GIFwatcher: View GIFs on your classic Macintosh

GIFwatcher makes viewing and using modern raster images easy on a classic Mac.

Getting modern images to work in System 6 or even System 7 can be a pain. A lot of modern software can export TIFF, EPS and even PICT files. However, they typically export using newer versions of these formats that are completely incompatible with older software.

When I still used the Adobe Creative Cloud suite, I managed to successfully open EPS or TIFF files exported from Illustrator or Photoshop in the oldest format version it could export with. Unfortunately, Serif Affinity software does not offer the ability to export in file formats 25-30 years old.

A dithered TIFF image of my old dual-floppy 1988 Macintosh SE is seen in Aldus PageMaker 4.0 running on it back in December 2020.

However, there’s another format that has changed so little it is compatible with all files (well, at least all I’ve tried) I exported using modern software.

The Graphics Interchange Format was developed by CompuServe in 1987, and updated in 1989, making it one of the oldest image formats still in wide use. It was in extremely wide use during the early days of the World Wide Web, as file sizes were smaller making for much faster downloading on slower connections. More than 30 years later, that fact is still appreciative given that my method for transferring the files between my modern M1 Mac mini and my 1988 Macintosh “SuperSE” is a slow (by modern standards) 19,200 baud serial connection.

A photo I captured of my two dogs — Daisy and (the late) Rico — and exported to GIF back in 2017. The 870×588 pixel image is only 271 kilobytes, although is in full (likely 256) color.

The file sizes were not the only feature of GIF. The term “GIF” has entered everyday vocabulary as a term for any short animated image, whether it actually be an animated GIF or a brief MP4 video without audio. The 1989 version of GIF — 89a — added animation delays, allowing multiple image frames to be alternated through at specified intervals. 89a also added support for transparent backgrounds.

An animated GIF I created recently depicting the obstruction light on the AT&T Long Lines site near Dover, Missouri. The GIF was created from two still shots, or frames, using the EZGif website. Unfortunately Affinity doesn’t offer a timeline window for creating GIFs on its own, unlike Adobe’s Photoshop.

Aside from animated images, GIF has fallen out of popularity to other standards, most notably JPEG (Joint Photographic Experts Group) and PNG (Portable Network Graphics). JPEG files are compressed smaller, but it’s lossy compression that sacrifices quality for size; PNG files are larger, but lossless — preserving image quality. JPEG files don’t support transparent backgrounds, but PNG does. JPEG can rival GIF in terms of file size, often times beating it.

There’s another reason GIF is no longer in popular use: color space. Most modern computers can render millions of colors. But, it wasn’t always that way. GIF is limited to 256 colors, which was a fairly good color palette in the late 1980s before thousands of colors became the norm. The 1988 Macintosh “SuperSE” I’m using GIFwatcher on only supports two colors — black and white. High-end desktop Macs of the era, such as a IIci (introduced 1989), could only display 256 colors. IBM PCs and PC-compatibles equipped with a Color Graphics Adapter (CGA) card could only display 16 funky colors, such as cyan, magenta or brown in addition to the standard red, green and blue. 256 colors came to the IBM PC and PC-compatible world in 1987 with the introduction of the Video Graphics Array card released alongside the IBM Personal System/2 line.

The venerable Commodore Amiga was one of the first personal computers to break the 256 barrier with its “Hold-And-Modify” mode when introduced in 1985. It could display more than 4,000 colors.

With a brief overview of the GIF format out of the way, let’s get on with the software review.

GIFwatcher installation

GIFwatcher can be downloaded from Macintosh Garden in a StuffIt 5.5 archive. Inside you’ll find a couple readme files and the desk accessory.

GIFwatcher was created in 1993 by Kerry Shetline (or Clendinning, according to Macintosh Garden).

GIFwatcher 2.2 — the version running for this post — was released in 1993 by Kerry Shetline of Nashua, New Hampshire.

And, yes, GIFwatcher is a desk accessory instead of a “standalone” application. In System 6, you’ll need the Font/DA Mover application to “copy” the GIFwatcher DA file into your system DA file.

Installing it on System 7 is even simpler. Just simply drag it out of its suitcase and open from there.

What does it do?

As the name implies, you can watch, or view, GIF images with it.

Daisy as seen in GIFwatcher while viewing the photo of her with Rico.

According to one of the included readme documents (which is in a MacWrite format), GIFwatcher was designed to allow people to view the image as it was being downloaded. It could, supposedly, allow you to also download an image in the background. (Maybe I’m just an idiot or overlooking something, but it doesn’t appear to be any way to point it anywhere to download a file. I’ve been using ZTerm to download the GIF files from my M1 Mac mini, later opening them in GIFwatcher.)

After loading the desk accessory (or program, if in System 7), it adds a new menu where you can open a GIF file. “Open GIF” slowly renders the image before your eyes, as advertised in the aforementioned document.

Using the “Faster GIF Open…” option renders it immediately after some brief processing. Most GIFs — even large ones over 1,000 pixels wide and tall — took less than 10 seconds to process on my SuperSE. (Perhaps I’ll do a “race” between the SuperSE and my Macintosh Classic to see how much processing times differ between the Motorola 68030 at 25 MHz versus the stock 68000 at 8 MHz.)

Once rendered, GIFwatcher gives you the option to save the graphic as a PICT file for use in other applications, along with some very basic editing options. You’re not able to scale the image — at least not proportionately — in GIFwatcher. However, you can import the PICT in other applications (such as PageMaker) to scale.

Obviously, don’t expect perfect quality. The dithered image loses quality significantly when scaled smaller. Despite that, I was surprised to still see some details in scaled images printed using my ImageWriter II on its lowest print quality setting.

There is one problem I noticed with GIFwatcher: It doesn’t play animated GIFs, at least not on my SuperSE. It would briefly display the first frame, but distorts it when attempting to load subsequent frames.

However, that is fine considering my main use — getting a modern image from a modern computer to work with vintage software running on a vintage Macintosh.