My Emulator Mac

I often refer to my PowerBook G3 Wallstreet as my “Bridge Mac” for my Mac Museum because it allows me to move data from my new Macs to my old ones. It does this because it can read Compact Flash cards through its PC Card slot, read CDs through its CD module, write floppy disks through its floppy module, and even transfer data over a Mac serial cable. It’s System software can read current data formats and write it to older data formats that only exist on my older machines. This allows me to get software and documents off of the modern internet and translate them into a form that can be loaded all the way back onto my 1984 Macintosh 128k. My bridge Mac is both a part of the museum and a utility for the museum. Now I’m adding another: my Emulator Mac.

I own over 60 Macs that can run any version of software that Apple has released. It’s awesome that I can run down to the basement and play with real hardware whenever I want, however, it can be a pain to pull them out, set them up, and plug them in to use software from a certain era. Copying data to and from them is possible through my Bridge Mac, but it’s still slow and requires multiple trips to physically shuffle data around. That’s where emulators come in. Emulators are applications that trick software into thinking it’s running on real hardware of a certain kind, even if it is different than the real hardware. It allows me to run Mac OS from 1984, written for a completely different architecture, on a current machine.

Using emulators I can run anything from Mac System 1.0 (1984) to Mac OS 10.13 (2017) to Windows 95, 98, and many others. I have a number of different emulators running nearly 20 different Operating Systems, each one configured with its own hardware and storage. While I can run all of them on my day-to-day MacBook Pro, I don’t really have enough space to keep all of them on it at once and risk breaking them each time I update the Mac OS.

My Emulator Mac and Bridge Mac side-by-side. Floppy, CF Card, and multiple Operating Systems in plain view.

Boy would it be nice if I had an older, but newer, computer lying around with lots of free space to install emulators on… Luck has it that I do! I’ve got Sally’s old MacBook Pro – a 2011 model with a 13” screen, a 2.7 GHz dual core i7, 16 GB RAM, and a 500 GB SSD with basically nothing on it. This particular machine has some huge benefits for my emulators. 

First, it’s fast enough to run them, even the ones that need to do CPU-intensive PowerPC translation. Second, it’s an Intel machine, so it can also run VMWare Fusion to virtualize Mac OS 10.6 – 10.12 as well as Windows, DOS, Linux, and BeOS. It has tons of memory and tons of free space so I can keep all of my emulators on it at once. The 13” screen is only 1280 x 800 non-retina resolution which is actually perfect for older software built for the era of 800 x 600 displays. It’s got USB, Thunderbolt, Firewire, Ethernet, an SD card, a working battery and even a DVD drive. The software is perfect too – it’s forever stuck at Mac OS High Sierra 10.13 (2017). I can’t upgrade it anymore and it’s not my main machine so I’ll never have to update an emulator or change my settings. The OS can still natively read HFS disks, making it easier to transfer applications from the internet to my older machines. 

A close-up of my MacBook Pro running Mac OS 8.1, System 6, System 7.6, Windows NT 3.1, and booting Mac OS 10.0 (bottom right)

So what can I do with this Emulator Mac? Well crazy things like running all 11 major versions of Classic Mac OS at once! Or running the Public Beta of Mac OS X without resetting my machine’s clock to trick it into thinking it’s the year 2000 so it doesn’t expire. I can install various software from different eras, compare the Windows and Mac experiences, or even run apps that I’d still like to use like Titanic Explorer. My virtual machines can have almost as much memory as I’d ever want, without installing a single memory chip. Many of the older environments run much faster than real hardware, making installing old software very fast.

So far I’ve got all of the major versions of Mac OS Classic, Mac OS X, Windows 95, Windows NT 3.1, Ubuntu Linux, Haiku (aka BeOS), NextStep, Apple IIGS, and even the Lisa. I’ve got a bunch of classic Apple software and every major version of Xcode and iOS simulator I can find. I still love my actual Mac Museum, but having almost all of the software loaded onto one portable machine is hard to beat.

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