Old Mac of the Month: Performa 5200

K.H. Schumann lives in Bonn (near Cologne), Germany, where he tortures students with his desperate attempts to teach them penal law (or drives his research fellows nuts with his ideas of streamlining their workflow) at the local university. He just started his blog ausersperspective.com a few weeks ago and is still figuring out how to share his love for and thoughts about technology with the rest of the world. If You like his writing here, You would make his day with a comment. Or just follow him and his blog on Twitter @sillyhandle.


“Are You crazy? They’re doomed!”
“A what?”
“A machine for professionals, not consumers!”
“You must have buckets of money to throw out the window!”

My story begins in the darkest of dark times, early spring of 1996. Back then, those were the usual reactions when you told somebody that you’ve purchased an Apple Macintosh Computer (calling it just “a Mac” wouldn’t do any good in a conversation).

I didn’t care about the naysayers, because my best friend was (and still is) a sound engineer, who was using Macs exclusively. So it was just natural that a good part of my extended circle of friends (musicians and sound engineers) lived in a Mac dominated world, too. But it wasn’t pleasing my peers that brought me, a 21 year old law student – and as such in no way a crazy professional with buckets full of money – to my first Mac, the mighty Performa 5200.

A road less traveled

I was in my first year at law school.

After convincing my parents that I needed a PC for my high school homework just a few years ago, I was the proud owner of a custom built Intel tower, that thundered under my desktop with all the power of its 33MhZ.

The Apple Macintosh Computer was merely a vague concept, but every time I installed a new game on my PC,[1] the installation instructions for Windows 3.1 were something like “Go into DOS mode – select CD-ROM drive – find the installation file install.exe – copy this file to…you know the drill”.

But if the game was a “hybrid”, also compatible with the Mac, the instructions for the Mac were: “Insert Game CD – double click the game icon – have fun.” That caught my eye.

The lure of the Mac became nearly irresistible with MYST, the seminal adventure game, also a “hybrid”: On the CD, there was a bonus video, showing the developers explaining the HyperCard magic that helped creating this game.[2]

But, I was 20, had not much money and a less then two year old PC. There was no way for me to become a Mac user any time soon.

Came March 1996, right after starting law school in autumn, when I learned what it means to work with a tool you can not trust:

I had to write my first university level homework. I wrote the whole thing – of course – in MS Word (getting crazier and crazier about how it handled footnotes) and, already in for three and a half weeks of my four week deadline, I just … lost 6 pages! They were totally corrupted. Just F* * *ING gone! I still don’t know why.[3]

This situation had to be dealt with; pulling all-nighters of additional work each and every time I had to write a larger academic text was not an option.
And, like a gift from heaven, around Easter 1996, I saw a newspaper ad by “American Computers”, a computer store near my hometown, that offered a range of Apple Products for “CeBIT-pricing” (models not sold at the previous CeBIT). At the low end of this range was a just discontinued all-in-one-model, called “Performa 5200” with a really reasonable[4] price tag of just 1999 DM (ca. $1000).

I could afford this!

And the most important thing: The offered machine had a little extra: a modem. That was important. I knew from my friends that you had to be a member of local Usenet group to organize spare parts in advance (because Apple would cease to exist in three months). A connection to the Internet was mandatory.

After a short period of weighing the Pros (a machine I could trust and just always wanted) and Cons (a product of a company everyone expected to be bankrupt very soon, no games), I decided to give this thing a try.[5]


After the unbearable waiting period of exactly ten days, on a sunny and warm April afternoon, I picked my new computer up at the store, paid with a cheque like a real grown-up and took the heavy box (filling 4/3 of my mother’s Ford Fiesta) home.

The unboxing experience was just a revelation:[6] A huge “Welcome” printed on the keyboard-carton; a “personal” letter by CEO Gil Amelio, assuring me what a good choice I’ve made and that he’s proud to welcome me in the community of Apple users… I was excited.


The Performa 5200 was – by today’s standards – a huge monster. But considering to the usually big displays at the time and the blockish towers, lingering and brawling under our desktops, always in a stage of war with our shins, it seemed pretty compact. Tiny even.

Compared to my PC, the Performa had the production value of a tank. No rickety CD-ROM tray: the CDs lay in a drawer on rails. When you put a Floppy into its slot, a satisfying “schlllllack!” was the answer. The thing appeared to be indestructible.

And to be honest, I didn’t care much about the specs.

I knew from my friends that the 75MhZ of the PowerPC processor weren’t in any way comparable to anything in the PC-world (“The Megahertz-Myth”), I wasn’t interested in the power of the integrated Video Card that delivered amazing graphics to the 15inch Monitor with up to 832×624 resolution, because I knew that anything that was on the market with a “MacOS/PowerPC” tag on it would run on my new wondertool. The 8MB of RAM stood for a stable performance for the next one or two years.

