The New Apple IIGS
David D. Thornburg, Associate Editor
Apple's new IIGs computer is the latest—and strongest—addition to the company's "Apple II Forever" campaign. Completely compatible with earlier Apple IIs, the IIGs offers exceptional advances in both graphics and sound (hence, GS). With a new 16-bit microprocessor, 256K of RAM, and plenty of peripheral ports, the IIGs redefines the Apple II series in some amazing ways—and IIe owners can easily upgrade their machines to the IIGS.
COMPUTE! Associate Editor David Thornburg has had a hands-on preview of the new Apple IIGs, and filed this report. Because of the importance of the IIGS, COMPUTE! Publications is running this article concurrently in COMPUTE! magazine and COMPUTEI's Apple Applications Special.
It happens whenever a new computer hits the market. In a matter of weeks, sometimes days, you start to hear two criticisms.
It doesn't use the latest technology. That means the computer is compatible with earlier, similar machines. You heard this when computers like the Apple IIc, Commodore 128, and IBM PCjr were released.
There's no software for the computer. A bit harder to decipher, this means the machine uses some or all of the latest technology. The Macintosh, Commodore Amiga, and Atari ST fit this one.
Seems like a no-win situation, doesn't it? It was, until now.
Apple's recent announcement of the Apple IIGS, the latest addition to its original line, puts both those criticisms to rest. The IIGS is first and foremost an Apple II, and as such it runs nearly all of the Apple II software on the market today. Yet it's also a new computer that has its own advanced modes of operation—some of which eclipse the Macintosh in performance.
In short, the Apple IIGS is two machines in one—a product that bridges the gap between the Macintosh and Apple IIe, and in so doing poses what may be serious competition for the Commodore Amiga and the Atari ST series.
The Newest Apple
GS stands for Graphics and Sound— areas where this computer is most noticeably different from its other Apple II namesakes.
Anyone who's worked with the older II-series machines has had to contend with relatively primitive graphics and sound—capabilities that are a nostalgic remnant of 1970's technology. For instance, if two areas of the hi-res graphics screen were to be shaded with different colors, you had to be careful that the colors didn't "bleed." This further restricted an already small palette of colors, and made the Apple II pale in comparison to the eight-bit Atari and Commodore computers.
The built-in sound of the original II was even worse. There was only a speaker which could be "clicked" on and off by addressing a memory location. That some developers were able to create speech synthesis as well as music through this primitive port is miraculous. More modern designs, like those in the Atari and Commodore machines, provide dedicated sound processors that offer users control over the waveforms and envelopes of multivoice music.
In graphics and sound, Apple had a lot to overcome.
A Tremendous Choice Of Colors
The gap between the original Apple II and the competition grew wider and wider. Apple, after all, has sold the II in one permutation or another for nearly ten years.
The release of the IlGS does nothing to narrow the gap—it's just as wide as it ever was. Now, though, it's much of the competition that's lagging behind Apple.
The IlGS graphics capabilities offer all the original Apple II modes (to retain compatibility with existing software), as well as two new modes that promise to dominate the time and enthusiasm of software developers. These include a 320 × 200–pixel display mode that supports up to 16 different colors per scan line and a 640 × 200–pixel mode that supports 4 colors per scan line.
While these modes may not appear to be that much different from the original Apple II hi-res and double-hi-res modes, they are as different as night and day. The difference comes not so much from resolution (although that has improved) as from the fact that the color choices are picked from a palette of 256 hues, each of which has 16 luminance (or brightness) levels. This gives you access to 4096 colors in all—a tremendous choice.
Apple also announced an analog RGB monitor that shows these colors in their best light. There are no restrictions on color placement. Color bleeding is gone forever.
The Apple IIGS computer, shown here with the AppleColor RGB monitor and 5 ¼-inch drive, features 256K of RAM, high-resolution graphics, high-quality sound synthesis capabilities, and complete compatibility with existing Apple II software.
The purity of the IIGS color display has to be seen to be appreciated. Apple chose to use a noninterlaced screen and the resultant picture is very easy on the eyes.
One side effect of the 16 luminance levels is the ability of the IIGS to display monochrome pictures with a true grey scale, rather than using halftoning techniques that trade off grey levels for resolution. As a result, digitized photographs look much better on the IIGS screen than they do on the Macintosh, where each pixel is either "on" or "off," black or white.
Of course, the independent control of hue and luminance is not new to the personal computer industry—Atari was (to my knowledge) the first to introduce this scheme to personal computers.
