While we wait to see Apple’s new Mac desktop for hardcore computing professionals, let’s remember the days when pro Macs were towering beasts using more metal than the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and more plastic than a nursery full of Lego. See also: New Mac Pro release date, rumours and leaked images
Today some pro Mac users are happy with a flimsy bit of aluminium like the MacBook Air. Wimps. We demand something that looks like it contains a nuclear reactor. It needs to be bigger than a suitcase with warning stickers all over it, hotter than a barbeque, and noisier than a drag car. Yes, something like the old Power Mac G5.
Pro Mac history: Apple I (1976-1977)
While of course not a “Mac” we start with Apple’s first computers that would eventually morph into professional Macs.
The Apple I’s users didn’t work in Final Cut, Aperture or Adobe Creative Suite. Indeed they would have fainted at the very thought of MacPaint. And it’s hard to call them “professional”. Some of them looked like they’d lived wild in a forest for the previous half of their life, and that was just the guys from Apple.
It was partly invented at the Homebrew Computer Club, and we all know that “homebrew” is by definition not professional. We wouldn’t want to walk into a pub and be served our ale out of a plastic bucket. But these computer hobbyists were pioneering the use of the computer into the hands of the many.
The users might have spent most of the time in their bedrooms but the Apple I was certainly big enough to qualify for tower status and was so open to user tinkering you had to build the case yourself from bits of wood.
While the Apple I looked like a Victorian dressing table the Apple II actually looked like a smart electric typewriter. While used professionally it doesn’t pass the grade at looking powerful enough for true Pro status. The Apple III, on the other hand, looked much more impressive and cost at least $4,000. Rather than allow users to install upgrades within its case you could buy extras that stacked on top of the computer increasing its height to the extent that you had to put extra cushions on your chair.
The Apple III Plus featured a built-in clock but even that advance was not enough to save it from the scrapheap.
Pro Mac history: Lisa (1983-1985)
At $10,000 the pre-Mac Lisa was Apple’s most expensive computer and was aimed at large businesses. So far so pro. Sadly that’s where it’s pro Mac credentials fade away as it was a closed all-in-one system that looked like ET’s head rather than an imperial Walker from Star Wars. And it was named after a girl!
Just before it was driven off to landfill, Apple rebranded the Lisa as Macintosh XL”, which is certainly a top Pro name.
Pro Mac history: Apple IIgs (1986-1992)
1986’s Apple IIgs was the first Apple computer to nail the deep-box look (it had learned well from the Mac) and allowed you to swap in and out various third-party expansions, including 8MB of RAM and a processor upgrade that pumped iron at 18MHz!
Pro Mac history: Mac II (1987-1990)
The original Mac looked way too friendly to be a professional machine. It had a goofy smile and said Hello. We had to wait three years before we got the super-expandable Mac II that came in a case the size of a Christmas hamper.
It didn’t say Hello. It barged past you, knocking you to the floor, and it didn’t look back to apologise.
It boasted six (six!) NuBus slots for extra bits and pieces, such as a new graphics card that could display colours. If you wanted one with 1MB of RAM and a 40MB hard disk it would set you back $5,500.
The IIx and IIcx were in a smaller box with just three NuBus slots but still cost a small fortune.
1989’s Mac Iici was a box so high that it was nearly a cube. If Steve Jobs had still been at Apple I’m sure it would have been. It was the first Mac to have built in-colour video circuitry and despite costing $6,700 was one of the most popular Macs ever.
The IIfx was the Daddy of the pro Macs, costing a minimum of $12,000 and accommodating two floppy drives and eight high-speed 64-pin RAM slots. It also had a range of cool codenames, including Stealth, BlackBird, F-16, F-19 and Weed-Whacker. That’s pro.
