The Power Macintosh 7300 proves good design is about function as much as form

These days, Apple’s computers—whether they’re designed to sit on a desk, rest on your lap, slip into your pocket or be strapped to your wrist—are for the most part sealed boxes. Even if you can crack the cases to get to the chips and circuit boards inside, increasingly you can’t then do anything (except perhaps regret whatever course of action led you to tear apart some hitherto functioning hardware), since Apple has started soldering components to the motherboard.

This is in stark contrast to earlier incarnations of the company. Apple, after all, was born out of the culture of the Homebrew Computer Club, where tinkering wasn’t so much encouraged as necessary, and for a long time that culture fundamentally underpinned and informed even the supposedly “home” computer market of non-geeks.

Apple’s computers are often praised for their design, but often all people are talking about when they do is their external appearance; far less frequently do people think to look for beauty and engineering chutzpah beneath the surface, yet that’s actually where Apple’s real genius lies. That is to say, anyone can make a box look pretty (contrary evidence from PC makers notwithstanding), but that’s the easy bit.

A case in point

Look, for example, at the gloriously tidy and easy-to-get-at interior of the Power Mac G5 tower design, later borrowed for the Mac Pro. Or even at the original MacBooks, which made it easy to upgrade the hard disk (even swapping it for an SSD, say) and the RAM. Or indeed, at the Mac featured in the video above.

power macintosh 7300 01 Christopher Phin

Getting to the RAM and PCI slots in this Power Macintosh doesn't even require a screwdriver.

This case design was called “Outrigger”, and it’s an under-appreciated design classic. It was used for the Power Macintosh 7200, 7300, 7500, 7600 and Power Macintosh G3 (Desktop) computers from August 1995 to December 1998, and as you can see in the video, it makes it a cinch to get into the computer’s guts to add more RAM, slot in a PCI card, or upgrade your storage options. In fact in most cases you don’t even need a screwdriver, and the glory of the design is that while the case is compact (for the time) with little wasted space inside, you get clear access to all the internal components. In other words, unlike with less sophisticated, customer-centric computer designs from the time—or even today!—you’re not having to fiddle around in dark, awkward, delicate recesses; everything’s right there for you to work on.

The post-upgrade era

Let’s not get too sentimental, though. I know that for some people this will be a reminder of a happier time when Apple was much more open and encouraging about hardware modifications and upgrades, and that they’ll want to slam today’s Apple for its unrepairable, non-upgradeable Macs and other devices. And I get that. I do.

You have to remember, though, both that the trade-off Apple makes today results in computers that are both more portable and less dominating, and that these days there is simply less need to upgrade a computer’s internals. In the era of the Outrigger case, computers were generally slow, low-spec’d and expensive, and I don’t just mean by modern standards. In order to eke out performance, you had to incrementally add or replace components as you could afford to.

macbook primary Apple

It's not that this MacBook wouldn't run better if you could shove in more RAM. But for most people, making this upgradeable wouldn't be worth the tradeoffs in weight and size.

I know this is heresy to a particular generation of computer users, but it’s true: many users today will at worst find it a mild inconvenience that they can’t upgrade their Apple devices. For the kinds of tasks we currently use them for—for the current computing paradigm, in other words—Macs are, and have been for a few years, fast and capable enough, and until there’s a fundamental shift in what we demand computers do for us, a Mac you buy today will fulfill your needs for years without having a single component upgraded. (And when that fundamental shift does hit, merely switching to a faster processor isn’t likely to be enough of a change anyway.)

None of this, though, detracts from my admiration for the design team who created the Outrigger case. It’s a toweringly clever solution to a very real problem, and it’s a salutary reminder that design is more about inside-out engineering than outside-in aesthetics. Or as Jobs put it, “Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”

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