I imagine it being a huge downgrade for some, not to have color on the Macintosh. Macintosh games were black and white in the beginning, while Apple II had color.

I'm especially interested in experiences of people who lived through that time.

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    I continued to play Wolfenstein, Dark Castle, Karateka, and Carmen San Diego on the Apple IIE up until the early 90s (we had a fully upgraded IIE, with a SIDER 10 MB hard drive, and a 1MhZ Zip Chip). We also had a IIGs, which I did not like. I never got into games on the Mac as a kid. Once the SE came to our house in 1987 or so, I completely switched all Word Processing to it, & still played the games on the IIE. I used our IIE because of the SIDER and PRODOS utilities. The shop had the first mac, and it was amazing, but it wasn't about games at that time, rather painting and windows.
    – oemb1905
    Commented Jan 6, 2019 at 12:59
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    Similar question: how is it that the Commodore 64, TRS-80 Color Computer, TI-99/4A, etc. could all display 16 or even 64 colors at a time, and in some cases do polyphonic sound, and the IBM-PC rolled out with at most four colors and a crummy little beeper? Commented Jan 6, 2019 at 23:12
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    @user1172763 because the IBM pc targeted office users. Commented Jan 6, 2019 at 23:27
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    Most of your answers try to answer the question about why the B&W wasn't a problem for some people. I'd like to point out that the B&W display was considered an issue for some other people. So your general assumption is not altogether wrong. I lived through the time and when I heard that the new Mac computers had monochrome displays, I didn't initially believe such an atrocity (such a step backwards) was actually taken. I certainly didn't buy such a monochrome display; instead I was much more interested in waiting for color-capable successors that I assumed to be inevitable.
    – TOOGAM
    Commented Jan 7, 2019 at 0:53
  • 13
    Data point of sorts only: As a PC user the momo "Hercules graphics card" was vastly superior to the colour-Jim-but-not-as-we-know-it CGA card. The CGA was 'great' for games where the colour added value but for most purposes the "high resolution" [tm] Herc card was the way to go. I member standing in awe looking in a shop window at a new super hi res ([tm] again :-) ) EGA card being demonstrated when they first came out. And VGA!!! will wonders never cease? Not so far, anyway :-) Commented Jan 7, 2019 at 3:56

16 Answers 16


I was working in software development at the time, and this wasn't seen as a problem. Colour monitors were expensive and not usually high-quality.

In PC-compatibles, the Colour Graphics Adapter (640x200) wasn't regarded as adequate to be the only display on a machine; the Enhanced Graphics Adapter (640x350) appeared the same year as the original Mac, but nine months later. A monitor for it cost the equivalent of about $1500 today, and could only display 16 colours, because of the limitations of its input circuitry.

A good, crisp black-and-white display was perfectly competitive with a fuzzy colour one. The CAD company I worked for in 1984-87 started out selling a system that worked in 280x192 with six colours on the Apple II (whose graphics were weird). The new product written to replace it worked in 720x348 black-and-white on a PC with a Hercules Graphics Card. The higher resolution and crisper picture on a lower-cost monitor made this very much preferable.

The big switch to colour displays came at the end of the 1980s, with the advent of Super-VGA video cards and monitors. Multi-Sync monitors meant that a wide variety of video modes could be displayed on the same monitor, allowing games to change resolution and number of colours to what best suited them.

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    This colour / b&w continued, I bought an Atari ST with the b&w monitor as it was crisper...
    – Solar Mike
    Commented Jan 6, 2019 at 7:49
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    I used an Apple //e with a composite monitor in those days. I sometimes switched to B&W specifically to get crisper text, as the Apple 2 color composite text was a world of artifacting and general illegibility. Commented Jan 6, 2019 at 12:38
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    Apple avoided the whole CGA/EGA mess and moved directly to high-res color screens (the first Mac color monitor was 640x480x8bpp)
    – Hobbes
    Commented Jan 6, 2019 at 12:39
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    I'd go further and say that the high-quality b&w displays of the Mac and Atari ST were far superior for professional applications like text processing, hypercard and such. They were in my opinion even superior for gaming. Up tho that leap, pixel-oriented monitors (as opposed to character-oriented terminal-like monitors) were utter crap and a pain to work with professionally, especially the color ones. Even today I'd probably prefer a larger high-res grayscale monitor to a lower-res color one for programming, but I seem to be alone there. Commented Jan 6, 2019 at 14:59
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    In 1984, an 80 column color monitor cost ~$600 for a ~$300 computer (knockoff). That's a ludicrous price point for peripheral (but I suppose not if your dad needs to do accounting for their home business - and wants to play some Karateka on the side).
    – Mazura
    Commented Jan 6, 2019 at 22:59

