The Apple II is an 8-bit wonder and was Apple Computer’s first success. It was also arguably the first big hit of the personal computer revolution. Steve Wozniak famously hand-built the original Apple computer kit in 1976, then he and Steve Jobs became tech darlings after the introduction of the Apple II. Part of the “1977 Trinity” when introduced that year, the Apple II significantly outlived its contemporaries: the Commodore PET and TRS-80. Until discontinued in 1993, the Apple II line defined home computing.
The Apple IIc was the fourth member of the Apple II line, introduced in 1984, a few months after the Macintosh. It was created during a tumultuous period in Apple’s history. The business-focused Apple III had flopped, as had the technically-sophisticated but troubled Apple Lisa. The Macintosh was the latest attempt to develop a hit on par with the Apple II.
In the early ’80s, Apple began to think about a portable Apple II. After seeing the advances of Toshiba and others, engineers began experimenting with a “book-sized” computer with a built-in disk drive. Once Steve Jobs was involved, he focused this compact Apple II (thus the “c”) on new computer users. Unlike other Apple II designs, the case would be closed and the most popular adds-on already installed. While the IIc could not be squeezed into a book-sized footprint, the case was sized to fit within a briefcase.
The IIc was the first Apple device to utilize the “Snow White” design aesthetics carried forward to the Apple IIGS, Macintosh SE, and Macintosh II family of computers. Sadly, it’s hard to find a IIc that has not color shifted from the original creamy white of “fog” to a jaundiced yellow.
The computer is powered by a variant of MOS Technology’s 6502 processor. Western Design Center (WDC) crafted the 65C02 as a low-powered chip that remained clocked at 1MHz. Apple hoped the lower-power would produce less heat within the confined case.
Out of the box, the IIc had the ability to display 80-columns of text, an internal 5.25-inch drive, a separate external drive connector, composite and RGB video connectors, two serial ports, and mouse/joystick support. It also came standard with 128K of RAM.
Priced at $1,295, customers did not appreciate the compact design as much as Apple hoped. The Apple IIe remained more popular. Perhaps customers feared the IIc was a lesser version of the original, linking it to the IBM PCjr, also introduced in 1984. The IIc was manufactured until 1988, when it was replaced by the 4MHz Apple IIc Plus (which survived until 1990).
I acquired this Apple IIc through Craigslist. It was a well-used household computer. I was blessed to acquire a full set up: computer, monitor, printer, mouse, joystick, disks, manuals, and necessary cables. Everything sat in boxes for many years, but the dust and grime were minimal.
The only IIc peripherals not included were an RF modulator, modem, paddles (hand controllers), the external Disk IIc, and the rare flat-panel display.
While inspecting my haul, I discovered this is an early IIc, manufactured around October 1984. The logic board and power supply looked good, and I was ready to power it on for the first time. I was pleased to hear the usual startup sounds and an amber Apple //c greeting me on the screen.
The keyboard needed attention. While it worked, it felt terrible. Later IIcs came with a more robust keyboard and Alps switches, but these earlier models used Apple’s “hairspring” switches. These switches are not as nice as the Alps, but the biggest problem was the rubber mat installed between the keycaps and the switches. Meant to reduce spill damage, the combo rubber sheet had warped and deteriorated with age, now inhibiting the keys’ ability to bottom out when pressed. After removing and cleaning all the keycaps, I decided to remove the spill guard to improve the keyboard’s feel.
With the computer itself squared away, it was time to slide a disk into the 5.25-inch drive and see how the Apple II operated. However, I was frustrated to find the disks were not readable. I tried several, and after each, the IIc responded with a “Check Disk Drive” message. I have bad luck with floppies, so I went about my usual practice of opening the drive, cleaning it, lubricating the metal rails and contact points, but still nothing. I knew the drive’s head was moving because I could hear its machine gun sound at startup. So, I flipped the drive over and realized the spindle motor was not running the drive belt.
