Anatomy of an Icon: Inside the Apple IIc

At 7.5 pounds, the Apple IIc portable computer was the MacBook Air of 1984. Ever wonder what makes up a vintage classic? We took one apart to find out.

By Benj Edwards

Earlier this year Apple released its thinnest and lightest portable computer yet, the MacBook Air, to great fanfare. But it wasn't the first time for such an event: Twenty-four years ago critics hailed another Apple computer--its first portable ever--as a masterpiece of compact industrial design. The Apple IIc marked an important milestone for Apple's stalwart Apple II line, squeezing the power of a full-size IIe into a svelte 7.5-pound package. I recently disassembled this marvel of 1984 simplicity on my home workbench, and found that the IIc is beautiful not only on the outside but on the inside as well. Let's take a look.

Snow White Awakens

Lacking a built-in display and a battery, the IIc doesn't qualify as a true portable by today's standards, but it is compact enough to set up and tear down easily. Its integrated peripherals (two serial ports, an 80-column card, a disk interface, and a built-in disk drive) made the engineering feat possible, a first for the Apple II. The IIc also introduced mouse input to the Apple II series, and heralded the coming of a new design language called "Snow White" for Apple's products. It's a marvelous and popular little machine: Apple II creator Steve Wozniak recently told me that the IIc is still his favorite computer of all time.

Cracking the Case

The IIc you see above is no showroom model; it's a well-used spare I picked up recently from a donor to my vintage computing and gaming collection.

At this point, only ten Phillips-head screws stood between me and the glorious guts of the Apple IIc. They didn't keep me out for long.

Like a Surgeon

With the top of the case off to the side, you can see the IIc's three main internal components. The silver box in the upper-left portion of the lower chassis is the power converter. The black rectangle to the right is the 5.25-inch floppy drive.

We'll take a closer look at each of these individually in a moment.

Removing the Keyboard

With the keyboard set aside, you can see the motherboard peeking through. The black rectangular connector near the middle is where the keyboard was attached. Notice too the internal speaker near the bottom of the case that normally hides beneath the keyboard, frightened of daylight. Well, my timid speaker friend, today's your day to shine.

The Full Monty

With the pesky power converter, keyboard, and disk drive out of the way, we can finally get a good look at the motherboard, which fills the entire bottom portion of the case. The magical elves/engineers who designed the Apple IIc had the incredible foresight to include a headphone jack and a volume adjustment knob (the small tan circle in the lower left of the case). To this day, I've never seen anyone use the feature, but it's darn handy if you're an enthusiast of really loud electronic clicks and beeps.

The 65C02A Up Close

Here you can see the Apple IIc's CPU, the NCR 65C02A (the chip immediately above the Apple logo). It's a variant of the popular MOS 6502 with an extended instruction set and lower power requirements, and it runs at a blazing 1.02 MHz. But what can I say--if it's fast enough to play Karateka, I'm happy.

You'll also spot a bunch of other chips on the board that look fancy, but they don't actually do anything, I swear. Engineers sometimes like to add them for decoration.

The Mother of All Boards

At this point, it's just us and the motherboard. One of the first things you'll notice is the long line of RAM chips on the far-right side of the board. The stock IIc came with 128KB of RAM, which was plenty for most Apple II applications of the day. Natively, the 6502 could address only 64KB at a time, so bank switching hardware was needed to take advantage of anything above that.

A Woz in Every PC by 1984

In this mostly blurry back view of the motherboard, you can see (from left to right) the external disk drive connector, the video-out, the RGB-out, serial port 1, the power jack, and the power switch.

I should also mention the nifty chip positioned directly behind the video port called the IWM, or "Integrated Woz Machine." Apple's engineers managed to squeeze the disk, the entire being and mechanics of Steve Wozniak's existence onto a single chip, so that each Apple II computer thereafter would contain its own miniature Woz to diagnose and fix problems that might arise.

Spare Parts

Atop the gloriously stained wood grain of my workbench, you can see all the items I removed from inside the IIc: the keyboard, the internal power converter, the internal disk drive, and the carrying handle. The handle (normally located at the back of the machine) made the IIc easily portable and also doubled as a stand to angle the keyboard (and the computer) upward while in use. The disk drive unit is heavily shielded, and Apple painted its top black so you couldn't see it through the IIc's top vent slots. That would have been gross.

Inside the Power Converter

The open box above is the power converter. It works in conjunction with a bricklike external power supply to provide power to the IIc. The converter slides in and out of a socket on the motherboard with an edge connector. It was made as a separate, easily switchable unit to accommodate international variations in power sources (such as the United States' 110 volts versus Europe's 220 volts).

143KB: Simply Enough

Removing the thick metal shielding, we reveal the full glory of the IIc's internal drive for the first time since its manufacture. Check out that beautiful array of resistors on the left and the smokin' read/write head motor on the right corner of the unit.

The IIc's drive was nothing special for 1984--like the Disk II, it could store only 143KB on single-sided disks. One good feature, though: The IIc drive had a special latch that the user pushed in to open and pushed down to close.

Beyond the Black Curtain

The IIc shipped with a clicky keyboard that reviewers called "half stroke" back in the day.

Here, I'm peeling back the dirty rubber spill guard from the keyboard to reveal the key switches. Each key cap sits on top of a white, plus-shaped shaft that descends into the key switch unit.

Dark Side of the Keyboard

The Apple IIc originally retailed for $1295, or about $2638 in today's dollars. It's now worth about $10 to $50, depending on how much gold plating it has. But we'll always remember the first step Apple made into a thinner world of portable computing. After all, the IIc has three times as many ports as the much more cramped MacBook Air, and that has to count for something.

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