The Amazing Multimedia (Vintage) Macintosh

On January 9th 2001, at the annual Apple Worldwide Developers Conference, Steve Jobs announced that the personal computer was entering its third great age, in which its’ previous roles as productivity platform, and then as internet platform, would be superseded by a new role, that of the “home digital hub”.

Apple Digital Hub Strategy

In this new role, the personal computer, and the Macintosh in particular, would enrich our experience of the increasing proliferation of consumer electronic devices by augmenting the capabilities of those devices with the computer’s powerful processing, extensive storage and large display.

Apple Digital Hub 03

This turned out to be an amazingly prophetic vision. Over many of the recent posts in this blog, we have been exploring the interaction of the Macintosh and many of the consumer electronic devices Steve mentioned as part of that address, and a few devices that he didn’t mention, such as the iPod, which was not yet available in January of 2001. The combination of consumer devices with the Macintosh, its applications and its display capabilities far exceeded what might have been accomplished by the devices alone. In this case, one plus one did equal three. Steve was right, and the Macintosh evolved into an incredible digital hub.

Let’s take a look at the application of the digital hub concept to some of the many consumer electronic devices supported by the amazing multimedia (vintage) Macintosh:

  • Digital Cameras: In an earlier post, we saw that digital cameras, coupled with USB card readers, image editing applications such as Photoshop and image viewing applications such as ThumbsPlus, allow us to capture, manipulate and view digital images with ease.

      Dimage 7i 02

  • Scanners: In a similar way to digital cameras, we have seen that the combination of the Macintosh and Hamrick Software’s VueScan application allows us to capture, manipulate and view scanned digital images with an ease equal to that of camera-based digital images.

      HP 6200C Scanner

  • Printers: We haven’t looked at printers in the “pages” of this blog, but the Macintosh of course supports a wide range of printers, both document printers and photo printers. Did you know that the first truly successful mass market laser printer was the Apple LaserWriter of 1985? Again the digital hub paradigm multiplied the value of this product. The LaserWriter printer, coupled with the Macintosh and the Aldus PageMaker application, become the first major desktop publishing success story.

      Photo Printer

  • MP3 Players: The iPod instantly leaps to mind when discussing this class of consumer devices, but the iPod did have a few early rivals, and the Macintosh supported most of them as well. Combining the Macintosh with a music management application like iTunes and a high capacity MP3 player like the iPod yielded consumer magic – 1,000 tunes in your pocket, all easily managed and controlled from a central intelligence (iTunes) on your Macintosh.

      7415f__originalipod

  • Music CDs: Speaking of consumer magic! 🙂 In the 1980s and 1990s, the now humble CD was magic! How does this relate to the Macintosh and the digital hub idea? Easily! The Macintosh fully supported playback of those magic CDs directly. This was not unique to the Macintosh of course – PCs did it too – but it was a useful addition to the Macintosh multimedia arsenal and many a CD player application emerged to meet this need.

      CD_Logo

  • Sound Recording Devices: While we are speaking of things that play back sound, how about things that record sound as well? Yup! The vintage Macintosh supported this as well, and the digital hub concept multiplied the value a hundredfold. The simple microphone was the easiest implementation of a sound recording device, but available implementations spanned the gamut of complexity. As an example, a 68040-based Quadra 840AV, equipped with a Nubus DigiDesign AudioMedia II capture and playback card, and coupled with DigiDesign’s ProTools application, was almost literally a full audio mixing studio.

      ProTools

  • Sound Editing Applications: A quick troll through the Macintosh Garden “Music and Sound” category reveals dozens of audio editors, including my personal favorite, Audacity. Combining these applications with sound recording devices yielded limitless flexibility, dramatically enhancing the capabilities of the audio capture devices themselves.

      Audacity Logo

  • Video Cameras: As shown in earlier posts in this blog, the vintage Macintosh was a more capable video processor and viewer than many people might think. As we have seen, the Macintosh very capably supported webcam based video late in the Mac OS era, with Mac OS 9.1 and Mac OS 9.2 providing the best support. A variety of applications rounded out the offer, with the HappyMacs Seal of Approval going to BTVPro, which did an excellent job in this area.

