The 25 Most Important Macs (Part 2)
20th Anniversary Mac (1997)
The Mac mini wasn't the first desktop Mac built around notebook components, and the iMac G5 wasn't the first Mac to put the computer behind a flat panel display. In both cases, it was the 20th Anniversary Mac (TAM for short) that pioneered these ideas.
TAM had stereo speakers plus a subwoofer, an 800 x 600 12" LCD, a keyboard with a trackpad, and didn't come in any shade of beige. The limited-edition TAM showed what Apple could do if cost was no object (it retailed for $7,500) and appearance was. The computer made a brief appearance in one of the Batman movies, and even today it looks quite modern.
PowerBook 2400c (1997)
The PowerBook 2400c is important not for its features, but for its story. It was designed for the Japan market, and Apple teamed up with IBM to create it. Size is a big factor in Japan - small size, that is, and the 2400c had the smallest footprint of any PowerBook to date at 8.5" x 10.5" (the first footprint smaller than the PB 100). At just 2 kg (4.4 lb.) it could be considered a precursor to ultralight notebooks.
Power Mac G3/'Kanga' PowerBook G3 (1997)
In November 1997, Apple unveiled new Power Mac and PowerBook models with the new PowerPC G3 CPU. The G3 had been optimized to run existing software, and it showed - a 266 MHz G3 gave the 350 MHz 604e a run for its money.
The "Kanga" PowerBook was based on the PowerBook 3400c, but with a 250 MHz G3 on a 50 MHz bus instead of the 3400's 180-240 MHz 603e CPU on a 40 MHz bus. It was billed as the world's most powerful notebook.
It was joined by the Power Mac G3, the original beige model, in 233 MHz and 266 MHz speeds and in either a traditional desktop enclosure or as a minitower. Later versions would hit 366 MHz, and this was the world's most powerful desktop computer.
The Power Mac G3 was the first Power Mac to use an IDE drive instead of a SCSI drive, a switch Apple had made in its consumer line three years earlier. This is the oldest Mac officially supported by any version of Mac OS X.
WallStreet PowerBook G3 (1998)
Of four different G3 PowerBook families - Kanga, WallStreet, Lombard, and Pismo - I'm naming the WallStreet as the most significant. It introduced a new somewhat curvaceous design, it had two drive bays and two PC Card slots, and it had lots of raw power. It was big and heavy, but worth the weight.
The later Lombard was slimmer and added USB, which replaced ADB, and the final G3 PowerBook, Pismo, replaced SCSI with FireWire. Both are excellent computers, better than WallStreet, but they are outworkings of the WallStreet legacy.
The Original iMac (1998)
With the original iMac, the world sat up and took notice of Apple. It looked different. It was different - the all-in-one design, the Bondi blue color, the lack of an internal floppy drive and legacy ports.
Steve Jobs, the master of hype, announced the iMac in May with a mid-August ship date, and it became the hot topic of conversation all over the Web. Several iMac-specific websites popped up within days, and the anticipation was so great the many Apple dealers had midnight hours on the day the iMac went on sale.
The original iMac had most of the power of the 233 MHz Power Mac G3 combined with a 15" multiscan display and an absolute minimum of wires - AC, keyboard, mouse, modem, ethernet. The iMac helped turn Apple around and went on to become the best selling computer model in the US for several months.
The Original Clamshell iBook (1999)
Less than a year after the iMac went on sale, Apple unveiled the iBook, it's notebook for the home and education markets. It looked unlike any notebook computer on the market, and some went so far as to say it looked like a toy. It was solidly built, and its 300 MHz G3 gave it a good deal of power. It was also the first notebook designed for an internal WiFi card - Apple called it AirPort.
The Cube (2000)
The Power Mac G4 Cube was one of the most beautiful computers ever produced, but in the minds of many it put style ahead of substance. It had plenty of power, limited expansion, and was in some ways the anti-iMac - where the iMac reduced wires and desktop clutter, the Cube had an external power supply and external speakers, and the keyboard cable had to run out the back of its transparent enclosure and around to the front. The Cube itself was elegant, but a Cube system less so.