The Mac was designed from the start to be a GUI-based machine so clear, high-resolution graphics were a requirement. At the same time available memory was extremely limited due to cost considerations. The original Macintosh only had 128kB of RAM of which over 21kB were used by the display. Going to even 8-bit color at that resolution would have pushed the framebuffer size to 171kB, more than the machine had in total. Despite its limited memory, it still cost US$2500 at release (~US$6000 today).

This article gives an interesting (if brief) history of the Macintosh's early development showing its evolution from a 6809-based system to the final design. According to that article, the original design was for a 256×256 monochrome display taking up 8KB of 64KB total RAM.

  • 2
    Early things are always expensive... new technology on every level needs to be designed, of course, once the problems have been solved things improve and get cheaper relatively...
    – Solar Mike
    Commented Jan 6, 2019 at 7:47
  • 10
    Keep in mind that color graphics not only costs memory, but also performance: The Mac appeared relatively swift because of its simple 1-bit frame buffer. The same resolution with 8-bit color would have slowed it down to a very mediocre machine because it had to move three times the memory about.
    – tofro
    Commented Jan 6, 2019 at 9:14
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    @tofro 8-bit color uses 8× the bandwidth of mono. 24× for "true color". Systems with 3-bit color did (BBC Micro, Sinclair QL) and still do (Sharp Memory LCDs) exist. But yea, pushing pixels around (even with a 68k) was expensive. Commented Jan 6, 2019 at 9:28
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    @RussellMcMahon In this instance it really doesn't matter much since the gist of the memory problem is that {3,8,9,24,etc.} ≫ 1 Commented Jan 7, 2019 at 4:21
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    @goldPseudo: A key principle behind the Macintosh Quickdraw graphics system is that objects and the boundaries between them can be displayed equally well at any pixel position. If e.g. each 4x8 block is limited to three foreground colors plus a shared background color (as was the case for a typical graphics mode on the C64) boundaries between objects would be limited to color-block boundaries.
    – supercat
    Commented Jan 10, 2019 at 22:16

I imagine it being a huge downgrade for some, not to have color on the Macintosh. Macintosh games were black and white in the beginning, while Apple II had color.

For back then the whole assumption of a 512x342 pixel B&W display being a downgrade from a display with an effective (*1) colour resolution of 140x192 is so strange(*2), I doubt anyone would have ever thought so back then - most definitely not me or anyone I know (*3).

Colour and resolution is a trade off in memory as both need more with greater depth. With 16 KiB of screen memory (quite a lot back then) one can do a 512x256 B&W picture, or 128x128 in 256 colours (*4).

In fact, this also goes well for the way that the eye works. There are roughly 120 million rods and only 6 million cones - 2 for each colour. So roughly 60 B&W 'pixel' detectors share a single colour detector. Colour is just the frosting on the cake of human vision - the cake itself is resolution :))

So if the decision is to be made between colour added or more resolution, the first choice is always more resolution - at least until we pass several thresholds. It only makes sense to add colour if the resolution is adequate to the task intended.

Here the (later) Atari ST is a great example. It offered a crisp clear 640x400 B&W display at 70 Hz. A feature that did beat many other machines including most PCs, especially considering the price. While the classic Atari ST vs. Amiga rivalry was more on a game level (*6), on a professional level the Atari outsold the Amiga by far (*7).