      QuickCam Pro 3000, 01

For non-webcam video, Apple’s own iMovie debuted near the end of the Mac OS 9 reign, and did a reasonably good job as a video editor and viewer. Video is a very demanding media form, and the faster the processor, the better the support feels subjectively. Video on a 200 MHz Power Macintosh 7300/200 was not exactly fluid, but move up to a 700 MHz or greater machine, and the experience became quite usable.

      iMovie

  • Video DVDs: We should not forget to mention the now fading video DVD. Like the audio CD, the DVD was another piece of consumer magic in its time, and the Macintosh fully supported playback (assuming your Macintosh had DVD drive hardware in it). Apple’s own DVD player application did a nice job here, as did many other similar applications.
          DVD Image
  • Other Media Devices: Finally, the vintage Macintosh either directly supported, or could be retrofitted with, USB and Firewire ports. From the G3 iMac onwards, these were standard capabilities. Prior to that, they could be retrofitted by adding the appropriate expansion cards. Via these two general purpose interfaces, an unending variety of other media devices and sources could be attached, limited only by the imagination and product availability.

      G3 iMac Ports

So there you have it: MP3 players, music libraries, music CDs, webcam video, DVD video, video editing, digital cameras, image scanners, digital image editing, document and photo printing, microphone and direct audio capture, sound editing/processing/mixing… the list seems to go on and on. Steve Jobs was right. The personal computer did enter a third golden age, that of the home digital hub, and is arguably still in that age as of this writing.

The vintage Macintosh was, and remains, an amazing multimedia device, capable of acquiring and working with almost every form of media that can be imagined. A G3 or G4 Macintosh running Mac OS 9.x may not be today’s “flavor of the day”, but it is still an incredibly capable multimedia platform. Hats off to you Steve, for the foresight to see this all so clearly and so well before it became a full reality.

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Video on a Power Macintosh 7300/200

PowerMac 7300-200 Video

Hands up those of you who think that you can’t do high quality 30 fps video on a 200 MHz PowerPC 604e … yup, that’s what I thought… pretty much all of you. I thought so too. I was wrong.

When I first started experimenting with video and video calling back in 2004, it was on 1+ GHz computers with 1+ GB of RAM. Even then, video was a pretty shaky experience. Connectivity may have been the major culprit, but the video was slow and blocky, calls dropped more than they stayed up, and both image and voice distortion were the rule, not the exception. Skype was a relative newcomer, having debuted in August of 2003, and Yahoo! Messenger and MSN Messenger ruled the day.

Recently, while looking through some Connectix items on eBay, I came across an old Connectix QuickCam webcam, dating from the late 1990s. This got me looking farther and I gradually unearthed a whole family of Logitech QuickCams (Logitech purchased QuickCam from Connectix in 1998), culminating in the QuickCam Pro 3000, the last member of the family to be supported by Mac OS 9. Now I just happen to have Mac OS 9.1 running on my Power Macintosh 7300/200. Could I really do high quality video on such an old and (relatively) slow platform? What about video calling? I had to try it and find out.

QuickCam Pro 3000, 01

I purchased the QuickCam Pro 3000 on eBay and received a “new in box” time capsule from the year 2000. Of critical importance in this “new in box” experience was the inclusion of the supporting software, which was delivered for both Windows and Mac OS 9.x, and included as well versions of MGI’s PhotoSuite image manipulation software for both platforms. So far, so good.

Installation was straightforward if a little non-intuitive. The instructions said to install the software and then follow the on screen instructions, so I popped the CD into the tray and executed the installer. It ran to completion successfully and then prompted for a restart, a request to which I complied. Having installed QuickCam software on many Windows PCs “back in the day”, and given the “follow the on screen instructions” directive, I expected the installer to pop up again after the restart and prompt me to connect the webcam and complete the setup. Instead, there was nothing. The restart completed successfully and I was left staring at a fully booted but otherwise unoccupied Mac OS 9.1 desktop.

Following my nose, I plugged the webcam into the computer’s USB port (I had added a Sonnet USB and Firewire card to my Power Macintosh 7300/200 some time ago) and waited expectantly. Again, nothing. So, I hunted through the Applications folder on the Mac and found a folder called Logitech QuickCam. Opening it, I launched the QuickCam item inside. I was greeted with the below window, but no onscreen indication that it had found or could work with the webcam. HOWEVER, the green light on the webcam did come on, indicating that something was accessing it, so this was progress.

QuickCam Main Window

Making the obvious guess, I clicked the large “Create Pictures and Videos” activity button on the upper left and voila! I was greeted with a window showing a live view from the webcam! It was working!

