The New Macintosh
Jim Burgess sends us an exclusive preview of Apple's powerful pair of new computers - and assesses their implications for tomorrow's MIDI-using musicians.
Apple have introduced two powerful new computers to the Mac family. How do their specifications compare with those of the existing machines, and what will they mean to musicians?
THE SCENE: a smoky auditorium. Men in suits. The Apple logo everywhere. Dry ice fills the stage. Then, rising slowly and tantalisingly out of the fog: an IBM PC? No, it's the new Macintosh II. It just looks a little like a PC.
With much pomp and pageantry, Apple have finally let the cat out of the bag. The end result of all the rumours we'd been hearing since last year is indeed worth the wait: two powerful new Macintosh computers have been introduced, the Macintosh SE and the Macintosh II.
The SE is essentially a souped-up Mac Plus. It has the same basic appearance but offers some significant speed and performance improvements, along with expandability and a large complement of powerful new features.
The Macintosh II, on the other hand, leaves Mac tradition behind. It boasts stunning colour, six expandable slots for add-on cards, blinding speed, and enough computing horsepower to leave its ancestors in the dust.
Of course, both computers are compatible with existing Mac software. In addition, Apple's new Interfile system is designed to offer either computer compatibility with MS-DOS (read IBM) software applications, a move that should help Apple's efforts to establish the Mac with Big Business. Further to this end, both computers offer a choice of keyboards, including one that looks suspiciously like a PC keyboard, complete with function keys.
And both the SE and the Mac II feature ADB (the Apple Desktop Bus), the low-speed serial communications bus Apple introduced on the IIGS which permits up to 16 input devices to be connected at once.
THINK OF THE SE as an expandable, high-performance Mac Plus. Although it looks like a Plus from the outside, the SE has a totally new internal design. For example, a single new gate chip array replaces nineteen Mac Plus chips. Like the Mac Plus, the SE comes with 1MByte of RAM, and can be expanded up to 4MByte on the logic board. It comes with twice as much onboard ROM (256K) as the Mac Plus, presumably to accommodate AppleShare (Apple's new file server) and a few new surprises. Users may choose between two 800K floppy drives or a single 800K drive plus an internal 20MByte SCSI hard disk. The IWM (Integrated Woz Machine) floppy disk controller operates twice as fast as that of the Mac Plus, making it suitable for future applications such as accommodating 1.6MByte floppy drives when they become available.
Since the SE uses the same Motorola 68000 CPU (Central Processing Unit) as the Mac Plus, you might be wondering how Apple managed to make it perform 15-20% faster. Part of the answer lies in a change in the ratio of video accesses by the CPU, which effectively makes it available for computing about twice as often as its predecessor. Hard-disk users will be pleased to note a doubling of the SCSI transfer rate, partly thanks to a newer, faster version of the SCSI driver on the SE's ROMs.
Most important of all, SE actually stands for System Expansion. The SE-Bus is a 96-pin connector that provides direct access to the 68000 (and the rest of the logic board). Custom third-party expansion cards can be installed easily and, if necessary, can be connected to outside peripherals via the Accessory Access Port on the back panel. Speaking of the back panel, it looks pretty much the same as the back of a Mac Plus: you'll find the same Modem and Printer ports, a disk drive port and a SCSI connector. Two ADB connectors (they look like the Modem/Printer ports) replace the mouse port and keyboard jack.
Because of the major internal design changes mentioned previously, Apple cannot provide an upgrade policy for existing Mac 128, 512 or Plus owners. Since just about all of the boards are different, I suppose Apple think it makes more sense to sell your Mac and buy an SE if you're so inclined.
NOW IT'S TIME to get serious: this is one very powerful computer. And with luck, its arrival will mean that MIDI users get a constant series of treats from third-party hardware and software manufacturers over the next few years.
"Apple cannot provide an SE upgrade for existing Mac 128, 512 or Plus owners. Just about all the boards are different, so it makes more sense to sell your Mac and buy an SE if you're so inclined."
From far away, it really does look like an IBM PC. Not for long, mind you; as soon as you get close enough to see the screen, you know you're looking at something new — brilliant colour with amazing resolution. Prospective Mac II owners have a choice of either a 12" monochrome or a 13" RGB monitor. Those of you who have been squinting at those puny 9" screens for years can take heart.
The standard Mac II video card offers 640x480 pixel resolution and supports either monitor. It offers a palette of over 16 million colours, of which it can simultaneously display 16. An optional eight-bit Video Expansion Kit permits the video card to generate up to 256 colours or shades of grey at once.