This highlights the strange beast of assumptions, playing games. That wasn't anywhere near the goal for a Mac. It was supposed for professional usage. Something where programs could display output on screen (almost) as it would be rendered later in print. The same area the ST was successful in as well - in its competition to the Mac it was sometimes dubbed as 'Jackintosh'.

The ST is in fact a great example for all of this, as it provided both, clear B&W and (acceptable) colour resolutions. With the B&W mode being a huge USP (price being next) for the Atari. In fact, it made it the machine for some cash strapped professions. Like notorious under-founded antiquarians. Signum, an editor capable to handle arbitrary scripts and their ways of writing ruled that area way into the 2000s. Not to mention that mathematicians liked it for being able to produce their secret codes.

So bottom line, When there is a choice between resolution and colour, the world always goes for resolution first.

I'm especially interested in experiences of people who lived through that time.

(Asking for opinions isn't exactly what RC.SE is meant for)

As for myself, I was an Apple II user and switched to PC but always went for more resolution to get more characters on the screen than having colour. Colour was nice and made nice frames, but couldn't beat having a full line of code without scrolling :))

Maybe another picture from back then:

I remember two guys who got them self a Mac already in March 1984 - that's even before Apple sold the Mac in Germany. They spend the (back then) ridiculous amount of close to 10,000 Mark on the computer and a printer and development software. They were hooked to the idea that the Mac was the future and they would be spearheading software development for this future. They even moved in together into an apartment, which happened to be complete empty, except for two sleeping bags, a desk with the computer and a little board with a cooker. There wasn't any money left for furniture or luxury of living. They took turns on the machine, one sleeping, one programming - or both working together.

And yes, they made their way :))

Now, with the basic workings clear, it seems strange at first, why, after ever increasing resolution, the industry added much colour (past classic 4 or 16 of EGA) around 1990 instead of further increasing past 640...800 pixels per line. That is, until we look at the output device. Until then CRT development was mostly a spin off from TV development. Screens and electronics for the likes of more than ~640 pixels per line diverged from general TV technology. Better electronics and finer screen masks where needed, requiring new production machinery, no longer to be shared with TV. A huge investment for a comparably low number of devices to be made.

Adding colour was a way of the computer industry to use the increasing resources (RAM) while still using the same old CRT technology - after all, such a tube doesn't care if it's fed the 640x480 in 4 colours or 256k. And while screens for high resolutions stayed rather expensive, making it more colourful did only require investment in graphic cards. It took many years and widely available cards able to do higher resolution, until screen manufacturers jumped the wagon.

The recent development of cheap high resolution flat screens is another example of this scaling effect. 10 years ago it was quite expensive to get anything past 1280x720, nowadays with HDTV 1440 screens that are cheap as dirt and 4k TV it makes even extreme resolutions quite affordable - and that's despite the fact that computer screens are in way higher demand than they where 30 years ago. TV still rules our life :))

*1 - The basic Apple II B&W resolution is 280x192, but it takes two pixels to produce one coloured pixel. Then again, it's way more complex than that, as Apple II colour video is unlike any other, so lets stay with 140x192 for now.

*2 - Or in modern consumer terms, that's 0.175 megapixels vs. 0.027 megapixels - Which would you choose?

*3 - The whole question feels a bit like ignoring resolution at all. Sure, we have reached a state where next to every device just has 'enough' - or better more than the eye can separate without help. Just, it hasn't always been that way.

*4 - Using 256 colour model as that's somewhat near to today's expectations. Back then 16 or 4 colour would have been way more appropriate.

*5 - Rods are what gives us black & white and ... well ... resolution, while cones overlay this with rough colour areas.

*6 - Where the Amiga was clearly better in technical terms, which didn't stop awesome games like Xenon, being first made for the ST. So in reality more a draw, as here the Atari held a 'good enough' position.

*7 - That is excluding special areas like Video for the Amiga or Music for the ST.