An Ensonlq Sound Chip
If the IIGS graphics capabilities are good, the machine's sound capabilities are in a class by themselves. Rather than work with the (by now) ho-hum sound chips that provide simple ADSR (Attack, Decay, Sustain, Release) envelopes on sounds made from a small set of basic waveforms, the IIGS uses a custom 32-oscillator chip from Ensoniq similar to the one used in the $1700 Mirage synthesizer. This chip is capable of generating 15 voices of music, allows excellent speech synthesis, accurately reproduces sampled sounds, and is provided with its own 64K of RAM so that music can be played in a background mode while other programs are running.
This chip alone justifies the price of the IIGS to many music fans and fanatics.
All This With A 6502?
One of the reasons that the 68000-based computers like the Macintosh, Atari ST, and Amiga have become so popular is because the older eight-bit chips were running out of steam—especially when programmers wanted to create new user interfaces.
The designers of the IIGS knew the 6502 and its slightly bigger brother, the 65C02, were inadequate for the task, but they wanted to maintain compatibility with the massive amount of available software on the market. The solution was to use the 65C816—a 16-bit processor that can emulate a 6502. The 65C816 forms the heart and brains of the IIGS and, like the Roman god, Janus, looks backward—to the days of the 6502—and forward—to capabilities that go beyond the limits of the 8-bit world.
As a result, IIGS not only runs existing Apple II software, but it is also capable of supporting the various user-interface tools (like menus, windows, and icons) that have made the Macintosh so popular.
Easily Upgrade Your IIe
Lift the hood on the IIGS and you're treated to a view of a circuit board identical in size to the one inside the Apple IIe. This lets Apple offer a special upgrade for IIe owners. For a modest price you can take your IIe to your dealer and upgrade to a IIGS. Only the power supply, case, and keyboard are retained—the circuit board and basepan are replaced.
A closer look at the circuit board reveals a familiar set of seven peripheral card slots that accept the same plug-in cards used by the Apple IIe. But unless you have a lot of old cards lying around, you probably won't have to use any of these slots.
That's because the back panel already features a game/joystick port, a disk drive port (which accommodates up to six drives in either the 5¼-inch or 3½-inch format), two serial ports (including support for the AppleTalk network), composite video out, audio out, and the analog RGB video output. The remaining back panel port is the Apple DeskTop Bus—up to 16 keyboards and mice may be connected via this bus. (The IIGS is the first computer in the II line to be shipped with a mouse.) Expect to see a lot of interesting peripherals on the market that take advantage of this DeskTop Bus.
The circuit board contains 256K of RAM that can be expanded (through a built-in connector) to eight megabytes. The on-board 128K ROM can be expanded to one megabyte, another indication of the possible third-party support for this computer.
Several custom chips fill out most of the remaining real estate on the IIGS's circuit board. One of the most interesting is the "Mega II"— a chip effectively duplicating an entire Apple IIe or IIc. Don't be surprised to see this chip used to create a three- or four-chip Apple IIc someday soon.
Sound, graphics, and the Apple DeskTop Bus are each controlled with dedicated chips, shifting the burden from the microprocessor. The result is a computer that provides tremendous room for software development.
While Apple Computer may not have announced any programs specifically designed for the Apple IIGS, the company has gone out of its way to support the development of programs by third-party vendors.
Apple's position is easy to understand. In the first place, the IIGS runs existing Apple II applications and runs them at three times their normal speed. This alone breathes new life into old products and relieves some of the pressure for creating software to justify the purchase of a new computer. At the same time, Apple wants to be sure that people know that the IIGS is more than a very fast IIe—that it has many features of its own which justify the creation of new programs. Rather than dilute internal programming efforts to create one or two special programs, Apple has seeded many developers with systems on which to create programs of their own.
More than 40 companies have announced, or will announce, products specifically geared to the Apple IIGS. Some of these companies are familiar names (Brøderbund, Electronic Arts, Scholastic, and so on), while others are relative newcomers to the field. Because the IIGS supports both the Apple II environment and also supports the Macintosh style of programming, the list of developers includes names well known to Macintosh users as well as to owners of the Apple IIs.
