Getting started with the Apple II

I recently interviewed Dan Budiac, a Web developer who picked up an Apple II on eBay. That in itself is nothing unusual; nostalgia strikes all of us at one point or another. What makes Dan's story newsworthy is the computer — a brand-new, still-in-the-box Apple II — and what he paid for it: $2,600. What would Dan do with such an investment?

"Do I leave it in the box, letting it accrue collector's value?" he mused on his Flickr album. "Or, do I open it and stay up until 4:00 in the morning playing Oregon Trail? In the end, I decided that I didn't buy the computer as an investment. A computer wants to be used, and it had been sitting in the box for far too long."

I wholeheartedly agree and can attest that even in this day and age, an Apple II has many practical uses -- such as word processing:

Appleworks 5.1 for the Apple II

Dan is not new to the Apple II, having grown up with it decades ago. I doubt there are many genuinely "new" Apple II users at all anymore — but there are plenty who are intrigued by the opportunity to return to the computing environment of their youth, or by the challenge of a machine that's so limited compared to today's powerhouses.

Maybe you're one of those people. Where do you start?

If you're reading this blog post, then you're already able to access a vast wealth of resources aimed at the budding Apple II user. Whether you're looking to pick up an Apple II, need some peripherals to get a new acquisition up-and-running, or just want to emulate the experience, I offer this primer guide of links. It is in no way meant to be exhaustive; for that, I point you to the A2-Web, the self-proclaimed "Mother of all Apple II Websites!" If, after checking all the links on that site and in this post, you still can't find what you're looking for, there's always eBay and the Apple II classified. In the meantime, check these out:

Hardware: There's a surprising amount of hardware still being made for the Apple II. ReactiveMicro.com offers several replacement parts — something your aging computer may likely need after all these years — as well as interface cards for CompactFlash and IDE volumes. a2RetroSystems sells an Ethernet card, but it's currently out of stock.

Software: Shareware, freeware, and public domain software can be downloaded from the GNO Apple II Archive. More downloads can be found at the sites of individual developers, such as Ewen Wannop (email, Web, FTP, and Usenet clients) and Eric Shepherd (ProBOOT, Shifty List, WebWorks GS, and -- believe it or not -- Wolfenstein 3D).

The most voluminous source for commercial software is Syndicomm, which, in addition to their own original products, has acquired the rights to distribute classic materials such as The ByteWorks' programming languages and tutorials, GS+ magazines and floppies, and Nibble Magazine. At the time of this writing, orders are not being shipped, but that situation should prove temporary.

Emulators: In this context, emulators are software that simulate hardware, allowing you to run Apple II programs on a modern computer.

If you have a PowerPC-based Mac running an OS from 8.5 to Tiger, I recommend the Classic app Bernie ][ the Rescue. It's a full-featured Apple IIgs emulator with full-screen display, print support, and easy transfer of files between the GS and Mac environments. More recently, the only OS X-native IIgs emulator is Sweet16, which is actually based on the source code for Bernie. It doesn't have all the same features as its predecessor, but it works quickly and well, and an open beta of v2.0 offers even greater promise.

Bernie and Sweet16 are the only Apple II emulators I've used. KEGS is yet another IIgs emulator but is available for Mac OS X, Windows, and Linux. To emulate an 8-bit Apple II, your best choices are AppleWin for Windows and Virtual ][ for the Mac.

All the above emulators require a ROM image from the machine they are emulating, which means you need to have an actual Apple II from which to legally obtain such an image.

Podcasts: Yes, that's right: you can get all the latest Apple II news and reviews delivered right to your iPod! There are two venues by which to do so. 1 MHz (iTunes), the first on the scene, is the technically superior of the two podcasts, but it hasn't been broadcast since July 2007, limiting its archive to only ten episodes. A2Unplugged (iTunes), by contrast, has been broadcasting almost weekly as of late. Both shows offer very different approaches to the retrocomputing scene: Carrington Vanston, like Dan Budiac, came back to the Apple II world after a long absence, which is reflected in 1 MHz; whereas Ryan Suenaga never left and thus plumbs the depths of more esoteric topics.

News: A2Central.com is the best online news outlet, hands-down. Regular updates keep the Apple II community abreast of hardware developments, software releases, and Woz sightings.

Discussion: The most active message board for Apple II discussion is the Usenet newsgroup comp.sys.apple2. csa2, as its also known, has been around for decades, and its complete archives are still online. Instead of an NNTP client, I use my Web browser to read csa2 via Google Groups, which also features RSS subscriptions. For live discussions, tune your Internet Relay Chat (IRC) client to the #a2c.chat chat room.

Misc.: If you still have your original floppies but can't access them or convert the files on them, the company RetroFloppy will transfer them for you -- for a fee. I've not used this service nor do I know anyone who has, but if you no longer have the original hardware, having someone do it for you is likely to be easier than doing it yourself.

Need more help? Or have a suggestion of another site? Leave a comment, and I'll do my best to welcome you back to the community. Apple II Forever!

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Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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