• We get our hands on a working Macintosh 128K 30 years after it launches
  • What is it like to use an original Macintosh after using a modern Mac?
  • How similar is the original Macintosh from thirty years ago to a modern Mac?

It’s been thirty years since Apple revolutionised the home computer industry with the Macintosh. This tiny home computer packed inside it the template of what would become every home computer, the Macintosh was the blueprint that other computer companies followed.

To put this into perspective we have performed a hands on test of a vintage Macintosh 128K. We pit the breakthrough Macintosh 128K computer against its rivals, and look at how much of its original influence remains.

It has been thirty years since Apple revolutionised the home computer market with the brilliant Macintosh 128K (known then as simply, “The Macintosh”). Surprisingly a good number of Macintosh 128K computers are still in good, healthy, working condition. One of which can be found in The Cambridge Centre for Computing.

We put a Macintosh 128K through a hands-on test to see what it was like to use thirty years after its original launch. Would the original Macintosh be still usable after all these years, and what could you do with it?

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Hands on test: Macintosh 128K

Looking at a Macintosh 128K up and running

The first you notice about an original Macintosh is the familiar structure of the computer, keyboard and mouse. In many ways this is obviously a computer in the sense that you know it. Unlike something from 10 years earlier like the Altair 8800. The physical shape of the Macintosh 128K body (with the screen and computer housed in a single unit) is also a delightful sight to anybody who’s used a modern Mac (see: iMac 2013 review).

For all that though this is clearly an older computer. It’s at the same time much smaller, and bulkier than anything that would exist today.  While the unit itself seems quite tiny, the keyboard and mouse look almost comically huge. While the modern iMac appears to be virtually a floating screen, this Macintosh has a lot of “Mac” surrounding the small screen.

Looking at the Macintosh 128K display

Speaking of the Macintosh 128K display. The screen really is tiny. The Macintosh 128K packs a diminutive 9 inch CRT with just 512 x 342 pixels; it’s only marginally smaller than an iPad screen although it has a much lower resolution (lower even than the original iPhone). Due to the bulk of the Macintosh itself it seems much smaller (Incidentally this is 72 PPI which is why desktop publishing images are standardized at 72PPI).

The screen is also black and white, which feels a bit of a curveball: we haven’t used a monochrome computer in many years and for some reason Apple’s colourful association led us to forget the lack of colour. And the screen has a curvature that makes it undeniably retro.

Hands on with the Macintosh keyboard

There’s no getting away from the keyboard and mouse. Both feel incredibly chunky, not even for this day and age. The new Apple Keyboards are fantastically thin, but even for anybody who’s used a keyboard in general. Even though it is an 1980s device, the keyboard has a 1970s feel to it.

Our keyboard on this Mac isn’t the very first that shipped with the Apple Macintosh. That keyboard had no numerical keypad, whereas ours has one. The original Apple Macintosh keyboard also had no arrow keys, at the insistence of Steve Jobs who wanted people to use the mouse. Our keyboard has arrow keys arranged in a linear shape, rather than the inverted-T shape that is more commonly used. This is another nostalgic feel, but it’s clearly not as practical a shape. Further investigation reveals that we are using a Macintosh Plus keyboard. We double-check the Mac itself, but not to worry: it is connected to an original Apple Macintosh.

In terms of design though it is beautiful to look at. It has the familiar Shift, Option and Command key. Although only on the left-hand side, on the right sits a backlash key. It has a comfortable ‘thunk’ when you type and it feels very much a keyboard to last. Which given we’re still using it thirty years later is a good sign.

Hands On Test: Macintosh Keyboard

Hands on with the Apple M0100 Mouse

The Mouse is, thankfully, a M0100 that came with the original Mac. It is at one and the same time retro and modern. Despite being thirty years old it does exactly what a mouse is supposed to: moves the cursor around the screen. A single button performs a click. There is - famously - no right button. There is also no Control-Click. It is a very much one-button Mouse.

We look underneath and find a familiar scroll ball (these were used before the modern optical and laser mouse). A large circular dial enables us to remove the ball (which had to be done frequently for cleaning).

This Apple Mouse is tremendously important in the annals of computing history. It was the device that truly popularised the mouse, and by extension the graphical user interface, amongst computers. And this is the mouse what did it. It’s also a very good mouse, easy to hold and click with. We can see why the design didn’t really change that much for the next 20 years.

