Mac Musings

The New Compact Macs

1999.08.26 - Daniel Knight -

There's something inviting about compact Macs.

An SE Brought Back to Life

A coworker, who has a SuperMac C500 at home and a Blue G3/300 at work, recently obtained a used Macintosh SE - and invested countless hours upgrading it. Bumping RAM to 4 MB was easy, but getting a working, bootable drive took a lot of our time. (Yes, our time. I couldn't resist helping out.)

That's a lot of time to invest in a 12-year-old computer that only runs at 8 MHz and handles no more than 4 MB of memory.

The time invested far outweighs the money invested, but you do it because you can, because it's fun, and because there really is something special about compact Macs.

Classic with Color

Last year my second son scrounged up a Color Classic. They're really not easy to come by - most owners don't want to part with them. If they are willing, they want to make sure they go to a good home.

It did. Brian bumped RAM to the maximum, we installed Mac OS 7.5.5, and then popped in the 25 MHz '040 accelerator from his LC II (read my review for more details on that).

Brian loves his little old Color Classic, even though we haven't quite yet managed to put it on our ethernet network.

Users Love 'Em

We're not that unusual. We have a Mac Plus, SE, SE/30, and Color Classic.

The typical compact Mac owner has more than one. An ongoing survey of the Compact Macs email list shows that over half those polled have an SE, and over half have a Plus. One-third have an SE/30.

On average, subscribers to the Compact Macs lists* have 2.1 compact Macs - in addition to any other Macs they may own.

And we still use 'em. You can browse the web (sans graphics), handle email, do word processing, crunch numbers, and even design books. In fact, I designed my first book with PageMaker 1.0 on a Mac Plus over 13 years ago.

Compact Macs Are History

The last compact Mac, the Color Classic II, was discontinued in 1994 - the era of more Mac models than anyone could keep track of. (Gotta hand it to Steve Jobs, he really simplified the product line.)

All-in-one Macs had moved to 14" screens. Everyone loved the bigger display, the 640 x 480 resolution, and the 68040 speed, but the 500-series Macs lacked the character of the compact Macs.

Just over a year ago, Apple started selling the iMac. A lot of people, myself included, drew comparisons with the original Mac (see iMac vs. the Macintosh). In all ways but one, the iMac won the comparison: more speed, more memory, faster networking, bigger monitor, etc.

But it was also a lot bigger.

Still, the iMac was unique. The few other All-in-One designs, including Apple's Power Mac G3 All-in-One (right), were bulky, utilitarian, and beige. They had users, not fans.

The iMac made friends.

Still, there are a few of us (about 7% according to a current poll) who would love to see Apple introduce a New Compact Mac.

The New Classic

Last week I shared some thoughts on an iMac-ized compact Mac, the iClassic. I thought the best idea was to take the SE/30 design, replace the floppy with a CD-ROM drive, drop in a G3 processor, and make it look like an iMac.

Reflecting on that design and the many letters I've received, I'm proposing a slightly different computer in the compact Mac tradition.

The iMac is unique. Knocking off the iMac look for a very different computer such as a new Classic or modular consumer model is as unconscionable as what Future Computing and eMachines have done in copying the iMac's look with Wintel inside.

No, the New Compact Mac needs its own identity, for it will have its own market.

In fact, I will end up designing two computers that share almost all their components: a New Modular Mac that needs a separate monitor and a New Compact Mac with an internal screen.

The Brains

As with every current Mac, these models will have a 300+ MHz G3 processor with a 512 KB level 2 cache. It should be in a ZIF socket, just like Power Mac G3 uses. The motherboard should share as many components with other models as possible, running at 100 MHz unless that's economically prohibitive.

Apple has two options for video: integrated on the motherboard or on a PCI card. All things considered, putting video on a PCI card makes it easier for the user to upgrade - and makes it easier for Apple to offer improved video as faster video cards emerge.

The new Compact Macs should also have one free PCI slot, which could be used for a legacy card (SCSI, serial, ADB), a DOS card, a 56k/DSL modem, etc. And if, instead of putting two PCI slots on the motherboard, Apple put them on a riser card (as Umax did on the SuperMac C500), it can keep a very low profile for the modular model.

