The Apple IIGS turns 30

September 26th, 2016 8:56 AM
Filed under Hacks & mods;

September 15, 2016, marked the 30th anniversary of the release of the Apple IIGS, the last model of Apple II to be developed and produced by Apple Computer Inc. Released two years after the introduction of the Macintosh, the IIGS was the only 16-bit Apple II, offering an entirely new operating system and suite of software.

Happy 30th to the Apple IIɢs!

I was 9 years old when we got our first Apple IIGS. I'd already been weaned on a steady diet of Apple IIe software, from VisiCalc and AppleWriter to Castle Wolfenstein and Choplifter — so that's how we used the Apple IIGS: as an accelerated Apple IIe. It wasn't until I started plundering the games library of the Apple II Users Forum on CompuServe that I started exploring what the Apple IIGS was uniquely capable of. With advice from Scott Everts and Loren Damewood, we invested in some hardware upgrades from Quality Computers that made the Apple IIGS a far more powerful machine than the IIe we once owned.

It wasn't long before my gaming hours were being spent on Bouncin' Ferno, Milestones 2000, Copy Killers, DuelTris, Floortiles, GShisen, and Xenocide. For telecommunications, I moved from ProTERM to Spectrum and its infinitely scriptable environment, where I crafted many chatroom games for CompuServe and GEnie. This budding podcaster got his start manipulating people's voices in AudioZap. And for word processing — well, I stuck with AppleWorks, of course. But for the most part, I never looked back once I "upgraded" to the ultimate Apple II.

Yet today, it seems the vast majority of today's retrocomputing programmers are developing 8-bit software. Quinn Dunk is hacking the Apple IIc Plus ROM, Martin Haye and company are building the world of Lawless Legends, French Touch is crafting 8-bit demos… the quantity and quality of Apple II software seems to dwarf releases for the Apple IIGS.

I can think of two reasons why this may be true. Given its late arrival and relatively limited number of models, the Apple IIGS was never as popular as its predecessors nor as likely to be someone's first Apple II. Thirty years ago, there were more 8-bit users than there were 16-bit users, and the two communities have experienced attrition proportionately. And with more secondhand 8-bit Apple II computers available, it's more likely to be the gateway for new community members than the Apple IIGS is.

The second reason is that the 8-bit Apple II offers a greater programming challenge than the Apple IIGS, in that constraints breed creativity. Although the Apple IIGS has more software and hardware resources at its disposal, it's more of a challenge and an accomplishment to create a cool program when you have only 48 kilobytes of RAM and not 4.25 megabytes.

It's similar to what Eric Shepherd said at KansasFest 2013: the Apple is finite and capable of being entirely grokked by a single developer. That's more true for the Apple II than it is for the IIGS.

The IIGS is the youngest Apple II, just as for many years, I was the youngest of the Apple II community. It'll always hold a special place in my heart. Now I'm curious to know why you think this technically superior machine doesn't hold that place in the hearts of more Apple II users. Share your theories in the comment belows or on Facebook or Twitter!

A review of the Apple IIGS

December 27th, 2010 11:45 AM
Filed under Hacks & mods;

Brian Picchi, who sometimes goes by the Star Trek-inspired handle TanruNomad, was surfing YouTube recently when he noticed a dearth of reviews of the Apple IIGS. With all the other videos the site hosts, from bad dancing to drying paint, Brian was surprised at this obvious oversight — so he set out to correct it.

This is a great and succinct introduction to the Apple IIGS. The part of Brian's review I enjoyed most was the software showcase, which includes several action games I'd forgotten or had never seen. As Brian notes, "It's hard to believe those kind of graphics and sound are coming from a computer made in 1986!"

There's more to the Apple II than games, though, and I suspect a full-fledged review would require more than the seven minutes Brian allocated himself. I would like to see a comparative analysis of the Apple II and its contemporaries; personal memories of favorite software; and unique hardware features. But then, such a comprehensive review could go on for hours, so Brian's survey of the computer's history and most notable features, as well as what separated it from its 8-bit predecessors, may be the best approach.

The only point I question is that Apple II accelerator cards of the early 1990s cost in excess of a thousand dollars. I bought two of these cards sometime between 1988 and 1996, which I never could've done had they cost more than a few hundred each — though given theses cards' modern rarity, I wouldn't be surprised if Brian's estimate was simply ahead of its time!

