We all have our most favored machines of yesteryear; in this I assume that most people are like me, anyway. Breaking away from the mundane every-day news of boring (I jest) new technologies such as touchscreens the size of a wall and upcoming operating systems that support graphics cards with 1.5 GB of vRAM, take a walk down memory lane– or “Neurological Alley” as I like to call it– and take a look inside, outside, and in all of the nooks and crannies in between the circuits of the Macintosh Plus and its accompanying System 6, fresh from the splendor of 1986.
Introduction & History
I came a bit after the time when personal computers initially made their debut, so I missed models such as the Commodores that I’ve read many hardened and salty fellows here speak of in comments on OSNews. I was instated into this life about the time when personal computers they began to take off fervently and the term “PC” still applied to any computer small enough to fit on a desk. My father originally purchased the Macintosh Plus in 1988 for probably around $2,000. This didn’t include the Ericcson ~40 megabyte hard drive, spare floppy drive, and Kensington System Saver that he purchased seperately.
Since then, my entire family of nine lovingly used that machine for the next decade and then some. My older siblings used Microsoft Word 5.0 aplenty to print school assignments out on our StyleWriter II (which my father must have purchased later in the 90’s as it wasn’t sold until 1993; I have no memory of this, though). Though I sometimes made visits to Word to start my career in writing, I mainly used the Mac up until around 2000 to play games that remain my all-time PC favorites today: Arkanoid, MacMissiles, Cairo Shootout, Risk, The New Daleks, and Stratego.
The Macintosh Plus was released in January of 1986 after the original Mac (two years before) and the Macintosh 512k (a year before). The original price tag for this 15-pound hunk of eightiesness was $2599. When I read that the Plus wasn’t quite so popular as Apple might have hoped and often found itself sold in cheaper quantities to educational institutions, I nearly cried. How could anyone dislike such a friendly, warm, and caring machine as the Plus? It may have been the price: $2600 back in the late eighties is equivalent to about $5000 today. Perhaps I was deprived as a youngster, but among the several other Windows 95- and Mac OS 8-powered machines that I used at home and at school, I loved the Mac Plus the most. I wasn’t mature enough to appreciate the advancements that appeared in those later machines such as internet capabilities and CD-ROMs, but all I knew was that the Mac did what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it. Anyway, what seemingly little appreciation that was held by the public for the Macintosh Plus seemed to go a long way because the Plus still holds the record for the longest Mac to stay in production at Apple with a five-year lifespan.
The Plus sported a 9-inch 512 by 342 pixel monochrome integrated CRT monitor, an integrated 3.5-inch 800 KB floppy drive, 1 MB of RAM that was expandable to 4 MB (but not without actually clipping two resistors), a Motorola 68000 processor running at a grand 8 MHz, and two SCSI ports; this was the first Mac to include SCSI expansion slots, and these ports remained standard in all models up until the iMac in 1998. The standard package also included the infamous one-buttoned mouse and a standard keyboard; this was the last Mac model to include a keyboard with a phone-cord-esque (RJ-11 to be specific) cable and port.
I found it very interesting that the keyboard sports a capslock key that mechanically remembers whether it’s pushed down or not– no software involved. It’s essentially a shift key with a mechanism to keep it down when pressed (not unlike the capslock key of my old Danish typewriter).
Beige in color and bulky in beauty, the outer hardware was pretty stereotypical of what we think of when we imagine a classic, smiling Mac. In 1987, they actually began shipping “platinum” colored (really just gray) cases. The Plus that I used for this article was of the platinum color. Why monocrhomatic color schemes were so popular back in the day is what I would like to know. I suppose we just needed time to develop the pretty machines of today.
I also own (as previously mentioned) an Ericsson 40 MB SCSI hard drive and a Kensington System Saver, so these will be mentioned here and there as well. The System Saver basically is just a glorified fan to place on one of the top vents and a way to have the power button in the front– I always hated reaching to the back of any Mac to turn it on, anyway; bad designing on Apple’s part, in my opinion. The hard drive is 10 x 11 inches and was designed to be a perfect base for the Plus to snugly sit upon.
System Software 6
I had always thought that System 6 was a very friendly system for its time, and I maintain that even today. I vaguely remember OS 8 and 9 that we had on varied versions of Macs at one of my old public schools, and I always remember them having trouble with the software performing tasks that we students were all supposed to do on assignment. I also remember them overheating perpetually (especially those blueberry Macs). For some reason, the familiar black and white schematic, the smiling Mac at startup, the simple interface, and the system’s ability to do whatever I wanted it to do without trouble (at least with the software that we owned) caused me to love the Plus and hate the Macs of the 90s.
Sentiments aside, the Plus could handle any Macintosh system from 3.2 to 7.5.5 (Wikipedia says it could operate back to 1.1, but I’m really unsure of that fact), but System 6 was the standard during most of the Plus’ lifetime of being sold. System 6 was released about a year after the Plus and discontinued in April of 1991, only six months after the Plus was.
System 6 originally was very buggy with its initial release, and thus 6.0.1 fixed 66 bugs by September of 1988. 6.0.2 was released shortly afterward to fix a screen font spacing bug. System 6.0.2 was the currently installed system on the Plus used for this review. 6.0.8L was the final release before the acclaimed System 7.
