Macworld Magazine, October 1986

The Iconoclast by Steven Levy


Can a Plus Be a Minus?

Taking the upgrade path is costly and confusing but ultimately satisfying


Nowhere is it easier to be left behind than in the field of personal computing. Obsolescence is always just a product announcement away. When that happens, users face a tough decision: upgrade, or muddle through with yesterday's technology. Sometimes, progress's relentless advance does not even permit upgrading. Fortunately, in the case of Apple's introduction of the Macintosh Plus, the upgrade is an option.


But is it a step worth taking?


A deceptively difficult inquiry. For my part, I had developed a fierce affection for my Macintosh 512K, nicknamed the Hummer. The machine earned its moniker from the frequent conversational interludes between its internal and external floppy disk drives. Sometimes, when I least expected it (and surely when I least desired it), a message came up on screen that the Hummer required a specific disk, and then it would sullenly wait until I supplied it. The chat then recommenced, conducted in hums of varying pitches.


The Hummer's private discourse symbolized the relative slowness of the original Mac. Owners have come to accept a suggestion to go out and get a cup of coffee after they've given commands to set a program in motion. The Mac Plus, combined with a hard disk drive, promises something else: The Decaf Mac with no place for coffee in the process.


Specifically, the Mac Plus's improvements include more memory (a megabyte's worth), a double-sided internal disk drive to replace the single-sided one, new ROM chips that somehow speed up digital housekeeping, and a high-speed port called the SCSI (pronounced scuzzy)—for lightning-fast access to hard disk drives that utilize the port. There's also a new keyboard with a numeric keypad and cursor control keys, the very keys that Macintosh maestro Steve Jobs vowed would never darken the Mac's keyboard. Oh, well.


Owners of 512K Macintoshes can get a whole-hog upgrade for around a thousand bucks, or a baby upgrade (just the disk drive and the new ROM) for three hundred. I went whole hog and bought a brand-new Plus, handing over the Hummer to my friend at home. (And let me tell you, I had some fun getting her Apple II+ files into the Mac—but that's another story.)





A problem greeted me when I opened the Macintosh Plus box: the connectors for the serial ports don't match the ports on the Hummer. I was unable to hook up my ImageWriter or modem to the Plus without special adapter plugs. After .searching frantically in the box for the adapters, I sadly reached the conclusion that there were none in there, and I had to venture into the world and find them.


A frantic survey of New York stores revealed a remarkable shortage of adapter plugs. Finally I found a store that agreed to sell me two adapters for $20 apiece. I ran uptown and purchased two flimsy pieces of plastic and metal with a fair value, I figure, of about $3. It was the most unpleasant experience I'd had since unpacking an IBM PCjr and finding out that the keyboard wouldn't work without batteries (not included).


The next surprise was the end of the hum. The double-sided disk drives on the Mac Plus make a distinctly different sound—a robotic gurgle. The good news is that the gurgle seldom lasts for long—undoubtedly because with the improved ROM chips, the Mac Plus does not access the disk with the same loony insistence as the Hummer did. And, of course, the new disk drive holds twice as much information as the old one.



Drive, He Said

This brings up the question of what people should do with their old disk drives. Not only is it inefficient to use a single-sided drive in conjunction with double-sided disks, it can be somewhat dangerous because of the confusion that inevitably arises in such a situation. Unable to fathom the nature of this (double-sided) beast, the doddering old external drive concludes that it's not a formatted disk at all and asks that you click the mouse to format the disk properly. If you have not been watching carefully, you might do this and wipe out as much as 800K—or an entire book's worth of information.


For a while, I played with the Plus using no external disk drives at all, hard or floppy, to see if such a stripped-down approach was feasible. I found it not too time consuming to make up some double-sided disks that included a well-stuffed System Folder, an application or two, and considerable room for documents. For simple word processing or spreadsheeting, this is quite adequate. Then, attempting to take advantage of all that memory inside the Plus, I loaded a System Folder and Microsoft Word into a RAM disk (a program that carves out a chunk of computer memory to behave like an extra disk drive, only faster), stuck a floppy into the drive for my document, and absolutely wailed away.


Then, abruptly, I encountered a very weird bug. The cursor on my screen suddenly grew to a height of about 4 inches, and the rest of my text disappeared. And nothing I typed produced a response.


Since this is not my preference for turbo computing, I tried to undo whatever I had done, without success. I finally had to shut down the machine, thus wiping out the contents of my RAM disk. After encountering the same problem on my second try, I gave up and went back to using the standard floppy. Then I discovered that somewhere along the line, the computer's clock had gone haywire. It informed me that some of my more recent files were created not in 1986 but in 1904. The idea of time-travel word processing was intriguing, but I would be happier in a less volatile computing environment.




Clouded Vision

What caused the bug? You guess. All I know is that somewhere in the interaction between the RAM disk software. Word, the system software, and the new ROM, something was amiss. Is it too much to expect that things go right? Since Apple has done considerable boasting about the easy upgrade path from the Mac 512K to the Plus, you expect the snags to be kept to a minimum.


