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ATPM 2.06
June 1996




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The Personal Computing Paradigm

by Michael Tsai,

The IIGS: Coolness Points?

Although I would now characterize myself as a die-hard Mac supporter, I was not always this way. I have always preferred Apple computers to PC's partially because I've had most of my experiences with them, but mostly because I have yet to find a PC that works the way I want it to. For some time however, I preferred the Apple IIGS to the Macintosh.

My first computing experience was with an Apple II Plus, which I used mainly for word processing, for dappling in BASIC, and for playing the occasional game. I liked the Apple II fine, but the first computer that I really liked was my Apple IIGS. It had a color monitor, a nice looking case, an excellent keyboard, a mouse, and Steve Wozniak's autograph on the front. It was also considerably better than the Macs that were around at the time. They didn't run Apple II software, had poor keyboards and mice, and had those monochrome 9-inch screens that we've come to regard as classics.

Don't get me wrong, the first Macs were revolutionary, in more ways than one. But, despite their elegance, there wasn't much they could do, that my trusty GS couldn't. The first Macs employed a closed hardware design. The IIGS had seven expansion slots, which could be used to make it even cooler than it was out of the box.

Though its creators might not have intended it to be so, the IIGS was essentially a transition machine. It ran Apple II software at about twice the speed of a IIe, and even allowed you to slow down the processor so that it could run IIe games at a normal speed. One of the coolest peripherals was the ThunderScan. This device replaced the ribbon in an ImageWriter II printer, and connected to the computer via an expansion card. It allowed the printer to scan documents by rolling in the paper, much the way Visioneer's PaperPort Vx does today.

There are still features that were better implemented on the IIGS, than on the Mac. As far as I know, the IIGS was the first personal computer to implement proportional scrolling, scrolling where the size of the scrollbar thumb is proportional to the amount of the window's content that is currently being viewed. This is one idea that Microsoft implemented which the Mac team didn't. It had a RAM disk, one that was bootable, and especially useful because of the limited capacity of double-sided, double-density 3.5" disks. It also had a control panel that could be accessed from within any application simply by pressing a key combination. The core control panels such as Keyboard, Mouse, and RAM Disk were held in ROM, so they were always available, and lightning quick. Setting the keyboard repeat rate or the RAM disk size is a task that I can still do faster on the GS, than on my PowerMac. And once you entered the ProDOS environment, the machine really flew.

Also, the GS displayed a progress bar when starting up GS OS that was better implemented than the one introduced on the Mac with System 7.5. It accurately displayed boot time, regardless of how many extensions were present, and moved smoothly without lurching forward. The GS had better sound capabilities than all Macs prior to the Quadras, and could also output video to a TV or VCR out of the box.

Primarily, what amazed me about the IIGS was its ability to exist in two different worlds. On the one hand, it could run classic Apple II software like "Bank Street Writer" and "Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?" faster than any Apple II. Yet, simply by inserting a 3.5" disk, it could run cutting edge GS specific software such as "AppleWorks GS," "Deluxe Paint," and the action game "Thexder." When released, all of these offered performance superior to that of their Macintosh counterparts.

Looking at AppleWorks GS and ClarisWorks side by side, it's evident that modern business software still bears a striking resemblance to state of the art '80s technology. AppleWorks GS even offers many of the font and styling options that today's word processors have, and an Excel or FileMaker user would feel right at home in its spreadsheet and database modules. Furthermore, anyone using MacOS 7.x.x would be comfortable with the GS System 6 Finder, much more so than they would be with even the latest version of Windows. The two are remarkably similar from pull-down menus, to system extensions, to AppleTalk.

As a GS fanatic, I can remember how intrigued I was when Insider magazine ran a cover story comparing a souped up IIGS to a Mac LC. Like mine, the test GS had an lots of extra RAM and accelerator card installed, but it also had a 40MB hard disk. The two machines ran at virtually the same speed for modern Finder based software, but the GS ran old IIe software about 5 times faster than the LC with its emulator card. By comparison, PowerMacs can now software emulate IIe software quite a few times faster than the GS with accelerator.

Of course, the GS was quickly outpaced by the color Macs, and it is sluggish by today's standards. But it remained useful for several years after I got a Mac. Because it always had a quick boot time, I could load up BankStreet Writer to type a quick letter, and have it printed by the time the Mac was booted, and MacWrite was open.

Reading about the new Network Computer paradigm brings back memories of what I used to use the GS for. While I was doing real work on the Mac, I could use the modem-equipped GS for other purposes. It made a great AOL and BBS terminal, and I didn't mind downloading files at 1200bps with the GS acting as a dedicated machine. Since it had AppleTalk capabilities, it was simply a matter of drag and drop to copy the files onto the neighboring Mac.

Because I love my IIGS, I can't help regretting that it isn't very useful anymore. Apple and AOL both discontinued support for the GS some time ago. Somehow though, I remain attached to it's nature. Perhaps it's because of the friendly IIGS Basics application that taught me how to use the mouse by swatting flies and dragging together pieces of a car, or perhaps it's the fact that it only crashed 5 times in almost 11 years. As recently as a year ago, I used it to reformat unsolicited 800K AOL disks with a speedy disk duplication program called Photonix, but even that use is out-dated because AOL ships on high-density disks now. About the only thing I use it for now is playing RISK. This is one thing that it still does better than any Macintosh I've seen.

Just for fun, I ran my IIGS through the Coolness Test that was published in the April issue. It received a score of 13. That's really pretty impressive for nearly 11 year-old technology, and better than most Macs of its era. It remains more useful than the early compact Macs for many tasks, and is a testament to the kind of reliable, flawless design that Apple was once committed to. A whole slew of programs that were originally written for the GS are now available for the Mac, so in one sense its legacy lives on. I only wish some of the little details had been transferred to the Macintosh product line, such as the scroll bars, and the inherent sense of coolness.

"The Personal Computing Paradigm" is ©1996 by Michael Tsai

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Reader Comments (6)

Forrest · July 12, 2000 - 01:01 EST #1
Amen brother!
Narfman Winters · August 16, 2000 - 01:01 EST #2
The IIGS was the first computer I'd ever owned. I got my first taste of programming on that machine. I still think it was the best Apple Computer ever built in the sense that Apple built a machine that was of top quality and excellent performance for the time. I've used the new iMacs and they and slapped together. I've yet to use a "real" Mac like a G3 or G4 so maybe Apple's changed it's tune.
Lee Paxton · March 20, 2002 - 00:33 EST #3
Yeah! The IIGS kicked butt!!
anonymous · August 10, 2002 - 13:24 EST #4
Apple II forever!
Petar Puskarich · January 12, 2003 - 21:31 EST #5
Amen! Apple II and Apple ][ GS Forever!!

My first IIGS story basically mimics this one to a tee! We must be the same age :)

Now that I am 30, I find myself still firing up my 15MHz TWGS equipped with the 8 meg Rom 00, converted to a Rom 01 machine with 700 meg HD and a Ramfast Rev. D card, just to fulfill my annual Christmas fix on the Future Domain FutureSound GS Stereo card and listening to the FTA Christmas Demo!

It isn't Christmas until I hear that menu music!

Here's to many more years for the 9 GS machines in my basement now.

Now, just where can one buy the axial leaded batteries that the Rom 01s used?
Alan · May 10, 2004 - 15:16 EST #6
I still use my GS for all the imporant work only use the Mac for the internet

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