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.

Old Mac of the Month: The Performa 637CD

Editor’s Note: This month’s entry is by Garrick Anson. He blogs and tweets while not working or enjoying time with his wife and two sons.

The Christmas season of 1994 was a special time in my life. As with
many kids, I had a bad habit of snooping around the house to try to
get a glimpse of any unwrapped presents my parents had hidden. We had
an old darkroom built-in our basement (my father had been a
photographer for years)
that had a lockable door to keep people
from exposing any film or paper that might be out in the open. This
room also served as a perfect place for my parents to lock up those
unwrapped gifts each year. After pushing my conscience aside, I went
looking for the key to the dark room in my father’s desk. One day
after school, and before my parents got home from work, I went in.

Sitting on the small table in front of me was a shiny (OK,
new Apple Macintosh Performa 637CD.

Our first Apple Computer.

It was such a hard distinction from the grey, sharp cornered, bulky
IBM and Tandy machines I was used to. The corners were lightly
rounded, the colors of the beige case were slightly more pleasant, the
mouse only had one button. It was amazing.

Not being able to leave well enough alone, I plugged it in and fired
it up. I was grateful I hadn’t tried this while my family was
upstairs because the System 7 start-up chime was deafening in that
small darkroom, and I’m pretty sure you could have heard it from
outside. The monitor lit up with the Happy Mac icon, something I had never seen before
(all my previous Apple experience was with the Color Classic my school
library had). There was no crude BIOS, no DOS command prompt, no
MS-DOS Shell, just a graphical screen as it loaded extensions and then
a desktop. So there it was, all 33mhz, 8MB of RAM, and a whopping
350MB of hard drive space running Mac OS 7.5.

I was hooked, and for the better part of a month I managed to sneak
down quite a few more times to play around with the Mac I wasn’t even
supposed to know about.

Of course, I was not as sneaky as I thought, and my parents found out
what I had been doing. I watched as my parents packed up the computer
and put it in the car to “return” it to the store. As you can guess
the Performa still ended up under the Christmas tree (I think my
dad was more excited about the purchase than I was)
, and I
learned a valuable lesson about not getting caught…er…not

We were a house of early adopters, and had many things before other
people knew that they wanted or needed them. We had various computers
in the house for as long as I can remember. IBM, Tandy, Commodore,
etc. We had internet access for years before that Mac (Prodigy,
CompuServe, AOL, etc…), and it still seems weird to think I was
using the internet before there was a World Wide Web.

I spent countless hours playing games like Myst, Glider, Escape
Velocity, and Doom on that Performa.

I messed around with a copy of Adobe Photoshop (version 3.0 if I
remember right) that my dad brought home from work. I would edit
photos and make custom icons for hours on end. I wasted more time than
I care to imagine messing with ResEdit customizing the look and feel
of the System various apps. I learned basic HTML and made a few small
personal web pages, and even learned how to set up an Apache server.
That computer gave me my love of both tinkering and technology.

Since then I have owned a couple old SE/30’s, a Luxo iMac G4, a
Powermac G5, first generation Black Macbook, mid 2009 Macbook Pro, not
to mention a slew of iPods, iPhones, Apple TVs, and an iPad. I even
just recently ordered a new Macbook Pro.

I’d love to tell you that because of that first Mac, I pursued a field
in computers, design, photography, or communication. That would be a
great way to end this tale, but in reality I sit daily in a cubicle
farm, in a small windowless office, plugging away at Microsoft Word
and PowerPoint on and outdated HP running Windows XP.

Macs have been my escape. I write, design, game, and communicate on
them every chance I get. I’m grateful for my past experiences with
them, and look forward to the future.

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.

After we talk, please submit your work in Markdown or HTML. I will be editing posts to conform to AP style, and will link to your site or Twitter account in the Editor’s Note at the top of the post.

Old Mac of the Month: the Macintosh IIvx

Editor’s Note: This month’s “Old Mac of the Month” entry is written by Eric Jorgensen. His blog can be found here and he is on Twitter here.

I am twenty-six, which means that I’ve never known a time when the Macintosh didn’t exist.

Like the Macintosh, I was born in 1984. I first met that machine thanks to my grandparents, who, for a reasons now unclear, had an original Macintosh in their home office. I’m not sure why, as neither grandparent is what anyone would ever describe as “computer-savvy.” Fittingly, I don’t think that I ever saw either one use it. During visits to their house, I would sneak away to boot up the Mac and play with MacPaint.

Artistic endeavors in MacPaint aside, like many children of the late 80’s/early 90’s, there was basically one reason to use a computer: to play games. As a kid, video games were my proverbial forbidden fruit. While my cousins and many of my friends had their Nintendos, Super Nintendos, and Sega Genesises, I didn’t grow up with video games in the house. Judging from their stern faces and the conspicuous lack of a video game system under the tree each Christmas, my parents thought that Super Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog were part of a nefarious cabal that would sneak swiftly from their cartridge homes, crawl into my head, and rot my brain.