  • 4
    Like your statements on resolution vs. color. Note that moving pictures, however, are easier to capture in color (try to watch a football game in black & white). So, gaming machines have the exact opposite requirements: Here, color is preferred over resolution. (Admittedly, the original Mac was not designed as a gaming machine)
    – tofro
    Commented Jan 6, 2019 at 14:40
  • 4
    I regarded the CGA's or even MDA's 80-column text modes as superior for many purposes to anything the Macintosh could do. The Mac could barely manage an 80-column display without much in the way of useful highlighting other than underlining or reverse video.
    – supercat
    Commented Jan 7, 2019 at 18:30
  • 4
    A famous quote from the BBC's snooker coverage: "Steve is going for the pink ball — and for those of you who are watching in black and white, the pink is next to the green." (from the horse's mouth: news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/3629569.stm )
    – Tommy
    Commented Jan 7, 2019 at 21:16
  • 4
    @Tommy Well, yeah, great quote :)) Now, regarding football, they do select the colours in matches (at least over here) to work out on B&W - or did at least back when B&W was still a thing. Clubs always had alternate uniforms available. One of the little things that people hardly knew back then and have complete forgoten about today.
    – Raffzahn
    Commented Jan 7, 2019 at 21:29
  • 2
    Good to mention the B&W Ataris as people in the anglosphere tend to not grasp what a big thing it was in Germany. It easily outsold the Macintosh by an order of magnitude. I've seen it used in professional environment like at DSD (a big engineering company) where ST were connected to network and all equipped with Signum and used until 1995. Commented May 29, 2020 at 6:00

I believe the assumptions of the question are wrong. We did not buy the Mac to play games, it was more or less strictly a business machine. Main usage in the beginning around me was creation of printed material including illustrations. Slightly later the laser printer came along making it possible to create camera ready material inhouse.

Of course, I could be an exception. At the time (early 1980-s) doing process control software for nuclear power plants in Sweden. We did have special color displays used by the power plant operators, but these were expensive special stuff.

  • 2
    My remembry tells me that once the Apple LaserWriter hit the streets, that became a major driver for Mac sales. Commented Jan 6, 2019 at 20:44
  • 1
    On the actual question of Mac versus Apple II and gaming, the Apple II had Choplifter, one of my favorite games of all time. The Mac had... I don't remember ever playing a game on a Mac in the 80s. Commented Jan 7, 2019 at 14:57
  • 1
    @SolomonSlow This is what I remember as well. The big knock against the Mac was the output was horrible because you could only use a matrix printer, and those were all 8 pin printers at the time. When the 16 an 24 pin printers came out, you could get a better print from a matrix printer, but they could never beat the laser. Commented Jan 7, 2019 at 19:19
  • 1
    @ToddWilcox - I do. It was Risk (sounds silly, but it was a pretty good implementation). It stank compared to my Amiga, but if you wanted to play a game and weren't picky, it had some.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jan 8, 2019 at 2:20
  • @jmarkmurphy: Dot-matrix printers, including the Imagewriter used with the Macintosh, were designed primarily for printing characters, but the Macintosh OS didn't encourage applications to exploit an "output as monospaced text" abilities printers might have. Even when outputting a text document in draft mode, the Macintosh would insert extra spaces or sometimes use condensed mode to try to make the layout on paper match the layout on the computer, rather than simply letting text flow in whatever fashion would be best for the printer's character mode.
    – supercat
    Commented Jan 10, 2019 at 22:11

I personally agree with all of the answers that say something like “High quality bitmapped monochrome displays beat low quality PC color/character graphics.” E.g. for things like preparing documents for publication - affordable high quality printers were pretty much only monochrome. Why prepare a document that displays colors that cannot be printed?

Except... I don’t think the market agreed with this. I think that one of the reasons that PCs leapfrogged Macs at this time was color, and slide shows / presentations. Even with a lousy projector (more like external video), or with a lousy character based printer, color seems to beat monochrome graphics. As in, the young MBAs who could show a PC slide set with color highlighting the important points impressed more than the MBAs with monochrome slide sets produced on a Mac. The PC spreadsheet with red ink for losses was more persuasive than the printout of a Mac spreadsheet without. The PC MBAs got promoted. The Mac MBAs less so.

