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Everything You Need to Know About the Apple II

In this comprehensive guide, I‘ll walk you through the full history of the Apple II, one of the most iconic and influential personal computers ever made. Whether you‘re a tech enthusiast interested in computer history or someone who used an Apple II back in the day, I‘ll cover everything you need to know about this pivotal machine.

The Apple II series, developed and sold by Apple Computer from 1977 to 1993, stands out as one of the most significant advances not just in Apple‘s history, but in launching the era of personal computing for the masses. Let‘s start from the beginning and explore the origins, capabilities, impact, competition, and legacy of the Apple II platform.

Overview and Release

Apple unveiled the original Apple II on April 16, 1977 at the very first West Coast Computer Faire in San Francisco, a major showcase at the time for PC products. It went on sale just two months later on June 5, 1977.

The Apple II made waves immediately as one of the first fully assembled, mass produced personal computer models aimed directly at the home consumer market.

Previously, microcomputers were mainly built from kits and sold to hobbyists and computer engineers. In contrast, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak designed the Apple II from the ground up as an out-of-the-box experience, complete with integrated keyboard, sound, high resolution color graphics, and BASIC language support.

Specification-wise, that first Apple II model featured a 6502 8-bit processor running at 1 MHz, 4 KB of RAM, 4 KB of ROM, a dual cassette tape driver for storage, color graphics at 280×192 pixels, built-in BASIC language, and an attractive plastic case. Suggested retail pricing started at $1298, equivalent to about $5700 today adjusted for inflation.

Technical Specifications

Let‘s look under the hood and explore the technical capabilities of the Apple II line as it evolved across six core model iterations from 1977 to 1983:

Apple II (1977)

  • CPU: MOS Technology 6502 @ 1 MHz
  • RAM: 4 KB (expandable to 48 KB)
  • ROM: 12 KB containing Apple BASIC
  • Graphics Modes: Lo-Res (40×48) and Hi-Res (280×192)
  • Colors: 15 colors + 24 text modes
  • Sound: Built-in speaker; bell, click, buzz sound generation
  • Storage: Cassette tape; optional floppy drives
  • Ports: Expansion slots, TV output, 2 game controller ports

Apple II Plus (1979)

  • CPU: MOS Tech 6502 @ 1 MHz
  • RAM: 48 KB (expandable to 64 KB)
  • ROM: 12 KB AppleSoft BASIC
  • Graphics Modes: Lo-Res (40×48) and Hi-Res (280×192)
  • Colors: 15 colors + 24 text modes
  • Sound: Built-in speaker; bell, click, buzz sound generation
  • Storage: Cassette tape; built-in floppy controller
  • Ports: Seven internal expansion slots, TV output, 2 game controller ports

Apple II Europlus (1979)

Essentially the same as North American Apple II Plus but with regional keyboard variations and video output adapters

Apple II Europlus (1982)

  • CPU: Synertek 65C02 @ 1 MHz
  • RAM: 64 KB
  • ROM: 12 KB AppleSoft BASIC
  • Graphics Modes: Lo-Res (40×48) and Hi-Res (280×192)
  • Colors: 15 colors + 24 text modes
  • Sound: Built-in speaker; bell, click, buzz sound generation
  • Storage: Two built-in floppy drives; smartport controller
  • Ports: Seven internal expansion slots, two serial ports, TV output, 2 game controller ports

Apple IIe (1983)

  • CPU: 65C02 @ 1 MHz
  • RAM: 64 KB (expandable to 128 KB)
  • ROM: 16 KB AppleSoft BASIC
  • Graphics Modes: Lo-Res (40×48) and Hi-Res (280×192)
  • Colors: 15 colors + 24 text modes
  • Sound: Built-in speaker; bell, click, buzz sound generation
  • Storage: Two built-in floppy drives; smartport controller
  • Ports: Internal expansion slot, seven peripheral slots, serial ports, TV output, 2 game controller ports

Apple IIc (1984)

  • CPU: 65C02 @ 1 MHz
  • RAM: 128 KB
  • ROM: 64 KB containing AppleSoft BASIC
  • Graphics Modes: Lo-Res (40×48) and Hi-Res (280×192)
  • Colors: 15 colors + monochrome; 16 colors in 560×192 mode
  • Sound: Built-in speaker; paddle ports removed
  • Storage: External floppy drive
  • Ports: Serial ports, keyboard port, composite video out

So in summary, the Apple II evolved from a basic 1 MHz 6502 system with 4 KB of RAM and cassette tape storage in 1977 to a much more fully featured computer by the end 1983 with integrated floppy disk storage, upper case support, 80-column text modes, and 64 KB of RAM at minimum.

