The top 10 standout Macs of the past 25 years

Back before Apple made computers that fit in your pocket, it made computers that fit on your desk. Some were big-box machines, others were not so portable portables and still others were — literally — cube-shaped. But the first Macintosh, the one that started Apple’s rise to iconic status, is to the computer industry what the wheel was to cave men.

It was launched during the Super Bowl on Jan. 22, 1984— in a minute-long commercial directed by Ridley Scott that became a classic of its own—and went on sale two days later. It was the first of a string of Apple computers that would captivate users for the next quarter of a century.

Much has changed in technology over the course of the past 25 years, with Apple often at the center of the advances we now take for granted. To celebrate the Mac’s 25th anniversary, I looked back over the years and picked 10 Apple computers that altered the company’s course and changed the way the world works and communicates. My first pick, naturally, is the first Mac.

The Macintosh (1984)

The original Mac, with its compact all-in-one design, innovative mouse and user-friendly graphical user interface (GUI), changed the computer industry. Like the wheel, the Mac just made things convenient for the rest of us.

Most computers in the early 1980s were controlled exclusively through text commands, limiting their audience to true geeks. True, Apple had released a GUI with the introduction of the $9,995 Lisa in 1983, but the Mac, priced at $2,495, was the first computer to capture the attention of everyday people, who could now use a computer without learning an entirely cryptic command-line language.

The mouse, coupled with a user interface that closely followed the physical “desktop” metaphor, allowed users to tackle tasks unheard of for rival computers using its two included applications: MacWrite and MacPaint. Thus was born desktop publishing. Coupled with Adobe Systems Inc.’s laser printer, the Mac brought about WYSIWYG design, allowing artists to output precisely what was on the Mac’s 9-in. black-and-white screen.

In case you forgot, the first Mac came with 128KB of RAM and zipped along with an 8-MHz processor. Reviewers were not always friendly, but the stories of those who helped bring it to life, collected at Folklore.org, offer a fascinating look at the first computer to capture mainstream attention.

The PowerBook 100 series (1991)

On Oct. 21, 1991, Apple unveiled its new portable lineup, which included the PowerBook 100, 140 and 170. These “good, better and best” models, the culmination of a joint venture between Apple and Sony, featured a 10-inch color screen and yielded a design that became the blueprint for all subsequent laptop designs from all computer manufacturers.

Apple’s earlier attempt at a portable Macintosh—aptly named the Macintosh Portable—weighed in at a not-so-portable 16 pounds. But the Macintosh Portable did introduce the trackball to mobile computing, in this case located to the right of the keyboard.

The PowerBook line placed the keyboard back toward the LCD screen, allowing room for users to rest their palms. It also conveniently allowed Apple to locate the trackball at the center of the palm rest. That made it easy for either left- or right-handed users to operate the machine.

The PowerBook series also introduced Target Disk Mode, which allowed the laptop to be used as a hard drive when connected to another Macintosh using the built-in SCSI port. It also came in a fashionable dark gray, breaking from the standard beige of the PC industry.

The PowerBook 100 series brought in $1 billion in revenue for Apple in its first year, and its impact is still felt to this day. If you’re using a laptop with a trackball or track pad between your palms, you can thank the PowerBook 100 design. (If you’ve got a track pad, you can thank the PowerBook 500. In 1991, that particular model was still three years away.)

The Power Mac G3 (1997)

The Power Macintosh G3 represented a new beginning for Apple because it the first computer unveiled after the return of CEO Steve Jobs, who had immediately canceled Apple’s cloning licenses with third-party computer manufacturers. He also slashed Apple’s product line from dozens of models to just a few core products.

The Power Mac G3 was the beginning of Apple’s steps toward the use of industry-standard components to cut costs, and Motorola Inc.’s G3 chip represented a performance improvement over earlier chip sets while using far less power.

The first Power Mac G3 came in beige, with chip speeds starting at 233 MHz. And the G3 chip set became the foundation for Apple’s entire computer lineup until the introduction of the even faster G4 processor two years later. In fact, variants of the G3 would be used by Apple until 2003.

The iMac (1998)

The iMac is the computer most credited with reversing Apple’s fortunes, its distinctive looks and playful colors instantly finding a place on consumer desks and in pop-culture history. In terms of specifications, the iMac featured the by-then-ubiquitous G3 processor, but unlike other Apple computers, it featured no legacy ports.