I was certain that every other child in the universe spent their free time earning power ups, jumping on the heads of enemies, and, of course, rotting their brains the whole time; thanks, to my parents’ No Video Games policy, I was forced me to get my fix elsewhere. Lucky for me, my school had a computer lab full of Apple IIs. There, I got my first regular taste of computer games. Every week, my classmates and I got to spend an hour or so playing “educational” games like Oregon Trail, Number Munchers, and Where in the World is Carmen San Diego? on 5.25“ floppy disks. Those games taught me a few things, none of which probably would have fit a responsible teacher’s definition of ”educational":

  1. Dysentery killed just about everyone on the Oregon Trail
  2. International super villains wear trench coats and fedoras but don’t ever really do anything all that villain-y
  3. Computer games — even those with an “educational” bent — are a lot of fun

I loved playing those games at school, but my nights at home remained game-less. Finally, fate smiled on me. In late 1992, my parents decided that it was time for us to get a family computer. I’m not exactly sure why they ended up deciding on a Mac, though my dad claims now that I “wouldn’t have let him get anything else.” Probably, my experiences at my grandparents’ house with that original Mac and the computer lab time at school had convinced me that Apple was the only way to go.

On a sunny fall afternoon that I still remember in vivid detail, the entire family — my parents, my two sisters, and I — headed to Computer City — a big box retailer that sold computers and software. In the words of my parents, we were “just looking” at the Macs available. While they talked with a salesperson, I wandered throughout the cavernous store to check out all of the software on display. Especially the games. Aisles and aisles of games.

As I took in the seemingly endless racks of super-sized, multi-colored software boxes, it became pretty clear to me that I didn’t need Mario, Luigi, or Sonic for a gaming fix; computer games would be more than adequate.

Eventually, I found my way back to my parents and the salesperson. “Just looking” turned out to be a clever ruse to keep me out of the way while they figured out which model to buy. They ended up deciding on a Macintosh IIvx, and, according to my parents, I could barely contain my excitement when I realized that we would be leaving the store with a computer of our own. On the way out, I even managed to talk them into picking up a couple of games as well — the original SimCity and the flight sim Hellcats Over the Pacific.

We loaded up the goods and headed to a nearby furniture store to buy a computer desk, my parents $3,000 or so poorer and visions of the games I would soon be playing — maybe even that night — filling my head. Dad, however, had other ideas. He has always been what I would describe as a good-natured sadist. Rather than doing what my eight-year old mind thought most logical — assembling the new desk, unboxing the IIvx and getting everything up and running right away — he decided that he was “too tired” to do anything with our new purchases that night. So, for about a week, on the floor the boxes sat, taunting me. Teasing me. Whispering to me.

Each day that week, I came home from school and anxiously awaited the sound of my dad opening the garage door. And, every night, after seeing the expectant look on my face, he told me the same thing: “Not tonight. Maybe this weekend.” I moped and pouted, but he refused to give in. Patience was not one of the qualities I possessed as an eight-year-old, especially when dealing with something as exciting as a new computer.

Finally, that Saturday, he lived up to his word. To the sounds of Nirvana’s Nevermind — it was 1992, remember — he unboxed the IIvx, and I “helped” him assemble the desk. After a few hours, the Mac was up and running, and I can say, unequivocally, my life changed forever: a Mac nerd was born.

Though it would quickly be eclipsed in computing power by the Centris 650, the IIvx was, in some ways, a pretty revolutionary machine: it was the first Mac to have a completely metal case, and, more important, it was the first model to ship with an internal CD-ROM drive. Unlike later models, the drive didn’t have a tray loading mechanism. Instead, the IIvx came with a plastic, cartridge-style device that opened by squeezing two buttons at its edges to hold a disc. The cartridge was then closed and inserted into the slot. If you never had the pleasure of dealing with such a device, here’s a picture.

That snazzy 2x speed CD-ROM drive would have been useless without multimedia titles to take advantage of it, and when we first bought the computer, those titles were few and far between. Fortunately, the IIvx shipped with a CD-ROM of shareware games like Price of Persia, Armor Alley, Glider, and Pararena. I didn’t have the money to buy full-versions of the games myself, and I was afraid to ask my parents to buy them for me, so I played the limited demo versions of the games over and over again. Somehow, probably due to my lack of skill, I never got bored.

The Mac gaming in our house got even better when full-length games started shipping on CD-ROMs instead of floppy disks; Myst and the 7th Guest were two of the first that we bought, and they proved to be even more engrossing than those demos and floppy disk games I had been playing up to that point. I was transfixed by the games’ seemingly impossibly great graphics and embedded video. Even my dad was sucked in by the puzzles in Stauf’s mansion and the photo-realism of the Miller brothers’ mysterious (no pun intended) island. Mac gaming was definitely one of the ways in which my dad and I bonded; during weekend breakfast conversations, the two of us often compared notes on the progress we’d made in solving a particularly difficult puzzle.

To my parents’ relief, I didn’t just play games. Looking out my educational development, they had bought a Stylewriter II inkjet printer with the IIvx. My sisters and I used ClarisWorks and Kid Pix to write and illustrate ridiculous and terrible stories as well as type up our homework, all of which seemed to deplete ink cartridges at an incredible rate. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t feel slightly superior turning in pristine, double-spaced assignments while other kids in my elementary school classes turned in messy, hand-written sheets of torn notebook paper.