The platform retained a similar underlying architecture throughout but progressively increased capability while remaining approachable and friendly for home users. Expandability remained a core design tenet, with internal slots for adding capability and peripheral ports facilitating accessories like printers and modems.

Design and Engineering

The brilliance of the Apple II owes much to the design skills and technical genius of Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, who spearheaded development of the early Apple machines.

Wozniak emphasized openness and hackability in the Apple II‘s technical design. He made the system‘s circuitry diagrams freely available to users and built in a ROM-resident BASIC interpreter that enabled easy programming. The Integer BASIC interpreter facilitated rapid software development on the platform.

In that era, most personal computer users were still engineers or hackers looking to build and modify their own systems. But Wozniak crafted the Apple II as an integrated, ready-to-use computer with capabilities far beyond competitor products that buyers could take home and plug in, whether they wanted to program or not.

BYTE magazine praised the elegant simplicity and lack of extraneous parts in the Apple II‘s original technical design, noting:

"In the audio and video modes, not one but two bits are used per pixel. Other microcomputer video display generators use one bit per pixel, providing only two intensities."

"The Apple II video generator requires less support circuitry than others – no separate timing generation, sync generation video output circuitry is needed."

Wozniak managed to deliver this groundbreaking performance while keeping chip count and costs low. This accessibility, combined with the system‘s tangible capabilities in color graphics, sound, and built-in BASIC, were revolutionary advances allowing computing to break out of engineering labs and into homes.

Software Library and Applications

The versatile Apple II platform fostered an entire software ecosystem and built one of the largest app libraries of any system at the time. By 1982, just 5 years after launch, the Apple II offered over 10,000 compatible programs spanning games, educational tools, creative applications, programming languages, and business productivity.

Killer apps on the Apple II included VisiCalc, the pioneering spreadsheet software often credited as the first business application for personal computers. VisiCalc transformed the Apple II from a hobbyist machine into a practical business tool. Released in 1979, it was a smash hit as one of the earliest examples of the PC‘s untapped utility, selling over 700,000 copies by 1983.

On the games front, early Apple II hits included the Temple of Apshai action RPG series, Choplifter! side-scrolling shooter, Lode Runner 2D platformer, and Snooper Troops detective adventure series. The range of software expanded dramatically. By 1988, over 500 educational programs were available for the Apple II along with thousands of game titles. Apple estimated the II had nearly 10,000 compatible programs by 1982 across all genres, showcasing the breadth of software support.

In programming languages, the Applesoft BASIC interpreter built into ROM was the most popular, but users could also utilize 6502 Assembly, Forth, Logo, Pascal, COBOL, PILOT, and others. Commercial compilers and interpreters for various languages helped drive software development on the platform. The II‘s ROM BASIC interpreter allowed even casual users to learn coding and build programs.

Business Impact and Market Performance

The Apple II proved a massive commercial success that helped launch Apple‘s meteoric rise from startup to Fortune 500 giant.

In 1977, first-year sales reached almost 78,000 units, generating $2.7 million revenue for Apple. Demand climbed for the improved Apple II Plus in 1979, selling over 206,000 units and bringing in $48 million revenue. By the peak year of 1984, Apple sold 1.3 million Apple II computers, generating $483 million in revenue that year alone.

Overall, an estimated 5-6 million Apple II computers were sold across the various models over the 14-year lifespan of the platform. Total lifetime revenues from all Apple II sales are estimated as high as $2.5 billion.

For perspective, the Apple II accounted for 75-85% of Apple Computer‘s total sales between 1978 to 1984, establishing it as the company‘s primary income engine during its crucial early years. This despite stiff competition entering the market like the Commodore 64. The Apple II‘s continued dominance drove profits funding future innovation and allowing Apple to thrive through the pivotal 1980s era.

