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To mark our 150th year, we’re revisiting the Popular Science stories (both hits and misses) that helped define scientific progress, understanding, and innovation—with an added hint of modern context. Explore the entire From the Archives series and check out all our anniversary coverage here.

When Jim Schefter interviewed Steve Jobs for Popular Science’s March 1984 review of Apple’s new Macintosh, Jobs asked Schefter, “What do you think?” Schefter confessed, “I didn’t have an answer.” He did, however, find an answer, sharing his wonder at the ease of use of novel applications like MacPaint, with never-before-experienced drag-and-drop capabilities. “It was all too much to absorb,” writes Schefter. 

While Schefter focused on Macintosh’s unrivaled functionality and acknowledged its unique form factor (“it looks different”), his review overlooked the significance of Apple’s seminal commercial from just months before: On January 22, 1984, with 6:32 left to play in the third quarter of Super Bowl XVIII, the announcers cut to a commercial directed by Ridley Scott—one that would forever change TV-ad norms and raise the Super Bowl bar. Leaning in on Orwell’s literary classic, 1984, IBM (or Big Blue) was Big Brother and Apple’s Macintosh was here to save the world from its dystopian stranglehold on technology.

Despite the excitement, Apple’s early success with Macintosh fizzled less than a decade later, and the company was on the ropes until Jobs, who had left, rejoined in 1997. He knew what made Apple Apple. With Macintosh’s debut, the company had transformed technology into a status symbol. Apple still pulls that winning marketing move from its playbook with major new product releases. It wasn’t that Apple had (or even has) the most advanced technology, it’s that they’d discovered how to package and market it to give it universal appeal and cachet.

“Apple’s mighty mini Mac: Can little Mac challenge Big Blue?” (Jim Schefter, March 1984)

It’s small. It’s got a funny name. But watch out. At $2,495, this third-generation 32-bit Macintosh Apple computer is designed to slice up its competition. At its core is a daring attempt to leapfrog technology—and the IBM PC—to once again make Apple the leader in the microcomputer industry.

“What do you think?” asked Steven Jobs, the young man who made personal computers a multibillion-dollar business when he helped develop the first Apple computer in a Silicon Valley garage years ago. “What don’t you like about it?”

I didn’t have an answer. The Macintosh is a totally new machine-a third-generation computer. It uses a 32-bit microprocessor and comes supplied with a 128-kilobyte random-access memory, a 64K read-only memory that contains an advanced operating system, a built-in Sony 3.5 inch floppy-microdisk drive with a storage capacity of 400K, a detachable keyboard, and a mouse.

All of these qualities give it extremely high operating speed, superb ease and flexibility of use, and advanced graphics capability, which, until now, was unavailable in the microcomputer field.

Priced at $2,495, Mac will go head-to-head with the IBM PC. Will Apple recapture its number-one position with the new machine? Jobs thinks so. To find out why he has such great expectations, I spent a few days at Apple’s corporate headquarters talking to its hardware and software engineers and trying out the Mac for myself. Here’s what I learned.

Mac not only is different, it looks different. It’s packaged in an unusual vertical cabinet, 20 inches high, and has a tiny 10-inch-square base. It weighs just 20 pounds and is transportable with an optional carrying case that fits under a standard airline seat.

Its nine-inch gray screen, controlled by specially designed electronics, has one of the best graphics and alphanumeric displays in the industry. It won’t show color, but it will display shades of gray. Screen resolution is 512 by 342 dots, or pixels, at 78 dots per inch.

Inside the Mac

The simple appearance of Mac’s internal electronics belies the three-plus years of innovative design and engineering that preceded its introduction. The computer has just two boards, a digital logic-and-memory board and a power-supply board with the video-display electronics.

Most computers need additional circuit boards or chips inside in case you want to expand capability. For example, to add an extra disk drive, you’d have to add a disk-drive-controller board. Not with the Mac.

“The digital board includes all the chips, controllers, and output ports you’ll ever need,” said an enthusiastic Burrell Smith, a design engineer whose business card titles him “Hardware Wizard.”

“We’re maniacs about getting it to work as fast as we can,” added Smith, whose stocky physique shows only marginal effects from the number of pizzas the Macintosh team consumed on the job while working nights and weekends to perfect the computer.

Among the handful of chips on Mac’s digital board are two that were custom-designed for the computer and six others with specific modifications to give the machine high speed.