The many hours of gaming and those (significantly less numerous) hours of school work were done on what was not, by modern standards, a powerful machine. The IIvx’s specs sound laughable compared to the multi-gigahertz processors and gigabytes of RAM common in today’s desktop computers: a 32Mhz processor, a whopping 4MB of RAM (which we eventually increased to eight) and a 160 megabyte hard drive. Granted, the 3.5" floppy was the software distribution medium of the time, and this was well before most everyone maintained a library of MP3 music, but it still boggles my mind to think about how paltry the built-in storage was.

The OS was System 7, which, among other deficiencies, lacked protected memory. Not that I knew what that meant at the time, but I definitely remember lots of these error messages, which would force me to try and figure out which third-party extensions were in conflict with one another before I could get back to my games.

The IIvx was also a rather low point in the history of Apple’s customer relations: Low End Mac explains:

Although [the IIvx] wasn’t officially discontinued until October 1993, with the introduction of the 25 MHz 68040-based Centris 650 in the same enclosure and at the same price just five months [after the introduction of the IIvx], Apple slashed its base price from US$2,949 to US$1,899 overnight. Needless to say, a lot of recent IIvx buyers were none too happy with Apple over that.

As a result of this debacle, the IIvx is probably the only Mac to have ever become a verb; according to Wikipedia, my family was part of the first group of Apple customers to have been “IIvx-ed.”

Despite the crashes, the limited computing power, and the fact that the model we bought was quickly eclipsed by a much better machine, I had a blast with our first Mac. I spent — or wasted, depending on your perspective — hours upon hours playing games that I will never forget. More important, I developed an affinity for all things Mac that, even through Apple’s darkest times, has stuck with me to this day.

For many in the online Mac community, computers in the 1980’s and 90’s were a doorway to other worlds — for me, our first Mac was merely an egress window. I didn’t learn to program with it, nor did it help me understand me what a “megahertz” was or how RAM worked. But our first computer did teach me something very Steve Jobsian that I’ve never forgotten: computing technology can be magical.

My family has gone through at least five Macs since the IIvx, and I’ve gone through two on my own, but I don’t think that I’ll ever again feel the wide-eyed-wonder and excitement that I felt when I used that original machine. There was something inexplicably great about being eight-years-old and discovering what felt like an amazing parallel universe, one that I had the power to influence and control. It felt exciting and new and uniquely mine.

Thinking back on my experiences with the IIvx and living now in what appears to be another golden age of computing, I hope that at least a few kids today feel a similar sense of possibility and promise when they play with their iPhones and iPads.

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.

After we talk, please submit your work in Markdown or HTML. I will be editing posts to conform to AP style, and will link to your site or Twitter account in the Editor’s Note at the top of the post.

Old Mac of the Month: the iMac G4

Editor’s Note: This month’s Old Mac of the Month entry is by Matthew Christensen, a senior Film Production major at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles that also happens to be extremely passionate about Apple. His focus is on post production and specifically editing and color correcting films. Some of his editing/coloring work can be seen here and here. You can follow or get in touch with him on Twitter @the_risingtide.

A Tough Mac to Beat

The very first iMac left some big shoes to fill. Between its industry-busting design, simplicity and intangible cool factor, I can imagine it would have been difficult for computer makers at the time (let alone Apple) to know where to go next. With the iMac G4, the team at Apple did it again. Jonathan Ive describes designing this new machine:

When we set out to design the new iMac, there definitely was a tendency for us to be evolutionary. But one of the things that was great about the original iMac was that it was so revolutionary. So the new iMac had to be revolutionary too.

Released in 2002, the iMac G4 was indeed revolutionary. Even though Apple had set the bar for an all-in-one personal computer with the first iMac, other manufacturers hadn’t jumped on board. Flat panel LCD monitors were becoming commonplace, but always shipped separate from the main CPU tower. With this new design, Apple found the best of both worlds. Again, Jonathan Ive:

It’s just this very simple, pure frame that appears to just float in space. When you look at it now it seems so simple, it seem so obvious. Then again, as usual, the simplest, most efficient solution has been the most elusive.

That mobile, separated-yet-joined screen is what most people remember when they think of or see an iMac G4. It invites you to move it around freely while simultaneously is ready to hide away the machine itself and immerse you in what you are doing. Were Steve Jobs on stage today introducing this computer, I don’t doubt the word magical would escape his lips at least once. The design is a testament to the lengths Apple is willing to go to push the envelopes of user experience and simplicity. The screen is perfectly weighted and balanced to be easy and smooth to move, yet not fall out of place once stopped. You won’t find any tightening screws on the joints holding the screen. Keep in mind, too, that creating this iMac was not as simple as drawing it out on paper and stuffing components in a dome. Apple had to custom design a circular logic board with ports radiating out and fit the optical drive and hard disk stacked on top to fit in the dome.

Peeking inside the machine really is incredible, especially contrasted with the simple elegance the end user sees on the outside.

My iMac G4

Here comes my disclaimer. I was 12 years old when the iMac G4 was released. I absolutely remember seeing the cute commercial on TV as a kid, but at the time we had a Gateway PC running Windows 98 at home. I had used Macs at school and loved computers as a whole, but I really wasn’t a Mac fan yet.

