When first presented to the public in the 1970s, the Apple ][ was widely recognised as the only personal computer that could display colour graphics – at least, one that was somewhat affordable.
It was a novel idea for the time. The general public was still not quite used to the idea of manipulating pictures on a television tube – television traditionally having been a one-way medium (images broadcast from the telvision station to your living room, but not the other way round). Not only could the Apple ][ bring magic to your television, it could do it all in colour.
Technically it was just ‘color’ – those using the PAL standard for television pictures weren’t able to immediately produce colour from an Apple ][, in part due to Steve Wozniak’s mastery of the NTSC system, which wasn’t compatible outside of North America and Japan (for the most part).
By the time the Apple //e was being produced, the Apple ][ in PAL countries could display colour right out of the box, much to my delight when I hooked up my model to my very own circa 1980s Samsung colour television, in itself an artifact from a time gone by.
However, there’s a catch.
The Monitor II, while only able to display one colour (green), was able to produce sharp images. Its ‘high resolution’ capabilities meant sharper lines in business graphics, precision crosshairs in space shooters, far beyond the capabilities of your typical consumer television.
The Monitor II was also necessary if you wanted to use the 80 column display mode on your Apple //e – televisions just couldn’t cut it.
So what’s a computer historian to do? Have two large monitors on their desk, of course.
For a long time (until very recently), I actually had both monitors hooked up to the Apple //e. The green phosphor Monitor II was plugged into the 80 column display port (part of the 80col card) and the colour television was plugged into the regular monitor out on the //e logic board. The result – one of the earliest dual-screen capable computing setups.
I absolutely need 80 columns to use VT-100 terminal emulation in ProTerm, but some games – such as Pitfall, Frogger, etc – look terrible in monochrome. It’s not just the single colour. In monochrome mode some colours appear as patterns; backgrounds fade into foregrounds, and it’s just a mess. Some games are playable in monochrome, but not all.
The exception to all this was the colour monitor, aptly named the ColorMonitor//e, which I recall being able to produce sharp 80 column text as well as perfect colour graphics.
Would I pick this up, if it was available? Maybe. I did own one at some point – pretty sure Dad ripped one off from a local school (okay, he fished it out of a dumpster or something – I really have no idea how he got his hands on it, he sure didn’t buy it).
But I probably wouldn’t use it. The colour television has this beautiful kind of shittyness to it, an indistinguishable blur on 40 column standard graphics which just looks gorgeous. Colours melt into one another and it’s quite a pleasing effect – even more so on NTSC televisions, I hear.
And you just can’t go past a green phosphor monitor for reliving (or in my case, emulating) the experience of 1970s and 80s computing. With sharp graphics and pleasant greens, it’s very hard to replace. Even more so after I went to the trouble of replacing the burnt out line capacitors.