The delight is in the details
Ask a Mac user why they like Macs and the chances are that sooner or later he or she will mention “attention to detail.” We feel that Apple, more than any other mainstream company, cares about making every part of a product and the experience of owning it as perfect and beautiful and pleasing as possible. Delight, not the devil, is in the details of Apple’s products.
To illustrate this, we’re going to take a closer look at the Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh that featured in Think Retro two weeks ago, which wonderfully exemplifies this engineering thoughtfulness.
Note above, for example, how the beautiful swooping foot that this Mac uses for its stand is also designed to fold against its body so it can be used as a comfortable carrying handle.
And before we go on: a reminder that I’m hugely keen to talk to anyone who bought one of these stunning machines early on, and so had it delivered by limo by a gentleman in a tuxedo. I would love to share the experience with Macworld’s readers, so please help me find these early adopters—and have them drop me a line on Twitter!
Actually, I’m going to have to spend a bit longer on that foot. Not only is it practical—easily supporting the Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh with its stiff hinge—but it’s just a breathtakingly beautiful object. Look how it twists from the vertical as it sweeps around the back, somehow evoking a Möbius strip. And look how the end that pokes out in front bulges and fattens slightly. There’s something biological about it, something that calls to mind the terminal of a femur—although we’re talking a sci-fi android’s skeleton here rather than a human’s!
Something you might hear designers talking often about is how “resolved” a design is. This is a tricky concept to define in concrete terms, but you can think of it as whether the creator of a design or an object has managed to deal with all the problems their solution has created. Usually, this means taking out any imbalance and tension in a design—simplifying it to its essence—but it can also be done by adding flourishes, texture, and interest.
Here, for example, in the gap between the top of the vertical CD-ROM drive and the screen, Apple has pushed in an indentation, which makes the surface seem less bare and stark. All over this Mac, where planes and lines intersect, something unexpected and unusual happens.
That’s just swell
Note, for example, how the slightest of swells in the front section below the screen pushes the line of the case out in an arc next to the flat speaker grilles. There’s probably no engineering reason to do this, but it creates interesting and pleasing patterns for our eyes to latch onto.
There’s a fan inside the Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh, and while you can argue that needing a fan is a sign of bad engineering—even if it was completely unremarkable in the late ’90s for a computer to have one—and while you can argue that just cutting a circle in the back of the computer through which the fan can exhaust the heat that builds up inside the case is an inelegant solution, you can’t argue that Apple hasn’t done something special with the design of the vent itself.
It’s not just the organic, droplet-shaped spokes that delight either. Look at how the angle of the fan is different to that of the case, causing a pleasing asymmetry in the surrounding crater of plastic as the two planes intersect.
Managing upwards—and side-to-side
At first glance, it looks like there are only a few ports at the back of the Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh, but take off the backplate and you’ll see microphone, S-Video, ADB and printer and modem serial ports. The best bit, though, is this little comb of hard rubber, designed to manage these cables so they don’t tangle and instead exit the Mac as gracefully as possible. They’re not just in a random order, either; the ports themselves are arranged vertically on the perpendicular surface above, and the mic input is first, then S-Video above that, ADB above that and so on. By labelling the “bottom-up” ports “left-to-right” on this cable management system, Apple has ensured that the cables don’t cross over each other even when hidden behind the backplate.
All about that bass
The audio system of the Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh, made by Bose, was one of its big selling points, and the small speakers either side of the screen were augmented by this big, meaty subwoofer. While most subwoofers are anonymous black boxes that you hide under your desk (since your ears can’t tell where low-frequency sounds are coming from), it seemed like a sacrilege to banish this one to the land of dust bunnies. In profile, there’s something reminiscent of a shark’s dorsal fin about it.
Shock and awe
How completely wonderful is this? A single thick cable sprouts from the back of the Mac that carries not just power but also audio data, and you hook this to the sub—which is also the electrical transformer—with this fabulously bonkers, steampunk connector. Seriously, it feels like you’re Victor Frankenstein’s assistant, about to harness the awesome power of lightning. (That’s lightning, not Lightning—history is silent on whether his monster was MFi-certified.)
You shove the two ends together and then spin a knurled retaining ring to keep them fixed. Quite, quite mad, and quite, quite lovely.
Your exits are here, here, and here
Here we’re looking at the bottom of the sub/power unit, and I want to draw your attention to the two little notches that are designed to let the thick cable that connects to the Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh, and the thinner one that goes to the mains, pass through from the inside while maintaining a nice clean line. Note not only how they’re just the right size, but that the case bulges slightly at each notch’s apex, almost as if it was made of ceramic and a potter had pushed the holes into the skin of the case with his finger. Another example of how even the most mundane intersections between planes are considered and resolved all over this Mac.
Just my type
It was only when I was taking these photos that I noticed the name of the components on this Mac are typeset in an unusual font. Most Apple corporate stuff of this era was set in Apple Garamond (and later Myriad), but this looks like a cut of VAG Rounded. Look down at your keyboard, though, and you’ll probably see the same font—note how similar the splaying capital M is.
An earlier instalment of Think Retro was about Apple’s corporate fonts, if you’re interested.
Today, Apple’s hardware favours the cold, unyielding crispness of glass and aluminium, but one particularly lovely touch with the Twentieth Anniversary Mac was the leather-clad wrist rests on the keyboard, either side of the removable trackpad. You might have ethical objections to leather, and I’d definitely respect that position, but it’s nevertheless true that using warm, natural materials for those parts of a machine you touch makes it feel both less emotionally forbidding and more physically pleasant to interact with.
Because why the hell not?
And finally, one of the the most flamboyant and ostentatious design flourishes on the whole machine. As I said, the trackpad is removable (and there’s a leather spacer held in a void under the keyboard you can replace it with so the wrist rest is kept neat and unbroken in front of the keyboard) but because of this, Apple had to come up with a way of stowing the cable when it was not separate but instead part of the keyboard.
Often, the kind of attention to design I’ve praised here is about practical, engineering-led solutions that make products work harder and better for their users. This solution is definitely that too, but it’s also a delightful flight of whimsy—and I think there’s room for these in technology.