Fast-forward to three years ago. As a freshman film production major I knew I wanted a MacBook Pro to do video editing. That was my first Mac and I’m quite proud to be typing this article on it right now. In the last three years I’ve undergone the complete transformation into an Apple fan. So when a friend approached me about an old iMac her dad had bought from a garage sale, of course I was interested. When she mentioned it worked perfectly and she only wanted $30 for it, the deal was done. Sure, I had my own perfectly fine laptop, so why would I buy a 9-year-old outdated machine? If you don’t immediately understand I can’t really explain it. I honestly would have probably gotten it even if it hadn’t powered on, just to tinker with. The fact that it ran beautifully was icing on the cake.

To a true Apple fan’s delight, the seller had included the original sales pamphlet for the iMac G4. It’s fascinating to page through the huge, full-page pictures and Apple Garamond font and seeing how Apple marketed the computer. The copy touts the fact that this is the first Mac with an included SuperDrive, the 15” LCD, and so on. It spends a lot of time advertising the features of OS X we all know and love: the Aqua interface, UNIX underpinnings, the Dock, and the included iPhoto, iMovie, iDVD, and iTunes. Steve Jobs’ view of a digital hub was perhaps most visible in this pamphlet emphasizing organizing your photos, syncing your music to your iPod, and making your own movies. The last few pages are devoted to debunking a few myths Windows users might have in the format of a Myth followed by a Fact. The final one falls into the cheesy but true category:

Myth 6: Macs are far easier to use then PCs.

Fact: Guilty as charged.

Once home I discovered that whoever had sold it originally had been silly enough to leave all their data on the machine in the form of a password protected user account. To my delight, I discovered this iMac still had its original OS 9 partition! Two hours later, after filling up on nostalgic exploration of the antique OS and not having anything earlier than an OS X 10.5 Leopard install disc (thus no password resetting) I decided to just wipe the drive and start fresh. My mom’s boss is a long time Mac enthusiast and happened to have a copy of OS X 10.4 Tiger available for me to install clean on the computer and after some software updates it was running perfectly. Those keen readers out there may note that OS X 10.5 Leopard is able to run on a G4 processor, but unfortunately it requires an 867 MHz or faster clock speed and mine just missed the cut. I looked into the few hacks out there to trick Leopard into installing but I decided to just let the machine run on the leaner Tiger and see how that went. I haven’t been disappointed.

With its 800 MHz G4 processor, 768 MB of RAM, 100 MHz System Bus, a 60 GB ATA hard drive, and a 15” 1024×768 screen my iMac’s specs are paltry compared to today’s model.

What’s amazing to me, though, is how rarely I notice.

The only time it has kept me waiting was trying to use the unbearably slow USB 1.1 ports. The solution is to use either the FireWire 400 or Ethernet ports available around the base.

So, in my apartment I decided to put the iMac to use for three main functions:

  • a wireless iTunes server
  • a wireless printing server and scanning station
  • playing Age of Empires II: The Conquerors Expansion

Because WiFi was not quite as ubiquitous back then as it was today, the AirPort card was an optional add-on for this model of iMac and mine was without it. Rather than try and find a decent card online I opted to simply buy a cheap but reliable ethernet cable from MonoPrice.com and connect it to my apartment’s wireless router. We also found a decent pair of speakers on Amazon and had them shipped to us. Due to system requirements, iTunes 10 will not run on my iMac, but version 9 is more than happy to do so. Luckily, iTunes 9 is still compatible with the iOS Remote app from Apple so now my three roommates and I can use our iPhone or iPod touch to activate and control what music is playing through the speakers in the living room. Even though it’s not a new technology, guests are always impressed when we can whip out an iOS device and change the volume or song on request. Then, simply connecting my HP printer via USB and installing the necessary software for scanning allowed the other Mac laptops in our place to print wirelessly. For scanning we just use the software on the iMac to have fine grain control and send the scans to our laptops over the network. I was even able to fairly easily set up Tiger to allow my roomate’s Toshiba laptop to print wirelessly as well, using CUPS. Finally, we all love to play Age of Empires II against each other here at the apartment, but in its infinite 1999 wisdom Microsoft made the identical Windows and Mac versions incompatible over a network, leaving my Toshiba-using roommate out of the fray. Snagging this iMac solved that, too!

Having had the iMac G4 for about six months now, I could not be happier. It has worked flawlessly. I had a spare Apple aluminum keyboard hanging around that now runs next to an original iMac hockey puck mouse I was given. The other night I needed to scan a document and so I went out to use the iMac in the living room. No one else was home, it was quiet and nice out, and I remember sitting down on the floor, pulling the screen towards me, and just being immersed in the simple, zen act of using that computer. I know that hockey puck mouse gets a lot of flack, and I’m not going to defend it too much, but it is the only Apple mouse I’ve used before without a right click. Part of that experience was having a machine with only a single click, that ran best with one application at a time, had a relatively small screen, and yet could do all I needed it to do at a good speed. That night made me love being a Mac user, and made me even more excited to write this piece about the wonderful iMac G4.

This computer is the epitome of what an Apple computer should be. It has a novel, intriguing design filled with solid components and software, yet simple and delightful for the average person to use. Even more importantly, all of those elements are still true today, 9 years later.

That’s what a Mac is all about.

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.

After we talk, please submit your work in Markdown or HTML. I will be editing posts to conform to AP style, and will link to your site or Twitter account in the Editor’s Note at the top of the post.