Instead, adventures. Pull down the calculator and use the numeric keypad to work it; the plus sign on the board makes a minus sign on the screen (I'll ignore the symbolism). The cursor-control keys work in Word, but use the numeric keys and no numbers appear, though the cursor moves. Try the cursor keys on PageMaker version 1.1, and you'll get little boxes on the screen.


Even worse, some things don't work at all on the Plus. Most notably, certain hardware devices that worked on the Hummer—MIDI interfaces and ThunderScans, for instance—get nowhere on the Plus. Yes, you can buy new MIDI interfaces and new ThunderScans—but what about the ones you already paid for? (At least companies such as Borland offer free upgrades to owners of software that doesn't work on the Plus, and companies such as Microsoft and Lotus package double-sided Mac Plus disks for their products.)


Then we have the problem of the system software. The first Mac Pluses were shipped with System version 3.1 and Finder version 5.1. The Finder uses the new method of keeping track of files—the Hierarchical File System, or HFS—that doesn't talk too well with files foldered by the previous system. And bugs kept appearing, so Apple issued System 3.1.1 (that's right, three-point-one-point-one) and Finder 5.2. Meanwhile the version numbers of the ImageWriter driver and the Desk Accessory Mover kept inching up, too. Finally, I heard of the supposedly final, bug-free System 3.2 and Finder 5.3.


Sound confusing? No joke. Apple is making an effort to keep people informed of the latest updates, but not enough of an effort. Although Apple sends the latest versions to dealers and makes them available on CompuServe for downloading, the burden is still on the users to (1) determine whether they need new versions and (2) take time and expense to get the upgrades themselves. Apple should take the more responsible approach of immediately sending the upgrade disks to anyone who filled out Mac Plus warranty cards, 512K Enhanced Mac cards, or upgrade kit cards.


I run on about these problems because all this improvement has subtly but effectively blemished the vision of the Macintosh: computing without worrying about what a computer is. The way I see it, people should be able to buy a Macintosh as a first computer, go to work on it, and never have to think about what a System is and what a Finder is and what version of these things they have in their machines. That kind of garbage should have gone out with the MS-DOS computers. While I realize this complexity goes hand in hand with the effort to improve the Macintosh, the situation is still disappointing.



Hard Drivin' Man

That said, let me go on to the more cheerful experience of hooking up to a hard disk drive. After a few weeks of using both the Apple HD 20 (connected to the external disk drive port) and a SuperMac DataFrame 20 (connected to the SCSI port), I have to conclude it’s the only way to go. In fact, for anyone even considering an upgrade, I recommend going directly to a hard disk drive and not bothering with the sleek double-sided external floppy.


This style of computing is certainly in the heart of the Macintosh vision. Both the hard disks I tried were ludicrously simple to set up: the HD 20 was no more difficult to format than a floppy disk, and the DataFrame arrived already formatted, complete with system software installed. Whereas the early Macintosh hard disk drives were more costly and saddled with complicated software problems, this generation lets you get going with zero learning time and provides an easy discover-shortcuts-as-you-go route to real power computing.


The other big advantage of a hard drive is the ability to build as huge a System file as you want. I built my dream system with fonts of all varieties and desk accessories ranging from stuff uploaded from CompuServe (Word Count, a devilishly useful little thing) to utilities like Tempo, to several key components from Borland's Sidekick. Using Sidekick’s phone books, I began to take advantage of my computerized Rolodex for the first time, because I could access the phone numbers and dial the phone, too in the middle of any task.


My only complaint was with the onerous software copy protection that publishers install to punish legal users for the sins of thieves. During the first week of hard-driving, much of what I gained in speed was canceled out by mad searches of my actual desk top to find the required master disk. The very worst happened when the drive on my new Plus ejected a disk only halfway—nothing I tried could free it from the drive. Before I took the Plus to the dealer to liberate the disk, I tried to finish an article in Word—but since I could not feed the master disk into the internal drive to certify that I was kosher, I had no access to my legally obtained program.


The solution was a copying program, Hard Disk Util. This remarkable program, in uncomplicated fashion, turned me into a master breaker of copy protection—something I have no desire to be, except in self-defense, and allowed me to install unprotected copies of Word, Excel, OverVue, PageMaker, and ThinkTank. I then settled in to everyday Mac Plus computing—where files open and close with decaffeinated ease—every so often pondering whether the SCSI-driven DataFrame was really much faster than the non-SCSI Apple drive.


I finally concluded that SCSI is faster, but the distinction is trifling compared to Plus computing s big advantages of speed and convenience. Is the upgrade worth it? Well, if you measure your life by spoonfuls, it certainly is, because eventually you'll save enough spoonfuls of time to fill a truck. Just the other day I took some work home and sat down at my old Hummer. Within 5 minutes I was pulling my hair out while the conversation buzzed on.


Sorry Hummer, I've got a new best friend.


Macworld Contributing Editor Steven levy wrote Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution and is a contributing editor of Rolling Stone.