The iMac instead relied on Universal Serial Bus, a technology that offered plug-and-play ease for connecting peripherals and hot-swappable capabilities. Despite criticism about the lack of legacy ports, the USB market boomed around the iMac, and most early USB products came in white plastics and translucent colors that matched the iMac’s style. (The translucent color craze didn’t stop there; everything from USB hubs to George Foreman grills came in bright iMac-like hues.)

Another controversial change was the iMac’s lack of a floppy drive. It was the first computer to drop support for floppy drives as a standard feature, the same technology that the original Macintosh had boosted 14 years earlier. But it did offer a 4GB hard drive and a 15-in. color screen—all for $1,299.

The original iMac’s popularity had little to do with its specifications and everything to do with its cute, space-egg shape. Suddenly, the computer wasn’t just a beige box relegated to the home office; it was a suitable for showing off in the living room as a design element. Apple used the compact, all-in-one design to its advantage, even releasing a “Simplicity Shootout” to entice potential owners who would not normally consider purchasing computers.

Although each later revision added new features and performance — and a new palette of colors —the iMac’s shape itself morphed into the flat-screen version available now. Throughout its life, the iMac has always retained its focus on ease of setup and groundbreaking good looks.

The PowerBook G3 “Wallstreet” (1998)

This sleek Apple laptop was the second generation of Apple’s portable lineup featuring the G3 chip set, but it was also one of the first laptops to feature a then-huge 14.1-inch screen enclosed in a lighter, more aesthetically balanced package. Apple even distributed pinup posters of the machine.

Not only was it sleek and curvy, it was also one of the most expandable laptops Apple had ever shipped, containing not one, but two docking bays capable of holding batteries, optical drives or third-party add-ons such as Zip drives. While the left docking bay was designed specifically for batteries, the PowerBook G3’s hot-swappable nature meant its configuration could be adjusted on the fly. It became an instant classic.

While the Wallstreet version was a high point of design, versatility and power for its time, this model reached its pinnacle with the Pismo version. Released in February 2000, the Pismo had all of the benefits and looks of its Wallstreet older brother, but it came in a lighter, thinner case, had AirPort wireless networking, a FireWire 400 port and much faster hardware. Because the Wallstreet design set the stage for the later Pismo release, it gets the nod for top 10 status.

The iBook (1999)

Jobs unveiled the iBook G3—there’s that G3 chip again—in July of 1999, thus filling what became known as its four-quadrant product strategy. Taking cues from Apple’s consumer desktop, the recently announced iMac, and designed to be thrown into a backpack, the polycarbonate-clad iBook featured a distinctive clamshell shape, a tough plastic exterior, and a bold blue- or orange-colored rubber trim.

Like the iMac, the iBook ditched all legacy ports in favor of USB, and—again like the iMac—it featured a handle. This was also the first Apple laptop without a latch, a feature still being touted as a plus in 2008 models. It was the first to ship with Apple’s circular wireless charger, around which the power cord could be wrapped without tangling.

Most importantly, it was the first-ever mainstream consumer device that showcased wireless networking, something Jobs nonchalantly debuted during the 1999 Macworld Expo & Conference. Dubbed AirPort, Apple’s implementation of Lucent’s wireless technology quickly allowed wireless networking with a minimum of fuss. Wireless technology had arrived. Jobs’ debut of consumer wireless networking on the iBook comes at about the 5:30 mark in this video.

The Power Mac G4 Cube (2000)

This little number was one of Apple’s more controversial releases, but it easily deserves mention as one of Apple’s product highlights. The Cube was only sold in 2000 and 2001, but during its brief tenure, it not only accumulated numerous design awards; it also found itself on display at the Museum of Modern Art.

The Cube was literally an 8-inch cube of technology suspended in a 10-inch clear acrylic enclosure. The Cube relied on a vertical optical drive and featured a touch sensor that pulsed with white light when it was pressed to turn the unit on. Internals were cooled through the ingenious usage of convection currents, as warm air escaping from the Cube’s top vents actually pulled cool air through the bottom and rear openings in the acrylic.

The Cube was also Apple’s most compact desktop to date, using the G4 processor from its tall-tower cousin in a design a quarter the size. Unfortunately, the Cube’s high price—it went for $200 more than Apple’s tower lineup, without the expandability—made it an item most people looked at but never bought, and reports about cracks in the acrylic case marred the Cube’s reputation early on.