Old Mac of the Month: the Macintosh SE

Editor’s Note: This month’s installment of “Old Mac of the Month” is written by Randy Murray. Randy writes at First Today, Then Tomorrow and has written a book titled Writing Assignments, which is a great tool if you’re looking to improve your writing.

I don’t think of myself as being overly romantic about the past, but I do have a fondness for my first Mac. It not only changed how I worked, but it set me on a path that shaped my career and helped set my future financial position. More than that, I believe that this particular version was the one that established the Mac as a solid business and design machine.

The machine: the Macintosh SE.

When I went to college in 1978, I took a Smith Corona “Cronamatic” typewriter. My roommate had a record player. That was the complete extent of our high tech equipment. One guy across the hall had an Apple II and I’m pretty sure that was the only personal computer on campus at the time. We all thought it was pretty cool, but weren’t quiet sure what it was for. Some sort of games, apparently.

After college, then grad school, I found myself at Bell Labs on a documentation and training team. Up to that point I’d taken one programming class and used a few terminals, but that was it. In fact, I bought a new typewriter at the end of grad school. At Bell Labs we used AT&T PCs, but we booted into Unix. This is also where I was first introduced to the Internet.

When I could be torn away from the Usenet Star Trek threads I wrote and laid out the documentation using VI. For those unfamiliar with VI, it’s a way to code layout. We’d write up a chapter, hit print, walk down the hall to the printer, and see what came out, then return and debug our page layout. Fun. If we wanted a screen shot, we’d create a box to be printed on the documentation page, then separately capture the screen, print it out, cut it out, then affix it to the empty box using a hot wax. We were only one step away from creating our manuals using hot type.

Before I left Bell Labs we moved to Sun 360 workstations. They were very cool and had large monitors to display a very impressive graphical interface. In this interface you’d open a window and still write in VI.

And I remember passing a darkened room and seeing a very strange-looking computer. It had a small screen set off to one side and a graphical display. When I asked they called it “Lisa”. And just before I left Bell Labs we began taking a look at a program called “FrameMaker” which would allow us to create documentation in WYSIWYG. It seemed very strange, but exciting.

I moved on to create a documentation department for a large software company. I was given a vanilla PC, but also given a fairly open charge on how I’d set up publishing. I began talking with vendors and asked them to show me a wide variety of publishing tools. And one showed me the brand new Mac SE. I had no particular inclination toward Macs over PCs. But I was quickly and completely enamored with the little, powerful machine.

This Mac SE had 1 megabyte of memory and a 10 megabyte hard drive. As such, it was the most powerful (and expensive) computer at the company I worked for at that time. I added Microsoft Word 1.0, Adobe Illustrator 1.0, and QuarkXpress 1.0. And with this machine I was able to produce beautiful documentation for a fraction of the cost of using professional layout and publishing services.

How fast was it? At the time it was very fast. 8 Mhz. If I recall correctly, and including the software, I spent something like $5,000 for it. My manager didn’t really think of it as a computer. We called it a “desktop publishing system.”

But I couldn’t convince the company to purchase a laser printer (they couldn’t understand why a dot matrix printer wouldn’t be just fine), so I’d copy my documents onto an 800K “floppy” and drive across town to someone I knew who owned a printer. I paid them to print out my master copies.

The result: my boss and all his superiors were completely blown away at the beautiful manuals that I and my small team produced. They couldn’t understand how we could do it. All they had to pay for was the price of printing and binding. It was completely and utterly revolutionary.

We’re now expect Mac models to be updated every year, if not “speed bumped” more frequently. This model was available for two and a half years, virtually unchanged. And you can still find them in use. They were remarkably sturdy, dependable machines. I treated mine as a portable. I even found someone who made huge, padded cases for them. I thought it perfect, but in retrospect it was like carting around a dorm-sized refrigerator. It was just luggable, nearly 20 pounds with the keyboard and power supply, but I could take it home to work on the weekend and on projects at night. And yes, I did buy one game to play on it — Dark Castle.

This was the machine where Apple finally perfected the “compact” design. The original Mac was severely underpowered. It was really more of a proof of concept. Even the followup “Fat Mac” only attracted an enthusiast audience. The Mac SE was the machine that made people like me sit up and say, “this is a computer I can do amazing things with.”

Over the years I’ve used many Mac models, including the Quadra, early Power Macs, and many others with external monitors. But it was this machine and its successful implementation of the compact design that carries forward today in the iMac. It’s the design I most relate to the Macintosh core concept. When you say Mac, I see the Mac SE in my mind.

I think that a case can be made that this was the machine that demonstrated that the Mac was a cutting edge tool for layout and design. At this time most PCs were running MS-DOS and used primarily as typewriters and calculators. When I brought in the Mac SE the company had no email — inter-office communications was through distributed paper memos (and people could still smoke in their offices). PCs were used to create spreadsheets and reports, which one would print out to share. Programers would use PCs as terminals to connect to the mainframes and mini-computers. Because of the Mac SE I was able to produce professional documentation for basically the cost of my salary. Previously, manuals were costing the company tens of thousands of dollars each for professional layout. The company quickly saw the value and allowed me to grow our Mac installations, which over the years dominated both marketing and product management. When I moved on I left around one hundred Mac users in my wake.

