The Apple IIe personal computer; a first hand examination. (evaluation) Danny Goodman.
The Apple Ile Personal Computer
A First Hand Examination
It was a November week of visits to computer and other high-tech companies in California's Silicon Valley, a rich territory noteworthy enough to qualify for recent Sixty Minutes and National Geographic treatments. Highway 101 is the standard bus that connects the sprawling communities around San Jose, where the electronics industry knows little of recession. In fact, practically every office or factory visited fell into one of two categories. Either they had just moved into larger facilities, or expansion into a new building or wing was underway.
Veil of Secrecy
My job for the morning of the twelfth was to see firsthand one of the best kept secrets of the computer industry: the specifications and features of a machine that would have the onerous responsibility of becoming the successor to the world famous Apple II Plus. All I knew about it was its name: Apple IIe.
Directions I was given over the phone led me to a seven story Cupertino office building still undergoing final construction and outfitting for its first round of tenants. Fortunately, the directions also included the floor on which the meeting was to occur, because the sparsely-filled building directory did not list Apple Computer, nor anything else on that floor. "What better way to keep a secret than to have offices on an unlisted floor,' I muttered to myself.
When the elevator door opened, however, I was unmistakably in the lobby of an Apple Computer facility. Literature and retail displays boasting the merits of the Apple II Plus and Apple III added coloe to the predominantly grey color scheme.
Our meeting was delayed a few minutes at the bidding of a Murphy's Law application ("If anything can possibly go wrong, it will.'). The room in which the new computer and its predecessor had been set up and checked out the night before suddenly had no power at all. Such are the nysteries of working in a new facility. Critics of the dependence of a company or professional on a computer should note this incident and conclude that we are instead dependent on more fundamental needs. Electricity, for example.
Before long, I met Paul Dali, general manager of Apple's Personal Computer Systems Division. Together we entered a small meeting room with what at first looked like two Apple II Plus systems--both with tops removed--set up along the windows. But no, the two machines were decidedly different.
Apple II Facts and Figures
As background to the development of the new model, Paul analyzed the success of the Apple II. He noted that over the years Apple has been pursuing five distinct markets with the Apple II. First is the office, where a computer is used as a productivity tool in basic tasks such as word processing, database management, communications, and the like. Such productivity applications represent Apple's biggest market.
Related to the office is the very small business market, a difference denoted not necessarily by company size (although generally with sales under $20 million) but by specific applications for the business--vertical systems, Apple calls them. Into this category fall uses such as accounting, payroll, credit union systems, and banking systems. He estimated that today there are about 250,000 Apple IIs in the office, and that most of these were brought into the office initially by an individual who spent his or her own money on the unit.
A third market--and still quite a large one at that--is the educational one. Twenty-five percent of Apple's sales are to the educational market--I would never have guessed such a large figure. The balance of Apple IIs go to the scientific/industrial and family/ consumer markets.
Addressing so many and such diverse markets should be a nightmare for any kind of product. But the Apple II has a built-in feature that lets it meet needs in all these areas: expansion slots. The unit is an open system that lets the user put in anything that transforms the basic machine into a special purpose computer. Paul summarized the Apple II this way, "Flexibility is and always will be the single biggest reason why the machine sells. It is so adaptable.'
An outgrowth of the flexibility of the II has been an enormous following of software developers. Apple counts well over 10,000 programs available for the II. Paul maintained that the installed base of the II is so big that it represents a market too big for programmers to overlook. "We can't stop the software development momentum. Every time someone writes more software, they'll tend to write for the Apple also.'
Although the Apple II has gone through some revisions during its lifetime (replacing 4K RAM chips with 16K chips, improving color graphics, and meeting FCC radio frequency requirements), the basic features have remained essentially unchanged. The mother board has seven expansion slots. The display output is a 40-column width format and characters are shown in upper case only. Finally, the Apple II has exhibited a good reliability record, according to an informal and totally unscientific dealer poll I have taken over the years.
Paul was quick to point out that despite its popularity, the Apple II Plus has several disadvantages. Lower case letter display is not standard. On-board memory (RAM) is limited to 48K. The teletype-like keyboard has a limited character set. The attachment of peripherals (printers, modems, game controllers, etc.) requires removing the top and plugging onto the appropriate circuit card. An 80-column display (particularly useful in professional applications) is a costly add-on. And, although some of these deficiencies could be corrected with add-ons, not all cards were compatible with one another.
(At this juncture, Paul and I were joined by Walt Broedner, who designed the insides of the new Apple, and Rick Rice, production coordinator. Walt brought along a chip-filled circuit board, and Rick had a complete computer as props for their parts of the presentation. More about those later.)