The system was small enough to fit on an 800k floppy disk but still supported color (for later color Macs), widely-used multitasking software known as the Multifinder (imagine multitasking actually being a feature to brag about), two gigabyte hard drives, and more. Despite its capabilities, it was still a rather simple system both in looks and in technicalities. Some of its limitations, for example, were that only up to 65,536 files could be on those 2 GB drives, there was no such thing as virtual memory, the trash always emptied when the Finder ended (essentially every time the computer shut down), there was very little customization, and only fifteen Desk Accessories (little useful apps such as a calculator, scrapbook, and even the control panel) could be installed at one time. These would all eventually be remedied in System 7 and OS 8.
In my experience, System 6 coupled with the Macintosh Plus could tackle some pretty useful and entertaining applications. I’ve already gone over the myriad of games I liked to play as well as Microsoft Word; it also ran Excel, Personal Ancestral File, MacDraw II, varied other types of programs. It obviously doesn’t compare in productivity with today’s application offering for even mobile devices, but it was viable enough at least for some people to last the ages; the person I bought this Mac from (my original Plus’ screen died in 2004) was selling it for his mother who had used it from when they bought it until 2009.
Even though it was an almost-dead project by the time I even realized we had the original version installed on our Plus, I began tinkering with HyperCard in the early 2000’s and designed dozens of practice-stacks, most of which were either pure button/text or were simple “fortune telling” stacks. I did end up designing one game that I was somewhat proud of: “Dastroid” (taking after only the name of “Arkanoid) was a simple game in which you used certian weapons ranging from a pea-shooter to a shotgun to take your opponent’s HP down and kill him before he killed you. It even had the ability for human/computer and two-player games.
I was also in the middle of designing “Smellytubby Shootout,” a HyperCard game in which the user chose a Smellytubby character and traversed about Tubbyland, destroying monsters deployed by the Evil Black Smellytubby and his master, Babysun, when the screen on my original plus died in 2004.
HyperCard was a very popular program bundled with the Plus by August of 1987. It came already with a plethora of “stacks,” or predesigned applications, that were all examples of what one could do with HyperCard and HyperTalk (the programming language developed for use with HyperCard). Wikipedia puts it beautifully in words that I needn’t process again:
HyperCard has been described as a “software erector set.” It integrates a software development environment with a run-time environment in a simple, easily accessible way. The tools required to write an application, principally the creation and configuration of screen objects like buttons, fields and menus, are part and parcel with the ability to add programmed functionality to those objects. When designing and programming an application one may contemplate both structure and capability within a single well defined arena. That one could personally design and implement a custom application uniquely suited to one’s own needs revolutionized the very concept of what software was. Instead of trying to force a particular task onto an Excel spreadsheet, for example, a custom solution may be authored, modified and updated as needed, in a very short time, without functional compromise and with a personalized interface. “Empowerment” became a catchword as this possibility was embraced by the Macintosh community, as was the phrase “programming for the rest of us”, that is, anyone, not just professional programmers.
A Look Back in Time
To provide just a glimpse of what running System 6 on the Macintosh Plus was like, I’ve put together this film of the Plus booting into System 6, playing some games, taking a glimpse of Smellytubby Shootout in HyperCard, looking at the customization options in the control panel, typing in Microsoft Word 5.0, inserting and ejecting a floppy disk, and shutting down. The film is in two parts due to YouTube’s 10-minute limit, so forgive me for the inconvenience. System 6 obviously never had any video screen capturing software designed for it, and I didn’t want to use an emulator on my newer Windows desktop, so this is simply a DV camera trained on the screen. Enjoy or skip it.
I also found this highly enjoyable time capsule made by Apple in 1987. The film presents itself as if it was made in 1997; this is essentially what Apple thought (or hoped, or dreamed) the late 90’s would be like for them.
Boy, were they wrong. I personally love the “Vista Mac”, how their outlook of the nineties was sort of opposite of what really happened, and how they seemed to think the “classic” Mac form factor would remain essentially unchanged. Of course, that was probably more or less joking.
Macintosh Plus Quirks
The Plus has also had some interesting history around it. It was featured in a segment of Star Trek, the designers’ signatures are superscribed on the back of the plastic case, and, cooincidentally, the very first manufactured Plus, given to the creator of Star Trek back in the day, has just been listed up for auction online. Bidding starts at 1500USD.
What was also interesting is that the Plus with System 6 can actually browse the Internet (though with limited functionality compared to the modern browser, I’m sure; also see this link). I currently don’t have a modem for it nor do I have an appropriate Internet connection compatible with a modem of that caliber, but I’m hoping to one day satisfy my 80s nerd inside by accomplishing this task and uploading a video of it.
What I’d also love to do is install a Linux distribution on the hard drive of my Plus, but my searches have found that the closest thing to doing this would be to install MacMinix on top of System 6, and even MacMinix seems pretty hard to find. However, the Mac SE and later Macs all are able to run forms of Debian or other distributions.
All in all, I find the Macintosh Plus to be a very friendly computer along with its OS, System 6, despite the sometimes slow drawing of graphics and the very slow floppy drive reading (those were always slow). I suppose my personal appreciation of it is mostly sentimental and nostalgic and that there are other machines from the 80s that were better at the time, but it’s still a great machine to have. I personally believe that if every man owned a Macintosh Plus, the very powers of darkness would have been shaken forever. Long live the Plus.
Do you have memories of using the Plus or similar classic Macs? How about even older computers? Why not share those memories in the comments? Also, if you’d like to write a remeniscing review of some of your old hardware, feel free to submit it to be published here at OSNews by writing it in our submissions form or by emailing it to us. Everyone loves to look back at the old days.