The motherboard should have all the important Mac ports: USB, FireWire, and ethernet.

There should be two DIMM sockets, allowing expansion to 512 MB.


At this point, 8 GB is about the norm for hard drives, so that's what Apple should use. As for CD-ROM drives, 24x still seems popular on entry-level computers. Using the same drive as the PowerBook, iMac, and iBook would make a lot of sense.

However, within the next year, DVD will become more common - and probably become a standard feature. Apple should make sure there's an easy way to replace the CD-ROM drive with a DVD drive when customers are ready to upgrade.

Power: Thinking Different

Computers run on direct current (DC). A lot of what goes on inside the power supply is converting alternating current (AC) to DC. This is bulky and generates heat inside the computer.

By moving the power supply outside the machine, that heat also remains outside the computer, reducing the amount of heat that needs to be vented. Less heat means smaller fans, which should also be quieter. (The Mac Plus used convection cooling - no fan at all.)

External "power bricks" are common for modems, printers, Zip drives, and portable computers, so this is nothing really new.**

Going a step beyond this, why not design these computers to accept a compact battery that would allow unplugging and moving them in Sleep mode, as well as provide several minutes of power during a power outage?

The Monitor

Here we have several options. For the purist, the b&w monitor on the compact Macs was part of their identity. When Apple introduced color in the Color Classic, purists shuddered.

But the biggest drawback of the 10" monitors (9" viewable) in the b&w and color compacts was the limited resolution: they only displayed 512 pixels across. A lot of software didn't work well on the undersized (compared with 640 x 480) screen.

I'm sure the situation is even worse today. A few video cards still support the 512 x 384 resolution of the Color Classic, but that's not enough screen space for most of today's programs to work efficiently. Just imagine browsing the Web on that small a screen....

Realistically, the New Compact Mac should display 640 x 480 video. For nostalgia, 512 x 384 would be cool. For the real world, 800 x 600 would be very, very nice.

As some Color Classic owners know, the 10" color screen can display 640 x 480 very nicely after some serious modifications. If Apple believes the market would be content with that resolution, then a 10" color screen would be a real winner. It would keep the new compact Mac as close to the size of the older compact Macs as possible.

But it might need to go a bit larger, perhaps to a 12" screen, allowing use of the now-popular 800 x 600 SVGA setting. In that case, the monitor should support 512 x 384, 640 x 480, and 800 x 600 - all with 24-bit color.

Nostalgic as some of us are for black-and-white, I don't think there would be enough market to support even a limited edition b&w model.

The Package

When I worked at ComputerLand, the store manager used to tote a Mac IIci between home and work. I hauled my Mac Plus back and forth in an Apple carrying case. I like the idea of transportability, so I want that to be a design consideration for these two machines.

I'm assuming Apple can design a motherboard approximately 9" square. This would allow the same compact footprint (under 10" wide and 11" deep) as the older compact Macs.

One innovation I'd like to see is moving the plug-and-play ports from the back of the computer (or hidden behind a door, as on the iMac) to a more accessible location. The first Macs had a keyboard connector on the front of the computer. It really didn't look out of place.

These models would use a USB keyboard and mouse. As short as the cable is on Apple's USB mouse, it would make sense to put the USB ports either on the front of the computer or near the front on one side of the computer.

The same goes for the FireWire port. And, while they're at it, how about ethernet as well.

After all, it doesn't make a lot of sense to hide hot swappable plug-and-play ports behind the computer, where they're hard to see and use. It is much more sensible to place them where it's easy for the user to use them.

At the same time, why not have the back of the PCI cards come out the same side? This would make it very easy to plug in a phone line or connect an external monitor.

Using a 12" display in the new compact Mac, Apple would be working with a picture tube just under 10" wide. By designing the case to hug the monitor, the computer could conceivably be under 12" wide. That's still 2" wider than the old compacts, but also 3" narrower than the iMac.

This seems a realistic compromise to obtain a practical screen size.