Unlike that of the IBM PC, the Mac II's software never needs to know which video card is installed. That means you'll never have to buy a special video card to use a certain program. !n the US, high-performance, third-party video cards are already on the way. SuperMac Technology have shown a prototype eight-bit video card with 1024x768 pixel resolution, enough to provide a huge high-resolution display. And AST Research have announced an eight-bit per pixel video digitiser for grabbing real images in colour. Computer animation may never be the same.
Perhaps the best news of all lies in the six expansion slots that conform to the NuBus specification, a bus protocol originally developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and already in use by Western Digital and Texas Instruments. NuBus offers card developers unparalleled flexibility in direct, 32-bit interfacing with the Mac II's CPU and logic board.
Some specs to drool over. The Mac II is based on Motorola's new 68020 32-bit processor, which operates at 16MHz. It also comes standard with Motorola's 68881 floating-point arithmetic chip, a coprocessor that can perform math operations up to 200 times faster than the 68020 can on its own. This enables the Mac II to process data at a rate of over 2 million instructions per second. The Mac II's SCSI port transfers data at a rate of over 1MByte per second.
The computer is available with a number of different drive configurations. All Mac IIs come with at least one internal 800K floppy drive. The second drive can be either another 800K floppy, or your choice of 20, 40 or 80MByte internal SCSI hard drives. As with the Mac SE, a revised IWM floppy controller chip capable of supporting the soon-to-come 1.6MByte floppy drives comes standard.
The Mac II comes with 1MByte of RAM on the logic board, expandable to 2MByte. But towards the end of the year, you'll be able to buy the Mac II with 4MByte of RAM onboard, and expand to 8MByte if necessary.
If that's not enough for your memory requirements, don't worry - external NuBus memory cards can be added at will. And the back panel of the Mac II features the very same type of Modem and Printer ports as those on the Plus and SE, assuring compatibility with most existing peripheral devices.
Appletalk (Apple's own networking communications system) comes standard, but the Mac II will also be able to take advantage of more powerful networking protocols such as Ethernet (boasting a 10 MByte/second transfer rate).
"Mac II users will have the option to use someone else's operating system. In addition to IBM MS-DOS compatible products, Apple will provide a version of the UNIX operating system known as A/UX."
On the subject of communication, Apple plan to break with tradition by giving Mac II users the option to use someone else's operating system. In addition to the aforementioned IBM MS-DOS compatible products available for both the SE and the Mac II, Apple will provide a version of the UNIX operating system known as A/UX.
What about the sound? At last Apple have seen fit to improve the Mac's sound capabilities, much to the benefit of musicians. The Mac II features four-voice stereo sound generation featuring a new custom sound chip. The ASC (Apple Sound Chip - what else?) offers two 1K sound buffers, permitting the computer to play wavetables or samples. Sony chips handle audio functions like filtering and amplification. Best of all, the Mac II can generate sound without tying up its CPU in the process.
WHAT ALL THESE specification details mean is this. The expandable, high-speed Mac II opens the door to more advanced computer music applications than have ever been available. The upward software compatibility offers an existing library of the most powerful music software currently available. And many new music-related products are already under development.
The first thing we'll probably see is a cheap Mac II MIDI interface on a NuBus card. And a SMPTE/MIDI/MTC card should also be under development soon.
But that's only the beginning. It shouldn't be long before a number of companies introduce high-quality 16-bit A/D and D/A converters that will turn the Mac II into a self-contained digital audio workstation.
Synthesisers may look very strange when they first start showing up in the form of PC cards, but we'll get used to it soon enough. Why not? There are enough plastic ivories around already, and the idea of a software-controlled card containing high-quality components like DACs, VCFs and VCAs should catch on fairly quickly, even if previous attempts on more primitive systems won relatively few friends.
A couple of closing thoughts. I can't help but think that somebody's going to take advantage of the UNIX operating system for musical applications. UNIX's multitasking capabilities must be able to play a role in the recording studio of the future, especially if that studio contains a number of Mac IIs assigned to different real-time control functions.
The availability of colour and much more powerful graphics will undoubtably have positive implications for music software. Besides making programs look nicer and perhaps more convenient to operate, colour offers a whole range of useful new ways to display certain types of data more effectively. Fourier displays, multiple envelope shapes, sequencer note event-editing grids and other types of crowded graphic displays will reap the benefits of colour to make them more informative.
And I hope to see programs that use the Mac II's great graphics and high speed to bring the creative elements of music and graphic art closer together. Animation driven by music; music created by animation.
In the UK, the Mac SE and (especially) the Mac II will not come cheap. The former will set you back at least £2500 (for a dual-floppy machine), while the latter will leave you little change from £5500 if you want a 40MByte hard disk unit.
Hardly Amstrad money, but then these are hardly Amstrad machines. And when you set those prices against £60,000-odd for a Series III Fairlight, you begin to see why I'm so enthusiastic about these computers. Their initial impact may be small, but it will be very significant.
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