Washington Apple Pi

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World's Least Expensive Macintosh:$32

A Review

© 1997 Lawrence I. Charters

Washington Apple Pi Journal, July/August 1997, pp. 61-63, reprint information

It was a Saturday morning. Like most Saturday mornings, I was asleep. Or trying to sleep. But a thundering horde, composed of spouse and offspring, burst into the bedroom and announced: "We opened the box for you." For me?

"The box" was delivered the previous day, and was maybe eight inches on a side. It contained another box. Which contained another box. Which contained a custom-made foam packing frame around a Macintosh. A Macintosh selling for $32. They set it on my chest. "For me?"

If $32 seems a bit low, consider: this was a brand-new Macintosh. True, some of the very earliest Macs are older than current Mac users, and some of these earliest Macs occupy basements and attics and the back corners of Goodwill thrift shops, and they might, possibly, sell for $32 (or less). But this was a brand-new, 1997 Macintosh. True, it wasn't made by Apple, but it was made under license, complete down to the Apple logo.

It was also less than 12 centimeters high.

For me?

Spouse and offspring claimed this mini-Mac was for me, but I had my doubts. They had ordered it from Pleasant Company's American Girls Spring 1997 catalogue. For those of you without young females in the home, American Girls has an unassuming front: they sell a series of books describing the lives of American girls throughout history, starting with pre-colonial times and continuing up through the early 20th century. The books, written with careful attention to historical detail, are hugely popular.

But Pleasant Company, and American Girls, is not just about books. They also sell dolls. Each doll has a name (matching a character in one of the book series), and each doll comes with a set of beautifully made clothing and accessories designed for her historical era. Colonial dolls, for example, have bonnets, and four poster beds, complete with frilly canopies, and brass candleholders, complete with real wax candles. Don't worry that a doll in historical dress will look out of place in a modern home; Pleasant Company sells matching outfits for the doll's human companions. The attention to detail and craftsmanship is superb. The prices are top-notch, too: Felicity (the American Girls doll that shares the same address I do) has a wardrobe that is arguably better quality than my own, and possibly costs more.

Someone at Pleasant Company figured out that Colonial era dolls, or even Civil War era dolls, might be nice, but they are also somewhat, shall we say, dated. So they also offer a "Modern Girls" collection of clothing and accessories. When the human female companion tires of playing with Felicity, mistress of colonial Williamsburg, the human can perform a quick change and turn the doll into Felicity, Cybersurfer. Complete with her own Macintosh.

True, I had made noises about wanting a new Macintosh, say a Power Macintosh 8600 with maybe 80 megabytes of RAM and four gigabytes of storage -- your basic "starter system" -- but I didn't think this tiny little Mac sitting on my chest was "for me." Would they have unpacked it if it was "for me?"

Packaging and Setup

Macs are known for their careful packaging, and this mini Macintosh was carefully, almost identically, packed. In shape, it resembles a Performa 5200, the "all-in-one" Power Mac with the built-in Trinitron screen popular in schools.* The foam packing was carefully molded to fit the contours of the computer, complete with fitted spaces for the keyboard and mouse.

Spouse and offspring were particularly impressed with the cables: just like on a full-sized Mac, the keyboard and mouse cables were shipped in plastic sleeves to keep them clean. Actually, I have no idea why Apple packs the cables in plastic sleeves, but Pleasant Company packed the mini Macintosh with plastic sleeves, too.

Also packed with the mini Macintosh is a very nicely written, user-friendly manual, plus a mini mouse pad, complete with the Pleasant Company logo. And it really is a mouse pad, with textured top and rubber base.

Setting up the mini Macintosh is very easy: you don't even need to plug it in. However, you do need to install two AA batteries, and the batteries are not included. Another difference: the keyboard and mouse cables are permanently attached to the mini Macintosh.

We rate packaging and setup as excellent, even if the batteries aren't included.

Performance and Use

Unlike most modern Macs, including the Performa 5200, the mini Macintosh does not include "soft power:" you must flip a switch on the back to power it up, rather than press a key on the keyboard. You must also flip the switch to turn it off. Normally, this is a huge inconvenience, but on a computer the size of a softball it is No Big Deal.

Once turned on (to an interesting sound that, while not the usual Mac chime, isn't bad, either), the quality of this mini Macintosh is immediately apparent. The screen, measuring 5 by 6.5 centimeters (yes, that means the entire screen is about five square inches) is quite readable, except in poor light. Using technology that isn't detailed in the manual, but appears to be a passive LCD (liquid crystal display), the screen displays the usual Apple menu, along with File, Edit, View, Label and Special, plus the famed Mac trash can in the lower light. Sadly, all of this is in black and white, and there are no controls to switch the screen to color.

In the center of the screen is a ClarisWorks-like application window. With just five presses on the keyboard, you -- or anyone else -- can quickly generate a 25 line report on a visit to a planetarium. And every word is readable, with every letter sharp and clear. Three clicks of the mouse is all it takes to add a drawing of the Big Dipper in a separate window off to the side.

We rate performance and ease of use as outstanding. However, you might need a magnifying glass to read what you've written.


Value is one of those wishy-washy qualitative judgments that everyone reveres, but everyone argues about, too. Some may find this mini Macintosh a bit too confining: it types only one report (but does it very quickly!) and draws only one picture (but does that fast, too!). On the other hand, it doesn't cry out for extra RAM or more storage, it doesn't beg for the latest software upgrades, it appears to be fully Year 2000 compliant (OK, so all other Macs are, too), it is more portable than even the latest PowerBooks, and it seems to run for a long time on just a couple AA batteries.

We have to rate value as excellent.

Admittedly, this isn't a Mac for everyone. If you want to run Rhapsody, and perform wicked things to 24-bit images in Photoshop, and create graphics-rich Web pages for the Internet, and use wall-size photos for desktop pictures in MacOS 8, set aside $3,500 and get a Power Macintosh 8600. But don't forget that, for the same price, you can get 110 of these...

* An aside: did you note the news story showing that the daily paper for Grand Forks, ND, was being produced at an elementary school on Performa 5200 computers? The newspaper's offices were destroyed in the Great Flood of 1997, but they used the elementary school's computers to continue operations, without missing an issue.

American Girls' Mini Macintosh, Item GSAC, $32
Pleasant Company
8400 Fairway Place
Middleton, WI 53562

Mini Macintosh

A full-size portrait of the American Girls' Mini Macintosh, the world's first $32 Macintosh. (Actually, this is a marketing drawing from Apple of their Performa 5200, altered slightly in Adobe Illustrator to match the appearance of the American Girls' version of the same machine. Unless it is resized by your browser, screen resolution, or cosmic rays, the picture is almost exactly the same size as the mini Macintosh.)


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Revised August 29, 1998 Lawrence I. Charters
Washington Apple Pi
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