Brian has accomplish his goal of plugging a hole in YouTube's library: his review currently shows up on the first page of search results for "Apple IIGS review".

A review with higher production values is available as part of Matt's Macintosh video podcast. Matt Pearce's review focuses on the 8-bit models and even references the Apple III technologies they incorporated — a topic that Juiced.GS recently published an entire feature about. However, I find it to be more historically oriented and less opinionated than Brian's review, as the only software Matt demonstrates is BASIC. It's possible that his interest lies with the titular Macintosh and that he has no personal experience with the Apple II, making it difficult to offer much more than a factual overview.

What other new videos about the Apple II would you like to see produced?

(Hat tip to the Vintage Computer Forums)

Every office needs an Apple II

June 14th, 2010 1:31 PM
Filed under Hacks & mods;
1 comment.

Ever since I moved out of my parents' house in 1997, I've not had space for a proper Apple II setup. I'd left behind two Apple IIGS computers in the basement: one from which my father ran the family business, another leftover from when I ran a dial-up BBS (1993–1997). In December 2008, I finally rescued the latter from years of inactivity when I installed it in my office cubicle.

It was a great relief, though not a surprise, to find that everything still worked fine after 11 years. Only two things failed me, both memory-based. The first was the ROM 01's inbuilt battery, which stores various settings in the BRAM. But I had previously installed Bill Tudor's BRAM.Checker, which stores the contents of BRAM to the hard drive on shutdown and restores them on startup, so it wasn't a big deal. Nonetheless, it was cheap enough to buy a battery pack from at KansasFest 2009.

The other failing was my own memory. For more than a decade, I had relied on emulators — first Bernie ][ the Rescue, then Sweet16. I've now been reminded that computing on the metal is a very different experience. I was soon asking myself and others many basic questions: to ensure my revived machine is still good, how do I run a self-diagnostic test at boot time? (Hold down Open-Apple and Option.) What does it mean that the test returned "0C000003 GS Diagnostic Self-Test error/ Sound Test: Data register failed"? (It means I have a ZipGS accelerator card installed.) All sorts of little things, I had to relearn — though strangely enough, I danced around ProTERM's various keyboard shortcuts for several minutes before realizing I had no reason to remember these esoteric commands.

It was also vaguely embarrassing to boot up a machine that represented my teen philosophies. The startup splash screen made it clear that no IBMs were allowed, and the mouse pointer was replaced by an ominous skull. What I saw in the 1990s as amusing frivolities, I see in 2010 as a waste of resources.

The first new acquisition I made for my computer was from RetroFloppy, run by David Schmidt, creator of ADTPro. The combination of hardware and software he provided allowed me to create disk images on my Mac of the Q-Drive from which I'd run my BBS. As Jason Scott would say, I don't know what among this data needs to be preserved, but it's better to make backups now, lest it not be available later when I decide it is worth preserving.

My IIGS hasn't seen a ton of use since its initial corporate installation. I sometimes spend lunch break playing Lode Runner or trying out old copies of Scholastic's Microzine. I want to put it on the corporate network, but the Uthernet card sells as quickly as they're produced. (I can't wait to see the look on the helpdesk tech's faces when they get that support ticket!) An easy way to transfer individual files between the Apple II and my MacBook would also be handy; to that end, I am an eager future customer of Rich Dreher's CFFA3000 model of his historically popular IDE/CompactFlash interface card. I'm also awaiting the delivery of a ROM 03 machine — my first of that model, and my first Apple II purchase in eighteen years — that will serve as a backup (or maybe even a replacement) to my primary machine.

My Apple II was to be the subject of a video, as I teased on the A2Unplugged podcast last year. We shot a half-hour of footage and winnowed it down to about 12 minutes, which was the longest video we'd ever produced in-house. Unfortunately, we never found the appropriate context in which to launch the video, and a few months later, its producer was laid off. We found the raw footage on his workplace hard drive, but the final cut was never found.

The bright side is that I now have a cubicle that sports three generations of Apple computers: an Apple-1, an Apple II, and a MacBook Pro. I still get some amused looks from my co-workers — unfortunately, nothing quite as delighted as this gentleman was with his surprise retrocomputer: