There is no doubt that Apple designs some of the best computing hardware on Earth, and it has done so for most of its 37-year lifespan. But even companies known for top-notch engineering slip up now and again, and Apple is no exception.
So we submit to you a slate of Apple’s hardware design mistakes through the years. Most of these have little to do with outward aesthetics, but instead relate to errors in functional engineering. These examples are by no means the total of Apple’s hardware failures, so if you have any of your own to share, we’d love to hear about them in the comments.
Power Macintosh 52xx and 63xx
The Power Macintosh 63xx desktop series and the 52xx all-in-one series originated from the same era—the mid-1990s—and they shared a similar flawed lineage that crammed a 64-bit data bus PowerPC CPU into a 32-bit data-bus design. As a result, instructions took more clock cycles to execute, effectively cutting the clock speed of these units in half. In addition to other issues, Apple left out hardware handshaking in the 52xx and 63xx model serial ports, which limited external modem speeds to a blazingly sluggish 9600 bits per second at the dawn of the Internet era.
The iPod Hi-Fi (2006) ranks among Apple’s most baffling products. It introduced an expensive Apple-brand alternative to iPod speaker docks that cost hundreds of dollars less at a time when the market did not demand an audiophile-caliber listening experience from the iPod. But those are marketing mistakes.
Hardware-wise, the Apple placed the unit’s delicate iPod dock in an awkward spot atop the unit that made a docked iPod vulnerable to damage from a fall. Also, the unit’s included remote could control only part of the iPod's functionality—just forward/backward and volume control in a selected playlist.
Designed as a high-power entry into the business-PC market, the Apple III (1980) integrated a number of options like serial cards, clock chips, and disk controllers that shipped as optional cards for the Apple II. Meanwhile, Steve Jobs insisted on a fanless enclosure that relied on a cast-aluminum chassis for a heat sink. As features on the motherboard grew, engineers found themselves cramming more and more circuitry into a fixed space, eventually resorting to a then-novel narrow trace design on the motherboard. Both the trace design and heat-dissipation issues resulted in an unstable system that would not be fully remedied until Apple released the Apple III+ three years later.
[Photo: Steven Stengel/Oldcomputers.net]
One of the most derided Apple products of all time, 1995’s PowerBook 5300 played host to a number of design mistakes, but we’ll focus on two of them here. The first is that its case design was fragile and brittle, making cracks in the structural hinge plastic common even when the machine was new. More ominously, the early lithium ion batteries that sold with the unit proved defective and were known to overheat and catch fire. Apple soon replaced them with lower-capacity NiMH batteries that had less-combustible personalities.
When it came to designing the next generation of “Apple 32 SuperMicros,” Apple fell into "invented here" syndrome and decided to design most of the Apple Lisa’s internal systems from the ground up. That didn’t turn out so well for the unit’s FileWare floppy disk drive, a complex mechanical monster designed to squeeze more bytes out of the traditional 5.25-inch floppy form factor. The result was a slow, unreliable drive that was too limited in capacity to host running applications (which made an expensive external hard disk a near-necessity).
Also, the Lisa’s 5MHz 68000 CPU was far too sluggish for the computationally intensive graphics tasks that users expected from it.
[Photos: Apple, Benj Edwards]
In years to come, we may remember the iPhone 4 as much for its premature appearance in the press as for its stunning industrial design. As amazing as the product was, Apple tarnished the iPhone 4’s reputation by building its antenna into the metal rim of the phone. When held in a certain way (mostly by lefties), reception dropped dramatically, resulting in lost calls. Also, the decision to cover not only the front but also the back of the unit in glass resulted in quite a few unhappy customers who managed to drop the phone onto a hard surface. Cracks ahoy.
The original Macintosh was groundbreaking upon its release in 1984, but it carried with it two major limitations that hampered its usability. The first was that it shipped with just 128 kilobytes of RAM—which cramped the style of applications written for the graphically rich Mac OS environment. The second is that users could not upgrade that 128K of RAM, hobbling the machine until a more-powerful Apple-sanctioned Mac (the Mac 512K) could be released a year later.
Apple USB Mouse
One of Apple’s most infamous hardware flops arrived in 1998 with the iMac. The Apple USB Mouse—Apple’s first mouse to utilize the USB standard—abandoned the familiar teardrop shape of most mice at the time in favor of a circular puck-like appearance. It was a clever visual design, but users began complaining about hand cramps from lack of palm support and about the orientation issues posed by a perfectly round mouse. After one hardware revision that added a divot to aid with orientation, Apple abandoned the USB Mouse two years later in favor of the Pro Mouse design.