Pro Mac history: Quadra (1991-1994)
Frank Casanova, who sported a curious Brian May-like head of hair, was the brains behind the IIfx and his Quadra range continued the pro features but this time expanded vertically in proper tower fashion, starting with the Quadra 700. The name Quadra was in part chosen from the major quadriceps muscle group to show off its strength. We’ll ignore the wimpy looking Quadra 605/610 but bow before the 700, mini-tower 800 and mighty $7,500 Quadra 900/950 machines, which had three internal bays and stood 18.6 inches high – a sequoia among computer saplings.
Pro Mac history: Mac clones (1995-1997)
Apple made the decision to let other manufacturers make and sell Mac hardware too late to stop crappy Windows PCs taking over the world. And it then made the mistake of letting the Mac clone makers produce pro computers – such as the Power Computing PowerTower Pro – more powerful than Apple’s own and with Pro in its name, plus Power and Tower. On his return to Apple Steve Jobs took one look and quickly killed off the clones, and we were back with a not-so-brilliant range of professional Macs to choose from.
Pro Mac history: Power Mac (1994-1998)
The first Power Macs looked much like the Quadras they replaced but packed new PowerPC processors. The Power Mac 8500 was big but, at a mere 15 inches in height, no match for the Quadra 900. Even the 9500 measured just 17 inches tall, but it was the most expandable Mac yet, with six PCI slots and seven internal drive bays. Seven! Unlike today where Apple hates the thought of users tinkering under the bonnet the 9500 didn’t even ship with a graphics card. You had to add your own.
The later 9600 came in a new-look case, which at 9.7 inches was the widest Mac tower ever, and was the easiest to get inside to add up to six drives, 12 memory chips and six PCI cards.
Pro Mac history: Power Mac G3 (1998-1999)
The Blue & White Power Mac G3 came in easy-to-open iMac-like coloured polycarbonate. The Apple logo was squeezed in between the giant G and 3 lettering and reminded many of Mickey Mouse – starting plenty of baseless rumours (some by me) about Disney planning to buy Apple. (In the end Apple sort of bought Disney. Sort of.)
While it looked nice this was the beginning of the end for the tower Mac. The G3 had just four RAM slots, and no SCSI. The graphite-coloured (later Quicksilver) Power Mac G4 looked more impressive and boasted internal FireWire, two separate USB buses and up to 1.5GB of RAM. A later “Mirrored Doors” Power Mac G4 was so noisy that it was nicknamed “Windtunnel”, gaining extra pro points.
Apple went a bit nuts with the Power Mac G4, launching different designs of tower: starting with Graphite, moving to QuickSilver and ending up with Mirrored Drive Doors. Afterwards, it stuck with the Power Mac G5 design for a decade.
In 2000, it became the first “personal computer” to feature Gigabit Ethernet.
Pro Mac history: Power Mac G5 (2003-2005)
The Power Mac G5 really looked the part of a proper professional Mac. Its industrial aluminum case screamed Pro.
The G5 ran so hot that the case was divided into four separate thermal zones, each with its own cooling system – in case it ran so hot that it melted your desk. Its nine fans occasionally allowed you to pretend that you worked on the deck of an aircraft carrier in a state of emergency.
Pro Mac history: Mac Pro (2006-2013)
At last a pro Mac called a Mac Pro. Apple had already started calling its flimsy laptops Pro instead of Power, so it was long overdue for the far-sturdier desktop behemoths.
The Mac Pro’s aluminium-enclosure design was little changed from 2003’s Power Mac G5 and, at 20.1 inches, was the tallest Mac tower yet. You could take the side off and use it as the roof to a small building.
The Mac Pro dumped the G5 processor for Intel’s more pro-sounding dual- and quad-core Intel Xeon chips, with city-sized titles such as Woodcrest, Clovertown and Harpertown.
But, aside from the chips, it was little updated and lacked then-current technologies such as SATA III, USB 3, and Thunderbolt, despite some of these being available in punier non-Pro Macs.
Pro Mac history: 17in MacBook Pro (2006-2012)
Apple had been calling its top-end MacBooks “Pro” since 2006 but it was the frankly giant 17in model that truly deserved the title. While all the other MacBook Pro models could be used by amateurs and people who hog tables at Starbucks, the 17in MacBook Pro was a beast fit only for the professional – a professional with a big backpack and strong shoulders.
