512K Mac – Packing the Missing Punch

Apple introduces the Fat Mac

By John J. Anderson

AppleMac001

The nameplate on the back of this machine is the only visible indication that this is the Fat Mac, not the standard Mac.

It has been six months now since my initial review of the Macintosh computer appeared in the pages of the July 1984 issue of Creative Computing. I received more mail concerning that review than any piece I have ever written. I got letters telling me I was wrong: that the Macintosh was a gimmick, a flash in the pan, and I was foolish to call it a “breakthrough.” I got letters telling me I was wrong: that the Macintosh was the greatest thing to happen to computing, and I was foolish to poke holes in such a miraculous development. The fact that readers of both ilks were mad at me was gratifying, at least in one sense: it showed that my point of view was at once suitably awed and suitably critical to offend the extremists at both ends of the spectrum. That pleased me nearly as much as the handful of complimentary notes I received.

My conclusions in that article were neither profound nor heretical. Quite simply, I asserted that the introduction of the Mac did in fact represent a milestone in the history of personal computing, but that the machine had some rather serious problems that could not be overlooked simply because its user interface was so strikingly elegant. My bottom line was that the Apple Macintosh represented a hefty and heady promise of what a computer might one day come to be. The question was, could it make good on that promise?

So that question remains today, though we are closer to an answer. But let me make one thing perfectly clear at the outset: I am a user. There is a Mac on my desk at work and a Mac on my desk at home. So, browbeat me all you like, but don’t assume that to show loyalty to a piece of hardware you must not criticize it. Because that’s wrong. Remember, we’re “the rest of us,” right?

It was easy then and it is still easy now to dismiss the Mac out of hand. Thanks to slick campaigns and multi-megabucks, the ballyhoo is still with us – test drive a Mac, or look through a special edition of Newsweek with nothing but Apple ads in it. In a way, Apple’s California trendiness, laid-back pitch, and open-collar media image may ultimately work against Macintosh sales. When it comes down to business, buyers don’t want madras. They want white button-down. In a TV ad for Compaq, John Cleese’s impression of a typical Mac buyer hits the dynamic right on the nerve.

Let’s take it a step further and dare to suggest that two of the Mac’s very hottest features also mitigate against its popularity in the business world: 1) it is too small, cute, and sexy; and 2) it is much too easy to use. I don’t have the space here to elaborate on this theory, but those of you who know I’m right will know I’m right. It has to do with the color of your cerebral cortex. Once it turns even the slightest shade of blue, all bets are off.

But the cosmetic issue is far from most significant. The major factor hurting Mac sales in the business market today is the fact that it is “not powerful enough.” Fact is the Mac is top-heavy with overhead devoted to its slick user interface, leaving precious little memory for the actual jobs at hand. I stick by my original assertion that the Mac was never a 128K machine on the early drawing board. I would guess that 256K was the target, but the need to lower costs eventually wiped out the option. What was left was an incredibly neat little machine terribly restrained by memory limitations. This was the most serious flaw I could find in my initial report.

And though some good 128K software has made an appearance for the machine, by and large the Macintosh software scene was rather disappointing in 1984, both in quantity and quality. The cardinal sin in any Mac software trade off is to sacrifice needed features for ease of use, and unfortunately, many Macintosh packages are guilty of that transgression to quite some degree. Many of the programs that are available today in very powerful MS-DOS incarnations have been bowdlerized in some way, shape, or form in order to bring them to fruition on the 128K Macintosh. I can mention two prime examples: DB-Master and ThinkTank. Both now run on the Macintosh, albeit in a highly abridged form. In order to release a Macintosh version, both manufacturers traded off features – an undesirable transaction, to say the least.

Now the 512K Mac has hit dealer’s shelves and has been dubbed, much to the chagrin of McDonald’s, the Fat Mac. The Fat Mac packs its punch into the same mother board as the 128K Mac, with the replacement of 16 memory chips on its left-hand side. This fourfold gain in RAM can also be purchased as a retrofit to existing 128K Macs. The option adds $1000 to the list price of a 128K machine – whether purchased initially or fitted as an upgrade.

The RAM chips themselves are soldered directly to the multilayer motherboard of the Mac, and only as an act of vandalism can be removed with an IC puller. You cannot, therefore, do the upgrade yourself, but must bring the machine to an authorized dealer. In a 15-minute procedure, motherboards are switched. The old board is then reconditioned and itself sold as an upgrade.

Fat Mac units themselves are in short supply, but we managed to lasso a machine. The only hint that it is any different from a standard Mac is its nameplate, and since that nameplate appears on the back of the machine, it is a quiet self-announcement. But when you start using it, the difference is readily apparent.

I’m going to assume here that our readers who use the Mac regularly have purchased a second disk drive, if not a hard disk unit. For them, the bother of disk-swapping is already in the past. So I won’t dwell on the improvement 512K makes on a single disk machine. Certainly if I were to be limited to a single disk machine, I would do my best to make that machine a Fat Mac. Because bigger chunks of data can be stored at a time, disk-swapping is cut to a minimum. Even on a dual-drive system, file transfer time is cut dramatically.

But that is a minor advantage of the 512K Macintosh compared to its improvement in computing power. From a maximum of 10 single-spaced pages per document in Mac Write, the same program can yield an 80-page document on the Fat Mac. (A new version of MacWrite uses virtual memory techniques to allow 50-page documents on a 128K Mac and 250-page documents on a 512K Mac.) In MacPaint, the user interface is now silky smooth while scrolling the page, rather than chopped by sporadic disk loads. In Basic, desktop tools can be called up during program execution without disturbing screen memory or the stack itself. In MacTerm, the text buffer is huge. In Multiplan, spreadsheet size can be increased dramatically. In other existing software packages, the usable workspace can be quadrupled.

Even more significant, however, is what the Fat Mac can do for software currently under development. Features that would have to be lopped off to make a program run in the 128K can be salvaged – even improved upon – in a 512K environment. It would not be surprising to see two versions of a single product, like Lotus’ integrated package or Microsoft Word – for which 512K would be required to take full advantage of all features, but a limited version would run on a minimally configured machine. By developing products for the Fat Mac, software houses can subvert the reputation that Mac software sacrifices power for ease of use. We Mac users know that software can do more and be easier to use at the same time.

So: is a Fat Mac or an upgrade for you? The answer to that question is without a doubt a resounding yes. The remaining and real question is when will a Fat Mac or upgrade be for you. The upgrade chips themselves, 256K dynamic RAM chips, are still relatively rare and still relatively expensive. I would not be startled if chipset costs were cut in half – to $500 list, or even less – by this time next year. And so you must measure lost convenience across a function of time.

When the next generation Mac appears, it will most probably sport a megabyte of RAM as standard equipment, and 512K will be considered paltry. It’s all relative, folks.

First published in Creative Computing magazine, February 1985

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