Sleep 15: Apple Macintosh Cutting Through The Ballyhoo Part One

3 October, 2021


From the 1984 commercial through to the pros and cons of the new Apple Macintosh, John Anderson provides a review of what would become the definitive personal computer from Apple in the 80s. From the July 1984 edition of the Creative Computing Magazine.

Transcript available
[Music] Helping you fall asleep. I'm John Chidjie. You can follow me on the Fediverse at, on Twitter @johnchidjie, or one word, or the network at engineered_net. Sleep is supported by you, our listeners. If you'd like to support the show, you can do so by becoming a Premium Supporter. With a special thank you to all of our patrons and a special thank you to our silver producers Mitch Bilger, John Whitlow, Kevin Koch, Shane O'Neill, Oliver Steele, Lesley, Law, Chan, Hapthor, Jared, Bill and Joel Ma. And an extra special thank you to both of our gold producers Stephen Bridle and our producer known only as R. Visit to learn how you can help. Thank you. So now that that's out of the way, let me talk to you. Just for a few minutes. Creative Computing, July 1984. Apple Macintosh, cutting through the ballyhoo. Part 1. The first step to knowledge is to know that we are ignorant. Socrates. Why a four-year-old child could understand this. Someone get me a four-year-old child. Groucho Marx. Hardware Evaluation by John J. Anderson. The shorn brainwashed drones sit motionless in a row after benumbed row. In tight close-up on the oppressive viewscreen, an awful sneering face spouts empty newspeak slogans, while computerised rhetoric scrolls by left and right. The hall is blue and motionless. Suddenly, an athletic blonde woman appears, running down an aisle towards the apparition of Big Brother. In her hands there is grasped a heavy sledge of the type that is used in Olympic competition. She stops and sets, obviously practised in the hammer throw. She swings the tool away. We watch it fly in slow motion. We watch it shatter the viewscreen to bits in a flash of light. We see for the first time a glimmer of feeling across the faces of the multitudes. mouths simultaneously gape into slack-jawed amazement. Fade to white, and the words "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh, and you'll see why 1984 won't be like 1984". Or well, that ends well. Hype? Certainly. And just the tip of a multi-million dollar ad campaign iceberg that included lavish twelve-page four colour inserts in Time and other non-computer magazines. The launch of the Apple Macintosh was quite a media event. And yet something about the commercial seems more than mere hype – seems to have hit home, somehow. Directed by Ridley Scott, director of the modern cult classic Blade Runner, the sixty-second spot touched a nerve across the nation, even though you could count the total airings of the spot on the fingers of one hand – something about it, its mood, its tone, its timeliness, its youth, its feeling of liberation, its likeness to music video, captured the public imagination. And perhaps the commercial touched a nerve with more than a few computer users, who feel frustrated, shackled, by current software restrictions. Perhaps it has excited a few potential buyers – those who have wanted a micro, but felt oppressed by the complexity of existing systems. Personally, I identified closely with the drones, and not just because they were "mouth-breathers" . If I found that something truly better was available, I would hurl that hammer myself. Mac under the microscope. But you must be careful about buying promises, and that is exactly what the 1984 commercial attempted to sell. In its current form, the Macintosh is "the distilled embodiment of a promise" – that That software can be intuitively easy to use, while remaining just as powerful as anything else around. That is a tall promise. By the time you have undoubtedly already read and/or heard about the Macintosh machine – and what you have heard is very likely to have been praise, though you may not be so clear on if or why such praise is merited – the honeymoon phase is still in progress, you see – and most reviewers, it seems, are so moved, so awe-stricken, so swept away by the excellent features of the Mac, they are willing to gloss over the not-so-excellent. And there are more than a few of those. Don't be misled, however – you will not be reading a pan of the Apple Macintosh in the pages of Creative Computing. We are quite impressed with the machine – emphatically, enthusiastic about its philosophical underpinnings, very hopeful for its future. We just feel it is about time the hard questions were asked, and answered alongside the starry-eyed Hoopla. It is time for a good hard look at Macintosh under a piercing and objective light. Objective light on the subject. Whether or not the Macintosh is actually a breakthrough, it surely looks like one. It doesn't look like much of anything that has come before, with the possible exception of the Moribund Vectrex video game unit, which, if painted beige, would bear a startling resemblance. The Macintosh is small, with a recessed handle in the top of the main unit, and a total weight complete with internal CRT of 22 pounds. The Mac qualifies as a bona fide transportable, meaning you can move it around relatively easily when the time comes. Drop it into its custom-made rucksack – that's a $100 option – and take off. Sit it on your desk, and You will quickly notice how little room it takes up. Its footprint is barely larger than a sheaf of papers. And though the unit is rather bizarre