The only spec I wondered about was the 1GB (nominal) hard disk … who would ever need this amount of storage?[7]

What I really was interested in was an extra, a non-standard in the regular 5200: the aforementioned “high-speed” (oh yes, different times) 14.4k modem. That meant: The internet. In! My! Room!

Even though my father expected sudden financial death because of me, forgetting to log out over night, producing nothing else than a 500,000,000 DM telephone bill, and the real limitations of my “ISP”, the University of Bonn, giving me dial-up access for 30min (there were buttons for 60 and – our white whale – 180 minutes in the MacTCP interface, but I’ve never met anyone who ever got into these slots), the realization of having a window to the world was astonishing to me. Email was something magical back then (I could not summarize the feeling better than Mike Rhode recently did in his wonderful short essay) and so it’s no wonder that I still know my first ever emailaddress (starting with the easy to remember “uzs8su@…”).


MacOS 7.5 (I really don’t know what further subversion it was. 7.5.3?) was my first MacOS. Using it felt a bit wrong for the first days, not knowing where this came from and that went to. But after the better part of two weeks I could do things with the system I never dreamed of doing with a Windows PC. Working with a system that had UI standards!

Because I switched to the Mac because of the MSWord-disaster of ’96 (see above), I was damn sure I didn’t want to use a Microsoft product again in the foreseeable future.

So I bought Nisus Writer for my academic word processing needs (german lawyers and law scholars are crazy for footnotes and cleanly outlined texts)[8]. I loved working with it (and it really was far, far superior to any version of any other word processor I came across in my 5 years of using Nisus Writer. And I still think it’s a shame that Nisus was too late in the MacOS X game.)

My internet experience was brillianty handled be Claris Emailer that came with the Performa, browsing was done in Netscape, of course, until Internet Explorer (…) became (arguably) the best browser available for the Mac.[9]

And even my gaming needs were satisfied by the Performa! In the small market for games, there were the little gems of Ambrosia Software, Blizzard’s Warcraft titles ran on my Mac and Bungie’s FPS Marathon-series (the predecessor of the now famous HALO franchise) was like a drug.

The End

The Performa 5200 brought me through law school,[10] it let me explore how to to live and work with technology in ways I never thought of before.

It taught me the internet. It showed me what “just works” means. Trusting my computer gave me room to experiment, invited me to be creative, let me have important data in my life that didn’t live exclusively on a 1MB plastic disc. This machine was part of my life. It made me a nerd.[11]

With this computer, Apple earned my trust.

Doing a quick web research, it’s easy to find out that the Performa 5200 is considered as one of the worst Macs ever built.[12] That might be true. But if this was one of Apple’s worst machines, it is no wonder that Apple products are still considered as the finest the electronics market has to offer. The Performa 5200 outshone any other PC I knew in 1996.


At last, I gave my beloved Performa 5200 to a friend, who wanted it for the parts, in late August 2000, making way for a sage iMac[13]. But there is one thing of this old computer that still lives in a drawer in our bedroom: its heart.
I don’t know what’s left on it, my Performa’s original hard drive. Most of my work for law school, obviously, but also maybe my first emails, games I played endlessly (Escape Velocity? Damn, I loved that.) and even maybe something totally embarrassing (very likely…)?

My wife wants me to get rid of this thing. I can’t.

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

  1. Even though I managed to produce at least 20 pages of homework with it, somehow it came to be that I became a DOOM 2 god.  ↩
  2. Watch it on YouTube  ↩
  3. Disclosure: Some experts in the field state that human error should not be just ruled out as a possible explanation. But only a few. Idiots.  ↩
  4. The regular price was, when I remember it correctly, nearly 4000 DM.  ↩
  5. Even if it meant an investment in a system with an overall lifespan of just four to five years max. But five years are a long, long time when you’ve just turned 21.  ↩
  6. Compared to my experiences with german computer resellers of the early 90s; most of them were more like a mixture of Comic Book Guy and the arms dealer in ‘The Simpsons’.  ↩
  7. Of course it made sense: my “professional” sound engineer-friends needed space en masse.  ↩
  8. See?  ↩
  9. That didn’t last long.  ↩
  10. Giving me the opportunity be the go-to-guy for snobby tech support for my fellow students: “I don’t have this problem…I have a Mac.” “These are the kind of Windows-User problems I just can’t relate to.”  ↩
  11. Which is, for the record, not an entirely bad thing.  ↩
  12. E.g. Performa 5200 – Low End Mac: Lasting Value  ↩
  13. Another love story, yet to be told.  ↩