At the time I was a student. I thought that a well written monochrome paper or memo was what mattered. I thought that high res drawings - engineering diagrams, CAD - ideally color, but high res greyscale using shading more important than low res color - mattered more than low res color “cartoons”. I did not understand the importance of presentations and slide shows. I thought that slides should just be prepared with a word processing program and different font sizes. (Actually I still believe that - when possible I prepare slides and text documents from the same source. But the SW industry evolved to have separate programs for word processing and presentations. Presentations are important. Arguably more important than word processing.)

By the way, this was before PowerPoint. I can’t remember what the slide software was, but I remember fighting with it on Hercules Graphics Adapters (when helping those MBAs).

MS learned this lesson, and purchased what became PowerPoint early on.

I’m a computer architect (as in, I design computers, CPUs, GPUs, not buildings). At the time, I was desperately interested in how graphics would affect the evolution of computers. I bought Steve Jobs’ argument than high quality monochrome mattered more than color. I spent time designing BitBLT and other hardware support for images with small numbers of bits per pixel: 1 bit/pixel black and white, 4 bpp/16x GrayScale. I thought that 8bpp grayscale would dominate for a while, and that eventually reasonable color - 16bpp (rgba4, or rgb5), and ultimately 24bpp or 32bpp color would predominate. I neglected the “ugly” graphics modes like 16 color or 256 color, especially those that required a palette / color LUT. I was wrong in the short term, even though in the long term “nice” color eventually won out, once we could afford it. The demand for color was so high that people were willing to live with ugly tricks to get it.

I say now that my believing Steve Jobs’s spin about elegant high quality monochrome beating ugly color was one of the biggest mistakes I have ever made as a computer architect.

But, again, personally I still agree with what Jobs said. It’s just that the marketplace did not. Since then, I always ask myself if my personal preferences are blinding me to what the market really wants.

One of the other answers says that when there is a choice between resolution and color, resolution wins. I am not sure that I am disagreeing with that, as saying that there were several different markets for computer graphics, with different requirements for “good enough” resolution and color.

SW development - needs more than 50 character wide displays.

Engineering, CAD - needs high res, high DPI. Can live with monochrome, although eventually wants color. Highlight color is good enough, until really good color is available.

Business presentations - can live with 40 characters. Color more important than 1024 pixels.

Gaming - color on a low res display, even character graphics, more important than high res monochrome. Especially if you can do Amiga like tricks, like delaying scans so that you start displaying in the middle of a character graphics block, and have icons similarly start at boundaries independent of the character block.


June 2020 addition:

If you are a programmer or RTL engineer, do you use syntax highlighting and coloring? Would you prefer to have monochrome text when working on your code?

Compare a single fixed width font with with bold and slant and color, both background and foreground, to monochrome, proportional, nice fonts. I know the latter looks more elegant, but which really helps you edit code quicker? (Says I, who used fixed width fonts in emacs back in the day.)

  • 1
    The software before PowerPoint which you refer to was probably Harvard Graphics. Commented Jan 7, 2019 at 11:17
  • @AndrewMorton: while the name “Harvard Graphics” certainly rings a bell, Wikipedia says it was introduced in 1986, by which time I had a real job. I helped said MBAs, and a few medical researchers, with presentations and spreadsheets before 1985, on IBM PC and CP/M.
    – Krazy Glew
    Commented Jan 7, 2019 at 14:35
  • 1
    @AndrewMorton Wikipedia claims (with quite a number of source citations) that the product that became Microsoft PowerPoint was Forethought PowerPoint.
    – user
    Commented Jan 7, 2019 at 14:52
  • 1
    It occurs to me that circa 2018-2019 we have another case of wannabe data types smaller than 8 bits: Neural Nets. It seems well proven that NN weights and signals for inference don’t need to be full FP32, FP16, or even FP8. 4-bit and 2-bit data sufficient, possibly as integers or possibly as indexes to lookup tables of wider values. Possibly non power of 2 sizes like 3 bits, or even ternary. Having made a mistake about sub/byte graphics in the last century, perhaps I should be careful about sub-byte NN in this century,
    – Krazy Glew
    Commented Aug 24, 2019 at 18:21

As for why did the Apple II have color and the new Macintosh didn't? Because color wasn't as important as resolution:

"Steve Jobs asserted last January [1985] that no color Mac would surface for a few years at least, until such time as a color equivalent of the LaserWriter was feasible. He contended that color wasn't that important and said the Mac community was far better off working toward higher-resolution monochrome display and reproduction." (BYTE magazine, December 1985)


I was a VAX mainframe sysadmin when I bought my first Mac in 1985.

