The Joy of Six: Apple’s Fast, Svelte, Reliable, and Still Useful System 6


Ding! Welcome to Macintosh. Whirr whirr whirr. A scant few seconds later, you’re clicking on Microsoft Word 5.1a and beginning to type.

Macintosh IIThis is the experience of a 68020 or 68030 Macintosh. On the “Wicked Fast” IIfx or the “Dream System” (a Mac IIci + DayStar Turbo 040), those scant seconds will almost disappear.

Ethernet networking, 10+ MB/sec. hard disk I/O, and 24-bit color on large monitors will have you asking, “What year is this from again?”

Silent Computing

Chunka, chunka . . . beeeeeeep! The blinking question mark beckons to you.

After popping in the floppy disk, the Mac Plus seems to chant to itself contentedly.

Beeeeeee-cuRAAASHHHH. 14.4k baud is slow and outdated? Try telling me that while my emails flicker faster and faster onto the black and white screen that’s easy on the eyes.

Once the disk access is done, there’s no fan or hard drive to make sound and disturb me. I know the tranquility and productivity of using a floppy-only Mac.

The System 6 Experience

System 6 floppyWhat do these two experiences have in common? They’re both made possible by System 6, which first appeared in 1988. Although it has significant limitations today, when System 6 can be used it is often the best System software for the job.

The following Macs support System 6: Mac 512Ke, Plus, SE, SE FDHD, Classic, Classic II, Performa 200, Portable, PowerBook 100, Mac II, IIx, IIcx, IIci, IIsi, IIfx, LC, and LC II.

System 6 is arguably the high water mark of 1980s computing. Small enough to fit on an 800K floppy disk with room for an application or two, it also supports hard disk partitions up to 2 GB in size.

System 6 is often the best choice for the smallest Macs (the Plus, SE, and Classic) due to its very small RAM requirement and 15% speed advantage over System 7. This speed advantage also means that you’re really burning rubber when you install System 6 on a fairly fast 68020 or 68030 Mac.

System 6 supports most of the things that you want a computer to do day to day: It can connect to the Internet, print to shared printers, edit color photos, do page layout, and word process until dawn.

Many games are available for System 6, and some oldies-but-goodies won’t work at all under newer System Software.

It also offers the strongest “retro charm” of all the modern Classic Mac OS versions.

System 6 Does It All (Almost)

System 6 Upgrade boxChoosing this older System doesn’t mean you’ll have to give up all your hardware. Most System 6 Macs have support for ethernet in one form or another. System 6 has good CD-ROM support available. Large monitors are supported by NuBus video cards – up to 1600 x 1200 in full 24-bit color with some cards.

Lab and technical users will appreciate the GPIB cards for several Mac models. Under System 6.0.7 and later, multimedia devices such as sound input and output and video digitization became available.

Yes, Virginia, you can edit video under System 6. Even the once-ubiquitous Zip drive works.

System 6 has software features newer operating systems lack.

MacroMaker, available on the Tidbits disks, is a system-level macro recording and playback engine. While it’s not a full programming environment like AppleScript, MacroMaker can control the user interface elements directly. This means that any application can be automated, unlike AppleScript, which requires application-level support.

Editing the Finder preferences file with ResEdit allows the activation of several undocumented features. One of the most useful of these is that double-clicking the title bar of a Finder window can open the window’s parent folder. ResEdit Reference, published by Addison-Wesley, describes this and several other undocumented features.

System 6 Strengths

System 6 is an excellent platform for high-performance word processing. Microsoft Word 5.1a, Corel WordPerfect, WriteNow, and Mariner Write are all powerful word processors that were available with System 6 compatibility.

As John Allan describes in Turbo Six Hotrods, the extreme bootup speed of a fast Mac with System 6 makes it excellent for creative writing. The computer can be up and running before your fleeting ideas escape. Also, since System 6 isn’t filled with flashy distractions, it may be easier for you to keep your mind on your work.

Accessing the Internet is easy with System 6. After installing MacTCP (and FreePPP if you’ll be dialing up), just visit your Control Panel to configure networking settings. There are good FTP, IRC, Usenet, POP, and telnet clients available for System 6.

For web browsing, though, you’ll find your options are rather limited. MacWWW (download) is the only System 6 compatible browser currently available. The pickle has compiled a great list of pointers for those wanting to get their System 6 machines on the Web.

System 6 Shortcomings

Despite its many advantages, System 6 does have a few disadvantages that show its age. It has no support for 32-bit addressing or for more than 8 MB of RAM (10 MB on an LC or LC II). Access to TCP/IP based File Sharing is impossible, and some software that you may want or need is unavailable.

System 7 really was a sea change, for better and for worse, and some newer programs won’t work with System 6.

Fortunately, System 6 has had a strong user community online. Gamba’s Home Page has a good collection of tips and System 6 related software. System 6 Heaven is an excellent resource for all things 6.

Several versions of System 6 are available free from Apple’s website. Three are most noteworthy:

  1. System 6.0.7 (Oct. 1990) introduced the Sound Manager as seen in System 7.
  2. System 6.0.8 (June 1991) builds upon 6.0.7 by adding support for System 7 style printer drivers.
  3. Finally, System 6.0.8 (L) adds support for the Classic II, Performa 200, Mac LC, and LC II.

Update: Most versions of System 6 have been removed from Apple’s download site. Since 2001, only System 6.0.3, 6.0.5, and 6.0.8 remain available for download.

Check out these websites to delve deeper into the world of System 6 and learn if it’s right for you!

Next: System 7

Further Reading

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