Create Pictures and Videos

I clicked the little tools icon in the window and was able to adjust the resolution (up to a max of 640×480) and the frame rate (up to a max of 30 fps). At this maximum resolution and frame rate however, the image was laggy, and did not even come close to following my hand motions in real time.

QuickCam Video Tools

I closed the program and navigated back to the Applications folder for Logitech QuickCam. I opened the folder and selected the QuickCam item within. Control clicking that item, I brought up the Memory context selection and increased the memory allocated to QuickCam to 84M. There was little more than inspired guessing behind this choice. The default was around 8.4M, and I simply increased that by an order of magnitude, reasoning that it would probably perform better with a lot more RAM.

I was right. With its new and more generous allocation of RAM, the live image window in the QuickCam program now responded almost fluidly, tracking my motions in nearly real time.

Before progressing to the challenge of video calling, I decided to try my hand at simply recording and playing back video local to the Macintosh itself. Logitech’s QuickCam program will record video, and it did, but the results were not stellar. Perhaps this was inherent to the machine? Perhaps it was just too much to expect a 200 MHz CPU to record 30 fps at 640×480 and do it well? Perhaps, however, it was just Logitech’s software. I remember that the Windows versions of the QuickCam software from that time were less than excellent. To test whether 30 fps, 640×480 video was simply too taxing for the 200 MHz CPU, or whether the Logitech software was simply not optimized for high performance, I went hunting for another program that might record and play back video.

I started with what I thought was the obvious choice – iMovie. iMovie was supported up to version 2.1.2 by Mac OS 9.x, and so I loaded it and gave it a whirl. It ran just fine, but would not even acknowledge the existence of the webcam. A little research on the web revealed that this is a long standing issue with iMovie. It simply refuses to record from USB-based webcams. It WILL record from Firewire-based Apple iSight cameras, at least on my PowerMac G5 under Mac OS X 10.4.11 Tiger, but this was not an option on my Power Macintosh 7300. So much for iMovie!

Moving on, I found BTVPro at the Macintosh Garden (www.macintoshgarden.org). BTVPro readily acknowledged the webcam, recorded from it, and played back the results, all with quality and performance levels far above those achieved by the Logitech software (so, as remembered, Logitech’s QuickCam software was not nearly optimized enough).

btvprologo

There was a hitch though. There was no audio. Nothing I could do would persuade BTVPro to record audio along with the video. Turning back to the web for more insight (what DID we do before the web?), I discovered that BTVPro needed at least QuickTime 5 in order to record USB audio along with USB video. Hmmm… that sounded dangerous. I had QuickTime 4.x installed on my Power Macintosh 7300/200. I remember that the last time I tried upgrading QuickTime on this class of Macintosh, I nearly “bricked” the machine – nothing worked afterwards, and it was only through the mechanism of an emergency “no extensions” reboot that I was able to recover it.

Clear_Project_Quicktime

Still, but with no small amount of trepidation, I proceeded. I found QuickTime 6.0.3 in my own archive of older Macintosh software and ran the installer. Much to my relief, everything worked like a charm and Mac OS 9.1 booted cleanly, only now with QuickTime 6.0.3 ticking away at its heart, instead of the earlier QuickTime 4.x. So far, so good. Now, what about BTVPro? Would it now deliver both video AND audio?

The quick answer? Yes! In fact, it delivered rather too much audio actually. BTVPro defaults to playing audio back while it is recording, which leads to an annoying echo during recording and playback. Once I disabled that in BTVPro’s preferences however, all was well.

Finally, onto video calling. Not a pretty picture. To date, I have not been able to find anything supported under Mac OS 9.1 that is still able to connect to the host servers of today. That includes Skype, Yahoo Messenger, MSN Messenger, AOL Messenger and a variety of others. I fear that video calling is a lost cause on the platforms of yesteryear. However, at least we have demonstrated that video recording and playback on the platforms of yesteryear is not even remotely a lost cause! Quite the inverse in fact… very functional, if perhaps requiring of a bit of dogged determination and stick-with-it-ness to get it going.

So, back to the question I opened this post with: Can you do high quality 30 fps video on a 200 MHz PowerPC 604? The answer is a resounding, and surprising, “Yes!”. Never underestimate the power of a 200 MHz machine!