The Mac press didn't understand the Cube's price point - it cost more than the entry-level Power Mac G4 yet had far less expandability. You could upgrade RAM, replace the AGP video card, and that was about it. In terms of value, the Cube just didn't cut it.
Perhaps if Apple had given it a different name that didn't put it head-to-head with the "regular" Power Mac G4....
'Mystic' Power Mac G4 (2000)
During the G3 era, Apple no longer made multiprocessor Macs. That became a possibility with the G4, and when Motorola was unable to produce faster chips in quantity, Apple went with Plan B - Two Brains Are Better than One. True, but the Classic Mac OS didn't know how to use a second CPU, so until Mac OS X arrived, the second processor spent most of its time idle.
The "Mystic" Power Mac G4 put Apple back on the multiprocessor trail, and by the end of 2006 every Mac made had at least two cores. (It was also the first Mac with gigabit ethernet.)
PowerBook G4 (2001)
Apple has had some archetypal designs, and the Titanium PowerBook G4 was one of them. It introduced two concepts: thin and wide. The entire computer was just 1" thin, and the display had a 3:2 aspect ratio vs. the 4:3 typical of notebook computers. It set the stage for today's thin and widescreen MacBook and MacBook Pro models.
The 400 MHz version was my first notebook computer, and it served me well for nearly five years - along with regular RAM, hard drive upgrades, and a new battery about three years in.
The Dual USB iBook (2001)
2001 was a good year for archetypal designs, and the 12" Dual USB iBook G3 (nicknamed the iceBook) is a case in point. It was elegantly simple, plain white, fairly light (just under 5 lb.), and relatively small. The design made it to 900 MHz, then became the iBook G4, which topped out at 1.33 GHz.
This design was also the foundation for the 12" PowerBook G4, which was even smaller and lighter, as it was clad in aluminum. Because of its small footprint, it remains a favorite in the Intel Age, since no current Mac notebook is as easy to tote.
Mac mini (2005)
For years the Mac Web had clamored for a modular desktop Mac, something more like an iMac in its simplicity and less like a big, expensive Power Mac. We'd hoped for 2-3 expansion slots and an affordable price. We got the Mac mini, which was positively tiny and downright affordable at just $499 for the entry-level model.
We also got laptop components in a desktop case, absolutely no expansion slots, and a case that was a challenge to open. Laptop components meant small size, less heat, more costly components, and slower, smaller hard drives. Of course, you could address the last with a fast (not cheap) 7200 rpm notebook drive or an external (much more affordable) 3.5" FireWire hard drive. And the Mac mini did have plenty of ports.
The Mac mini is enough computer for a lot of people, and it rapidly found its way into family rooms, where it became part of the media center hooked up to the television. Although it has fallen far behind the rest of the Mac desktop line in terms of specs, it provides sufficient power for most users most of the time - and the Intel Core 2 Duo version is a huge jump in power for those living with G4 Macs.
The 15" and 17" MacBook Pros simply continued to use the design of the 15" and 17" aluminum PowerBooks, but Apple had something else up its sleeve for its consumer notebook. There had long been rumors of a widescreen iBook, and that's pretty much what the MacBook was - a 13.3" widebody version of the 12" white iBook, although you could also get the MacBook in black.
The 1280 x 800 display is a nice step up from the 1024 x 768 of the 12" PowerBook and iBook - and from the 1152 x 768 of early titanium PowerBooks. The 5.2 lb. weight is comfortable, and the chiclet-style keyboard has garnered great praise after much initial apprehension. There were a few teething pains with the first version, but the design has proved itself - and is only made better in the October 2008 Unibody incarnation.
The iPhone and iPod touch (2007)
The smallest Macs ever grew in Apple's iPod division. The iPhone and iPod touch run a version of OS X (which Apple carefully never calls Mac OS X), and with the advent of Apple's App Store they have become a whole new computing platform in their own right.
The iPhone platform rethinks everything for a small touchscreen - a visual keyboard where the key you're pressing expands, scrolling around web pages, synching with your Mac, connecting to the Internet, etc. It's not really a Mac, but it is what the Mac would be if it had to fit in you pocket and not have a keyboard.
It's been quite a ride. I wonder what the next 25 year hold....
Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.
Recent articles by Dan Knight
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