Busman's Holiday
Mac IIfx
by Steve Wood
May 11, 1999





iifxI'd always wanted a Mac IIfx. I'm not really sure where or when I got on this jag, but I knew it had been the "King of Macs" at one time. Listing for around $10,000, circa 1992, I was delighted to get one loaded for $162.50 on eBay. Automobile depreciation drives folks nuts at times, but this example of computer depreciation had me shaking my head.

The IIfx's 40 MHz 68030 chip didn't give me any pause, as I'd written all of the Math Dittos 2 series on a 33 MHz Performa 575. While a bit slow at times, it usually was fast enough that I couldn't outtype it. Scrolling, however, was a different matter. The IIfx came with a nice Radius graphics card and has a 68882 FPU onboard.

When the IIfx arrived at my school address in its original box, I was delighted. Even the molded Styrofoam packing seemed to be the original packing material. Opening the box, I was amazed at how big the thing was! Fooling around for a year or so with SE and SE/30's had left me unprepared for a full size Macintosh!

I purchased, or at least justified to myself the purchase, the Mac IIfx as a graphics training workstation for my classroom. I hoped this would be a dedicated machine for drawing with a graphics tablet I'd picked up from Egghead from a Deal-Mac posting. I'd had a student the previous year whom had benefited from working with the Color It! tutorial on the PM7200. The biggest problem was getting him on the machine when it wasn't busy. The student was a gifted artist, but needed lots of reading practice. The tutorial was made to order for him.

It isn't often in education when you get another shot at an almost identical situation, but the IIfx was to be the answer for just that. The next school year, one of my continuing students needed a breakout activity in reading, and he was a talented young artist.

Setting up the IIfx wasn't difficult, although I had to run an SCSI chain through an external CD-ROM, ending with a terminating Zip drive. I lacked the proper terminator for the CD-ROM. I also broke one of my long-standing rules. I "always" reformat any drive I acquire. This time I didn't, and I ending up staying at school quite late one evening paying for my foolishness.

After the reformat, I decided to try to install System 7.6.1, even though it's not listed as a compatible system for the IIfx in AppleSpec. I'd heard somewhere or the other of someone doing it successfully. It didn't work...until I updated the disk drivers from my 7.5 CD. After that, it was smooth sailing until I installed a non-32 bit clean control panel. I got to do a clean install after that one!

I did have to junk the Monitors & Sound control panel/application and replace it with the Monitors control panel. Also, while I invariably use the "Shut Down" command from the "Special" menu, our technology coordinator found that using the programmer's key to shut down locks up the machine. That figures though, as a restart from the keyboard in a lockup doesn't work either. But the IIfx does have the old programmers' switches on the side for a restart.

A big positive was that initially I didn't have to do any interior work with the IIfx. It came with a Seagate 500 MB hard drive and 68 MB of RAM. Of course, I couldn't resist taking a peek inside and found it to be a rather spacious interior. I learned that the RAM, cache, and PRAM batteries (yes, batteries--plural--it takes two 3.6v) require the removal of a "balcony" upon which the hard drive and floppy drive are mounted. Four screws hold the balcony tray in place, so while access to RAM is slowed by having to remove them, once done, there is still plenty of operating space.

IIfx with cover off IIfx motherboard with tray removed IIfx RAM

One of the most satisfying moments with the IIfx came when our school's technology coordinator, often known as the "evil NT techie," sat at the machine and applied a filter in Color It to a 1.1 MB photo. The machine only hesitated a second or two before displaying the filtered result! Getting an amazed "Wow" out of the techie while he's on a Mac is a rare thing. Wish I had a video tape of it.

Where monitors are concerned, the IIfx seemed cursed for a while. I'd purchased a used Apple 16" Display to go with the IIfx, but it died in its first month of use. The IIfx then inherited the out-of-the-box defective MultiScan 17" Apple refurb I'd originally purchased for our Power Mac 7500, but it requires a '40 chip or better CPU, according to our Apple Authorized Service rep, who never satisfactorily repaired the dud. When the refurb returned from the shop with a purplish cast, a 1705 display went successfully on the IIfx.

