Let’s assume that you have decided to dive into System 6 head first, as I did just recently.
A whole new universe awaits you, and for those who are familiar with System 7 or later, it will take both some unlearning and some new learning to become proficient in this older, smaller but nonetheless very appealing environment. Despite the visual similarity to System 7 and later releases of Mac OS, the operational reality of System 6 is quite different. It is not bad… just different.
Now a word of warning. If you have never dabbled in the world of vintage Macs before, I would not recommend System 6 as the place to start. The difference between System 6 and System 7 is enormous, and for beginners it is my guess that System 7 (or later) will serve your interests much more easily. The reasons for this will hopefully become apparent as you read through what follows, and are largely a function of System 6’s “time in the sun”, and what the computing world was like at that time.
What was System 6’s “time in the sun”? Well, System 6 debuted in 1988 and was Apple’s primary OS offer until it was replaced by System 7 in 1991. Its principal hardware running mate in the Apple product family of the day was Motorola’s 68030 processor, running at speeds up to the Mac IIfx’s “wicked fast” 40MHz. At the time, the combination of the Motorola 68030 and Macintosh System 6 was a slam-dunk against the competition.
A Brief Look Back – System 6 And Its Competition
Lets stop and consider that competition for a moment. In 1988, the competitive offer from the PC camp was a sad thing indeed. Intel 80386 processors running at 12 to 33 MHz were the racehorses of the PC world.
These horses were saddled with the twin disasters that were Windows 2.1 and Windows 3.0, resulting in an overall user experience that can only be likened to cold molasses running uphill.
Now if this seems like a bit of excessive hyperbole to you, you may be right, but it is hyperbole grounded in personal experience. I had the displeasure of working with 386 systems “back in the day” and I recall quite literally starting them booting and then stepping away to get a coffee, only to come back some time later and find that the CPU and the hard drive were still grinding away, having not yet completed the seemingly herculean task of booting DOS and Windows.
By comparison, a Macintosh IIsi (a contemporary Apple system of the day), equipped with a 20 MHz 68030 and running System 6, cold booted from power on to desktop in only 7 seconds… and the desktop that it booted to was an elegant, stable, well-thought out interface relative to the equivalent mess presented by Windows 3.0.
Admittedly, the 7-second number was for a minimal configuration, but to provide another data point, my Macintosh IIsi today, running a fully configured System 6 environment with all the applications, INITs and control panels I want, achieves the same result in only 60s, still leaps and bounds ahead of the competition from the Wintel camp.
What Do You Need – Hardware
Alright, enough Windows-bashing, however much fun it may be! Lets get started with the hardware. What do you need to get started with System 6? Well first of all, you need a Macintosh that can run System 6! There is a large set of such Macintoshes happily, but sadly they are becoming harder and harder to find on eBay for a reasonable price.
When I went looking for a System 6 capable Macintosh, I was immediately drawn to the Macintosh IIfx, the “wicked fast” king of the hill for 68030-based Macintoshes. The Macintosh IIfx sports a 40 MHz 68030, up to 128 MB of RAM, and a variety of hardware accelerators, including a pair of 10 MHz 6502 processors just for I/O (that’s 20x more 6502 than in an ENTIRE Apple II!). For the day, the machine was blisteringly fast. For today, it is blisteringly expensive! I saw one listed on eBay recently for the princely sum of $999. Clearly, a more economical option was needed!
Thankfully, per the above there is a sizeable set of other options available to choose from. The following is the list of Macintosh models that support System 6:
Macintosh 512Ke, Macintosh Plus, Macintosh SE, Macintosh SE FDHD, Macintosh Classic, Macintosh Classic II, Macintosh Performa 200, Macintosh Portable, Macintosh PowerBook 100, Macintosh II, Macintosh IIx, Macintosh IIcx, Macintosh IIci, Macintosh IIsi, Macintosh IIfx, Macintosh LC, and Macintosh LC II.
Excerpted from Wikipedia, the below table provides a more granular view of the same information:
Another word of warning! You might not want to just pick just any old one of the above. As I mentioned in one of my earlier posts on System 6, the 800K floppy dominated the System 6 world. In a largely floppy-based environment, you almost NEED to get a Macintosh that supports an additional external floppy drive, so that you can easily duplicate important disks. From the list above, the following subset supports an external floppy port:
512Ke, Plus, SE, SE FDHD, Classic, Classic II, Performa 200, Portable, PowerBook 100, IIcx, IIci, IIsi.
You will almost certainly want to pick one of the above models.
In my case, I decided that in addition to the external floppy support, I wanted a larger screen than the original Macintosh format provided, and I also wanted color, not just the original Macintosh black and white. After trolling through eBay for a while, I settled on the Macintosh IIsi, which met all of these requirements. My earlier post “(Un)Happy Macs” relates the story of the acquisition and shakeout of my new Macintosh IIsi. And you, gentle reader? Determine what is important for you in your new “System 6 engine”, shop the above list on eBay and make your selection. Good luck!
What Do You Need – System Software
OK, that is the hardware. Now lets look at the software, starting with System 6 itself. If your new System 6 machine isn’t already loaded with System 6, get a copy of System 6.0.8 and install that. 6.0.8 was the final general-purpose release of System 6. There was one later release, 6.0.8L, but it in my testing of it, it would only boot on the machines it was targeted to, namely the Classic, Classic II, LC, LC II, and PowerBook 100.
Where can you get System 6.0.8? Well, you can purchase boot floppies for 6.0.8 on eBay, or alternately you can download them from The Macintosh Repository, at www.macintoshrepository.org. If you download them, you will need to “burn” them to floppies so that you can install them. Accomplishing this, and in fact the entire topic of getting software onto a new System 6 machine, will be explored in detail in a coming post in this series. Depending on the hardware and software you have access to, getting software onto these machines can be either “drop dead easy” or it can be very complex.