The Development Path
Those developers who started early on the IIGS had to make use of the ORCA Assembler and frequent upgrades of the system software. High-level languages (like C) were made available late in the product-design cycle. This presented challenges to developers, some of whom took advantage of their prior experience to leapfrog their way through what would otherwise be a very tedious development process. Typifying this latter approach is Electronic Arts, a company known for an assortment of creativity software that is seen on almost every Amiga computer ever sold. From its beginning, Electronic Arts was committed to creating software with high-level languages such as C. The company's goal was to be as machine-independent as possible, thus simplifying the porting process to new machines (like the IIGS). As a result, Electronic Arts has converted (or will convert) its stellar Amiga programs to the IIGS and thus take advantage of the rich colors and sound available from this newest addition to the Apple family tree. According to Electronic Arts president, Trip Hawkins, the company has developed more high-level language programs for the 68000 than anyone else. The task of converting these programs to run on the IIGS is a lot easier than designing programs from scratch. Upwards of 25 programs for this computer are in development by this one company alone.
Brøderbund has virtually defined the home desktop-publishing market with its popular program, The Print Shop. A new version of this program, along with a host of other products, could help cement Brøderbund's reputation as a premier supplier of home-based productivity software.
The education market for the IIGS is probably going to take some time to develop, simply because of the limited budgets of most schools and their reluctance to part with their present computers. But Apple's upgrade policy to convert IIe's to IIGS's will help. In the meantime, companies well known for their interest in this market are actively developing programs for this computer. Among these are such familiar names as Scholastic, Spinnaker, and Tom Snyder Productions.
The Buyer's Guide
The companies listed in this article are but a few of many firms who are creating programs specifically for the Apple IIGS. The next few months will be accompanied by a flurry of activity as others jump on the bandwagon for this computer.
The programs for this new computer will open a new world of computing for us, and it's most heartening to see so many developers quickly moving to support it.
The AppleColor RGB monitor has a 12-inch screen with a resolution of 640 × 200 pixels. When used with the Apple IIGs computer, the monitor is capable of displaying graphics and text in as many as 4096 colors.
The IIGS clock runs at 2.8 MHz, almost three times the speed of the Apple He. As a result, programs designed for the older II-series machines run at close to three times their normal speed. This is an advantage for some programs, but not for others. Most players would be truly hard-pressed to set new records if games ran at three times their normal speed. To compensate, you can set the computer's speed to the "old" value with the IIGS's onscreen control panel. Games written for the IIe or IIc will then play at the correct speed.
The control panel also lets you set the color of the text and the background, as well as the pitch and volume of the internal "beep." Again, while this kind of control is familiar to owners of Atari and Commodore computers, it's a welcome addition to the Apple II line.
What About Software?
At the time of this writing well over one hundred outside developers were actively engaged in creating software for the IIGs. By the time you read this, the number is probably triple that, with new entries being announced every day.
Apple itself, however, is conspicuous in its absence from these announcements. The company appears to be content to provide support for outside developers rather than dedicating its resources in aggressively developing its own programs for the IIGS.
There's good reason for this approach. Unlike the Macintosh—a computer released with no immediate third-party software support— the IIGS runs the vast library of Apple II programs. The IIGS is a machine that you can use from the moment you unpack it and set it up. As new products are developed to take advantage of the IIGS, people will move away from the pure Apple II software and toward the newer titles with their improved performance.
David Thornburg is an associate editor with COMPUTE! magazine, a frequent contributor to other publications, and the designer of Calliope—an idea processor for the Apple IIe, IIc, the Macintosh, and now the IIGS. He may be reached in care of this publication.
The GS At A Glance
Expandable to 8 megabytes
Expandable to 1 megabyte
40 × 48 (Apple IIe/c low-res)
16 colors per scan line
280 × 192 (Apple IIe/c hi-res)
6 colors per scan line
560 × 192 (Apple IIe/c double-hires) 16 colors per scan line
320 × 200 pixels
16 colors per scan line
640 × 200 pixels
4 colors per scan line
40 × 48 (Apple IIe/c low-res)
280 × 192 (Apple IIe/c hi-res)
320 × 200
4096 (256 hues, 16 luminances)
640 × 200
4096 (256 hues, 16 luminances)
32-oscillator Ensoniq chip
Reproduces sample sound
Dedicated 64K of RAM
Clock speed—2.8 megahertz
Emulates 6502 for Apple IIe/c compatibility
Disk drive port
Accommodates up to six 5 ¼-
inch or 3 ½-inch drives
Two serial ports
Support for AppleTalk
Composite video out
Analog RGB video out
Apple DeskTop Bus
Connects up to 16 keyboards
Seven peripheral card slots.