Apple II vs Macintosh

Last Updated on June 4, 2019 by Dave Farquhar

The Apple II was one of the first mass-market computers, one of three released in 1977. It proved successful, and Apple had a hard time following up on it. The Macintosh was the third attempt, and it eventually proved successful. Apple II vs Macintosh ended up not being much of a comparison. But it took a while for the Mac to catch on. Here’s what set the Mac apart from its widely successful predecessor.

The Mac, like most of the computers that followed it in 1985, ushered in a lot of changes from its predecessor. Technologically the Apple II was much closer to its main competitor, the Commodore 64.

Apple II vs Macintosh: The mouse

Apple II vs Macintosh
The mouse was the most obvious change from the Apple II to the Mac. Photo credit:

The most obvious difference between the Apple II and Macintosh was the mouse. With the Apple II, users interacted with the machine via a keyboard. The Mac mouse allowed the user to point at things on the screen and click to make a selection, the same way a modern mouse works. For simplicity and ease of learning, it only had one button, and it was clunkier than modern mice. But if you can use a modern mouse, you could use a Mac mouse from 1984. But the mouse was so important, the first Mac omitted arrow keys from the keyboard. If you wanted to move around the screen, you were supposed to click on it. Later Macs added the arrow keys back.

Mice later became available for pretty much any machine that stayed on the market after 1985, including older Apple II machines. The Apple IIGS even came with a mouse when Apple released it in 1986.

Apple II vs Macintosh: The operating system

Early Apple II computers used an operating system called DOS, not to be confused with the IBM/Microsoft operating system of the same name. DOS gave way to ProDOS. These were text-based operating systems that looked and worked a lot like other text-based operating systems of their day like CP/M and MS-DOS.

The Mac used an operating system we now call Mac OS. Rather than typing program names to run them, you pointed at their icons and clicked on them. Early versions of Mac OS had limitations compared to current versions. But like the early mouse, if you can use a modern computer operating system, you can use the 1984 version of Mac OS.

Apple II vs Macintosh: The CPU

The Apple II used the venerable MOS 6502 CPU, the same as many other 1970s and 1980s computers and game systems. The Mac switched CPUs to the advanced Motorola 68000. The number referred to the number of transistors in the CPU, which was revolutionary for its time. The 68000 was expensive, but much faster and could use much larger amounts of memory than the 6502. In 1984, it was the only CPU on the market that could handle the demands that Apple anticipated putting on the Mac.

Motorola had more advanced versions of the 68000, and produced them throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Later Macs used these chips. When the 68000 line hit its limits in the mid 1990s, Apple switched to the PowerPC CPU. When the PowerPC hit its limits, Apple switched to Intel CPUs.

Apple II vs Macintosh: A new disk format

Apple II vs Macintosh: disks
The Apple II used 5.25-inch disks (center), while the Mac introduced 3.5-inch disks (right). The Apple II later adopted the 3.5-inch disk format as well, but the 5.25-inch format remained standard. Apple 5.25-inch disks stored 143K of data while the first 3.5-inch disks stored 400K. Later 3.5-inch disks stored 800K, then 1.44 MB.

The Mac also introduced a new 3.5-inch disk format for storage, which stored almost three times as much data as the 5.25-inch disks the Apple II used. The first Mac disk drives stored 400K. Apple later introduced a two-sided drive that could store 800K, followed by a high-density drive that stored 1.44 megabytes.

Hard drives were optional on both types of machines early on. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that hard drives became standard equipment on most computers, and they were still rather expensive until the 1990s.

Apple II vs Macintosh: The killer app

The Apple II’s killer app was the spreadsheet Visicalc. Visicalc computerized a ledger, which was a revolutionary idea in 1979.

The Mac’s killer app took a couple of years to appear as well. In 1986, Aldus released a program called Pagemaker, the first desktop publishing app. It allowed someone to put together a newsletter or even a full-blown newspaper entirely on a computer for the first time. This long history with journalism is why the Mac dominates the journalism field today, and pretty much always has for the last 30 years.

Apple II vs Macintosh: Design philosophy

Apple II vs Macintosh
Apple II machines, like this Apple IIe setup, let you plug in drives, use a variety of monitors, and insert plug-in cards into internal expansion slots.

The Apple II and the Mac represented very different schools of thought when it came to the overall design of the machines.

Apple II design philosophy

Steve Wozniak loved to tinker and he designed the Apple II for people like him. He included expansion slots so other engineers could design boards to add new capability. This greatly extended the life of an expensive computer. If you needed new capability, you just bought a board to plug in, instead of buying a whole new computer. Woz’s open architecture was something IBM copied in its IBM PC.

In addition, you could use a variety of monitors with it, depending on your needs. You’d want a color monitor for games of course. But for heavy word processing, a green phosphor screen could be easier on the eyes and was certainly a lot less expensive. Schools frequently outfitted many of their Apple IIs with monochrome monitors to save money, and perhaps outfitted one or two machines with color monitors.

Mac design philosophy

Apple II vs Macintosh
The first Mac was a closed box. It was supposed to be perfect the way it came from the factory, so why would you change it?

Steve Jobs designed the Mac to be a black box. It had a few ports in the back for plugging in another disk drive, a modem, and a printer, but he didn’t design the Mac for you to open it. You didn’t have a choice of a screen either. You got a 9-inch black and white display inside the unit.

Later Macs added some higher speed ports, color displays, and eventually they even added expansion slots. Many of today’s Macs veer a bit closer to the original philosophy. But none take it quite to the extreme of the original Mac.

One reason the 128K Mac is rare today was because it quickly became obsolete, due to the difficulty in expanding and updating it. Steve Jobs’ vision of a computer being perfect just the way you bought it didn’t work well in the fast-changing 1980s. It became obvious quickly that 128K of memory wasn’t enough. The disk drives soon gave way to 800K models. And it turned out that if people were going to pay $3,000 for a computer, they might want to be able to use a hard drive with it.

So it wasn’t long before Apple released the Macintosh II. The Mac II had expansion slots, the ability to add memory to it, room for an internal hard drive, and the ability to attach a color display. It retained the graphical operating system and the mouse of course. But overall, the design philosophy was a big retreat from what Steve Jobs advocated with the first models. And for more than a decade it stayed that way.


The Apple II was a tough act to follow. Apple failed twice, with the Apple III and the Lisa. And in 1984 and 1985, a lot more people talked about Macintoshes than bought one. When other computers with mice came out in 1985, it looked like Apple might be in trouble.

Ultimately the Mac proved very successful and it evolved over time dramatically. If you can use a new Mac, you could figure out a 1984 Mac, even though the 1984 Mac isn’t compatible with a Mac of today. After Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, he slowly closed the Mac back up again. His philosophy worked better with modern technology than it did with 1984 technology.

The Apple II was a long-running line, surviving on the market from June 1977 to November 1993, more than a 16-year run. The Mac proved even more enduring, running from January 1984 to today. Today’s Macs differ from the 1984 Mac just as much as the 1984 Mac did from the Apple II, but the evolution was gradual. Macintosh is one of computing’s most enduring brands.

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