During the past few weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to evaluate the two new Apple Macintosh computers that will be formally announced today in Los Angeles.
The Macintosh SE (which stands for “System Expansion”) is an incremental improvement over the Macintosh Plus. The other new machine, the Macintosh II, is the most powerful personal computer I’ve ever used.
The SE should be in the stores this week. The more expensive Macintosh II will be available, in limited quantities, starting in April or May, according to an Apple spokesman. Apple will continue to offer the lower-priced Macintosh Plus and the Macintosh 512KE models.
At first glance, the SE looks a lot like the Mac Plus that Apple introduced 13 months ago. The case is about the same size and the machine has the same tiny nine-inch screen.
The SE comes in two configurations. One is a model with two built-in 800K disk drives that carries a suggested price of $2,899. The other model, with one 800K disk drive and an internal 20-megabyte hard disk, sells for $3,699. The SE comes with a megabyte of random access memory, or RAM, expandable to four megabytes. It is controlled by the same Motorola 68000 central processing unit, or CPU, as the earlier Macintosh models.
The SE’s most exciting new feature is an expansion slot that can be used to connect a variety of plug-in cards. AST Research of Irvine will release several SE products, including a multifunction board that allows users to add more memory and a faster CPU. The multifunction board includes the connectors that allow additional devices to be hooked up to the SE, according to Ash Jain, an AST vice president.
AST has also developed a board that makes the SE compatible with IBM PCs and XTs. The $599 board, known as Mac86, contains an Intel 8086 CPU that operates at almost twice the speed of the CPU in a standard IBM PC. To exchange data and software, you’ll also need a PC-compatible, 5-inch disk drive that will be available from Apple for about $400.
A number of other companies are producing enhancement products for the SE. Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Radius will release a 15-inch monitor as well as a $999 card that upgrades the Mac SE with the same 68020 CPU as the more expensive Mac II. This card should increase the SE’s processing speed four times.
Both the SE and the Macintosh II come with an improved keyboard with some additional keys, including a delete key and an extra control key. For an extra $100, either machine can be equipped with an enhanced keyboard that is very similar to the one with the IBM AT. The enhanced keyboard has 12 function keys. The keyboards are also compatible with the Apple IIGS introduced last year.
Even though the SE uses the same CPU as the Mac Plus, there is a 15% to 20% improvement in processing performance with the new machine, according to Apple product manager Charlie Oppenheimer. In the Mac Plus, the CPU spends half its time processing video signals to the monitor. In the SE, some of that responsibility is transferred to another chip.
Oppenheimer also said that Apple has doubled the speed of the Mac’s Small Computer Systems Interface, or SCSI. The SCSI is used to transfer information between the Mac and a variety of devices, principally hard disk drives. In practice, the exact speed depends on the software and the hard drive being used. Apple’s own 20-megabyte hard disk runs faster on the SE but it is still slower than some other drives. Based on my tests, a DataFrame 40 from SuperMac Technology runs faster on a Mac Plus than does Apple’s internal drive on the SE.
The Macintosh II starts at $3,899, with a keyboard, one disk drive and one megabyte of RAM but no monitor or hard disk. A fully equipped model with Apple’s internal 40-megabyte hard disk and color monitor sells for about $7,000. The machine has a Motorola 68020 CPU, which allows it to process data four times faster than the CPU in the Mac Plus and the SE. It also has a sound chip that not only allows the machine to synthesize music, but makes it possible for programmers to include voice messages in business programs. We already have talking cars and elevators. Soon we’ll have “yenta-ware,” software that nags.
The Mac II does not come with a monitor or a display adapter card. Instead, Apple gives you a choice of adapters and color or black and white monitors from Apple or other companies.
Apple’s 13-inch color monitor, which is manufactured by Sony and is priced at $999, can display up to 256 colors simultaneously. Artists and programmers can select from a palette of more than 16 million colors. I don’t have the space for the technical details, but the color is spectacular. Unlike most color monitors, it also displays very readable text.
The Apple video board, which controls either a color or black and white monitor, sells for $499. It requires an additional $149 memory expansion to achieve its maximum color performance. The black and white monitor is $399. Other companies are offering their own monitors and display adapters.
The Macintosh II is very expandable. The six expansion slots can be used to add additional devices including alternate displays, network connectors, additional CPUs and instrument control devices. The machine also includes a co-processor chip that speeds mathematical computations by up to 200 times.
AST will introduce an IBM AT-compatible 80286 co-processor with a megabyte of its own memory. This card will make it possible for the Mac II to run MS-DOS programs at the same time it is running Macintosh software. Users of both the SE and Macintosh II models will be able to move data between the two environments, according to an AST’s Jain. The AST processor, the Mac286, will sell for $1,499.
The Mac II is an exciting and powerful machine, but it’s rather expensive for most business and personal applications. Apple hopes that the computer will find a niche with engineers, university faculty members, desktop publishing professionals and others with high requirements.
Unlike IBM, Apple uses proprietary technology, which means that it will be very difficult to legally “clone” the SE or the Mac II. That should keep the price of the basic unit relatively firm. Because there is an open market for add-on products, I expect price competition on monitors, disk drives, keyboards, memory devices and other options.
Frequently, when Apple introduces a new machine, it also offers an upgrade option for older models. But not this time. Apple Vice President Jean-Louis Gassee said it would have required too many compromises in the design of the new machines.
That decision opens up some interesting possibilities for other companies. Several companies already offer large displays, additional memory and speed-up boards for the earlier versions of the Mac.
Apple is now positioning the Mac Plus and the 512KE for students, the home market and some businesses. Based on suggested retail price, the Mac Plus with dual drives would cost $301 less than the SE. Faced with that choice, I’d opt for the new machine because of its expandability. On the other hand, you’re likely to find older Macs selling at sharply reduced prices, I wouldn’t dump a Mac Plus for an SE because the improvements, while interesting, are modest.
If you like to have the latest and greatest, save your pennies for a Macintosh II. The extra speed, expansion capability and state-of-the-art design should keep this machine viable well into the next decade.
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