these years, and its aesthetic is helped by available wood trim and an alluring Atari logo that glows when the console is on. It’s a slim device, too – much smaller than an Xbox One S or PlayStation 4 Slim. The fact it’s pretty will make the Atari VCS stand out if you want to display it, but its small size will help it tuck away if you’d like.

Atari will also offer a Classic Joystick for $50 and a Modern Controller for $60. The Classic Joystick mimics the original joystick but adds a few more buttons and includes rumble support. The Modern Controller, meanwhile, looks very similar to an Xbox One gamepad in size, weight, and layout. You can also plug in a variety of other controllers, including Xbox gamepads back to the original Xbox and Sony’s DualShock 4.

What could the Atari VCS do for you?

I have no doubt what I’d do if I owned an Atari VCS. I’d unplug the Intel NUC currently connected to my TV and replace it with the VCS. The console is perfect for playing indie games on Steam and streaming video from … well, anywhere I’d like. It’s about as fast as the NUC and much, much more attractive.

Is this a niche use? Yea, probably. But I think it’s a big niche, and the $4 million Atari has raised through Indiegogo contributions and direct support shows I’m not alone. I didn’t think Atari was going to pull it off when the VCS was announced last year. Now, having used it, I see what the company is going for.

Atari currently hopes to ship the first VCS units to backers in December. Regular pre-orders made through the Atari website, Walmart, or Gamestop are due to ship in March of 2020.

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