At the time we had Apple II computers for some purposes as well as assorted Digital terminals some expensive ones of which had colour, with ASCII and some primitive block character graphics.

The Fat Mac was amazing with its small screen showing beautiful high-resolution black and white graphics. Nothing matched the crispness of that screen. It was the best personal computer I could buy at the time in terms of sheer computing power and bitmap resolution.

I spent more on it than my car.

  • 1
    I've got a Mac Classic myself. Very similar hardware to the first model and the screen is ridiculously crisp. Commented Jan 7, 2019 at 1:59

I grew up in the 1980s, and we always had at least 1 computer around. On average, we would buy a new one every 2-3 years. At one time, I believe we had 3 or 4 at once depending on what is counted as a computer. We had an early Mac, but I'm not sure what model it was. It was purchased new, and was expensive at the time. In a lot of ways, it was inferior to our IBM AT/PC compatible. It had a tiny monochrome display, and the memory was limited. It also would not work with any of our other peripherals, including the printer. I believe it had a printer of its own, but I'm not sure exactly which one it was. The Mac was used basically just as a word processor by my older siblings.

The Apple Macintosh was based on an earlier model called the Lisa which was released on 1983. The Lisa was very advanced for its time, and some of the features that it had would not be re-introduced to the market until several years later. The list price of the Lisa was $9,995, which was a huge amount of money for a PC, even for the time. Adjusted for inflation, it would roughly be $25,000 in today's money. Because of the price, the sales were poor, only selling 100,000 units.

The Macintosh was released the following year to be more competitive with IBM. Under Steve Job's direction, the design was similar to the Lisa, but was a much more tame version. Instead of having 1 MB of RAM, it had 128k, and only had a single 3.5" floppy drive to save cost.

Macs had a higher resolution than the Apple II. Because of this, the graphics card required more processing power and more memory. At the time the first Macintosh was built, the memory requirements for running with a color display would have been cost prohibitive. The Macintosh was also marketed as a business machine, rather than for games so the color display was not a priority at the time. The Apple Mac lines and Apple II lines actually ran side by side for a long time. Our school still had some IIs in the computer labs right through the mid 90's that ran educational games. They were replaced by Apple LC's and we also had a handful of Power Macs. The Power Macs were primarily used for Photoshop. They also purchased several Windows PCs when the school first got Internet access in around 1995-1996.

It might be hard for younger folks to understand why the Mac was successful, even with its mediocre display. When it was released, there was not as much of an interest in computers. Fewer than 1 in 10 households owned a PC. Almost nobody even had email, unless they worked for the government, or were a college professor. It would be another 15 years before most people had Internet access. These early computers were primarily used for word processing, and record keeping, and not much else. Most popular games were released for consoles, which were much more affordable than a PC.

  • The Lisa software was so large that it required a harddrive making the machine very expensive. So the Mac software had to be much smaller. Commented Mar 4 at 14:56

It was seen as a different kind of computer by the people I knew.

It was definitely not a step forward in most ways as a gaming platform, as the Apple II had many games made for it, none of which would run on a Mac, and yes, no color.

The crisp display did seem somewhat nice in its way, and there were some interesting strategy games you could play on it such as Balance of Power or Empire, but there was a bit of a "what can I play on this?" issue for Apple II gamers.


