The Mac Classic: Apple Does Cheap

Did you know that Apple once released a Macintosh with the Mac System in its ROMs? Did you know that Apple released an 8 MHz model in October 1990, so it was available at the same time as the “wicked fast” 40 MHz 68030-based Mac IIfx? Do you know how much Apple left out to sell this model for $999 in the US?

Mac ClassicIf you’re not a longtime Mac user, you may not be aware of the Mac Classic. This was the final Mac with an 8 MHz 68000 CPU, the same speed and processor found in the first Macintosh when it had been released six years and 9 months earlier.

The Mac Classic was the successor to the 1986 Mac Plus, the first 1 MB Mac and the first Mac with expandable memory, and the 1987 Mac SE, the first compact Mac with two drive bays for two floppies or a floppy plus a hard drive. All three of these models shipped with 1 MB of RAM (expandable to 4 MB) and SCSI for adding hard drives. All three had the same 9″ black-and-white display. All three were quite portable if you had the right kind of bag.

The Classic was the only one that originally shipped with a 1.4 MB floppy drive. (The SE got it in August 1989 after two years and 5 months on the market.)

Seriously Compromised

Before we get to the Classic’s one really cool and unique feature, let’s look at its significant drawbacks.

8 MHz

System 6 Upgrade boxSeriously underpowered, but we were still living in the System 6 era, so you could get by with an 8 MHz Mac if you were patient. But System 7 was in beta, about a half-year from release, and it absolutely crawls on an 8 MHz Mac. But Apple saved money by recycling 1984 CPU technology.

If only it had included a 16 MHz 68000, it would have been so much faster. (The 1989 Mac Portable ran a 16 MHz 68000 and handled System 7 very nicely, as did my Mac Plus with a 16 MHz 68000 upgrade.)

1 MB RAM

Again, you could work comfortably with just 1 MB of RAM in those days. System 6 left enough available memory to run Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and most of the basic productivity software of the day. But unlike the Mac Plus and SE, you couldn’t buy four 30-pin SIMMs and boost memory from 1 MB to 4 MB inexpensively. No, you first needed to buy a special memory expansion card that included 1 MB of RAM and had two slots for 30-pin SIMMs. This part was only used for the Classic and is quite rare on the market these days. But Apple saved money by not putting four SIMM slots on the logic board.

Mac System 7 boxAlso, you can’t run System 7 with a 1 MB of system memory; you need at least 2 MB, so the add-on memory card was a necessary acquisition for those who had a 1 MB Classic and wanted System 7. Then again, System 7 was slow on the Classic.

Premature System 6.0.6

I worked at ComputerLand of Grand Rapids when the October 1990 Macs first shipped, and we had to open each and every box from the initial shipment, remove the System 6.0.6 disks and replace them with System 6.0.7. At least the customers didn’t end up getting the buggy forgotten 6.0.6 release. And System 6.0.7 was very stable.

It Remained on the Market Until September 1992

Did you think the Classic was outdated when it was released? Would you believe that Apple still sold it two years later? The 40 MHz 68030-based Mac IIfx was the fastest Mac when the Classic came to market, and the 33 MHz 68040-based Quadra 950 was the fastest Mac when the 8 MHz Classic was finally discontinued.

The Good Features

It Was Cheap

For the first time, Apple sold a brand new Macintosh for US$999. It was slow. It was compromised. But it was the most affordable Mac to date. And at education pricing, it was popular in schools.

Built-in System 6

A Mac with a single floppy drive and no hard drive can be an exercise in frustration. In the olden days, we called it the floppy shuffle. Boot from a floppy, eject it, put in your application floppy, launch the program, eject the disk, put in another floppy you can save your work files to. Without a hard drive, the Mac OS really required two floppy drives.

Or did it? In the case of the Classic, it didn’t. Apple put System 6.0.3 and Finder 6.1 in ROM, so if you booted the Classic while holding down the keys Cmd-Opt-X-O (the letter O, not the number zero) simultaneously, you didn’t have to eject a system disk to run your software from floppy. Apple made it much easier to function without a hard drive.

This was especially helpful in schools. Kids couldn’t lose a boot disk if they didn’t have one. Kids didn’t have to do the floppy shuffle. Kids couldn’t accidentally erase the system disk or non-existent hard drive. And System 6 had everything necessary to use LocalTalk networking, another plus in the classroom.

Conclusion

The Classic was very compromised, especially by the lack of memory expansion slots, but it let Apple enter the sub-$1000 market for the first time.

Macintosh LCIt was a great way to get customers in the door of computer stores, but especially after System 7 became available, it was easy to up-sell them to the Classic with 2 MB RAM, two SIMM slots, and a 40 MB hard drive. And while they’re thinking about that, they can’t miss the Macintosh LC sitting next to the Classic – and the LC had a color monitor! (The Classic and LC were introduced at the same time.)

If you’re buying a home computer for children, tell me you’re not going to give them color. I dare you.

Besides, the Mac LC was as big a price breakthrough for a color Mac as the Classic had been for the black-and-white line.

The Best Feature

The best thing about the Mac Classic is that it could be upgraded with a Classic II logic board, which provided a 16 MHz 68030 CPU plus 2 MB of standard memory (upgradeable to 10 MB!), enough to run System 7 decently. Released one year after the original Classic, the Classic II is what it should have been – only it came out a year after the Classic, in October 1991.

I don’t know how popular the logic board upgrade was, but it really moved everything to the next level – except that you could no longer boot from ROM.

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