“In raw processing power, it’s four to six times faster than the PC. Output from the serial ports can be up to one million bits per second.” That’s equivalent to the computer sending or receiving about 100,000 characters per second, which is staggering if you consider that, at best, most personal computers communicate at less than 1,000 characters per second.

In addition, the circuits are designed to accommodate the new 256K memory chips when their price makes them economical. That gives the Macintosh the potential for more than two megabytes of internal RAM, much more than twice the maximum amount capable in other machines.

Unlike many computers, no other change or addition is possible inside the cabinet. “There are no expansion slots,” Jobs said. “Everything is built in.”

Peripheral equipment-mouse, printer, modem, additional disk drives, external speaker-all connect through the five icon-marked ports at the rear. There is also a connection for “Applebus,” a communications network that ties together all Apple hardware and computers. Add-on disk drives, which may be useful but aren’t mandatory for running software, will be in short supply. Most units, to be delivered by Sony, are already dedicated to Macintosh production.

The $550 Macintosh printer is a modified C. Itoh Image Writer, which was redesigned to Mac specifications. ‘‘The major difference in the printer is a change in its read-only memory,” said Apple engineer Rick Hoiberg. Like nearly all dot-matrix printers, the Image Writer’s memory contained a “look-up table” of text and graphics characters. On receiving a character from a computer, the printer searched for it in the table, then sent the necessary instructions to the print head. If a character wasn’t stored in the table, it couldn’t be printed.

With the Macintosh, the table is used only for draft-quality printing.

All other instructions go directly from the computer to the print head. Each of the 177,840 pixels on the Macintosh screen can be sent individually to the print head.

“Fonts are controlled by the computer, not by the printer,” Hoiberg said. “In Macintosh, even text is considered to be graphics.” The result: You’re not stuck with a single type style and size, as with most printers. You can choose among many. And you can do highly complex graphics presentations, as I found out when I had a chance to use Mac (more about this later).

Trying it

Macintosh easily outstrips the eightbit Apple II and the 16-bit PC in both performance and ease of use. All operations are based on the upscale Lisa computer [PS, June ‘83], introduced a year ago: overlapping displays (called “windows”) on its screen that are controlled with the small, hand-held mouse rather than through the keyboard. You slide the mouse across a desk top, and an on-screen arrow moves in the same direction. Move it to point to a desired item-word processing, for example-and one click of the mouse’s button makes your selection: A menu of word-processing commands appears.

All this allows you to move freely between a variety of software programs and use common files for integrating text, graphics, spread sheets, data bases, or other information on the same screen.

To put Mac to work, I tried two new programs called MacWrite and MacPaint-two programs sold as a package for $195. Within 10 seconds of inserting the hard-cased microdisk into Mac, the screen displays a menu showing every file on the disk. Gliding the mouse under my right hand, I moved the on-screen arrow to MacWrite and clicked the mouse button. Immediately a small icon, resembling a wristwatch, appeared. “That’s telling you to wait while it loads,” said software expert Joe Shelton. “Typical applications load in 10 seconds.” The disk drive operated so quietly, it appeared that nothing was happening.

Then, suddenly, MacWrite was on the screen.

Across the top of the high-resolution screen ran a line of available options: an apple icon to call up other programs, and the words FILE, EDIT, SEARCH, FORMAT, STYLE, and FONTS. Beneath this list were a header bar that would soon contain the name of my document, a ruler showing the character spacing and margin-tab settings, and another row of icons to automatically change the format of the text shown on the screen.

I mouse-moved the arrow to FILE. With one click, a menu appeared. I chose NEW from the menu to start a new document. After typing its name on the keyboard, I was ready to work. The Macintosh keyboard has a firm and comfortable feel that will appeal to touch typists. But I was more interested in experimenting than typing. Shifting the mouse on the desktop, I looked at the rest of MacWrite’s menus. My choices were legion. For example, all of the standard word-processing functions-cut-and-paste, search and-replace, copy-and-move, and more were instantly available.

Being accustomed to moving a cursor or calling up menus through a keyboard, I initially found mouse control difficult. It’s a matter of retraining for current computer users-who would typically need a three- or four-hour adjustment period-but that won’t be necessary for first-time computer users.