The original Macintosh display used about 22Kbytes of RAM--about 17% of the machine's total, leaving about 106K for other things. Upgrading that to even four-level grayscale or a four-color bitmap would have doubled that requirement, leaving only 84K. The Apple //e double-high-res mode could support 16 colors using only 16Kbytes of storage, but at lower resolution. It may have been possible to design a system which used 44K of storage for a display mode that could accommodate full-resolution black and white and half-resolution 242-color graphics simultaneously, with the ability to move objects around on arbitrary horizontal and vertical two-pixel increments, but the design of Quickdraw is predicated on the idea that all pixels may be addressed individually.

Another point not yet mentioned is that even after the Macintosh II came out with color support, its display performance in color mode was vastly inferior to its performance in black and white mode. While the Macintosh II's processor was more than twice as fast as the original Macintosh, its display performance in 16 or 256 color mode was for many operations slower. When the Quadra came out with a display card that supported 24-bit color, the performance of that in 24-bit color mode was even worse, despite the CPU being much faster than its predecessors.

Had the original Macintosh tried to support color graphics using the lowly 7.16MHz 68000 the results would probably not have been pretty.


What most answers here missed is that it was not the colour or resolution that the Lisa first, the Macintosh both inspired by the Xerox Alto, then brought to the table that was considered progress. It was the whole concept of paper white screen. The holy grail of display technique at that time was to have a screen display comparable to printed paper. Constantly transition from the print to the screen was extremely straining. Avoiding these constant changes in contrast was considered important at that time.

CRT struggled to provide that because of refresh rates. Green or amber screens would flicker and be ugly in reverse video even with high resolutions (Hercules was 720x348, Olivetti had a 640x400 mono). Lisa and Mac didn't have higher resolutions (Lisa 720×364, Mac 512x342) but had a nice white background. Later machines like the Atari ST continued that trend with its 71Hz refresh 640x400 screen which gained a big market share in Germany just for that.

PC's would eventually pursue the trend with Windows to this day (on a personal level I'm completely at loss why modern developers are so fond of dark themes, it was such a relief when screens were finally capable of displaying paper white that I don't understand that regression).

  • The observation about reverse video is a good one, although many green-screen terminals could do reverse video quite effectively by using three intensity levels plus black: normal text is 2 on 0; bright text is 3 on 0; normal reverse is 0 on 1; bright reverse is 0 on 2. Flashing alternates between 2/0, 3/0, 0/1, 0/2 and 1/0, 2/0, 0/2, and 0/3. As for why programmers like light on dark, it's probably because many different colors show up well on a black background while also having good contrast with each other, and also because having a mix of backgrounds helps visually separate windows.
    – supercat
    Commented Mar 4 at 18:07
  • My biggest peeve with the "dark" trend is the idea that windows with black backgrounds should also have black borders. Under Windows 3.1, I'd highlight the current window with a thick bright pink border, but modern Windows only allows such setting if one selects "high contrast" mode.
    – supercat
    Commented Mar 4 at 18:08

Echoing what others have said, the high resolution of the graphics and shading was a means of compensating for not having color. Again, the cost of these machines meant that most people would likely be using these as business machines and not as games machines.

Here is a video of the first Mac games...even though it is blurry, you can see that the resolution and detail was far superior to any color computers of the time:


Also worth noting, the NES was released in the US in 1985, so people wanting to play games would also be looking at purchasing that, instead of a Mac or PC.

  • 1
    That video really doesn't do justice to the quality of the early Mac display.
    – Mark
    Commented Jan 8, 2019 at 2:39

That was not a question at that time. Mainly because both machines didn't address the same kind of users.

Mac was clearly more professionally-oriented especially in text edition and rendering, and color isn't necessary in that case. Scientists liked the Mac because of the more finest graphics capabilities, and there was then a lot of software that used the good screen definition for rendering functions and alike.

A-II was more a home-computer with basic coloring to enhanced game experience, but many games were not colored and that was not a problem at all. Don't forget that what is important in a game is the gameplay, the experience you have in playing not the rendering. Color wasn't a criterion for choosing a game...

