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New Life for Old Macs

What?! Does something about this article seem odd, not as you remember, or too good to be true? Check the date it was published!

As long as we’re trying to get people to raise their hands this issue, how many of you out there have a compact Mac and would like to upgrade it? I thought so. If you’ve got a Classic you can go to a Classic II, and if you’re the proud owner of an SE, you might be able to find an SE/30 upgrade lying around at some dealer’s back room. Otherwise you’re out of luck, or maybe not…

We’ve heard some rumors of a project at Apple called Phoenix that’s one of those labors of love carried out under the very noses of the Grinch-like bean counters. A group of Apple engineers decided that it was a shame that everyone with an older compact Mac was stuck with it, more or less, especially since Apple seems to be relegating the compact Macs to the low end of the product line. So they set to work designing an upgrade in their spare time (where do these people get that kind of spare time anyway?) and by the time the managers noticed and told them to cut it out and get some real work done, the Phoenix project was already pretty cool. It’s not definite yet, but some of the ideas the Phoenix team came up with are being considered seriously enough that we might live to see the day that an ex-128K Mac can run System 7.

The basic idea behind this upgrade is that the motherboards in these machines are old and relatively useless. However, since Apple has made such strides in miniaturizing the motherboard components, the Phoenix team was able to design a universal compact Mac motherboard and some extra hardware for each specific model to make sure it fits in correctly. The case too is a problem, so they came up with a universal compact case to replace the old ones, but most of the other components like the screen and power supply and internal supports are re-used. Needless to say, this is not the sort of thing you can install at home, and it probably won’t be incredibly cheap.

Since the Phoenix team never imagined that their work would ever see the light of day at Apple, they went all out in designing the new motherboard. Rather than cripple the machine with a narrow data path, they made sure it was a true 32-bit machine with a 25 MHz 68030, and even included a coprocessor. Along with all the standard ports, they added a video out port and some internal video RAM so the Phoenix Mac can run two monitors without an additional card. Like the rumored new monitor that includes speakers and microphones, the Phoenix Mac will have two internal microphones and a much better speaker than was in the original machines.

But what about slots? There was no obvious way to fit a card into the different internal superstructures of the various compact Macs. Rather than just give up on the idea of providing a PDS or NuBus slot, the Phoenix team took an idea from the now-defunct Jasmine. At one point, Jasmine marketed a drive called something like the Backpack, which attached to the back of the Mac and took up very little room. So the Phoenix team designed a slot adapter like the one in the IIsi and put a pop-out in the back of the case to access it, much as the SE and SE/30 have.

Like the IIsi, you don’t have to buy the backpack-style card case unless you want to add an extra PDS or NuBus card (both can be supported). If you do want to add one, you can just buy the card case and your card, open the card case, install the card, and then attach the whole thing to the Mac. It’s the same general idea as the NuBus extenders from Second Wave, but since it fits snugly on the back of the redesigned case, it’s easy to travel with or swap from machine to machine.

From what we’ve heard, the Apple honchos liked the concept of the card case for the compact Macs, but they were even more taken with the concept of using a card case with a PowerBook. The PowerBook would have to have a new connector to the motherboard, so it wouldn’t work with the existing ones, but such a solution would be cheaper and easier than the proposed (and now delayed, perhaps indefinitely) docking station. Since most people aren’t likely to want more than video out, which the new PowerBooks will have, and one card, perhaps an Ethernet card, the card case is ideal, not to mention quite easily transported along with the PowerBook.

There were apparently a few extra neat ideas in the original work the Phoenix team was doing (if it’s anything like Seattle, they probably did most of this stuff in a Thai restaurant). One of the best, though not one which received a lot of support at the management level was a stand-alone LCD screen based on the active-matrix display in the PowerBook 170. (Interestingly, Dolch Computer Systems just released a color LCD projection panel that can double as a stand-alone screen for a mere $8500.) They originally wanted to put it, or a color active-matrix display, into the upgraded compact Macs, but decided that it would be way too expensive. As a stand-alone though… How much would you pay for a nice 640 x 480 active matrix screen with backlighting? I’d certainly like one for my system and would consider it up to about $700. Just think, if you had a six-slot Mac and a spot of extra cash you could set up a grid of six active matrix panels side by side. Since they don’t interfere with each other like normal monitors do, it could be a single desk-sized desktop, say 1920 x 960 or more likely 1280 x 1440. That’s a lot of pickles, er, pixels.

I’m still surprised that the Phoenix team’s work wasn’t ignored at Apple. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that Apple is going to be putting out these three operating systems for the Mac, the fancy new version of the current MacOS, the upgraded version of A/UX known as PowerOpen, and whatever Taligent makes of Pink. They claim that those operating systems will be scalable to all Macs, but I doubt a Mac Plus will be able to handle it. This Phoenix upgrade gets Apple out of a jam (or would that be a butter?) by ensuring that anyone can upgrade to a Mac capable of all the neat new voice and handwriting technologies and the operating systems behind them. Of course, as Murph Sewall says at the top of his Vaporware Digest, “These are rumors, folks. We reserve the right to be wrong.” Just because you read it in TidBITS doesn’t mean that it’s going to happen (but this upgrade has our vote!).

Dolch Computer Systems — 408/957-6575

Information from:

Related articles:
MacWEEK — 30-Mar-92, Vol. 6, #13, pg. 1, 18

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