Still Useful after All These Years: The Mac II

1998: From the original Macintosh of 1984 through March 1987, there was one Mac case: a compact beige box with a 9″ screen. (For more details, see last week’s Still Useful After All These Years: The Mac Plus.)

Apple changed everything in April 1987. The new compact model, the Mac SE, took an internal hard drive and had an expansion slot, big improvements over the Mac Plus. It also had a better, faster SCSI implementation.

Macintosh IIBut the radical change was the six-slot Mac II. The first modular Mac came without a keyboard, without a video card, even without a hard drive if you wanted it that way. You got a computer, a mouse, and a stack of floppy disks.

Apple offered several video cards, including 1-bit, 4-bit, and 8-bit cards for the new 640 x 480 color monitor. Later options would include a Portrait Display with matching 640 x 870 video card and Two-Page Display with its own 1152 x 870 video card, introduced in 1989.

Other Mac II innovations:

  • color support
  • 16 MHz 32-bit 68020 CPU
  • ADB for mouse and keyboard (introduced in 1986 with the Apple IIGS)
  • power on from the keyboard
  • 1-2 MB RAM standard, expandable to 128 MB, using the right kind of SIMMs
  • NuBus expansion slots, six of them!
  • huge 230W power supply

It’s incredible how well the Mac II supported most Mac Plus software, especially considering the new bus, new CPU, and support for color. Even today, over 11 years later, there are Mac IIs in use. (I know; I have one at home.)

Preparing Your Mac II for Use

A base Mac II is pretty cheap, often under $50 with a video card and 40 MB hard drive. But with faster, more readily expanded models available for under $100, you don’t want to invest too much into upgrading a Mac II. (Almost everything in this article applies equally to the 68030-based Mac IIx.)

I strongly recommend upgrading your Mac II to 8 MB if at all possible (see our Memory Upgrade Guide). The extra memory will let you comfortably use System 6 with MultiFinder or System 7. You can go as high as System 7.5.5, which is the version I’m most comfortable with; but with less than 4 MB, System 7 or later is not very practical. (Save money – buy used SIMMs from someone who has upgraded a newer Mac. Shouldn’t cost more than $30 to buy 8 pulled 1 MB SIMMs in the U.S., and possibly a good deal less.)

Because the Mac II needs special hardware to support 4 MB and 16 MB SIMMs, and because those 4 MB and 16 MB SIMMs are specific to the Mac II and Mac IIx and therefore more expensive than regular 30-pin SIMMs, I don’t recommend going past 8 MB of RAM. If you need more RAM, buy a Mac that uses the less expensive SIMMs. (It is possible that you found a Mac II with the FDHD upgrade, in which case you don’t need extra hardware, just the special SIMMs.)

And because of the power you can buy for under $100, I can’t recommend an accelerator unless it’s under $50. Even then, think twice.

I recommend a newer drive of at least 40 MB capacity simply because those old drives are so slow compared with the drives offered even a few years later.

Likewise, I don’t recommend spending much money to repair a Mac II, if any. Any repairs should be do-it-yourself – you can’t afford to pay technician’s wages on such an old computer. In fact, you may find it less expensive to buy a whole used Mac II or IIx than to buy a replacement logic board or power supply.

Uses for Your Mac II

  1. Just use it. It may not be fast, but it works. You can run lots of software on it, although with 8 MB of RAM most browsers won’t cut it. And you have lots of screen options – mine came with a 17″ black and white (no grays) card and display. Very nice! (While Windows 98 users think the ability to use two monitors is great news, the 1987 Mac II can do this simply by installing a second video card.)
  2. You can connect a Mac II to the internet to read email and even surf the web – but don’t expect fast graphics (if any).
  3. If you have several Macs in the house or workplace, a Mac II makes a nice file server, either with poky old LocalTalk or 10 Mbps ethernet. For light use, you can get by with File Sharing in System 7. For heavier use, you might want to consider AppleShare 3. Either way, be sure to read Settings Up a Home File Server. You can run as large a SCSI hard drive as you can afford, although throughput will be limited to about 1.5 MBps. (The Mac II can accommodate 5.25″ hard drives!)
  4. If you need ethernet, pick up a NuBus ethernet card. They generally go for about $30-40 on the used market. No drivers? You can probably download the latest drivers from the internet.
  5. The Mac II plays games. I have a copy of Solitaire Royale 1.0 that was the first game I ever saw in color on a Mac – back when the Mac II was introduced. Incredibly, I can play that on my SuperMac S900. There are lots of other games as well.
  6. A Mac II makes a great web, ftp, mail, or mailing list server, especially if you have a dedicated connection with a fixed IP address. My Mac II ran for about a year as a web server (originally using MacHTTP, and later Net Presenz), mail server (EIMS 1.3 at first, followed by SIMS), and list server (Macjordomo). I now run web and mail from a Mac IIfx and lists from a Mac IIsi, but only because I wanted to set up the Mac II home as a family file server.
  7. Add Eudora Lite, network it, and use it as a general purpose email terminal in the workplace. If you don’t have an ethernet card, you can tunnel TCP/IP over LocalTalk, which is plenty fast for sending and receiving text.
  8. Add a modem and terminal software to use your Mac II as a terminal.

Suggestions from the Field

  1. Turn it into a Remote Access server so you can access the office computer network from home at night. (Thanks, Cary Pincus)
  2. Set it up to run batch image conversions overnight. (Thanks, Lawson English)

Other suggestions?

Mac II Resources

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