In the next hours, I discovered a new world of word-processing and graphics imagery. Under the STYLE menu, I found that I could change the type size of anything from a single letter to an entire document (there are five choices, from 10-point to 24- point, which is approximately 1/1s-inch to 1/4-inch-high type) or change the type style, choosing from among plain text, bold, italic, underlined, outlined, and shadowed type. Moving to FONTS. I had 10 choices of typefaces in each of the sizes and styles. “Popular Science” looks strange in Old English italic.

Such capabilities will find wide use in any business doing presentations, reports, and similar documents. But it’s the graphic artistry of MacPaint that such professionals will most appreciate. Calling up the program, I was faced with an incredible variety of choices.

There were 20 small boxes on the screen’s left side, another 41 along the bottom, five styles of straight lines in the lower-left corner, and a standard menu across the top. Want to draw a simple box? Mouse-select the unfilled rectangle from the left column, and move the cursor to the screen: MacPaint draws a box. Using the mouse again, move the box anywhere on the screen, enlarge or reduce it, change the ratios of its sides, or fill it with any of 41 shaded patterns.

Use a lasso icon to rope in words or diagrams, then move them or overlay them on other graphics. Use the marquee icon to include the original background. Use the spray can, the paint brush, or the pencil for freehand additions. Add circles or other shapes. Then use the eraser icon to wipe it all out or just smooth an edge.

It was all too much to absorb. With MacPaint, a good artist is virtually unlimited. And even a novice can create usable business graphics. The finished product is easily moved-again with the mouse-into a report or other document where its size and position can be tailored, or it can be printed out for reproduction or slide preparation.

“You can create the ugliest documents anyone has ever seen,” Burrell Smith joked.

“There’s more,” Shelton said, pulling down a menu that revealed something called FatBits. With FatBits, MacPaint enlarges selected portions of a drawing or text to show on the screen enlargements of the individual pixels. Each pixel can be independently modified with the mouse changed in shape or shading-to give the user absolute control over the final product. New typefaces also can be designed and stored in memory by building them dot by dot.

The Macintosh graphics alone will make the machine attractive to the business community. But the computer’s real power is its ability to shift freely and to integrate text, graphics, financial analyses, and any other data between different software applications, even those written by different suppliers. And software compatibility is the key to any computer’s success.

Compatibility-now and future

Macintosh and Lisa form the core of what the company calls its new Apple 32 system. (Simultaneously with Macintosh, Apple announced the Lisa-2 in three models: a basic unit with one half megabyte of random-access memory at $3,495; a model with one-half megabyte of RAM and a five-megabyte hard disk that will go for $4,495; and a model with a 10-megabyte hard disk that will cost $5,495.)

All Macintosh software will run on Lisa machines, and some Lisa programs, such as a $99 “Project Manager,” are being modified for use on Mac. (Neither computer will run Apple II or Ill software.) Included with the Mac is a limited-software package that includes a desk-top manager, on-screen calculator, on-screen clock-calendar, and some simple games.

But Apple expects most of Mac’s software to come from outside developers. Scores of sophisticated software packages, independently written and marketed, have contributed to making popular both the Apple II and the IBM PC. In 1981, in a move to duplicate the software phenomena for Macintosh, Apple delivered its specifications to more than 100 software developers.

“We’ve been working with Apple for almost two years on the Macintosh,” said Bill Gates, chairman of MicroSoft. ‘‘We helped develop and debug some of its interior software, and we have five packages of our own that we will be marketing.”

Included are MicroBasic and MicroPlan, now being delivered, and software for data-base management, word processing, and graphics. Each one expands Mac’s formidable capabilities and will sell for less than $200.

Other software companies with Macintosh packages that are either already completed or are about to be released include Lotus, with a Mac version of its number-one national selling 1-2-3 package, previously available ·only for the IBM PC; AshtonTate, with Mac versions of its popular dBase-II and Friday! data-base managers; and Software Publishers, which modified its PFS software line.

Gates sees Macintosh as a crucial test of whether any personal-computer company can take an independent road in a market dominated by IBM. “If Macintosh isn’t a success, then the market is left to the PC,” he said. “But we’re super-enthusiastic. If Apple can meet its production goals, we expect half of MicroSoft’s retail sales in 1984 to be Macintosh-related.”

Computers photo
The cover of the March 1984 issue of Popular Science featuring Apple’s mini Mac and an early “smart” window.

Some text has been edited to match contemporary standards and style.