Enter Apple IIe
Paul then went on to formally introduce the newest Apple, the Apple IIe, "e' for "enhanced.' And enhanced it is. While the changes in the IIe will be more apparent to current Apple followers, the end product for the first-time shopper is a machine with many built-in features.
To the uncritical eye, the IIe cabinet looks like a clone of the II. The differences in appearance lie in the keyboard (see below) and the logo. The proper designation is Apple //e (as in Apple ///), and the logo is now at the lower left corner of the removable top instead of at the bottom center.
The basic ("vanilla,' Paul called it) IIe will be sold with a minimum of 64K RAM, expandable to 128K with an additional memory board. That's getting the IIe up to where the Apple III starts taking over for heavy-duty business applications.
Applesoft Basic is no longer on a separate language board that takes up an expansion slot. It is now resident on the motherboard as part of a new custom integrated circuit.
Upper and lower case characters are both standard. Display characters on the monitor are composed in a 5x7 picture element array within a 7x9 field, allowing for lower case descenders.
The 63-key keyboard in many ways resembles that of the Apple III (without numeric keypad). The full 128-character ASCII set is on the keyboard. All keys also heve auto repeat (holding a key down causes the character to repeat-- especially helpful in fast cursor movement). The key layout of the IIe includes four cursor keys (all in a row at the lower right) and Open Apple/Solid Apple limited function keys (on each side of the space bar). A raised dot on the D, K, and one cursor key help touch typists keep on track.
The reset key has been moved to the far upper right of the keyboard and an accidental press won't clear out your machine and an hour's keyboard input. That operation now requires a deliberate, three-key sequence (simultaneously pressing CTRL-OPEN APPLE-RESET). The new reset procedure is also aimed at saving the power switch, one of the biggest service problems on the II Plus.
The motherboard, although still presenting a 40-column display as standard, is equipped to accept a new, "inexpensive' 80-column card that has only five integrated circuits. No price for the card was available, but it was to compare favorably with II Plus 80-column cards which cost in excess of $300. The Apple 80-column card fits into an auxiliary connector located out of the way from the seven slots, but is still equivalent to slot 3. The decision to offer 80 columns as an option was based on costconscious education and consumer market needs for only 40-column displays. With the IIe 80-column board in place, the user has mixed screen modes available. There can be graphics on the upper screen and either 40-or 80-column text on the bottom four lines.
Low resolution color graphics are 40X48 elements in 16 colors. With 64K RAM installed, optimum color graphics resolution is 290X192 (six colors). But this increases to a 560X192 array if the full complement of 128K RAM is installed.
There are significant improvements in the back panel, or "backplane,' as it is known. The panel is now metal, with several holes precut to accept female connectors attached by cable to the accessory cards installed in the expansion slots. There is room for up to four each of the following D-connectors: 25, 19, and 9-pin. The 9-pin holes also accept DIN-type connectors, popular in Europe.
Additionally, the game controller connector has been permanently installed on the backplane, yet the old connector has been left inside the cabinet (a small clock card was installed in the IIe for our demonstration). The use of panel connectors will make switching peripherals a much easier task. Incidentally, the design better seals the unit against RF leakage. All Applemanufactured cards will have connectors and short cables, as well as an adapter that will let II Plus owners slide the connector into their plastic backplane slot.
There are many changes, too, that may not be apparent to the user, but are no less important.
The microprocessor is a newer version of the older 8-bit 6502. The chip is called the 6502A which can operate at a speed of 2 megaHertz (mHz.), but in the IIe is kept at the old speed of 1.8 mHz.
A number of significant changes were made in the manufacturing process of the IIe as well. In the Apple II Plus design, the circuit boards were installed in the cabinet of the unit at an early stage of production. Burn-in testing took up much manufacturing space because finished computers could be tested only in their cabinets. If a bad unit was discovered, the case could be damaged in the handling, causing costly reworking of the unit.
The IIe, however, is just one circuit board for most of its porduction life. All parts are now insertable by machine. Burn-in testing is done on the circuit board in specially designed racks. Rick Rise pointed out the edge connectors that send signals from the testing rack through the computers and a red LED that is designed into the board to indicate that everything is working properly. Now, just the circuit board need be tested, in much less manufacturing space.
Goodbye, Mr. Chips
When looking at a II Plus and IIe side by side with their tops off, it is clear that a great deal of design energy went into reducing the number of integrated circuits for the IIe. For one thing, the designers have combined the old motherboard, separate keyboard circuit board, and Applesoft language card into a single motherboard. The 109 chips of the old system are now only 31. This 3-to-1 chip reduction is accomplished in several ways.