Some claim the Mac SE/30 was a superior machine. It was faster, but the standard Mac SE was first and a rock solid performer. It helped to establish the foothold of Macs inside business and demonstrated the value of not just design, but of the graphical interface itself.

Over the years I’ve purchased literally hundreds of Macs (and probably a dozen or so for myself). For a long while I felt like a prophet in the wilderness, bitterly fighting to convert the unwashed and convince them about not just the superiority of the Mac, but also of the wonderful things one could do only on a Mac. I stopped the evangelism years ago, and now, it’s no longer even necessary.

I even rode the Mac into new jobs, including one at a Mac software company. I’ve been to many, many Macworlds and developed a great many close friends because of my involvement in the industry. And by developing a clear understanding of what Apple was doing, I invested in the company years ago and have done very well as Apple stock grew (and grows!) to astonishing heights.

I’m writing this on my three year old iMac. My first generation iPad and iPhone 4 are on the desk next to me. I just sent my youngest daughter to college with a brand new Macbook Pro and my older daughter just bought a new 27" iMac. My wife uses my five year old Macbook Pro. I’m convinced that none of this would have existed without the trusty little Mac SE.

Old Mac of the Month: The 12″ PowerBook G4

Editor’s Note: This “Old Mac of the Month” entry is by Shadoe Huard, the writer of SmarterBits, where he covers the world of Apple.

Neil Gaiman:

You will hear that she has left the country, that there was a gift she wanted you to have, but it is lost before it reaches you. Late one night the telephone will sign, and a voice that might be hers will say something that you cannot interpret before the connection crackles and is broken.

Sometimes I struggle to find the perfect set of tools. At least where gadgets are concerned, I can be rather erratic. Case in point, my road setup for an entire college semester in 2005 consisted of a Palm Tungsten E with an attachable keyboard as my computer. At the time, it seemed like a perfect, and frankly much more portable, alternative to the secondhand, requires AC power to function, Dell Latitude I had at home. Before the notion of combining an iPad and a bluetooth keyboard sparked lightbulbs into millions of minds, Palm was offering a similar combination, with all the accoutrements a student might need for school: Dataviz’s Documents to Go and solitare.

Solitaire is great on a Palm Pilot.

In all the wrong ways, my setup was ahead of its time. While I’m all for eccentric setups, the lack of bare necessities (MSN messenger at the time,) was increasingly becoming a deal breaker. Eventually, I purchased a Compaq Presario laptop in lieu of my Palm Pilot, but that just opened up a whole new can of worms. You could pick your poison with the Presario: battery life, weight, cords and cables,performance. None of them provided a pleasant experience for an arts student who spent most days away from home and needed a computer that could keep up. For many students growing up in the mid 2000s, most of this must sound all to familiar.

Little did I know at the time that Apple already had all the right answers for me.

Power is not a means, it is an end

2003 was a productive time for Apple. It may not have seemed that way at the time but, with the help of hindsight, it’s hard to ignore the importance of that particular year. To wit, here is a brief list of products and technologies Apple introduced in a 365 day span: The PowerMac G5, Keynote 1.0, iSight Camera, iTunes Music Store, Safari 1.0, Mac OS X 10.3 Panther, Airport Extreme, FireWire 800, the iLife bundle, Final Cut Express, Xcode 1.0, and last but certainly not least, the 3rd generation iPod.

Apple had power and it had it in gobs.

(Just consider the legacy of these releases. The iTunes Store revolutionized entire industries single handedly. Safari and it’s Webkit underpinnings now power the majority of mobile smartphones (not to mention desktop browsers) in the world today. iSight cameras are now built into most Apple computers. Xcode fuels one of the biggest growing developer communities in the world and is of course built right into Mac OS X, an operating system that is still pushing the bounds of traditional computing even today. For conspiracy theorists, there’s a case to be made for pinpointing 2003 the year Steve Jobs’s started his global domination of anything having to do with technology.)

Amid all these landmark advancements, there is one other 2003 offspring that may be even more fondly remembered than the aforementioned: The 12-inch PowerBook G4, a device of many firsts in its own right. Apple’s miniature workhorse(and its 17-inch brother) ushered in Apple’s love affair with aluminum along with technologies like FireWire 800 and 802.11g networking. Launching only into Mac OS X, Apple’s then smallest notebook laid the groundwork for the next decade of Mac notebooks.

Ultra-compact. Full Featured.

Those were the words chosen to describe the 12-inch PowerBook on Apple.com’s product splash page. “Uncompromising” might have been an even simpler descriptor. Featuring the same internals as its bigger siblings, this PowerBook made little sacrifice to achieve its tiny footprint. Ever so slightly thicker than the 15 and 17-inch PowerBooks (Hey, you gotta fit all those components somewhere.), this 12-inch notebook provided everything a creative professional could need on the road: Superdrive DVD burning, dedicated graphics, a long-lasting removable battery, Airport Extreme networking and a then generous 1024 x 768 matte display. The MacBook Air may now be the reigning most portable Mac notebook but in its heyday, the 12-inch PowerBook was the pinnacle of both size and power, something the Air still can’t claim.

