DOScember: SoftPC on a Macintosh?

Many vintage computer enthusiasts are celebrating DOScember – using the time to play around with DOS and run some games. Back in March 2019, I demonstrated DOSBox, a DOS emulator that runs on modern machines. But I had a random idea: what if I could get DOS emulation working on one of the vintage Macintosh computers?

SoftPC is a virtual DOS machine that will run on vintage 68k Macintosh models, such as my Classic. You could liken SoftPC to a 68k-era Parallels, though with MS-DOS. It requires a Motorola 68000 to run, so the processor requirement isn’t strict. However, it requires at least 2 MB of memory and 10 MB of hard disk space to run. Therefore, only my Classic can run it – since it has exactly 2 MB of memory installed.

My original goal was to use System 7 to run SoftPC, but really only for one feature – the ability to take screenshots. System 7 screenshots are in .pict formats, which my modern Mac can decipher. System 6 screenshots, however, must be in a different format that my modern Mac – and even software like “GraphicConverter” – doesn’t like.

I created a 40 MB volume on the FloppyEmu’s microSD card for the installation. Using Mini vMac, I installed System 7 with a “custom installation” for the Macintosh Classic. While it wasn’t bootable in Mini vMac (likely because Mini vMac emulates a Macintosh Plus with a Plus ROM, and the system software may be looking for a Classic ROM) I was able to use a different version (System 6.0.8) to install SoftPC and its hard drive file on the System 7 volume.

The System 7 install on the 40 MB FloppyEmu volume was successful.

Because I couldn’t boot Mini vMac with the System 7 volume, I was essentially flying blind and hoped that everything worked out on the actual 1991 Macintosh Classic.

However, I couldn’t boot from the volume in Mini vMac.

Thankfully, the 1991 Macintosh Classic booted right into System 7.1 with no issues. However, this would be pretty much the end of things going right.

First problem: SoftPC wouldn’t open. There wasn’t enough memory to open SoftPC – it needed over 1 MB of memory free when I only had 988 KB free. This was my primary concern, since System 7 does eat a little more memory than System 6. Therefore, if you want to run SoftPC on System 7, you’ll need at least 3 MB of memory.

SoftPC failed to open in System 7 due to a lack of memory.

The second problem, which was completely my fault: I forgot to install StuffIt Expander. Therefore, I couldn’t expand the SoftPC hard drive file. But it doesn’t matter anyways, since SoftPC won’t run on my hardware with System 7.

System 7 ate up so much memory on the Classic that when trying to reduce the screen brightness with Word 4.0 open, System 7 threw a memory error when trying to open the brightness control panel.

I couldn’t even adjust the screen brightness without getting a memory error.

Then, after saving the Word file, the menu bar turned into garbage.

System 7 is a little more stressful on my Classic since 2 MB is the bare minimum for running it. System 6 runs more smoothly, and is more appropriate for these machines, anyways.

System 6 + SoftPC?

Now it’s back to the drawing board. What about testing it with System 6? After all, System 6 won’t eat as much memory.

I plopped the microSD card back in to my MacBook and created another 40 MB volume for System 6.0.8 and SoftPC. This time, I remembered to include StuffIt Expander – along with some other utilities, just in case.

This time, SoftPC still upset the Classic – but in a different way. SoftPC kept crashing the machine with an “illegal instruction” upon loading.

With System 6, SoftPC still refused to start – this time crashing the machine with an “illegal instruction.”

However, I have one more trick up my sleeve. Up to this point, I’ve been installing SoftPC in Mini vMac. What if I transfer all of the install files to the System 6 volume and actually install it on the Classic itself?

Nope, that doesn’t work. I even tried installing the install files on two high-density floppies in the exact same manner they had the files on the original SoftPC floppy images I downloaded from Macintosh Garden. After running the installer, I still got the “illegal instruction” bomb error.

My failed attempt to install SoftPC on the 1991 Macintosh Classic using floppies.

That marks the end of the “SoftPC on vintage Macintosh” road, at least for now. I’m not sure why SoftPC wouldn’t run – perhaps you actually need more than 2 MB for it to run?

Last Resort: SoftPC in Mini vMac?

However, one last trick: will it run in Mini vMac? Mini vMac emulates a Macintosh Plus that has the full 4 MB installed – so if it is a lack of memory, it should at least run in Mini vMac. Well, let’s try it out.

I created another 40 MB volume in the Mini vMac folder on my MacBook, and installed System 7 on the volume. I proceeded to install SoftPC, and then copied the hard drive file and software from the FloppyEmu volume I was working with on the Classic.

Surely, it should work this time.

SoftPC also crashes Mini vMac… with 4 MB of RAM and System 7.1.

Nope. Even with 4 MB of memory and System 7.1, SoftPC crashed my Mini vMac machine – also with an “illegal instruction.”

It’s pretty clear at this point that SoftPC – at least “Small SoftPC 1.3” – will not work on any of these machines. Which is strange, provided that I’ve read about other people doing it with no other problems. Maybe the version I downloaded has an issue?

The Macintosh Garden download page also has SoftPC 2.5 available for download. Maybe in the near future I will try that instead, to see if I have better luck with it.

Update – 12/13/2020: SoftPC 2.5

After my failures with Small SoftPC 1.3, I decided to try SoftPC 2.5.

My first SoftPC 2.5 test was with the version I downloaded from the Macintosh Garden. The disk image didn’t even load; the image was damaged and the Mini vMac virtual machine kept asking me if I wanted to initialize it when mounting the disk.

However, a user on Reddit gave a link to SoftPC “Entry Level” 2.5.1 on the Macintosh Repository. This version clearly says it was made for older and entry-level Macs of the time, naming the Classic, LC, SE, Portable, and Plus models. So, this version should work in both Mini vMac and on the Classic, right?!?

This version of SoftPC showed promising signs of working, until I tried to get past the “personalization” screen. It kept asking me for a password, which I don’t have. (No mention of a password was made on the Macintosh Repository page or in the download.) Without a password, it would not allow me to use it.

SoftPC “Entry Level” 2.5.1 showed the best signs of working, until I hit this brick wall…

Another Reddit user posted a link to an “unlocked” copy, which I will test out next. If it works, I’ll post a full sequel to this post demonstrating some DOS software. If it doesn’t work, I’ll post another update below.

Update – 12/21/2020

Apologies for the delayed update.

I tried the “unlocked” version of “Universal SoftPC 2.5” in Mini vMac and… it worked. Or at least I was able to load SoftPC 2.5 and get to a command prompt. However, I couldn’t figure out how to get the DOS files from the virtual floppy I created to the virtual hard disk SoftPC creates. So, one step closer – but still couldn’t get software running.

A directory listing in SoftPC.

Unfortunately, this is the end of my adventures with SoftPC – at least for now. The “Universal SoftPC” version appears to use a lot of memory, so it will not run (at least happily) on the Macintosh Classic unless I upgrade it to the full 4 MB. And even then people have told me it will run slow on actual hardware. (I believe someone said an ‘040 Quadra resulted in AT-like speeds in SoftPC.)

Turns out Small SoftPC 1.3 may actually need a Motorola 68020 or better to run, which may explain why it kept giving “illegal instruction” errors on the Classic and in Mini vMac. Since I don’t own a machine equipped with a 68020 processor (or better) I can’t do any further testing. Kinda strange that Small SoftPC would require a ‘020 or better, especially since it appears to have originally came on double-density disks. (The only machine equipped with a 68020 and double-density drives appear to be the Macintosh II.)