What Do You Need – Application Software
With the hardware and the system software in place, what about applications? This is where the fun really starts. As you consider applications, you need to begin by remembering that we are talking about System 6 here, not a later release. Think 1988. Old standbys that you may have depended on forever simply haven’t been written yet, and their later versions (once they did spring into being) simply don’t run under System 6.
JPEGView, for example, will not run under System 6! Mac OS without JPEGView? Perish the thought! BunchTyper (and in fact, pretty much EVERY type/creator utility I have ever used) requires System 7 and won’t run under System 6! Acrobat Reader, even as far back as version 2.1 requires System 7 or better. Photoshop 2.01 DOES run, but it will not read or write JPEG files (the JPEG standard has not yet been ratified in 1988!). For better or worse, System 7 was a real sea-change, and a LOT of the programs that I have relied on ever since I joined the vintage Macintosh world simply did not exist at the time of System 6 and thus will not run under it. Be ready to spend lots of time investigating alternatives.
There is lots of good news however. Microsoft Word 5.1a DOES run under System 6, and it is often regarded as the finest version of Word ever to grace a Mac. So does Microsoft Excel, at least up to Excel 4.0 (I haven’t tested any higher than that so far). PowerPoint 1.0 (yes, 1.0!) runs under System 6. This is PowerPoint BEFORE Microsoft purchased it. Per the above, the venerable Photoshop 2.0.1 runs under System 6 as well, and if you can coerce Photoshop 2.5.1 into installing successfully (it took me several days to accomplish this feat), it runs flawlessly AND is able to read and write JPEGs, albeit slowly.
Stuffit Expander works as well, but does not support the usual intuitive drag n’ drop operation (system wide drag ‘n drop was not introduced until System 7.5). Stuffit Deluxe 4.0 installs and runs, but do note that many of the System 6 compatible applications that you can download from the web have been stuffed with later versions of Stuffit and thus will not unstuff correctly on their target System 6 machines!
I know that all of this sounds somewhat challenging, but there are some great upsides to balance things out, programs that run under System 6 that just didn’t survive the transition to System 7 and slowly disappeared. For example, FullWrite Professional, a great word processor, and TattleTech, a wonderful system checking utility. How about the Zoomin’ extension, a great INIT for speeding up the drawing of windows, or OnCue, a wonderful little precursor to the cascading Apple menu that debuted in System 7? And then of course there are all those REALLY early versions of classics we all know and depend upon. How about Photoshop 0.63, or Excel 1.5, or even the above mentioned PowerPoint 1.0? It is fun, if perhaps not productive, to fire up these vintage classics and play with them. Any or all of these may run under System 7 or later, but I had never encountered any of them until I started digging into System 6.
… and then there are the games! Again, some or all of these may run under later versions of the Macintosh operating system, but most are so lightweight that they simply faded from view as CPU and graphics hardware got increasingly capable. There are various versions of Pong and Brick Out that I love playing to this day, including a wonderful little Desk Accessory called Knock Out. There are fun little shooting games like Artillery and of course the classic Stunt Copter game. Finally, how about another favorite of mine, Lunar Lander? Emaculation.com has a large set of these games available for download. Humorously, some of them are so old that they can’t run on an “advanced” OS like System 6, requiring earlier versions of the Macintosh system software to make them whole! How’s that for turning your perspective of System 6 on its head?
By today’s standards, these games are ridiculously simple, but if we set our technological arrogance aside for just a moment and simply enjoy them, they remain the true fun they were back in the late 80s. However, I digress…
SO… what DO you need as a minimum set of applications to get started with System 6? Here is my (highly subjective!) list of recommended first installs:
- OnCue – the only “launcher” I have ever found for System 6
- Desktop Manager – an Apple startup INIT that solves all sorts of desktop file related issues
- Super Clock – a great little control panel that puts a System 7 like clock in the menu bar
- DiskCopy 4.2 – an absolutely critical utility for dealing with floppy disk images
- DiskDup+ – another critical utility for dealing with floppy disk images
- MountImage – a critical DA for loading software from floppy disk images
- TeachText – an essential utility for reading all those help and readme files
- The Typist – the only type/creator changer I have ever found for System 6
- Iomega Zip Installer 4.2 – get an external SCSI Zip-100 and install this driver. You will need the Zip-100 to get all of the above titles onto your new Mac. You’re welcome!
A lot of these titles can be downloaded from Gamba’s System 6 page at:
There are many other sites that feature everything from a small set of System 6 favorites to truly comprehensive collections, and in my next post I will update the Recommended Links page of this blog with a full set of currently active links to System 6 software pages. I make a point of “currently active” because many of the System 6 “go to” pages that you will read about online, such as System 6 Heaven, are no longer active. Dead ends like that can quickly turn “System 6 Heaven” into “System 6 Hell”!
Also, coming soon, I will be adding my full collection of System 6 software to the Mac OS Classic software that is already available on the HappyMacs gopher site (gopher://happymacs.ddns.net). Per the above, I will restuff ALL of the listed titles with a System 6 compatible version of Stuffit, so that they can be unstuffed on a System 6 machine!
This is a good starting point. With one of the above Macintosh models, System 6.0.8 installed on it, and the above starter kit of applications, you are ready to begin exploring and enjoying System 6.
In a coming installment of this series of posts on System 6, I will explore the options available for getting all of these titles (and presumably many more!) loaded onto your new System 6 Macintosh, an undertaking that is not as straightforward as it might seem.
Later posts will deal with networking your System 6 Mac and with connecting external mass media to it as well, including Zip-100 drives and CD-ROM drives.
Until then, happy (System 6) computing!
This post was composed on a Power Mac G5 under Mac OS Tiger