The Mac IIfx: Apple enters the workstation market

Developed to quickly process data heavy tasks, run UNIX and… to satisfy a government contract.

Released in March 1990, the Mac IIfx at the time was the fastest and most responsive Mac ever built. While Apple dubbed it “Wicked fast”, users interpreted the “fx” as an acronym for “Fucking eXpensive”, since the computer cost an enormous amount of money: 10000 to 12000 USD, depending on configuration..
The IIfx was Apple’s first real workstation and was supposed to rival offerings by brands such as Sun, Hewlett Packard and Apollo.

Illustrazione Mac IIWhile externally identical to a Mac II, internally the IIfx was quite different. It was powered by a Motorola 68030 CPU running at 40 MHz (almost twice the clock of the fastest Mac previously available, the IIci) and its 32 KB Level 2 Cache wasn’t optional but built in.

The hardware also included a number of proprietary ASICs which were designed to speed up the machine even further, in particular in I/O. It had a brand new SCSI controller and used a specific ultrafast type of 64 pin SIMM RAM with parity.

Since the hardware was higly customized, to exploit it properly the Mac IIfx needed a specific and highly optimized version of the System, the Macintosh’s OS. In alternative one could use A/UX, Apple’s version of AT&T UNIX, which was concurrently made available in a brand new version 2.0. It was released on floppy disks, CD, tape and even in a preinstalled version on the Mac IIfx’s Hard Disk.

With A/UX 2.0 the total price of the Mac IIfx could surpass 13000 USD. So, apart from power users, professionals in computer graphics and a few wealthy enthusiasts, who was this model really meant for?

Apparently the IIfx was created under a United States government contract, which asked for Unix workstations with specific hardware features and had a generous budget. It’s not clear if and how many units were actually sold to the US administration but at the time Apple was very interested in this high-profile market. It later created a new business division for enterprise systems to serve “large businesses, government, and higher education” and kept on developing A/UX until 1995 and more high-end Macintoshes to run it.

The image of the Mac II case is from an ad featured in italian magazine Applicando in November 1987.

Tuesday 16 February 2016, 12:00 pm
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2 comments


2 Comments »

  1. I worked at a university when the machine came out and my boss bought one to run SPSS. I was carting it back to the office and people glanced at the box and stared. It wasn’t maxed on memory and had a regular video card, but even so, it definitely was impressive for its time.

    Comment by Jim — October 5, 2018 @ 2:49 am

  2. Started my design career on one of these – 40Hz motherboard, 128Mb of RAM, and a 160Mb hard drive.

    Comment by Gareth — January 8, 2019 @ 1:44 am

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