I’d be remiss in not mentioning the classic and unmistakable all aluminum design co-introduced by this computer. Encased in stunning silver, the simple and elegant design of the PowerBook endures even today, while also serving as the blueprint informing the unibody construction of the MacBook Pro and the MacBook Air.

Continuing a rich tradition of leaving the past behind, the 12-inch PowerBook was the first Mac computer to boot exclusively in Mac OS X, originally shipping with Mac OS X 10.2. Future revisions hit in stride with the releases of 10.3 and 10.4, melding its state of the art hardware with a desktop operating system itself maturing into arguably the best OS around. Truly a long-tail machine, later generations of the device were even powerful enough to install and run Leopard, the last revision of OS X supporting the PowerPC architecture.

The 12-inch PowerBook was finally retired in May of 2006 upon the release of the 13-inch white MacBook. The little PowerBook’s particular blend of size, power and versatility hasn’t been reincarnated in an Apple notebook since.

More Neil Gaiman

Several years later, from a taxi, you will see someone in a doorway who looks like her, but she will be gone by the time you persuade the driver to stop. You will never see her again.

Even today, I still act erratically in search of the perfect workflow, though I’ve come to embrace that aspect of my personality. Five years after my Palm Tungsten, I finally got the machine I should have had all along. Needing a quick and cheap laptop to carry to and from work, I picked up a 12-inch PowerBook off of Craigslist — five years after its official retirement, and put it to work full-time as my writing and publishing machine. Having missed each other 6 years ago, the reunion is bittersweet; the PowerBook having been left behind in the past next to the ever growing demands of technology. The experience of it will never be the one we were truly meant to have.

In many ways, my 12-inch PowerBook is a pleasure to use. Easy on the eyes and still as portable as it ever was, writing articles in WriteRoom or Text Editor is a breeze. HD content is perhaps too much to ask of the dated G4 processor, but simple email and web browsing on Safari doesn’t pose too much of a threat, so long as it isn’t overwhelmed by graphically intense sites. If you’re patient, you can even power through some light Photoshopping. In short, for the right person, even an ancient PowerPC notebook can be a serious computer in 2011.

Yet, so much of the PowerBook reminds us how far we’ve come since the “year of the notebook”. Notebooks today are even thinner while simultaneously having longer lasting batteries. The boxing of the 12-inch PowerBook, beautifully packaged and designed by most standards, seems bloated and decadent compared to the minimalist, environmentally conscious packaging of MacBooks today. Perhaps worst of all, most third party software has moved on from the PowerPC era. Finding apps to fill my PowerBook involves an equal mix of hope and prayer, if not persistent sleuthing through the annals of the internet. Despite the ravages of time however, my square-ish notebook endures, thanks in part to the legacy of its pedigree.

The 12-inch PowerBook, more than any personal computer I’ve ever owned, is an object which people really emote with. As a newly minted owner I’ve had the chance to witness this first hand, observing the fond and gleeful reactions of strangers, co-workers, friends and Mac enthusiasts. I can understand; since becoming my full-time publisher slash typewriter, I’ve grown to appreciate the personality of my PowerBook: discrete, reliable, and austere. For former owners, when PowerPCs were de rigeur, it might have also felt otherworldly; a portent of a future only beginning to realize itself.

Back in its 2003 introductory commercial, Apple paired up its smallest PowerBook with one of the biggest sports figures of that year, Yao Ming. While pairing the world’s tallest sports celebrity with the smallest Mac has great comedic potential, Apple couldn’t have guessed just how revolutionary this duo would become in their respective arenas. Both were once-in-a-generation phenomena in their fields: awe inspiring blends of size, agility and power. They offered us a glimpse into the future, Yao ushering in a new era of globalization in the NBA and the 12-inch PowerBook paving the way for a new breed of powerful compact notebooks. Finally, it’s possible there has never been two more beloved ambassadors of a large community of people. Or nation, if you’ll indulge the hyperbole.

I’m uncertain there’s any one distinguishing feature of the 12-inch PowerBook that could explain its enduring popularity. Perhaps the answer lies in it’s adeptness at striking through almost any bullet-point feature list one could imagine; it’s hard to come up with any Achilles heel it could have had at the time. Of course, there’s a good chance I’ll never find out for myself, having missed out on its prime years. Yet as I sit here, typing away on my PowerBook outside a cafe on a breezy summer afternoon, it’s hard to imagine anyone ever having needed anything more.

Interested in writing an “Old Mac of the Month” post? Get in touch.

‘Old Mac of the Month’ Submissions

Since yesterday’s post by Kevin Lipe about the Performa 578, I’ve gotten several emails from you fine-looking readers wanting to write guests posts about old Macs you’re passionate about.

By all means, I would love to post your stories about old Macs!

So, 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.

After we talk, please submit your work in Markdown or HTML. I will be editing posts to conform to AP style, and will link to your site or Twitter account in the Editor’s Note at the top of the post.

Thanks. You guys are the best.

Old Mac of the Month: Performa 578

Editor’s Note: I’m starting a new series named “Old Mac of the Month.” To help get things started, my buddy Kevin Lipe wrote up this piece about the Performa 578.