The new compact Mac should be visually identifiable as a compact Macintosh. That doesn't mean it has to be beige or follow the lines of any specific model, but it does mean it shouldn't look like an iMac Jr.

Unlike the squat iMac, compact Macs are vertical computers. They need to look taller than they are wide. The originals were 13.6" to 14.5" tall and under 10" wide. The new compact Mac would be about 12" wide and perhaps 15" tall. I'm thinking vertical stripes or pseudo-columns on the side to enhance the feeling of tallness in a computer more squat than the older compacts.

The new modular Mac should be visually related to the LC, Quadra 630, and Power Mac 6200. The LCs have a very horizontal flow with a pronounced stripe across the front. That same theme should be at work here, in a model 10-12" wide and 4-5" tall. (Shorter is better.)

Marketing the New Macs

These aren't just nostalgia machines. I believe they have very real markets.

The new modular Mac would become Apple's entry level computer, as well as an upgrade computer for current Mac and Windows users. Looking at the clone market and keeping in mind the quality we all expect from Apple, I believe Apple could make this a $700 computer - maybe $800 if they make a PCI modem card (v.90 plus G.Lite DSL) a standard feature.

The basic model would be ready to go out of the box. Plug it in. Connect any Mac, VGA, SVGA, or multiscan monitor. Turn it on. Almost iMac easy.

The market:

But Apple could also offer a stripped version of the new modular Mac. No memory. No hard drive. No video card. No processor. Just a case, motherboard, CD-ROM drive, power brick, and the Mac OS on a CD.

I can't imagine how inexpensively Apple could sell this, but eliminating the G3 and backside cache, a DIMM, a drive, and a video card could make this very, very affordable.

The market:

Now take the same idea and integrate a small monitor. (I'd say LCD, but they're still too expensive for this market. Maybe next year.)

The new compact Mac wouldn't be an iMac Jr., but it would be an information appliance just like the iMac. With the smaller footprint, it fits in the corner of the kitchen or family room, on a table near the phone, etc.

The market:

Again, Apple could offer a stripped new compact Mac. Design the case so the motherboard is very accessible, then sell it without CPU, memory, etc.

The market:


I've used a lot of Macs over the years. I've also spent a lot of years in retail and a lot of years in computer support. I know and love Macs.

Most of the time, one of the current Macs is the perfect solution. The Power Mac G3 is a great design and production computer, a great server, and a powerful desktop machine. But sometimes it's overkill.

The iMac is a great word processing, database, web browsing, terminal emulation, and number crunching computer. It even makes a fine web server (see for a fine example of the iMac in action. The search engine is driven by FileMaker Pro.***) But sometimes it's more than finances permit.

The new modular Mac and new compact Mac are designed to allow Apple to penetrate the sub-$1K market, a market the iMac doesn't quite touch. They are designed to be as user friendly as the iMac, as profitable to Apple, and as versatile to the end user as possible.

However, they are not designed to compete with the iMac, nor should the be viewed as part of the iMac family. These are new models which are 100% Macintosh, but designed for the needs of computer users on a budget - whether that's first time users, hardware geeks, or information systems departments trying to get the most from their investment.

Beyond that, and unlike the iMac, these New Macs are designed for ease of upgrade. The CPU, hard drive, CD-ROM, memory, and video are all easily replaced as needed.

There would be a small impact on the iMac and Power Mac markets, I believe their overall impact would be to grow the Macintosh market by 50% without the need for ISP rebates, shoddy workmanship, or riding the iMac's coattails.

There's something very inviting about a compact Mac.

I'd like to see Apple invite them back into the product line.

* The Compact Macs list has since been incorporated into Vintage Macs, which covers all pre-PowerPC Macs.

** Apple used this strategy with the ill-fated Power Mac G4 Cube in 2000 and reintroduced it with the Mac mini in 2005, the first Mac to embrace the "new modular Mac" concept. The 2010 Mac mini dropped the external power brick for an internal power supply.

*** Baker Publishing, where I worked when this was originally published, no longer serves its website on an iMac.

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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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