Solid state memory prices have dropped dramatically, opening the way for the inclusion of high capacity devices in place of many more lower capacity chips. For example, all of the 64-kilobyte RAM of the IIe is contained on eight 64-kilobit dynamic RAM chips. The keyboard character set is housed in a single 32-kilobit ROM chip. For international sale, Rick pointed out on the Swedish Apple IIe he had brought into the room, the IIe has a 64-kilobit ROM which holds both the American English character set and a completely separate character set for the language of the country in which the computer is sold. The international user can choose which set to use.
(The IIe will be released simultaneously in Europe as it is here in the U.S., one of the first such products to perform this feat.) $kBut one of the biggest chip-saving efforts went into two custom ICs designed by Walt Broedner. The story behind their development deserves retelling.
With a set of ideal properties for a new Apple in mind, Walt set out to design a new Apple about two years ago. After no small effort, Walt delivered his designs of two chips to Synertek (a semiconductor manufacturer) for the production of samples. Walt's designs used two 40-pin integrated circuits (like the 6502 microprocessor) instead of a single 64-pin pack, because Apple didn't have the experience of working with such packages in production.
One chip, called the Memory Management Unit (MMU), contains the Applesoft Basic language, 80/40-column support, the enabling ROMs, and keyboard reading circuitry. The other, the Input/Output Unit (IOU), acts as controller for the CRT display, cassette interface, and speaker. Getting properly functioning samples can take as long as a year. But because Walt kept both chips at a relatively small size (110 mils on a side, or 12,100 square mils, compared to a typical 64K RAM chip size of more than 30,000 square mils), and by using similar gate design in both, Synertek delivered two custom chips in December 1981, just 26 weeks after Walt handed them his design.
In his development, Walt used an emulator circuit board--the chip-filled board he had brought into the meeting--configured such that all he had to do was unplug two jumper cables, disabling 102 smaller chips he used as initial building blocks, and plug in the two custom chips to see if they worked. Both sample chips worked the first time!
The prime concern among potential customers, of course, is the compatibility of Apple II software, hardware, and firmware with the new Apple IIe. And how the hundreds of companies currently selling Apple supporting products will respond to the new unit.
From the outset, the design of the Apple IIe was built around making the new machine as compatible as possible with II Plus. But Apple went one step further as we'll see.
Peripherals such as disk drives, monitors, printers, and modems are reported to be 100% compatible. Expansion slots are completely compatible, because the same signals are at the same pin locations as on the old II Plus.
Software is largely compatible. The only difficulties would occur in a word porcessing software program, for example, that is not written to support an 80-column display. In that case, only the 40-column mode would be operable.
In tests of a lot of software, Apple engineers discovered that some software utilizes copy protection schemes that look for very specific codes in memory locations throughout the machine. This way, if the program fails to receive the right codes, it "thinks' it is on a non-Apple machine thay may be trying to copy the disk, and won't boot the disk. On the Apple IIe, those codes may not be in the same place as in the Apple II, so the disk would not be usable.
Another incompatibility problem will occur in accessory cards or firmware that play tricks on the Apple II to operate. For example, some cards require the removal of a chip from the Apple II motherboard. On the IIe, that chip may be incorporated in another, larger chip, making it impossible to disable its functions. Also, programs written in the monitor using entry points not recommended by Apple will have problems. Applesoft Basic programs, however, will be compatible.
To smooth the changeover from II to IIe in the software and hardware accessory ends, Apple has been actively engaged in notifying every vendor of Apple-compatible products they could unearth about impending changes in the Apple. For more than six months, the company has been providing cooperating companies, on a non-disclosure basis, with an Apple IIe for software/ hardware evaluation and development. (The in-house name for this effort was the Apple Seeding program, perhaps with apologies to Johnny Appleseed.) Those vendors who needed or wanted to make changes have had time to make those changes and have software ready in time for the introduction of the machine.
Apple claims that most vendors welcomed the advance information. The companies were apparently pleased to learn that, although the IIe necessitated some changes or additional software offerings, their products would continue to enjoy a growing market with the new machine.
Apple itself will have two redesigned programs from its own software library to be introduced with the IIe. Apple Writer will support the 80-column display (when installed), as will a fastsorting electronic database management program I saw, called Quick File. Both programs will also make use of the 128K, expanded RAM in systems so equipped (the 6502A, of course, can address only 64K RAM directly--the balance will be under software direction).
