Personal Computers

The Macintosh: It's Wonderful, But Is It Useful?

By T. R. Reid
The Washington Post

June 11, 1984

Should you buy a Macintosh?

After three weeks of test driving Apple's fascinating and occasionally maddening new breed of personal computer, my answer to that query is a decided "maybe." I have developed an intense love-hate relationship with Macintosh. I tend to love it when I'm playing around, sensing its extraordinary power. I tend to hate it when I'm trying to do serious work.

Apple Computer is, above all, a master of marketing, and there's surely no need to review here the ingenious and innovative features that Macintosh offers: fantastic graphics power, control by electronic mouse, windows, etc. All this has been covered in Apple's advertising blitz. But some pertinent information is omitted or fuzzed over in the ads.

Apple advertises, for example, that the 32-bit 68000 microprocessor at the heart of Macintosh is "blindingly fast." This is true. However, the computer Apple built around that microprocessor is slow. The Mac seems a lot slower, in many instances, than a pokey old CP/M system using an eight-bit Z80 chip.

Mac has been designed so that standard operations require a great deal of disk access. That is, many instructions are stored on the floppy disk rather than in the computer's RAM memory; when you invoke such an instruction, you have to wait for Mac to spin its disk, find the instruction, read it into memory, and then carry it out.

Macintosh is such a complex beast that software writers have little room in memory to store program instructions. When I was using Macwrite, the computer's standard word processing program, just about every command seemed to bring forth that low rumble in the disk drive that means you can do nothing but sit back and wait. It is so common that Mac even displays a little clock face on the screen to assure you that nothing is wrong.

Here's an example of what this means: When you're writing on most personal computers, you can invoke the "search/replace" function by hitting a single key -- and there it is. On Macintosh, you use the mouse to trigger "search/replace" (a slower process already than punching a key), but then you wait while the disk rumbles and the operation is read into memory.

So it's true that Macintosh has a fast microprocessor. But using it is like taking a three-day drive to get your shirts to a one-hour laundry.

The same problem that causes these delays -- limited memory -- seems to be at the root of another shortcoming that may be resolved some day but is acute right now. Macintosh has almost no software.

Despite the usual flood of the usual promises, software for Mac is coming out at an agonizingly slow trickle. The trade press says this is partly because Macintosh requires complex programs to be written in small spaces -- to fit into that cramped memory.

Some day there may be as much software for Mac as there is for IBM, Radio Shack, Kaypro and other Apple computers. But if you need a computer now for serious applications, Macintosh probably doesn't have the programs -- and won't for months to come.

You have probably seen those advertisements that say Macintosh ("the computer for the rest of us") is unusually easy to master. One ad suggests that all you have to read is one thin book, and you're off and running.

I am no doubt dumber than the average Macintosh buyer, but still I defy anyone to use the Macintosh for serious work after reading nothing more than the introductory manual. Apple itself realizes this is unlikely, which is why it provides three separate manuals with each Mac. After reading and rereading the whole lot and using the machine day after day, I am still befuddled about some processes that would seem fairly basic.

One of the shortcomings with Macwrite, for example, is that it can't handle any document longer than nine pages; once you hit that point you have to divide your article, memo, brief, or whatever into smaller pieces. Some other word processing programs have this glitch; it's tolerable (barely) if the program will let you "chain print" all the different pieces of your document in one operation.

I searched and searched in the various menus that are supposed to make Mac so easy, but could not find a way to perform chain printing. Now here is a computer designed from scratch to be simple, and somehow they've managed to conceal the secret of a basic and essential task.

Another negative on the ease-of-use scale is that darned mouse. It's a matter of personal preference, I suppose, but I found myself dreaming wistfully of the tried-and-true cursor keys. Mac has no cursor movement key; if you want to move to another part of your document, you have to take your hand off the keyboard and manipulate the mouse. Yes, it's new and innovative. But no, it is not better.

I'm told that Apple is going to bring out an optional keyboard for Mac that includes the familiar cursor keys. This is classic Apple: charging you extra for something that every computer should have as basic equipment.

I expect that some Mac devotees will write in, using one of the four dozen typestyles available to them, arguing that I've slandered a wonderfully exciting machine. I agree with them: Mac is fun. But is it useful?

Reid is a reporter for the National staff of The Washington Post.

Copyright 1984