The Setup

Back in the bad old days of Apple, there were a lot of bad decisions being made about the Apple product line. What had in 1990 been the Macintosh SE, the Macintosh Plus, the Macintosh Portable, and the Macintosh II had ballooned into all kinds of different Macs for every price range. The “low cost” series were still the LC’s, the LC 550 and the LC 575. The powerhouse multimedia machines were the Quadras, the Centris series were the “business” machines, the Newton was a weird handheld thing that sort-of recognized handwriting, and PowerPC was on the horizon but not yet public. These were the days of System 7.5, when extensions were extensions and men were men.

Into this wilderness of terrible product confusion walked my parents, with two kids, one in elementary school and one about to be, knowing that the old Apple //e playing Oregon Trail wasn’t going to cut it anymore once their son, me, starting having to type stuff. They’d heard kids were going to have to type stuff on computers a lot going forward. They also knew some friends of ours with an SE/30 that I spent the better part of a summer mangling Kid Pix on.

So they went to Opus 2, one of the local Apple dealers here in Memphis, and they ended up walking out with a Performa 578, which still runs to this day.


The Performa line was stuck between the LC line of cheap home computers and the Centris and Quadra lines of professional systems. In terms of hardware, they were similar to the pro systems, but they often featured the 68LC040 processor instead of the full-on 68040, which meant they had no floating point unit on the processor. They were tweaked and crippled in other weird ways too, just to make sure they weren’t really competitive with the pro-level systems.

They came with an absolute crapload of software. Our Performa 578 came with Quicken, ClarisWorks 2.1, At Ease, several shareware games, the Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia CD-ROM, a Time Almanac CD-ROM,[1. This Time CD-ROM included all kinds of mind-boggling multimedia probably not fit for a seven-year-old: footage of the explosion of the Hindenburg, a slideshow featuring the highlights of the Vietnam and Gulf Wars, several decades worth of printable Time articles (which I was too young to understand but most of which I printed and read anyway)—the thing was a treasure trove for a boy curious about the world beyond suburban Memphis.] some sort of Microsoft CD-ROM about Dinosaurs, Mario Teaches Typing (which I never beat), and a free trial membership to Apple’s eWorld online service (which we were able to use with our 28.8kbps ADB-based modem).

It also came with the aforementioned modem, a Color StyleWriter Pro printer (which takes those weird old Canon Bubblejet cartridges), a whole stack of manuals and warranty cards and six-color Apple logo stickers, an ADB Mouse II (the rounded teardrop-shaped one, not the trapezoidal one), and the much-maligned AppleDesign keyboard.

For people who had never had a real desktop computer before, it was a lot of computer, especially in late 1994. The whole family took turns using it, Mom with her clip art, me with (mainly) Spectre Challenger and the Time Magazine CD-ROM, Dad with, well, whatever Dad did with the computer before the Internet—I guess maybe spreadsheets of the budget or something.

My “Book”

Around the fourth or fifth grade, I decided that I knew enough about ClarisWorks that I could handle it myself, and I decided to write a “book.” I distinctly remember the plot and perhaps also the characters being stolen lock, stock, and barrel from a Doonesbury book I’d checked out from the library[2. I know, right? A fifth grader pretentious/smart enough to be reading and half-understanding Doonesbury is a pretty insufferable fifth-grader, huh?]—but none of that mattered. I was a writer, and I was hard at work on my masterpiece. Somewhere, at my parents house, in an old box full of 3.5" Mac-formatted floppy disks, that thing still lives on. I wrote about forty pages of words before I realized that I couldn’t write anything else. I’d written as much as I could.

It was my first real experience with being lost in the act of creation, even though it wasn’t very creative and it certainly wasn’t very good. I shut myself off in that back room with that Performa, gazing into it’s 9-inch all-seeing eye, refusing to go outside and play or go play in my room or even go read books in bed (something I still hardly ever shy away from) because I was in the zone. I was out there. I was writing a “book.”[3. If I remember correctly, we were out of black ink in the Color StyleWriter Pro, so I couldn’t actually print the thing out when I was done with it, which was a minor tragedy.]


I used that Performa as my main computer until I was in the eighth grade, when my parents broke down and got a Gateway 2000[4. Yes, they were still called Gateway 2000 at that time, and we bought it at a Gateway Country retail store.] because “everything is going to Windows.” This turned out to not be true, since right as I was finishing up high school was when the big Mac turnaround started, when you started seeing iBooks and PowerBooks popping up in classrooms and on campuses again. But the Performa just wasn’t cutting it anymore…

…except for my Mom. She never learned how to use the PC, and she kept typing letters and other documents on that Performa 578 and printing them out on the Color StyleWriter Pro (for which you could still get the cartridges since they were the Canon Bubblejet cartridges) until 2002 or 2003, when we got our next Family Mac: an iMac G4 17", the widescreen lampshade with the 1GHz G4 processor. It ran Jaguar, but the discs that came with it were OS X 10.1. It was weird compared to our System 7 Mac, and more complicated, but it was beautiful to look at, and I quickly started diving into the Unix internals of the thing.

And I haven’t been the same since.

But. If I hadn’t had that Performa 578 to introduce me to the basics of the Mac, and to teach me that computers have things to teach us, and that they can be a tool for finding the better aspects of ourselves within the words we’re pouring out onto an invisible page, who knows where I’d be. Probably using some crappy Gateway for spreadsheets, or worse.