Old Mac of the Month: The PowerMac 8100/100 AV

Editor’s Note: This month’s post is by Erik Schmidt, who is a software product manager who lives with his wife and two boys in Santa Cruz, California. He can be found on Twitter as @erikschmidt and at his blog, Luxury Bauble.

The PowerMac 8100/100 AV wasn’t the first Mac I used, or the first that I owned. It certainly wasn’t the last. But it stands out as the one computer that truly transformed my life.

The summer of 1995 was a bewildering time for me. Only a year prior I had left the Army, and I was adrift. My work running the daily operations for a university-based nonprofit paid peanuts, but it was the only job I could find. Employers weren’t exactly lining up to pay ex-Infantry officers, and I had no connections. The economy was flat, I was still paying off undergraduate student loans, and I had no idea what sort of career I wanted.

The 8100/100 AV retailed for $4,600 and the 15" Apple Multiscan CRT monitor I bought with it retailed for $500. Because I was working for a university, I was able to purchase the pair for around $4,000. That’s still a lot of money. By any objective measure it was foolish to shell out so much money at such a precarious time in my life.

Using the Macintosh IIvx at the office, I’d already built some rudimentary web pages. I had this notion that I’d be able to use the 8100/100 AV to build websites. Maybe I’d get lucky and someone would pay me to do it.

After unpacking the 8100/100 AV and firing it up, I promptly named it Merlin. Like the Arthurian sorcerer, Merlin made magic. It ran at a blistering 100MHz, which was ludicrously fast at the time. It contained a 2 GB hard drive. How could I possibly fill up a drive that big?

Video. Yeah, I’d fill it with video. Merlin’s built-in video capture card made it easy (if slow) to digitize video from analog sources like my DVD player.

I used Merlin to conduct my first experiments with video, capturing short segments from The Right Stuff and saving them with different compression settings. After a while I realized that without an actual video camera and some sort of video project in mind, Merlin’s A/V multimedia capabilities were wasted on me.

Not that I minded. There were plenty of other tasks for Merlin. The Mac IIvx I’d been using at the office ran Photoshop 3 at a snail’s pace, and I’d actually had to use a Bernoulli 88 as a Photoshop swap disk. Even the most basic Photoshop tasks required the patience otherwise reserved for building ships in a bottle or reasoning with toddlers. The first time I fired up Photoshop on Merlin, it felt like I was cheating. Surely it couldn’t be this easy?

With Merlin, everything was easy. I tried in vain to keep up with all the changes taking place on the Web. I chatted in a few usenet history discussion groups. I became an eWorld regular and a Civilization addict. I played A–10 Attack! poorly, routinely botching takeoffs and landings. But I was crashing with higher polygon counts!

Merlin served as my home office and entertainment center. It was also the springboard for my entry into the world of professional web development. I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time with the right equipment. I put in many hours after work and on weekends building web pages with BBEdit, Photoshop, and Fetch. I learned enough to get paid to build a couple of sites. Then I got a job partially on the basis of my web skill. Finally, a government agency hired me as its first official webmaster. I’d found a career.

Ultimately my crazy purchase paid off more than I could have imagined. Arguably I could have learned just as much using a Performa or one of the lesser Mac towers, the 6100 and 7100. But the 8100/100 AV gave me room to grow. I used Merlin for a long time.

I had to have its internal battery replaced in 1998. I also upgraded the RAM. This was a time when you practically had to take out line of credit to afford memory upgrades. Finally in 1998 I bought a spiffy new iMac and gave Merlin to my dad as a replacement for the Mac SE/30 he’d been using without a glitch since 1989.

In 2000 Dad received a ruby red iMac DV as a gift, and Merlin found its way back to my house. I was just discovering Linux, so I downloaded MkLinux and installed it on the old beige beast. To my surprise, it worked fine. Admittedly, I didn’t use it for anything truly productive, but I did tinker around with it for a while, getting my feet wet with Linux in the process.

A year or two later during a move I gave Merlin the heave-ho. I did so with a sense of sadness. Merlin was more than a machine; it was an agent of change.

Want to write about an old Mac you love? Get in touch! In your email, please indicate which Mac model you are planning to write about, so I don’t have systems covered more than once.