apple,  apple //gs,  retro computing

Welcoming Home an Apple IIGS from 1986

Mac Pro (2013) helps welcome home my Apple IIGS (1986)

I’m an Apple //e fan, but in the mid-1980s, with the introduction of the Lisa in 1983 and the Macintosh in 1984, it was becoming clear that the largely text input-based Apple II line of computers needed an innovative refresh.

In 1986, Apple II fans got their new graphical interface upgrade in the form of the Apple IIGS.

Developed under codenames such as “Phoenix”, “Columbia”, and “Cortland” the Apple IIGS was an attempt to modernize the Apple //e and the non-expandable Apple IIc into a modern computer. At the time, attempts to replace the venerable Apple //e with the Apple III and the Apple IIc did not go according to plan. The Apple III ended up being a commercial failure and customers favored the Apple //e over the IIc largely in part due to the //e’s expansion card bays.

The Apple IIGS is a curios machie because it encapsulates both what has come before, the Apple II platform, while embracing a future with a graphical interface, a mouse, improved sound capabilities, and a 3.5-inch floppy drive – just like the Macintosh. Powering the Apple IIGS is the new 16-bit 65C816 chip running at 2.8MHz. The 65C816 is a 65C02 compatible processor, meaning that it can emulate the CPU used in prior Apple IIs. The 65C816 also has two run modes: the native 2.8MHz mode for running software written specifically for the graphical GS/OS operating sytem, and a 1MHz mode for running a customer’s older Apple II series software.

In addition to the new CPU, the Apple IIGS also includes 256kb of system RAM, expandable out to a total of 8MB. The “GS” in the IIGS name stands for Graphics and Sound, and this Apple II is able to deliver. The new GUI interface was made possible due to a new super Hi-Res video mode capable of putting a 16-color palette up on a 200×320 screen. The included Ensoniq Mirage sound chip improved the audio features of the machine.

There is a lot going on under the hood of this Apple II and that’s because the designers needed to address two project goals. First, make it compatible with the older generation of Apple II hardware and software. Second, bring the technology advancements from the Apple III, the Lisa, and the Macintosh to the Apple II line. In short, the IIGS ended up becoming a bridge from the Apple II line to the Macintosh line.1 This feat was made possible by Apple’s new custom integrated circuit (IC) the Mega II. The Mega II included the functionality of several of the ICs from the Apple //e and the IIc into the IIGS motherboard. In the end, the IIGS was able to run at least 90% of the titles in the Apple II software library. With the use of an optional disk controller card and floppy disk drive, the Apple IIGS could also read and write 5.25-inch disks created for earlier Apple IIs.

The Apple IIGS was forward looking too. For example, the graphical GS/OS environment used 114 of the same QuickDraw calls as was found on the Macintosh. The graphical interface program used to access disks, draw windows, and work with menus and files is called the Finder and is modeled after the Macintosh desktop program of the same name. The Apple IIGS also has an Apple Desktop Bus (ADB) port for connecting up to 16 daisy-chained devices. The same ADB technology that is used on the Macintosh, allowing keyboards and mice to be interchangeable. And, finally, the IIGS is the first Apple II computer to include built in support for AppleTalk networking. Yes, the Apple IIGS and the Macintosh could talk to each other and share files over an AppleTalk network.

The Apple IIGS was released in September 1986 with a base price of $999. Customers would then need to add one or more disk drives, a color monitor, and possibly a printer, easily raising the price of the machine to the $2,499 – $3,199 range.

The Apple IIGS did succeed in delivering on it’s promise to be true (and compatible) to it’s Apple II roots and simultaneously embrace a graphical interface future. And for Apple II fans, that was a positive point. However, in terms of the state of technology in 1986, many journalists coving technology at the time considered the Apple IIGS to be too slow and too expensive when compared with contemporary machines of the day, including the Macintosh, the Amiga 500, and the Atari ST.

In 1988, waiting for my back ordered Apple IIGS to be delivered by ComputerLand, I was excited to this new computer. For me, I could leverage everything that I had learned about my Apple //e with the IIGS and share hardware and software between the two machines. I will admit that my cousin’s Amiga 500 had way better looking games, but I loved my Apple IIGS. Unlike the closed case Amiga 500, the Apple IIGS could be easily opened allowing me to tinker around inside and add new expansion cards, foreshadowing my career in Information Technology. Today, I still tinker around inside PCs and servers thanks, in no small part, to the openness of the Apple II platform.

Apple II Forever!

  1. Also helping to ease the transition from Apple II to Macintosh was the IIe Card that was designed specifically for the Macintosh LC series of computers. The IIe Card was, as the name suggests, an entire Apple //e computer on a NuBUS card that could be installed into the LC (Low Cost) computer aimed at the same home, school, and small business customers as the //e before it. But, that is a story for another day.