Even so, the Cube showed Apple’s fearless pursuit of cutting-edge design that also showcased engineering savvy. Cube fans still abound.

The (Intel-based) iMac (2006)

Six months before this iMac hit the market, Apple did the until-then unthinkable and announced that it was leaving behind the PowerPC architecture for good and moving to Intel Corp.’s Core Duo processor platform. Citing performance and power-efficiency improvements, Apple said the shift would allow it to engineer thinner, more powerful computers that would otherwise be impossible to do. Dreams of the oft-rumored PowerBook G5 vanished overnight.

On Jan. 10, 2006, during the Macworld Expo, Apple announced that its new iMac would be the first Apple desktop to feature the Intel chip set. In an effort to prove that a Mac was still a Mac despite the internal system changes, Apple left the iMac’s features, price and case, which had incorporated the guts of the computer into the flat-panel display in 2004, unchanged. Performance, however, was touted as being two to three times faster than previous iMacs.

Oh, and buyers could run Windows on the machine, either virtually with third-party software or natively with Apple’s Boot Camp software, giving users and businesses a safety net if they were switching from PCs to Macs.

Though it has been updated with an aluminum shell, the basic all-in-one styling of that flat-panel iMac still remains the standard for Apple’s competitors.

Side note: The iMac wasn’t the only Intel-based Mac to arrive at Macworld ’06. Jobs also unveiled the 15-inch MacBook Pro. Mac fans loved the laptop, hated the name and bought it in droves.

The MacBook Air (2008)

During last year’s Macworld Expo, Apple finally ventured into ultraportable territory—its first foray into the niche since the discontinuation of the 12-in. PowerBook G4 in 2006—with the MacBook Air. (By contrast, the old 12-inch model looks more like a brick.)

The original Air lacked a built-in optical drive, had no expansion card slots, included no FireWire ports, and had only a single USB port. But what the Air lacked in features, it made up in technological prowess for such a thin design. The Air was the first Mac to feature an optional solid-state hard drive, and its processor—whether you bought the 1.6-GHz or 1.8-GHz model—was a special Intel design that reduced the chip’s packaging size by 60 percent while still offering decent performance.

The Air’s enclosure contained a 13-inch screen, which gave Apple room to use a full-size keyboard so that typing ease wasn’t sacrificed for the sake of form. Adding to the distinctive styling was a new, larger track pad that also supported multi-touch capabilities.

The Air’s most remarkable feature was the new technological advances in the use of aluminum that led to its remarkably thin but sturdy enclosure. By crafting the Air’s body from a single block of aluminum, Apple created the first “unibody” laptop.

The new design process also led to less material waste during construction, and the Air features materials that are easier to recycle than previous models. That same process design is now being used on all of Apple’s laptops, including the latest model, the 17-inch MacBook Pro. Announced on Jan. 6, it’s due to hit store shelves by the end of the month.

The iPhone /iPod touch (2007)

While not technically a computer, Apple’s ultra-ultraportables run stripped-down versions of Mac OS X, making them de facto Macs small enough to fit in your pocket. As computing hardware becomes smaller and more power-efficient, the mobile version of OS X will become a bigger part of Apple’s product road map.

Announced at Macworld Expo in 2007, the first iPhone went on to take the mobile world by storm when it was released almost six months later. Featuring technologies not initially available on the desktop version of Mac OS X, such as Core Animation, the iPhone’s user interface did to the mobile industry what the original Macintosh did to the computer industry.

And with each successive iPhone software update, the iPhone and its cousin the iPod Touch gained even more features and stability, finally embracing its calling as a true platform with the introduction last summer of the App Store and thousands of available applications.

Like that first Macintosh of 1984, the iPhone has reset the bar for the competition and raised expectations for consumers. With its integration with PCs and Macs, built-in wireless networking, software capabilities and ground-up rethinking of software interface, the iPhone/iPod touch platform is the epitome of 25 years of Apple design.

[Michael DeAgonia is a Neal Award-winning writer, computer consultant and technologist who has been using Macs and working on them professionally since 1993. His tech-support background includes tenures with Computerworld , colleges, the biopharmaceutical industry, the graphics industry, Apple and as a Macintosh administrator at several companies.]

Subscribe to the Help Desk Newsletter

Comments