Miscellaneous Ramblings

The Mac Plus, My First Mac, Turns 20

Charles Moore - 2006.01.16 - Tip Jar

January 16 is the 20th anniversary of the Mac Plus, which some consider the first real workhorse Mac - the first with SCSI connectivity, the first with RAM expandability, the first that supported double-sided floppies, the first that shipped with a numeric keypad on the keyboard, the first to support LocalTalk networking. And for me personally, it was my first Mac.

My first "computer" wasn't a Mac, but rather a big old Wangwriter II dedicated word processor that a cousin of mine obtained surplus from the telco he worked for which was switching to 386 PCs in its office operation.

The Wang was actually a very decent tool, with the most user-friendly command line/menu-driven interface I've ever used and an excellent keyboard. It had a decent daisywheel printer built in. I still have it, and it still works, running off 5-1/4" floppy system disks.

My First Mac

However, in 1992, in one of those life-transforming watershed coincidences, I got a magazine writing and editing gig with a publisher that had an all-Mac shop, so a reasonable requirement was for me to get a Mac in order to be able to file stories on 3-1/2" floppies and also handle graphics, which the Wang couldn't do.

As it happened, a university professor friend was going through a divorce at the time and had a 1988 "platinum" Mac Plus rig for sale, including a whopping 20 MB Seagate MacCrate external hard drive and an ImageWriter II dot-matrix printer, which I agreed to buy for a bit less than the price of a new iBook today.

The whole works came in the original shipping boxes with real printed manuals for everything (many manuals) and a bunch of floppy disks for the software, which included HyperCard and Microsoft Word 4.

Upgrades

The old Mac Plus had a whole megabyte of RAM and an 8 MHz 68000 Motorola processor. It was running Mac system 6.0.1, which I soon upgraded to System 6.0.3 in order to support Microsoft Word 5.1 (when I bought the Word upgrade).

I soon got tired of having to quit one program in order to start up another, so I had the RAM upgraded to a luxurious 2.5 MB, which involved removing two of the four 256 KB SIMMs and replacing them with two 1 MB modules. That cost me nearly $100 as I recall, so I didn't max out the RAM to the Plus's limit of 4 MB, but 2.5 MB allowed me to keep my two main production applications, Word and HyperCard, open simultaneously using System 6's MultiFinder, which was what I had been after.

Stability

With its little 9" 1-bit monochrome screen, you had to scroll to read a single page of text, but the display was satisfyingly sharp. I found the Plus to be a very stable setup, and it virtually never crashed running System 6.

It was also not nearly as slow as you might imagine. Using the software of the day, performance was pretty decent. Word 5.1 was a bit sluggish, but Word 4 ran very nicely, and I fell in love with HyperCard, especially it's bitmap graphics module.

Zen-like Simplicity

I was amazed at how small the Plus' 9" screen was, but it was also exceptionally sharp and bright, and the Mac GUI was a revelation after the hybrid command line and menu driven Wang software. There was something almost magical about it, an aura enhanced by the lovely (some have suggested "Zen-like") simplicity of the System 6 interface.

Another analogy would be the the "purity" of old, black & white movies or first-rate black & white photography. I still think System 6 is probably my favorite version of the Mac OS appearance-wise, and I'm serious when I say I wish there were a System 6 "skin" for OS X. I'll bet it would be really fast.

The mouse was a new experience as well, and for the first bit I missed controlling everything from the keyboard, but I soon got used to mousing. The Apple keyboard, however, was pathetic compared to the lovely one on the Wang - which is still nice by today's standards.

A 20 MB hard drive seems quaintly small by today's standards. A lot of applications nowadays occupy more hard drive real estate than that, but I never did completely fill the MacCrate during the year that the Plus served as my main axe. And, of course, it was easy to back everything up on floppy disks.

Old Faithful

The Mac Plus was a faithful workhorse that taught me the basics of Mac computing. When I upgraded to a faster machine, I kept it around as a backup computer and still used it a fair bit. It had the happy facility of being able to boot from a floppy disk, which allowed you to work in blessed silence with the hard drive shut down, since the Plus, like the second generation CRT G3 iMacs and the G4 Cube, was cooled by convection and had no cooling fan.

One of the things I used to love about the Plus was that System 6 and a text editor fit on an 800K floppy disk, so I could boot the machine from that and work in silence, disturbed only by the clicking of the keys and occasional grunts from the floppy drive. The fanless engineering was not an unmixed blessing, however, and its inefficiencies probably contributed to the high failure rate of Mac Plus video power supplies.

The Mac Plus was conceived and designed before the Internet - at least the public Internet - was a reality. However, we eventually got the old machine online using System 7.0, which was painfully slow but facilitated using Eudora Light 1.5 for email. There were also some primitive browsers (e.g., MacWeb) that supported the 68000 Macs, a but I never had much luck with them - and the 1-bit black & white monitor was ill-suited to Web work in any case.

After a year working on the Mac Plus, I was ready for more performance and thought a bigger, color monitor would be nice as well, so I bought a new LC 520 with a really nice 14" Trinitron display - a machine that served me well for nearly three years, until it took a back seat to my first PowerBook.

Mac a Revelation

The little Mac with its Graphical User Interface was a revelation, although I didn't much like the mouse at first, and the Apple keyboard was pathetic compared to the lovely one on the Wang. However, the graphical user interface displayed on the Plus's sharp little 9" black & white CRT was wonderful, and I was able to submit stories on floppy disk in MS Word format (first 4.0, later 5.0).

I still had to mail my story disks (no Internet yet), but it sure saved a lot of printing and retyping at the other end. However, a lot of the publishers I sold to in the mid-80s weren't equipped to handle digital submissions, so I gave the old dot-matrix ImageWriter II a good workout for a few years as well, even long after I upgraded to a brand new LC 520 in January '94.

I still have both the Mac Plus and the LC 520, and they still work fine, although they don't get booted up very often. The last time I had the Plus out of its box was in the summer of 2003.

It has both System 7.0 and System 6.0.8 installed (with 6 on a second partition - yes, I even partitioned a 20 MB drive!), the latter being much better suited to the Plus's modest power.

Incidentally, even with two partitions, two operating systems, a couple of word processors (including Microsoft Word 5.1), email software, a graphics program or two, and sundry archived document files, there it still about 5 MB free on the 20 MB drive. That shows how bloated today's software is by comparison.

I still think that the razor-sharp monochrome displays that Apple used in these early compact Macs are cool, albeit not up to the job of Web surfing and the like today. It does bring back pleasant memories of my early adventures in the Mac world.

The conundrum is what to do with the old Plus. We're trying to cut down on clutter in the house, and as cool and nostalgic as it is, I can't imagine ever actually using the old Mac for work again. I'm only a computer "collector" by default, not avocation.

I'm thinking that perhaps I should sell the Plus, if I can find it a good home. So, if anyone out there is interested, make me an offer (highest or any not necessarily accepted).

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Charles Moore has been a freelance journalist since 1987 and began writing for Mac websites in May 1998. His The Road Warrior column was a regular feature on MacOpinion, he is news editor at Applelinks.com and a columnist at MacPrices.net. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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