Its “unibody” enclosure was a single piece of aluminum, rough the size of a jumbo jet’s emergency exit door.
It had an option for a matte anti-glare display, for pro designers who flinched at the sight of a glossy screen that everyone else would have cooed over. Proper.
Pro Mac history: Mac Pro (2013-2019)
Every now and again Apple design legend Jony Ive would tire of refining the same old Mac cases and enclosures, and demand to be allowed to show off with something so wacky that everyone would resume to bowing at his Clarks Wallabees
In 2013, Apple gave him a shot at making the Mac Pro look like nothing else ever designed by anyone on Earth, and he came up with something like a shiny trash can from the spaceship in Alien.
Making it just 9.9 inches tall and just 6.6 inches in diameter – less than an eighth of the size of the old Mac Pro – Ive had outdone himself. Even the silly Power Mac G4 Cube looked sensible sat next to it.
In our Macworld review we described how the new Mac Pro “may be exactly what you want (a state-of-the-art, multi-core-processor, workstation-GPU computer that doesn’t waste space and resources on expandability you may never use), or nothing like what you need (a workhorse tower with tons of bays and slots for expansion)”.
Its very uncylindrical and massive Mac Pro predecessor boasted four hard-drive bays, two optical-drive bays, and four PCI Express slots, and you could even add a RAID card to set up an internal RAID array.
The 2013 cylinder Mac Pro had none of these professional expansion muscles, just a handful of slots at the back so the rest of your desk was ruined by a multitude of ugly, non-Apple boxes (that all, of course, cost a whole bunch extra).
Even Ive walked away from the design with nary a glance back at his wonder-child, with the unloved cylinder holding the record for the least changed Apple product of all time at a staggering 2,182 days – just short of the duration of World War 2.
Pro Mac history: iMac Pro (2017-2021)
In April 2017 Apple held its hands up about how useless the cylinder Mac Pro design and its focus on dual graphics-processing was and promised us an totally redesigned Mac Pro.
Apple’s senior vice president of Software Engineer, Craig Federighi admitted that “we designed ourselves into a thermal corner”.
Instead, the company brought out the iMac Pro – which looked just like a 27-inch iMac but in a highly attractive Space Gray colour that we all called Black because that’s what we’d have really preferred. Some (very wealthy) people bought the iMac Pro just to get their hands on the shiny black mouse.
Sadly, it suffered the same non-expandability as the Alien wastebasket; its solid state drive was non-user-replaceable as the SSD modules were paired cryptographically with Apple’s T2 chip.
The iMac Pro was certainly powerful, it was ‘black’ and it was called Pro but it was still really just a powerful iMac.
Pro Mac history: Mac Pro (2019-)
Embarrassed by its silly-inder Mac Pro, Apple went back to the drawing board – actually 2006’s original Mac Pro drawing board, which itself was just the drawing board used for the Power Mac G5. Apple didn’t waste its drawing boards.
The 2019 Mac Pro was again a hulking metallic beast. Like 2006’s Mac Pro it had holes at the front; this time with the cheesegrater side for hard cheese unlike the 2006 soft-cheesegrater look. Fully loaded, the new Mac Pro cost $54,348 – an expense claim even a banker would choke on, although that does include stainless steel wheels.
What will the next Mac Pro look like?
If I was a betting man, I’d put some cash on the new Mac Pro looking much like the current Mac Pro, because that’s Apple’s strategy with the exception of moments of madness such as the cylinder one and even the ones made with colorful plastic.
The rumors say we will probably have to wait till 2023 to buy one, but it’s not impossible that Apple will announce it much earlier at this year’s WWDC. Keep reading Macworld to find out.
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Simon was Editor of Macworld from the dark days of 1995 to the triumphant return of Steve Jobs and the launch of the iPhone. His desk is a test bench for tech accessories, from USB-C and Thunderbolt docks to chargers, batteries, Powerline adaptors and Fitbits.