The New Macs
Does every silver lining have a cloud? Martin Russ looks beyond the 'low prices' at a few facts for potential buyers of the new Apple Macintosh computers.
The Macintosh magazines have been full of the new low prices for the latest generation of Apple products, but the informed comment has been less easy to find. Beyond the 'same price as an Atari' slogan there are some very interesting points to bear in mind when considering a Mac for musical use...
To summarise the three new models: The Mac Classic is the single-box traditional Mac shape with a small screen for about £600; the LC is a low-cost colour machine in a more conventional box-with-monitor-on-top configuration, at a price of around £1400 pounds; the IIsi is a cost-effective way to get the speed and power of a Mac II (I can't really call £2500 pounds cheap, but it is in comparison to the other Mac II models!).
Firstly, there is the thorny problem of what is the minimum hardware specification worth buying. The cheapest Classic only has a single floppy drive (which, besides formatting and handling disks in the Mac's own format can also read 3.5" PC disks, which means you can read standard MIDI files from PC disks) and 1 Megabyte of RAM. For most serious music work, this really isn't enough — many computers work better with a hard drive, but with the Mac it's virtually an essential, unless you're keen on extended disk-swapping sessions. That 1Mb of RAM could also be a shade small for anyone with a taste for those rather neat Mac DAs, INITs, CDEVs and other machine enhancing bits of software, not to mention real working software packages.
So, the realistic minimum purchase has to be the £895 version of the Classic, which has a 40Mb hard disk and 2Mb of RAM. 40 meg is about the minimum a serious user should consider these days, and 2 meg of RAM is going to be essential when the new System 7.0 operating system becomes available (probably later this year, but then I thought that this time last year).
For about £500 pounds more than the Classic, the LC (40Mb hard disk, 2Mb of RAM) has the dubious advantage of colour support, but the more important benefit of a larger screen. I can't really see much point in buying a colour monitor for a computer which will spend most of its life scrolling black notes on white backgrounds, especially when current Mac music software makes very little use of colour anyway. The money you save on buying a monochrome monitor (£140 for a 12" mono display as opposed to £260 for a 12" colour display) could be much better spent on a decent MIDI interface.
The LC and IIsi both come with a small microphone, which looks rather like a cross between a cereal packet novelty and a flattened ping-pong ball. 8-bit samples at 11 or 22kHz aren't exactly at the forefront of hi-tech sampling technology, so the sound facilities really fall into the novelty area, at least for serious musical uses. If this comment spurs someone on to produce a world-wide best-selling number one using just a Mac then all the better, but the rest of us mere mortals will probably be better off buying a real sampler. Remembering that cheap samplers like the Cheetah SX16 start at more than the cheapest Classic should remind you that computers are remarkably cheap when compared to other music equipment.
Continuing this theme, if you spent the same on a computer as on a decently equipped 'industry standard' sampler, then you could find the Mac IIsi well within your price range. This is at least £1000 less than the popular IIex and IIci models, and the IIsi lies between the two older models in speed (20MHz, as opposed to 16 or 25) though it offers less potential for expansion (one NuBus slot instead of three).
The IIsi is the machine you will need to consider if you want to be able to utilise the full capabilities of the long-awaited System 7.0 (you could buy an SE/30, but this takes you back to a small screen), but for everyday sequencing and editing the machine is perhaps overspecified.
Weighing the 2/40 Classic against a comparable Atari system, the two are about level on price. The Atari has a larger screen, while the Mac has a nicer operating system, and there's a lot of music software available for both machines. The Atari TT (still not available in the UK) seems to be rather expensive, and apparently offers only limited compatibility with ST software, and so is probably not the way forward.
Is there life beyond the Mac and ST? Having tried to live with Windows 3.0 for six months, I am now convinced that first appearances have little to do with good user interfaces (give me the Mac any day), and the PC and Commodore Amiga both suffer from a lack of decently (and consistently) windowed music software. Given the price, performance, and sophistication of Apple's technology (and the current rumours of a link-up with Sony), the latest Macintoshes ought to be the natural successors to the musically dominant Atari. Two SOS writers even asked Santa for new Macs in the January issue. However, only time will tell if the 90s belong to Apple. If only the Mac had cost the same as an Atari ST five years ago...
All the prices given in this article exclude VAT. Apple have discount schemes that allow journalists and anyone involved full-time in education (students, teachers, college lecturers etc) to buy hardware at rather less than list price.
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