Macs: Better by Design
- 2008.07.11 - Tip Jar
"You collect old Macs? What's the big attraction?"
It's a question I've heard enough times that I've been forced to think over my answer. I mean, the actual guts of the hardware isn't the reason. Having computers that don't have Intel Inside gives me a warm, squishy, stick-up-for-the-underdog feeling, but that isn't enough.
It's not just the operating system, either. I mean, even if I could run OS 8 on a Dell Pentium, I don't think I'd have an attic full of the things. There's got to be more to it than just a Motorola chip, a smiley Mac, and startup chime.
I think it comes down to the fact that they just feel better by design - better in a bunch of ways that are hard to quantify.
The first way is the most prosaic and, in many ways, the one that's hardest to hold against the Mac's Wintel rivals. I love the consistency of so many hardware features on the Mac. Unlike the PC world, Macs are made by one company and make use of very little in the way of third-party hardware, and so it was easy for Apple to set standards in things like ports and the marking of those ports - and to stick to those standards.
From my oldest Mac almost to my newest, there's a remarkable amount of continuity in simple things like "this is a modem connection, and this is how it's labeled". By comparison, I have Wintel boxes built only a couple of years apart that have nothing in common on the back sides but the power socket and the VGA port. No wonder there were near riots in the Mac world with the disappearance of SCSI and ADB!
Another area where Macs shine is in the area of clever little design details. Look at the first PowerBooks: They weren't the first laptop computers, but they were the first to move the keyboard towards the rear of the case. It seems such a simple thing, but prior to that, there was no place to rest your palms while typing on a notebook.
Or consider the back of the case on a PowerBook Duo. Flanking the little "garage door" that retracts into the housing to uncover the port for the dock are two sturdy feet. The feet pivot downwards, and the pivots are clearly marked with the standard Mac symbols for a modem and a printer port. Sure enough, if you pivot the feet downward, the respective ports are uncovered.
Maybe the best known piece of clever Mac design gadgetry dates back to the very earliest Macintoshes. In addition to using radical new compact 3.5" floppy disks, there was no "eject" button on the face of the machine. Instead, a powered servo would whine when you dragged the picture of the disc on the desktop to the picture of a trash can, and the computer would politely extrude the ejected disc. If that didn't set your gadget bells to ringing, may I suggest stamp collecting as a soothing alternative hobby?
Indeed, the history of the Macintosh is practically the history of clever little computer design solutions. Hot-swappable device bays. Internal wireless networking. From power buttons on the keyboard to trackpads, from stereo speakers in laptop lids to folding carry handles in laptops, Apple has taken clever solutions to everyday computing problems to an art form. One could nearly write a term paper on Mac notebook power supplies and their various clever ways of managing power cords alone.
Simply Good Design
However, more important than either good design in ports and their labeling or good design in the form of gee-whiz hardware details is good design overall.
With the dawn of the original Macintosh, it was obvious that here was Something Different. It wasn't just the all-in-one form factor of CPU/monitor/disk drive; that had been done before by companies as varied as Commodore and Radio Shack. This time, though, it was done by a company to whom good design obviously mattered.
Good design is one of those things that reminds one of Supreme Court Justice Stewart's descriptor of pornography: You can't define it, but you know it when you see it. The Mac splashed into a world full of consumer electronics that were still slathered in brushed chrome and woodgrain stickers like a dinosaur-killing asteroid into the Gulf of Mexico.
Perhaps the most telling metric of how important the "House of Style" theme was to the Mac was how painfully apparent its absence was during the dark days of the mid 1990s. Early Macs, with the painful exception of the Mac II, were possessed of the crisp lines and smooth radii more associated with German sedans and Italian couture than with desktop nerdboxes. It's no wonder that designers and the people who write software for them flocked to the platform!
It may be heretical to say as much, but I'd almost be willing to wager that frog design style had as much to do with the embrace of the Mac by the artsy set as the point-and-click interface.
It may be no coincidence that the plummeting fortunes of Apple coincided with the era of "me too" beige boxes - like the Performa 630 and dull charcoal bricks like the PowerBook 190 - and that its resurgence began with the introduction of the brightly colored jellybean iMac, the curvaceous WallStreet, and the radical B&W G3.
Why do I love old Macs?
Because they're better - by design.
If you find Tamara's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to her tip jar.
Recent Digital Fossils Columns
- Slot Loading iMacs: The SE/30 for a New Generation, 2009.02.02. They're relatively small, pretty quiet, reliable, can run Tiger, and are very affordable nowadays.
- The Old Mac blues, 2008.07.23. Intel Macs are tempting, but the Power Mac 7100 will be not one more iota obsolete tomorrow than it is today.
- Master of Orion on the Mac, 2008.07.01. The DOS version of this vintage game broke with Pentium or Windows 95, but the Mac version still runs very nicely in the Classic Mac OS.
- More in the Digital Fossils index.
Links for the Day
- Mac of the Day: PowerBook 145, introduced 1992.08.03. About 70% faster than the 140, the 25 MHz 145 was quite a value.
- May 21 in LEM history: 99: Not censorship - 01: USB and FireWire drives - 02: Hooked by a PowerBook - Printer sharing for Mac OS X - 04: Less frequent OS X uprades: Good or bad? - 07: I won't get an iPhone this year - Can 262,144 colors be considered 'millions'? - Most durable 'Book - 3 GB in a Mac mini? - 08: Quadra a great server for vintage Mac network
- Support Low End Mac
Recent Content on Low End Mac
- World Book Encyclopedia 2012 DVD, Tommy Thomas, Reviews, 2013.03.05. "You may be asking yourself, in an age of Wikipedia and instant information, is World Book still relevant?"
- Vintage Computer Festival SouthEast, April 20-21, 2013, Simon Royal, Mac Spectrum, 2013.02.25. Old Apple gear and old PCs.
- iMessage: The Ultimate Messaging Service?, Simon Royal, Mac Spectrum, 2013.02.21. In most ways, Apple's iMessage is far superior to BlackBerry Messenger.
- More links in our archive.
- Best Mac mini Deals
- Best 13" MacBook Pro Deals
- Best Intel iMac Deals
- Best iPod touch Deals
- Best iPhone Deals
- Best iPod nano Deals
- Best iPod classic Deals
- Best Apple TV Prices
- More deals in our archive.
Low End Mac Reader Specials
Cult of Mac
Shrine of Apple
The Mac Observer
Accelerate Your Mac
The Vintage Mac Museum
Mac Driver Museum
System 6 Heaven
System 7 Today
the pickle's Low-End Mac FAQ