The belt appeared tight and in good condition, but the motor itself wasn’t spinning. I tried manually turning the motor, and it moved freely. So, I took a chance and tapped on the spindle motor with the back of a screwdriver. I was surprised when it moved (though erratically) on the next startup attempt. I helped the drive spin with my finger the next time, and I saw DOS Version 3.3 System Manager greeting me on the screen. I’m relieved it has worked since.
I also addressed a few nit-picky details. Someone had taken the computer apart in the past and forgot one of the screws securing the floppy drive to the bottom case. I found a properly threaded #5 machine screw, but it was a bit too long, so I cut it down to size. Also, the power switch was upside down (the off symbol was on and on was off). I quickly popped it off and put it in the proper orientation.
Now it was time for upgrades. Nearly a year ago, I purchased Steve Chamberlin’s Floppy Emu for a Mac SE/30 restoration. The Floppy Emu can emulate any Apple drive, but its neatest trick is to serve as an SD-based hard drive for an Apple II. But before this IIc could use a hard drive, the ROM had to be upgraded.
Early Apple IIc units came with ROM 255. This 16K ROM did quite a bit in a small package, but eventually, it was replaced with 32K ROMs. Upgraded ROMs can support SmartPort disks. The most common SmartPort product was Apple’s Unidisk 3.5, a handy external double-sided double-density 800K 3.5-inch floppy drive, but several third-party vendors made SmartPort compatible hard drives. This IIc (with the right ROM) could now break the 140KB disk barrier.
Hunting for the right ROM, I stumbled across Steve Buggie’s eBay post. Professor Buggie not only produces quality ROMs, he also showered me with additional Apple II material. I was blown away with helpful information, free software, and tips and tricks he voluntarily sent my way.
With the new ROM in hand, I followed the straightforward instructions. Since the ROM size doubled, it’s necessary to make a few changes on the IIc’s logic board. Apple was well prepared for this upgrade because all you have to do is break one trace connection and solder in a different one. With that five-minute task behind me, I pulled the original ROM and inserted the new one.
Now, I decided to go the extra mile and install Big Mess ‘O Wire’s handy Internal/External Drive Switcher. This simple device allows you to select whether the IIc boots normally from the built-in 5.25 floppy, or from the external drive. The switcher has two parts, connected by two small wires. The first part plugs into the internal floppy connector, and the second part plugs into the external connector. The wires run between the two and a switch on the external connector reverses the boot order.
Once in place, I could flip the switch and boot the IIc from the Floppy Emu’s stash of floppy images. However, I was stuck when trying to access the hard drive images. When booting, I saw the standard greeting on the top of the screen, but nothing else happened. If I pressed Control+Open Apple+Reset, I would only get a prompt. Perplexed, I tried many different things, and surprisingly, at some point it booted! I was so excited I immediately explored the drive and started playing games. However, I wasn’t paying attention to what made it work. So a few days later, I couldn’t repeat the trick.
Eventually, I learned the switcher had to be in the default position for the hard drive image to load. I assumed it should be switched so the external drive was the boot device, but an Apple II would expect a floppy to be first, so the hard drive was expected to be a secondary device. With that understanding locked in my brain, I’ve not had a problem since.
Now that I could play games, I realized the joystick had a problem. The primary trigger button didn’t work. When pressed, there was no click. I assumed the internal switch was worn out, so I cracked it open. Once pried apart, I was relieved to see the switch was simply dislodged and no longer contacted the button. It was a simple matter to put it back into position. I also took the opportunity to clean the well-used joystick thoroughly.
Thirty-five years late, but I’m finally exploring the Apple II universe. The computer came with stacks of floppies. Some are productivity and graphics apps such as AppleWorks, The Newsroom, Print Shop, MousePaint, etc. and a decent number are games, including Zaxxon, Sargon III, Spy vs. Spy, Spider-Man, etc. Of course, there is also a treasure trove of content available online.
It’s liberating to use an 8-bit machine that doesn’t need pampering. With no complicated OS to corrupt and no finicky setting to tweak, the Apple IIc loads software, runs software, or writes software. One at a time. That’s it. And that’s enough.