Mac Musings

The Mac Plus after 20 Years

Daniel Knight - 2006.01.16

On January 16, 2006 the Macintosh Plus turned 20. It remained in Apple's product line for 4 years and 10 months. No Mac has had a longer product life.

For a lot of Mac old timers, this was the Mac we cut our teeth on. It came with 1 MB of RAM and could handle 4 MB. Back then, that was a lot of memory. It had double-sided 800K floppies, which was considered high capacity in that era.

Unlike any Mac before it, the Plus had a SCSI port that made it easy to add an external hard drive, a scanner, or a tape drive. You could chain up to 7 SCSI devices, giving the Mac Plus almost unlimited flexibility.

By today's standards, the Mac Plus might seem like a quaint footnote in computing history, but it marked some real changes for Apple. For the first time you could buy a Mac designed for memory expansion and external peripherals, breaking the closed box "information appliance" paradigm of the original Macintosh and the Fat Mac.

The Mac Plus is also the oldest Mac than can run System 7.x, albeit somewhat slowly. For optimum performance, System 6.0.x is generally recommended, but if you have something that requires System 7.0-7.5.5, the Plus can run it.

My First Mac

My first Mac, circa 1990, was a platinum Mac Plus with no extras. I borrowed a second floppy, upgraded RAM to 2.5 MB when I could afford it, later added a 40 MB hard drive, boosted RAM to 4 MB, and the last upgrade was a Brainstorm 16 MHz 68000 accelerator. It made the Plus a bit over twice as fast as the stock configuration, and with the 16 MHz CPU, System 7.x ran quite nicely.

The Plus marked my transition from DOS (not Windows) to the Mac, and the first printer I used with it was an HP DeskJet with third-party drivers. If I did my writing using HP's built-in fonts, printing was lickity split. If I used Apple's fonts, it was slower.

That brings me to the best way in the world to bog down a Mac Plus, SE, or Classic: Use Adobe Type Manager for Postscript fonts and Apple's TrueType rendering and just watch these 8 MHz Macs slow to the speed of a snail. Yes, they can render fonts at any size, but if you use any size that isn't bitmapped, it's going to be slow. Ditto for printing.

The Mac Plus has the slowest SCSI ever found in a Mac - at 2.1 kbps even the lowly SE is about 2.5x as fast - but adding a modest hard drive with a built-in buffer will really speed things up over floppies or ancient bufferless hard drives. (Still, if you plan on using the hard drive much, the SE and Classic will be far more satisfactory.)

A Real Workhorse

The Mac Plus is a great word processing machine. You can use MacWrite and Microsoft Word 4 with System 6, ClarisWorks and Word 5.1 with System 7. For quiet operation, you can boot System 6 from a floppy, and if you can put your hands on an external 800K floppy, you can switch programs and save files to your heart's content.

Older versions of Excel and early versions of ClarisWorks run on the Plus, so it's an okay spreadsheet machine. The two big limitations - a very small screen and no math coprocessor. It's no speed demon, but it works.

You can use older versions of FileMaker Pro on the Plus, and HyperCard made it's debut with the Plus. For paint, there are lots of programs available for the Plus, including early versions of MacPaint, Canvas, Photoshop, and others.

Speedy it ain't, but it's a nice machine to pull out now and again just for fun - literally. I still like running Bard's Tale, Wizardry, and a few other games on this ancient Mac.

Regardless of how useful it might seem by today's standards, the Mac Plus was a big step forward for Apple. Happy birthday, Mac Plus.

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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