looking at first glance, it is also rather handsome. Its looks grow on you. The keyboard. Attached by a modular phone cable to the main unit is the detached Macintosh keyboard. This is a 58-key, full-stroke, Selectric-style layout – see Figure 1 – with a somewhat stiff but very professional feel. Based on my experience with the Mac, I think it is unlikely that you will ever be pulling the keyboard onto your lap. Still, the detached design is desirable – it makes comfortable positioning of the keyboard entirely independent of comfortable position of the screen, and that is extremely important. At the same time, the keyboard can be pushed away in an instant, so that you may reclaim precious desk space when access to the keyboard is not immediately necessary. Noticeably lacking on the Macintosh keyboard are special function keys and directional cursor movement keys. These are replaced by the mouse pointer peripheral from which the Mac receives all directional inputs. I am told that cursor movement keys appear on the add-on numeric keypad, a $130 option, but these are not read interchangeably with mouse movement. We shall be examining this question more closely up ahead. As for special function keys, the idea is that the mouse renders them unnecessary. I'm all for that. The mouse. Then there is the mouse itself. Though it is a tiny thing – better clear at least a square foot or so of desk space for moving it around. The more room you make for it, the easier control of the mouse becomes. As you move the mouse, an on-screen cursor mimics your moves. At first, controlling the screen cursor with the mouse is anything but intuitive. The mouse seems cumbersome and hard to control for detailed work. Unlike the Sumer Graphics mouse, by the way, tracing is out of the question. With a few days of practice, however, working the cursor with the mouse becomes second nature – once you learn to lift the mouse when you run out of desk space, and reposition it so that you have the room you need. You have learned the major secret of effective mousing. The mouse has a mechanical device with a rolling ball inside it, as opposed to optical or pull tracking to measure relative movement. Therefore your desk area must be free of dust and particulate matter, such as Ritz cracker crumbs, for the mouse to work reliably. The documentation actually tells you how to remove the ball for an occasional cleaning. The Mac mouse has a single button on its top, hence there are no inhibitions concerning which button to press when the time comes to press a button. It is impossible to make the wrong choice when designing a mouse for ease of use – a single button helps considerably. Double-clicking the single mouse button frequently also acts as a shortcut mechanism to obtain certain other functions. The system unit. The major business goes on inside the main unit of the Macintosh. So let's get a closer look at it. Your first concern about the system component is bound to concern the CRT display. It is a 9-inch diagonal screen, truly. Big enough to allow extended viewing without fatigue or strain? The answer in this case is yes. And the reason is the super high screen pixel resolution – 512 by 342 monochrome pixels. Add to this the fact that nearly all text reads out in black type on a white background, emulating an actual printed page, and now you have an exceptionally legible display. Not once have I found myself lamenting the diminutive screen size, indeed, after a few minutes on the Mac. You will dismiss that question for good. The microdrive, also appearing on the front of the main unit, is the doorless disk drive slot. A single-sided 3.5" Sony micro floppy drive is standard and internal to the system unit of the Mac. Each disk can hold approximately 400K of data on a single side. In addition, the disks themselves can take much greater abuse than conventional floppies. Each disk has a spring-actuated sliding aluminium cover on it, which the Macintosh opens automatically when the disc is inserted and shuts automatically upon ejection. Thus, the head slot is protected at all times. The disc case is rigid and, as you may have heard before, slips into a shirt pocket. Apple uses a proprietary technology to get 400K onto a side nearly 100K more than the conventional Sony format. More importantly, this effectively eliminates the possibility of third-party Macintosh work-alikes. This is a good indication of the savvy that went into the design of the Macintosh. At times, when a disk is spinning in the drive it sounds jarringly like a cheap friction toy. This is because the Macintosh drive utilizes a variable RPM speed. The result is the ability to write more data to outer disk tracks. Drive rotation speed varies from 390 to 600 RPM depending on the track. read/write light is necessary on your Mac drive, when a disk is in the drive, you cannot remove it without undertaking rather drastic measures. Nor is there a disk eject latch or button. Disk ejection is controlled entirely through software, as we shall discover ahead. If as a result of some emergency you must manually eject a disk from the drive, you can effect this by pressing the point of an unbent paper clip into a small hole beneath the drive slot. The only other feature of the system unit front side are the brightness knob and the keyboard input jack. The brightness knob is the only CRT control externally available on the Mac and the only one necessary. The keyboard input consists of a modular telephone jack. Now let's flip the Mac system unit around for a look at its rear panel. Here