  • 1
    Thanks, this is almost exactly what I was going to say. At the time the Apple II was USUALLY considered in the group with other "Low-end" (Still quite expensive) introductory computers you would have in your house, not at work. Many of the low-end computers ended up as work computers (You still see trs-80 model 100s running electronic systems sometimes) but there was a clear division as what was intended for home use and what was intended for office use.
    – Bill K
    Commented Jan 9, 2019 at 21:21

Apple wanted to be taken seriously as a NON-gaming vendor, to combat up-and-coming IBM, which had a significant perceptual advantage in the deep-pocketed business market. THE killer business application for the Apple II was Visicalc, a non-color-using spreadsheet. (The first spreadsheet.) Businesses wanted word processing, spreadsheets, org charts, project planning, and this is what drove the Lisa's (Macintosh's immediate predecessor) software and hardware complement. Monochrome made this practical (both cost and performance) on relatively affordable hardware of the day. That this bias was somewhat wrong, according to what later transpired, is immaterial when asking the 'why' question. Yet, THE killer business application for Macintosh turned out to be desktop publishing, courtesy of the Laserwriter. And this device was not color, either.

Anyone who spent significant time working on a color-TV monitor (Apple II, PC CGA, etc.) might develop eyestrain, due to the fuzzy big blobs that were color characters on such things, and would complain bitterly about how cruddy the overall experience was. The crisp clean, and considerably higher-resolution, monochrome systems of the day were vastly superior to work on day-in and day-out, when doing word processing, programming, spreadsheets, etc. And that was the market Apple was aiming for.

High-quality color simply wasn't available/affordable at the time. Once it was, of course monochrome went away. People really like color.


When I was on the staff at Massey University, New Zealand from the mid-1980s, Apple IIe systems were being used for student CAD training using CADApple (sp?). This was a UCSD Pascal app, and the IIes had 3 or 4 floppy disks, and twin-knob game paddles for X/Y pointing. They also had full external 80-column cards in a slot to drive one monochrome screen for the text-based menuing system, while the internal video system drove a second monochrome screen at best resolution for the drawing work. I had to do a patch to the UCSD P-system BIOS file to handle the second video card. In this case the resolution and sharpness of the two monochrome screens was far more important than colour at lower res. They were replaced late in the decade by donated 6MHz IBM PC-ATs with the impossibly expensive PGA and matching 640*480 colour monitor.

Word processing in the (engineering) department was done on MS-DOS non-PC-compatible Sony computers using WordStar, with hand-drawn graphs and equations glued on before reproduction. The arrival of an original Macintosh 128K changed that dramatically, and was quickly followed by a pair of Mac 512es. An early version of MS Word for the Mac, with an add-in called Expressionist, allowed the in-line creation of full scientific expressions which the lecturers absolutely loved. The resolution and sharpness were great. There was a single Laserwriter Plus for the entire faculty, in a locked room with 1 Mac and 1 PC connected to it, and sneaker-net for getting your files to the printer.

The Macs had external SCSI hard drives attached to a controller which attached to the Mac via a giant clip which went over the entire 68000 CPU to make them sort-of Mac Pluses. They remained the departmental word processors for years, and I think they were replaced with pizza-box Macs but still with monochrome displays on cost/resolution grounds. The department finally got a LaserWriter IINT with PhoneNet connectivity to the Macs.

One of the science lecturers had a sideline adding an extra address multiplexor to 128s and replacing the RAM to make them 512s.


The monochrome Macintosh was not entirely without color, due to an external device control technology that allowed programs to send commands via the serial port to an external video playback device, which then displayed color and/or animated images on a separate monitor next to the Macintosh.

In the mid to late 1980's video encyclopedias were released that typically used a HyperCard stack to queue up videos or still images from large LaserDisc optical disks.

An example of this on Youtube (not my video): https://youtu.be/4iFyLpUW9fk?t=800

Monochrome Macintosh displaying color video on a separate monitor using a Pioneer LaserDisc player.

Early versions of this worked with a special Betamax tape player with serial port control, and the Apple II, but the the user had to wait for the tape to seek to the video to be shown next.

This later version used Pioneer LaserDisc players and 12 inch optical video discs, which allowed instant seeking to video clips, or static display of color images stored as individual frames.

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