I'd read that the IIfx required special termination for SCSI chains. We were plagued with 2 or 3 rather mysterious crashes per day, often resulting in serious damage to the operating system. The kids in my class got very good at documenting what happened in and just proceeding a system trashing crash. I'd initially got around this by chaining an external CD-ROM drive borrowed from our LC III to a Zip drive. That solved the termination problem well enough that I could install items from a CD. It still was just a stopgap fix until I received some helpful reader emails about the SCSI problem after the original posting of this piece. Larry Prall wrote and pointing me to the exact terminator I needed from Cyberian Outpost (Outpost # 43610. SCSI Terminator II-Black, $15.95). As the part was backordered, and we finished the school year with the IIfx being a rather fickle, undependable machine.

Towards the end of the 1998-99 school year, we ran a high-interest group program based upon the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's excellent CD, Welcome to the Planets. Since the IIfx didn't have its own CD player at that time, we ran the program off the school's network. The kids independently completed worksheets using the multimedia program to find the answers. They loved it and felt proud of themselves.

The IIfx heightened interest in the project, running a changing background of high-res planet photos when not in use. I used ZDNet's Backsplash II to accomplish the task, but either a GraphicConverter or JPEGView slide show could also accomplish the same effect.

Over the summer, the IIfx moved from being an interesting puzzle to one of our main computers for classroom use. Our school's techie came through again with an ancient JVC CD-ROM burner with a built-in 1 gig drive. The bundled software lacked an essential formatting tool for the hard drive to function burning CD's, but it worked well as an external CD player and external hard drive after the special terminator arrived. We later came across an old copy of Corel CD Creator that allows the IIfx to burn an occasional CD. I also installed a 1 gig drive as the IIfx's internal drive, giving it lots of storage (for a 1992 vintage machine). Both the Apple 16" display and the 720 dud monitor went to a one-time Apple Authorized shop who fixed both, but confirmed that Apple had sold me a 720 with a nearly worn out CRT! The relatively inexpensive repair of the 16" display moved the IIfx back within my original budget estimates.

Installing new systems on the IIfx and all of our older Macs became a lot easier after I read a posting by Sue Korlan on the Classic Mac mailing list that mentioned that older Macs like the IIfx can't use the latests Iomega drivers as a startup disk. In fact, a disk formatted with the older drivers that is used on a machine with the newer ones is automatically updated--and then won't work as a startup. I have one zip startup disk that I use for our 68030 chip machines with the older drivers. The system on it contains TCP/IP so that I can install systems and/or applications directly from the server without using a CD.

At the beginning of the 1999-2000 school year, I regularly directed some of our kids to the IIfx. They'd become a bit gunshy about using it the previous year, but it has quickly became the favorite Mac for many of them. Due to scheduling problems, the budding graphic artist mentioned above doesn't have time in my room to use the Color It! tutorial, and I've not hooked up the graphics pad yet this year.

I'm still very happy with my Mac IIfx. My total investment including parts, monitor and its repair, and shipping is around $350. That's getting pretty close to the price of a used PowerMac, however. But then, I wasn't after a Power Mac. I really wanted a IIfx. At this point I'd do it all over again...minus the defective Apple refurb, of course.

Specific sources of information on the Mac IIfx are few and cursory, at best. But then, this page certainly isn't any tech manual, either. What I've found is at:

General sources of Information on older Macs:

Since the initial posting of this column, I've posted a few columns concerning hard-to-find Mac software. Readers have sent in many, many suggestions which I've incorporated in to a Vintage Mac Software page. (I'd still love to see someone set up a MIIfx with burnerac software archive dedicated to vintage software.) Ric Ford has also run a series of Macintouch reader reports on older software with many links to shareware and commercial titles.

The Mac IIfx went down hard in March (2000) and had to come home for a lobotomy (motherboard exchange). For a long time I didn't have a clue as to what was wrong with it. That story, plus some helpful teardown photos are available on Troubleshooting my Mac IIfx.

The motherboard swap did the trick, but by September, 2000, the random chimes of death had returned! I began to wonder if the machine was demon possessed:-). Ken Creppin eventually had the cure. Ken had written in reference to another apparently possessed antique Mac, a IIci that "auto-magically turns on" and when "shutdown from the menu...shuts down for seconds before powering up again." I didn't have an answer for Ken, although his suggestion of "burning the incense, walking backwards in a circle, and chanting in Latin," sounded reasonable to me.

Ken's cure for the IIfx's motherboard woes was to clean the contacts and base of the ROM SIMM. Ken used "flux remover for PC boards," while I got by with Brasso. The old IIfx board went into a Mac II case and I now have a "sleeper" IIfx.

What about Ken's IIci? It returned to normal operation for no apparent reason.

Aren't computers great!

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links updated, where possible, 2/11/2012
©1999 Steven L. Wood