The Mighty Macintosh IIfx

In the second half of last year, the Happy Macs lab had the good fortune to acquire a Macintosh IIfx at a reasonable price.

Mac IIfx

Regular watchers of Macintosh offerings on eBay will know that on the rare occasion when a Macintosh IIfx is made available for sale, its price is typically anything but “reasonable”. So, when the opportunity presented itself, I pounced immediately, but then the machine sat quietly in a corner of the lab for the last many months, while I completed the series on System 6, and then a new series on the SyQuest EZ-135.

Most users familiar with vintage Macintoshes will hold the Macintosh IIfx in something approaching awe, and not just because of the jaw-dropping prices that it still regularly commands. Released in March 1990, the Macintosh IIfx was at the time the fastest Macintosh ever delivered to market. It was retired in April of 1992, but it would not be outperformed in the Apple lineup until the July 1993 release of the Macintosh Quadra 840AV.

Frank Casanova, the Apple product manager for the Macintosh IIfx, dubbed it “wicked fast”, a moniker that was not only accurate, but long lived as well – in enthusiast circles, the Macintosh IIfx is still known as “the wicked fast Mac”. Frank was from Boston, a place where the adjective “wicked” is routinely used in the same sense as the word “extreme”, making sense of the “wicked fast” designation.

Wicked Fast Pin (Cropped)

The Macintosh IIfx was not just “wicked fast” however, it was also “wicked expensive” for the time (and even for today!), weighing in at $10,000 to $12,000 USD, depending on the configuration. It has been reported that some customers interpreted the “fx” designation as an acronym for “F#@*ing eXpensive”, an understandable response to this elevated price point.

What did customers get for all that money? A beast! While employing the same external case as the Macintosh II, the Macintosh IIfx was a very different animal under the skin. It was powered by a Motorola 68030 CPU running at a then blistering 40 MHz, almost twice the clock rate of the fastest Macintosh Apple had offered to that point (the IIci). Keeping that screaming fast CPU “fed and watered” was 32KB of Level 2 cache, which was not optional, as it was on the IIfx’s running mates, but rather supplied as standard equipment. Byte magazine declared the IIfx to be the new “top of the line”.

Mac IIfx Byte Cover

The performance DNA didn’t stop there either. This was a machine built for “wicked performance”. Its’ hardware included a number of proprietary ASICs that were designed to enhance the speed of the machine further, including a brand new SCSI controller, two 10 MHz 6502s (the same CPU which at 1 MHz formed the heart of the Apple II!) handling support functions and all I/O, and finally, to round things out, an ultrafast type of 64 pin SIMM RAM, with parity. The system software played its’ part too. All this highly optimized hardware required equally optimized software and as you might expect, the Macintosh IIfx required a specific version of System 6 (and later, System 7) to fully exploit it.

All this dramatically over-engineered hardware seems like incredible overkill for the typical Macintosh user of the day. What possessed Apple to field such an ultra high end machine? …a frontal assault on the engineering workstation market, or perhaps the graphic design workstation market? No one really seems to know, but a quite different thought is often reported. It is rumored that the IIfx was created under a United States government contract, which required Unix workstations with specific hardware features, and which was endowed with a generous budget. It perhaps corroborates this thought ever so slightly that Apple released version 2.0 of its’ A/UX Unix implementation at the same time as the Macintosh IIfx, and that A/UX 2.0 could be pre-installed on the IIfx’s hard drive.

It’s not clear how many Macintosh IIfx units were sold to the US government, or if any were at all, but at the time Apple was interested enough in this high-profile and high revenue market segment to later create a new business division to serve “large businesses, government, and higher education”. Apple continued development of A/UX until 1995.

Fast forwarding back to the present time, not so long ago an instance of this very machine sat expectantly in the Happy Macs lab, waiting for life to be breathed into it. It came preloaded with a minimal installation of System 7.5.5, but I reloaded it from scratch, with both System 6.0.8 and System 7.0.1. I will report on that process here in the pages of this blog.

I will also report on benchmarks between the same software and tasks running under System 6 on the lab’s 20 MHz Macintosh IIsi and then on the 40 MHz Macintosh IIfx. The delta should be illuminating. Finally, I will be reporting on benchmarks between the same software and tasks running under System 7 on the lab’s 68040-equipped Quadra 660AV and on the 68030-based Macintosh IIfx. I had an expectation that the Quadra’s 25 MHz 68040 would perform at similar levels to the IIfx’s 40 MHz 68030 when both were running System 7. The results should provide an interesting glimpse into the relative performance of these two CPUs.

Until next time!

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