System 7 on the 1991 Macintosh Classic

This year, Apple surprised us with two giant leaps forward for the Mac: the introduction of their own M1 silicon, and the introduction of macOS 11 “Big Sur.”

But let’s take a leap back in time nearly 30 years and look at System 7.

Similar to macOS Big Sur (11), System 7 was a leap forward for the Macintosh operating system in 1991. (Left “About this Mac” is for my 1991 Macintosh Classic, right is for my 2019 MacBook Pro.)

System 7 was heralded as a major upgrade for the Macintosh operating system when it was introduced in May 1991. In fact, Apple and third-party accessory companies made a push to advertise that their products were “System 7 Ready” and would be able to make the leap.

MacWorld celebrated the introduction of System 7 with an article detailing its benefits. (MacWorld, July 1991, pp. 194-201)

And it was a large leap. System 7 introduced many features that System 6 and earlier system software lacked. For instance, aliases (the Mac term for file system shortcuts) was introduced with System 7. System 7 also introduced a refined user interface with more graphics and was more colorful – if you had a color-capable Mac with a color display. These are just a couple of the enhacements System 7 offered back in the day.

System 7 also introduced QuickTime player, which added enhanced multimedia functionality to a compatible Mac right out of the box.

However, all of these benefits came with a drawback. System 7 wouldn’t run on all Macs at the time due to its system requirements. In fact, my 1988 Macintosh SE won’t run System 7 as it only has 1 MB of memory. The main subject of this article is the 1991 Macintosh Classic, which will run System 7.

System 7 was a really long release of macOS – much like its younger sibling, Mac OS X. System 7 started out in 1991 in the 68k era, and finally ended in 1997 in the middle of the PowerPC era with the introduction of OS 8. In fact, System 7 went under two “names” – System 7 for earlier versions, and OS 7 for later versions. The “Mac OS” moniker stuck – replacing the “System x” naming scheme used previously.

OS 7 was replaced in 1997 by OS 8 as primarily a way to escape from licensing agreements made to the Macintosh clone manufacturers in the mid-1990s. This worked, as OS 8 brought an end to the clone market. OS 8 would mark the rebirth of Apple Computer, as Steve Jobs returned and worked on returning the company to profitability by releasing products like the iMac and iBook.

Now that we know the history of System 7, let’s take a look at it.


I’ve tinkered around with System 7 before in Basilisk II, but never had any actual hardware to try it out on. When I purchased my 1991 Macintosh Classic, it came with the factory-original installation of System 6.0.7 that contained many of the original owner’s files and even had the date this machine was likely made – May 2, 1991. (For the record, System 7 was only released 11 days after my Classic was made.) I didn’t want to wipe the drive to install System 7, especially since System 6 runs smooth on this machine.

Basilisk II is a good way to get into System 7 and System 7 software without having hardware that can run System 7

When I acquired the 1988 SE, I briefly thought about running System 7 on it. But there’s a problem with that machine – System 7 requires at least 2 MB of memory to run, so the SE was out with its 1 MB of memory. 2 MB is the minimum, and you’ll likely want more as I’ll discuss later.

Last night, while scrolling through the “System Software” folder on the FloppyEmu – the light bulb in my head turned on. What if I created a virtual hard disk/HD-20 emulation volume on the FloppyEmu to run System 7 with?

I powered down the Classic, removed the microSD card, and stuck it in my modern MacBook Pro. I pulled up Mini vMac and went to work installing System 7.1 onto a duplicated HD-20 volume that I copied and initalized/formatted.

I used Mini vMac to install System 7.1 on the blank HD-20 emulation volume

Mounting the volume in Mini vMac showed the System 7 installation was successful. However, the real test was on the Classic itself.

And, at around 12:20 a.m. on December 5, 2020, the Macintosh Classic booted into System 7 for likely the first time in its life.

What is it like?

System 7, much like Big Sur (11.0) and Catalina (10.15), didn’t appear to be drastically different from System 6 when booting.

When it did boot, I was greeted with the lovely message telling me QuickTime wasn’t supported by my machine. One of the reasons behind trying to install System 7 was an attempt to get MIDI playback working with Arnold’s MIDI Player and QuickTime. Unfortunately, neither work on the Classic. Maybe QuickTime needs more than 4 MB of memory (it wouldn’t work in Mini vMac, either) or perhaps it’s not happy about running on a Motorola 68000 and wants a 020 or 030? Either way, my goal of getting MIDI playback (using software synthesis) on my compact Macs is pretty much at a dead-end.

QuickTime will not run on the Classic, SE or in Mini vMac.

The changes in System 7 are easily noticeable. In the menu bar, you can see the addition of the “Balloon Help” icon in the top right corner, to the left of the current app’s icon. Balloon Help was a feature introduced with System 7 to help users learn the parts of software. If you never used MultiFinder before, the “app switcher” icon is a new addition. (In System 7, multitasking is standard.)

This diagram in the July 1991 issue of MacWorld shows just a few of the new additions in System 7 (MacWorld, July 1991, p. 196)

Click on the Apple Menu and you’ll see more changes. The boring text options are now accompanied by icons. The “About this Mac” window has change slightly, now displaying the actual Mac you’re working with. (System 6 didn’t show this.)

The “About this Macintosh” window now tells you what Mac you’re working with. As a side note, System 7 exports screenshots at PICT files that my modern Mac can actually read – a huge bonus.

The Control Panel has completely changed, now taking the form of a Finder folder with all of the control panels.

While System 7 isn’t the fastest thing on the planet with the Macintosh Classic, it isn’t slow, either. It runs fairly quickly, at about the same speed of System 6 – if not slightly snappier. I feel running the system software from the FloppyEmu offers slight speed advantages on both the Classic and the SE. (Especially the SE, since System 6.0.8 is pretty sluggish when running from a floppy. However, running even System 6 from the FloppyEmu on the Classic has a noticeable improvement over running it from the internal factory Quantum ProDrive.)

Where System 7 really affects the Classic is in the memory it eats. System 7 eats over a megabyte of RAM, which means less memory for your applications to play with. This is exacerbated by having multiple applications open at once, which happens from time to time in System 7 and MultiFinder on older versions. (In some cases I have to turn MultiFinder off in System 6 to get certain apps to run.)

Compatibility with software doesn’t seem to be affected. The apps I tried with System 7 seemed to run just as fine as before, although you have to be more careful with your memory.

System 7 opens up another avenue that is now more of a moot point – networking. Before the FloppyEmu, I wanted to configure a simple AppleTalk network between the Classic and SE to share files, so I could test software on the SE. They would not connect to share files – apparently, you need System 7 or additional software in previous versions to be able to do that. However, now it’s not required since I have the FloppyEmu.

In the end, System 6 seems to be the better choice for these vintage Macs. System 7 runs decently, but these machines originally shipped with System 6 – which retains the charm of the Mac’s early days. System 7 is really nice to play around with in Basilisk II or a newer or higher performing Mac that has color capabilities, such as a Quadra or Macintosh II. But I’d like to keep it simple and stick to System 6, which works with most of my software.

This post was originally written in Microsoft Word 4.0 on the 1991 Macintosh Classic while running System 7.1.