One Manual For All
Documentation supplied with the Apple IIe deserves special note. Gone, but available as options, are the "techy' Applesoft reference and DOS manuals that have overwhelmed many a computer novice. Instead, there is a single, 140-page spiral bound "Owner's Guide' that not only gets the user up and running, but is one of the best introductions to personal computing I have seen in a long while.
Chapter One goes through the initial set up of the system. The next chapter is a guided tour of the system and instructions on loading a tutorial disk, called "Apple Presents Apple,' supplied with the manual. Chapter Three presents an uncomplicated and cleverly illustrated explanation of how the Apple and disks work. Then a chapter devoted to DOS 3.3 (in which you learn that DOS and Basic require the CAPS LOCK key to be engaged), plus its most important commands and error messages.
Chapter Five discusses all the things you can do with your Apple from an application point of view (electronic work sheets, word processors, database management, telecommunications, graphics) along with suggested software and peripherals--some even from outside suppliers. There is no Basic language instruction here, but the manual discusses several languages to pursue on your own with the help of other Apple manuals or software. Featured are Applesoft and Integer Basics, Pascal, Fortran, Logo, Pilot, and 6502 Assembly Language.
The balance of the manual covers other peripherals, troubleshooting tips (there is a limited self-test built into the IIe), books and magazines worth reading (of course Creative Computing is listed!), glossary, and index.
The last point in our discussion--and one in which I was particularly interested, having seen all this simplified power set up before me--was pricing.
Paul Dali returned to field this subject. Final pricing was not completed, but the cost of a basic 64K, 40-column Apple was planned to fall between $1300-1400, or roughly the cost of the 48K Apple II Plus. The best bargains, Paul was quick to note, will be in packaged systems, just as they were for the Apple II. System packages featuring the old II Plus computer, one disk drive, a monochrome monitor and a software package or two for around $2000 represented good consumer values. Such packages will exist for the IIe, with several "soft solutions' available by the end of 1983 depending on the markets the company is pursuing.
That the new model sports the same case design and color as the veteran II Plus was no disappointment. Even after all these years, it is still a pleasing shape which I am not tired of seeing. And while a detachable keyboard would be a nicety, I fully understand maintaining a form factor that has such ready recognition with the Apple name.
The degree to which care had been applied to making the IIe as compatible as possible with its forerunner was a happy surprise. A company with the apparent marketing muscle of Apple could have tried to "brute force' its way into creating some new personal computer standard that would have been much less compatible.
A consumer benefit coming from the redesign of the motherboard is not the increased reliability coming from two-thirds fewer chips, but ability to assess all chips with the top off. This will speed service turnaround if one circuit should go bad.
The reduction in chip count also lightens the load of a power supply. The eight 64K dynamic RAMs in the IIe dissipate less power than all the 16K RAMS in the II.
In fact, in an early stage of design, the power supply (at first it will be the same as in the II Plus) was "looking' at a circuit that wasn't meeting even the minimum load requirements for a properly functioning II Plus. The supply had to be artificially loaded by converting some of the excess capacity to +5 volts available to peripheral cards. The net result is about one extra ampere of current available for the seven slots to share. Moreover, the 6502A, running at less than optimum speed, does so, only cooler. All this leads to a cooler running computer, likely to be even more reliable than the II.
Apple has been testing working models for about a year. Reliability studies, Walt Broedner claims, have shown the IIe to be more reliable than the II. The units have survived operation in temperatures below 0~ Celcius and over 90~ Celcius.
The biggest disappointment came at the discussion of price, especially after hearing how efficiently the unit could be manufactured and tested. I didn't expect the IIe to wallow around in the under-$300 mud with the popular home computers, but I did expect, or hope to see the IIe come in at around $700-800, even for just 48K RAM. So the standalone price of $1300-1400 for a 64K unit seemed terribly high to me.
That's the benefit of making a computer with over 10,000 applications on the shelf. Serious computer shoppers are looking for solutions. Fi the software solution exists, and it happens to run only on an Apple, then Apple it will be, even if it is more expensive than other, comparably equipped machines.
The advance planning with outside software and hardware vendors was equally encouraging. The company appears to want everything 100% right before it unleashes its new offspring. That Apple was ramping up production and had a finished, printed Owner's Manual more than two months prior to formal announcement augurs well for a consumer-painless introduction of a product that will be in high demand and expected to work the first time.
Strip away the price factor, and you are left with a near perfect computer with enough power to take most personal computer users up to moderately sophisticated applications. The IIe is everything the Apple II Plus should have been a year or two ago, when it underwent development. Emerging, therefore, as it does in these turbulent times in the industry, the Apple IIe is a remarkably evolutionary personal computer.
Table: Recommended Slots
Products: Apple IIe personal computer(Computer) - Evaluation