Hands on test: Macintosh Mouse

Hands on test: Macintosh Mouse

Hands on with the Macintosh interface

When it truly gets interesting is when you start to use the Macintosh. Despite running an operating system that is thirty years old the combination of GUI, mouse, keyboard and screen makes it remarkably easy to pick up and use. It is divine.

The Macintosh operating system is also surprisingly responsive. We were expecting it to crawl along but the cursor moves with the mouse with little lag, and menus and programs open with reasonable responsiveness. The only hold up is when it accesses the floppy disk (there is no hard drive). When the disk is being accessed the interface is unresponsive (although the cursor still moves around).

What's also interesting is just how familiar the interface is to anybody who has used a Macintosh ever since. The menu bar remains at the top, and on the top-left is an Apple menu. Click it to reveal About the Finder and a selection of apps. To the right are File, Edit, View and Special menus. There is a desktop and in the bottom-right there is a Trash can. There is no Dock (that didn’t come until Mac OS X) and no Launcher either (Macintosh 7.5). But there is a range of programs included with the Macintosh:

  • Alarm Clock
  • Calculator
  • Choose Printer
  • Control Panel
  • Key Caps
  • Note Pad
  • Puzzle
  • Scrapbook

Choosing these from the Apple menu launches a window with the app. You can switch to an App. One thing we notice is that the menu doesn't change for each app (as it does now). Instead, it remains with just the Apple, File, Edit, View, Special options.

Hands on test: Macintosh Operating System

The apps are lightweight, so they feel more like Widgets. But you can arrange them on top of each other. Some, like the Calculator, also have rounded corners which is a small touch but there’s a neat story about how Apple engineer Bill Atkinson came up with a way to draw circles quickly, which was considered impossible on Apple hardware, but Steve Jobs wanted rectangles with rounded corners. As Andy Hertzfeld put it “Steve suddenly got more intense. "Rectangles with rounded corners are everywhere! Just look around this room!". And sure enough, there were lots of them, like the whiteboard and some of the desks and tables. Then he pointed out the window. "And look outside, there's even more, practically everywhere you look!". He even persuaded Bill to take a quick walk around the block with him, pointing out every rectangle with rounded corners that he could find.”

When Steve and Bill passed a no-parking sign with rounded corners, it did the trick. "OK, I give up", Bill pleaded. "I'll see if it's as hard as I thought." He went back home to work on it.

See: Apple Folklore: Round Rects Everywhere

Hands on with Mac Paint on the Macintosh 128k

Aside from the built-in software you can also load up MacWrite and MacPaint programs. We loaded up a version of MacPaint to look at. This enables you to draw and paste images into other programs. While it’s clearly not much compared to modern apps, it is remarkable how modern it is. What also strikes us is the comprehensive tool palette on the left hand side, with familiar tools like Marquee, Lasso and Fill. These are icons that are still used in Photoshop today. At the bottom are brush thickness and pattern options.

The palettes are fixed in place, but all held in separate windows. We notice in MacPaint that the Menu bar now changes to offer additional options like Font, FontSize and Style.

Hands on test: Macintosh 128K MacPaint

Hands on with the Macintosh 128K Control Panel

A quick look at the Macintosh’s Control Panel reveals a number of controls. It’s actually far more graphically visual than the modern incarnation. And there are lots of metaphors, like the Tortoise and the Hare to adjust mouse speed, and graphical representation of a volume slider. It’s quite easy to figure out what most of the buttons are for.

Hands on with the Macintosh 128K: Final thoughts

The original Macintosh 128K is a wonderful machine. The lazy adage would be that “it belonged to a simpler time” but, while it’s obviously a little cruder than modern Macs, it’s really not that different. Obviously it lacks modern features like networking, internet and email. And without an attached printer, or indeed anything in need of printing anymore, we’d be at a loss for how to put it to practical use today. But it remains a fine machine for writing articles, drawing diagrams and experimenting with. If anything we’re amazed by how fresh it feels, we can only imagine how inspiring it must have been to use one for the first time in 1984.

Thanks to The Cambridge Centre for Computing for allowing us to spend time with the original Apple Macintosh 128K. We enjoyed every minute of it. If you're interested in getting some hands on time with classic Apple equiment, and other early computers, then we suggest a paying a visit to The Cambride Centre for Computing