In the early 80‘s, Apple held over 30% market share in the personal computer industry, in large part thanks to the Apple II‘s success. It had established itself alongside RadioShack‘s TRS-80 and Commodore‘s PET line as one of the "1977 Trinity" machines that launched the PC revolution. But the Apple II outsold most rivals, cementing Apple as an early market leader.

Cultural Impact

Beyond commercial achievements, the Apple II holds a special place as one of the most culturally influential computers, especially in the educational space.

The Apple II found widespread adoption in schools and was many students‘ first introduction to computing. Its early success in the education market helped pioneer the use of computers as mainstream teaching tools. Educational software flourished on the platform, alongside computer literacy programs leveraging the built-in BASIC language to teach coding concepts.

By 1983, Apple estimated that over 32,000 elementary and high schools in the United States used Apple II computers, demonstrating its educational significance early on. Schools appreciated its all-in-one hardware, graphics and sound capabilities useful across subjects, and range of available learning software.

Beyond academia, the Apple II achieved broader cultural reach and visibility than most computers of its era. It appeared in movies like Tron and television shows, even making it into the classroom on The Cosby Show in a 1987 episode. The Apple II permeated popular culture and public awareness, becoming a ubiquitous fixture of 80s life and cementing Apple‘s brand in the zeitgeist.

For the masses, it defined concepts like microcomputing, graphical interfaces, and multimedia capabilities. It normalized the idea that computers were accessible tools anyone could use, not just engineers. Most importantly, it put the power of computing into millions of homes and hands for the first time.


While innovative, the Apple II faced serious competition from several capable rival machines aiming for the early home computer market:

Commodore PET: Also released in 1977 shortly before the Apple II, the PET featured a similar MOS 6502 processor but had only limited graphics and sound capability with its built-in monochrome monitor.

TRS-80: Introduced by RadioShack in 1977 within months of the Apple II, the Model I sold well with its Zilog Z80 CPU, included BASIC interpreter, and low price – but had no graphics.

Atari 800: Atari brought strong graphics and sound to compete with the Apple II. The Atari 800 released in 1979 became popular thanks to advanced capabilities for games paired with attractive pricing.

Commodore VIC-20: Commodore returned in 1981 with the VIC-20, positioned as a more affordable, minimal computer for home users vs the Apple II‘s expanding capabilities. The VIC-20 sold over 1 million units but user experience couldn‘t match Apple‘s premium machine.

Commodore 64: The most blistering Apple II rival, the Commodore 64 dominated much of the mid-1980s home computer market. With its competitive color graphics and sound, massive software library, and low cost, the C64 surpassed Apple II sales by a large margin during its peak years.

IBM PC: Perhaps the most damaging challenge came from this 1981 release by computing giant IBM. The open architecture IBM PC standard slowly overtook Apple in the business space as PC clones flooded the market.

While it faced threats from select competitors, the Apple II outsold most rivals over its 14-year run and remained highly competitive with its graphical capabilities. It cemented Apple‘s place as an industry leader in the pivotal early years of the PC revolution.

Legacy and Importance

The Apple II leaves behind an immense legacy. It helped launch one of the most influential technology companies ever while pioneering concepts that became commonplace in the computing world.

Some key achievements and milestones:

  • Proved the mass market appeal of personal computers for home users
  • Established the value of platforms tied to software ecosystems vs just standalone machines
  • Pioneered high resolution color graphics and sound as standard PC features
  • Laid out principles of approachable design and usability for consumer electronics
  • Launched the PC gaming industry as a major software category
  • VisiCalc validated computer spreadsheets as business tools, not just for hobbyists
  • Fueled adoption of PCs across schools and homes, opening up computing to the masses
  • Set Apple on the path to becoming one of the most valuable companies in history

Wozniak‘s implemention of BASIC won a prestigious Grace Murray Hopper Award from the Association for Computing Machinery, recognizing the Apple II‘s technical achievements but also its broader accessibility.

In novative engineer that he was, Wozniak made technology friendly. Byte magazine aptly summarized the Apple II as "a system that is a pleasure to use, based on the friendliest microcomputer architecture yet.‘‘

The Apple II paved the way for many future Apple products and technologies from the Macintosh to iMac to iPhone that brought computing to everyday people. But most importantly, it helped change the world by putting the power of desktop computers into the hands of millions – including kids, students, parents, and businesses – for the first time.