we see the power switch and six connector jacks. These connect to AC power, the mouse, printer, optional second disk drive, optional modem or Apple bus network line and optional external sound amplifier. You will also notice the Macintosh nameplate back here on the rear of the computer. Why? My guess is to keep the front of the machine as non-distractive as possible. The Apple logo appears up front and constitutes identification enough. Some things you won't find on the rear panel of the Mac are an expansion bus, parallel port or video output jack. We shall return to the issue of these emissions. Standard DB25RS232 serial connection is available however using the printer port. The top right side of the back panel sports a battery compartment. The special 4.5V alkaline battery maintains the built-in clock calendar as well as serving to keep user selectable settings in memory between power-ups. The documentation estimates a battery life of approximately 2 years. Inside the main unit is an unimposing 9x9 inch circuit board with a 32-bit 68000 central processor chip residing upon it. The CPU runs at 7.83MHz, which is fast indeed. The Mac supports 128K of RAM and 64K of ROM. Six special chips are most responsible for compactness of the motherboard. Each in itself is the equivalent of an actual circuit board. A major benefit of Apple's advanced motherboard design is not only compactness, but the fact the system does not require a cooling fan. If there is one thing that drives me to distraction on certain micros which shall remain nameless, it is the constant hum of their cooling fans. Computers can – and should – run. In total. Silence. Except when And we want them to make noise, of course. The Macintosh has 4-channel multi-octave sound synthesis capability. This capability can create beautiful music and can certainly be translated into state-of-the-art speech synthesis as well. Macs are bound to become the most talkative microcomputers around before too long. The image writer. Although in theory you can drive any RS-232 serial printer with a Macintosh, I can't imagine why you would want to do so. The only printer that fully supports all of Mac's potential is the Apple ImageWriter. This printer was introduced last year as an accessory for the Lisa and the 2e, but was solely designed to serve as the de facto Macintosh printer. In this case again, Apple has ensured exclusivity, at least for a time, in its design of the Macintosh printer interface. Until third-party manufacturers decide to create their own Mac-compatible printers, Apple has the market sewn up. The image writer is a serial interface, Impact.matrix machine, capable of a top speed of 120 CPS. Since vertical dot spacing is 1/72 of an inch minimum, which is very tight, line spacing is selectable in increments of an incredible 1/144 of an inch minimum. The result is crisp and fully formed looking characters and graphics. Paper width can run from 3 inches to 10 inches and is acceptable in single sheets, rolls or fan fold pin feed formats. The printer is easy to load, and a special cut sheet slot aids friction feed applications. During operation, the image writer is relatively noisy, but the machine is totally silent in the standby mode. The ribbon cartridge is quick and simple to change. Conveniently, paper feed is bi-directional, forward or reverse, without the threat of jamming. The control buttons are well placed and designed for ease of use. You can execute a form feed, for example, then re-select for online operation before the form feed has completed. When the paper stops, the select light will come on indicating the printer is back online. This kind of attention to detail makes working with the image writer a pleasure. The unit has three print modes, draft, standard and quality. Naturally, draft is the fastest and most closely approximates the output of the average dot matrix printer. On the Mac, the standard mode reproduces text and graphics just as they appear on the high-res screen. In the quality mode, a second pass is made for every pass in the standard mode. This makes the resulting copy darker, and more important, fills in the dots of the matrix for a fully formed look. A la carte, the image writer lists for $695, which is a good price considering its quality and features. However, bundled with the Mac, the unit goes for $200 less. I am quite sure that most Macs are ordered with image writer. to do otherwise at the price would be sheer folly.
Duration 18 minutes and 5 seconds Direct Download

Show Notes

Reading Material:

Other shows on the network:

Episode Gold Producers: 'r' and Steven Bridle.
Episode Silver Producers: Mitch Biegler, John Whitlow, Kevin Koch, Shane O'Neill, Oliver Steele, Lesley Law Chan, Hafthor, Jared, Bill and Joel Maher.
Premium supporters have access to high-quality, early released episodes with a full back-catalogues of previous episodes


John Chidgey

John Chidgey

John is an Electrical, Instrumentation and Control Systems Engineer, software developer, podcaster, vocal actor and runs TechDistortion and the Engineered Network. John is a Chartered Professional Engineer in both Electrical Engineering and Information, Telecommunications and Electronics Engineering (ITEE) and a semi-regular conference speaker.

John has produced and appeared on many podcasts including Pragmatic and Causality and is available for hire for Vocal Acting or advertising. He has experience and interest in HMI Design, Alarm Management, Cyber-security and Root Cause Analysis.

You can find him on the Fediverse and on Twitter.