Thoughts on the Apple IIGS

Here I am writing on an old machine, again. This time is a little bit different, though. I am not writing on an old Mac; this time I am writing on an Apple IIGS.

When I was young, I didn’t like Apple IIs very much. They seemed clunky, slow, and unpolished compared to the contemporary Macs of my youth.

Apple IIGS

Apple IIGS

The Apple IIGS was something of an oddity to me – better than the older Apple IIs but not as good as any Mac. My feelings towards the IIGS started changing a few months ago.

A friend of mine was looking to replace her Power Mac 8500 because the SCSI controller on her machine had failed. I happened to have a nice old Power Mac 8600, and she offered me a trade.

The trade was an Apple IIGS with the matching RGB Monitor.

I’ve had a number of IIGS units over the years, but I never had the matching RGB Monitor. Looking back, I’m sure that is in no small part why I never had a good experience with the IIGS. I remember trying to use GS/OS on a IIGS connected to a TV via a composite cable when I was a kid, that was a disaster.

Anyway, now I’m the proud owner of a IIGS setup complete with a 4 MB RAM expansion board, one 3.5″ drive, one 5.25″ drive, plus matching keyboard, mouse, and joystick. And thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, I have plenty of free time to get better acquainted with it.

The first thing I decided to do was try and get it NetBooting over my LocalTalk network. A Macintosh with serial ports running an older version of AppleShare Server can be used as a NetBoot Server for the Apple IIGS (and the Apple IIe with a Workstation Card installed). Fortunately I have an old Macintosh SE with a 25 MHz 68030 Accelerator, which makes it the perfect small LocalTalk AppleShare Server.

Getting the IIGS to boot over a LocalTalk network is easy; its the server setup that is a process. First I had to setup the server, which meant installing AppleShare Server 3 on my Mac SE running System 7.0.1. Then I had to make a GS/OS boot disk with AppleShare software installed (the floppy shuffle with only one 3.5″ floppy drive was an absolute pain, after that process I went and dug another 3.5″ drive out of my storage). Then I had to install GS/OS onto the Server’s hard drive over the network using the IIGS. If there is interest, I will write up a full how-to guide.

It is an interesting experience NetBooting a IIGS. It is very slow, but it’s almost like having a hard drive connected and a much better experience than just running off of floppy disks.

I expected the IIGS to be slow when during the setup process, while installing GS/OS over the network, and then NetBooting it.

I thought that maybe booting from a RAM Disk would make it make it more responsive, but even booting from RAM felt slow. Yes, it was faster; but the difference in speed running from RAM isn’t anywhere near as pronounced as it is when you do the same thing with a Mac.

The speed of the IIGS was probably its biggest flaw.

I understand that Apple used the 65C816 processor in it for its backward compatibility with the old Apple II line, but releasing a 2.8 MHz computer in 1986 was somewhat foolish. The 65C816 started its life as a 4 MHz CPU and was eventually available at speeds up to 14 MHz. The only conclusion I can draw is the same one many others have: Apple didn’t want the IIGS to compete with Macs.

Anyway, as a result of its sluggish performance I can’t see why I should buy a hard drive for my IIGS. The speed gain over NetBooting would be too small, and it would still be slower than a RAM Disk. If I ever find an accelerator board like a TransWarp GS or a ZipGS I might change my mind.

Once you get past its pedestrian performance, the IIGS is an interesting machine. I am particularly impressed with its sound capabilities. The Ensoniq sound chip the IIGS uses is a Wave Table Synthesizer with 32 voices, and it was the most advanced sound chip ever included with a personal computer at the time of its launch. Arkanoid sounds just like its arcade counterpart, and the MODULAE Demo by FTA is also quite impressive.

I’m less impressed with the video on the IIGS. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a huge step up from the older Apple IIs, but except for color there really is no comparison between the IIGS and the Mac.

I’m a sucker for sharpness, and everything on the IIGS just looks blocky, blurry, and stretched out. It isn’t as big of an issue with games, as most ran at the lower 320 x 200 resolution, but the 640 x 200 “Super High Res” mode that GS/OS uses just doesn’t look right to me.

All of the colors used in Super High Res Mode are dithered and never look particularly vibrant, and fonts like Helvetica, Geneva, and Times look vertically stretched and blurry compared to any Mac. The only font I find usable in GS/OS is Shaston, which wasn’t on the Mac.

The IIGS is a decent gaming machine. There are a huge number of games that will run on it thanks to its backward compatibility with the older Apple IIs, and more than 200 were made to take advantage of the IIGS’ 16-bit architecture. Unfortunately it is still fairly limited compared to the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga, the machines it was designed to compete with. This really comes back down to the fact that the IIGS doesn’t have any advanced video circuitry (such as hardware scrolling, hardware sprites, etc.). The Atari ST didn’t have any of that either, but it had an 8 MHz 68000 processor to help push pixels.

In many ways I’ve learned to really appreciate the IIGS, more so than I ever did in the past. Unfortunately in my opinion it’s very limited processor performance and limited video performance in productivity applications in GS/OS overshadow any of the advantages it has over the Mac.