The 25 Most Important Macs
I'm taking a different approach. I want to identify the 25 most important Macs ever, clones included. (In some cases, I'll lump together two or more models that were introduced simultaneously.)
I've been using personal computers since 1979 and have been a Mac user since 1986. I hope that informs my comments, although I'm sure I've left somebody's favorite off my list.
Enjoy the trip down memory lane!
The Original Macintosh (1984)
The most significant Mac ever has to be the first one, the ancestor of all the others. The Macintosh 128K, as it came to be called after the Mac 512K was introduced, matters most because it broke the mold for personal computers. It had no expansion slots, no room for a hard drive, no RAM expansion, no color display, no 5.25" floppy drive, and no command line.
What it had was a crisp 9" black & white bitmapped display that let you see what your document was going to look like on the printed page (WYSIWYG), a mouse to move your cursor around the screen, a 3.5" 400K floppy drive, and just barely enough RAM to be useful. (In fact, Steve Jobs had to use a Mac upgraded to 512K to demonstrate what the Mac was capable of.)
Mac Plus (1986)
Until 1986, the Mac had very limited expandability. All of that changed when the Macintosh turned two and the Mac Plus was introduced. For the first time a Mac was designed with memory expansion in mind - it shipped with an impressive 1 MB and could be upgraded to a mind-boggling (for 1986) 4 MB - and the SCSI bus on the back made it easy to add a fast hard drive.
The Mac Plus remained in Apple's product line longer than any other Mac at 4 years and 10 months. I have a real soft spot for the Plus, as it was the first Mac I ever used and a few years later became the first Mac I ever owned. It was a real workhorse, and it officially became a low-end Mac when the Macintosh SE was introduced in 1987.
Mac II (1987)
The Mac Plus introduced some expandability to the original all-in-one Macintosh design; the Mac II blew away the Mac's other limitations. It had room for two internal floppy drives, one 5.25" or two 3.5" hard drives, six NuBus expansion cards, and 128 MB of memory. The 16 MHz 68020 CPU was far more powerful than the 8 MHz 68000 used in earlier Macs, and the icing on the cake was support for color - up to 256 colors from a 16 million color palette.
The compact Macs had been good enough to start the desktop publishing revolution, but with its larger displays, awesome power, and ability to support more than one monitor, it became the designer's dream machine. It's biggest drawbacks were that the battery was soldered to the motherboard, and RAM took a different turn than Apple expected, resulting in very expensive RAM beyond 8 MB.
Mac IIci (1989)
The Mac IIci was the perfect desktop Mac - enough expansion slots, onboard color support (yes, it used "vampire" video), and plenty of power. The IIci was the first Mac faster than 16 MHz - it clocked in at 25 MHz, and with a level 2 (L2) cache card, it could easily provide twice the power of the 16 MHz Macs. The built-in video was descent, and you could add a NuBus video card if you wanted or needed something better. Three NuBus slots meant lots of expansion options, and the processor direct slot (PDS) made it easy to plug in a still faster 68030 chip, a 68040, or even a 100 MHz PowerPC 601.
If Apple were ever to release a midrange modular desktop Mac, it should look to the IIci for inspiration.
Mac IIfx (1990)
Apple took the Mac to the next level with the Mac IIfx, which jumped the Mac's top CPU speed from 25 MHz to 40 MHz. Everything about the IIfx was optimized for speed - it used special memory that could overlap read and write operations, it had two 6502 CPUs to handle I/O, and it had 32 KB of L2 cache. The IIfx had twice the processing power of a cacheless IIci.
To top it off, Apple introduced the 8•24GC, its first accelerated video card. Of course, all of this came at a price - the IIfx would set you back well over $10,000 by the time you added a keyboard, video card, and monitor.
Mac LC (1990)
Later the same year, Apple introduced a trio of more affordable Macs. The entry-level Classic was your basic 8 MHz compact Mac, no more powerful than the Mac Plus. The Mac IIsi was nearly as powerful as the IIci, but with only one expansion slot (with a PDS-to-NuBus adapter, it could support a single NuBus card) and a more accessible price.
And then there was the Macintosh LC, the first low cost color Mac. It was less than 3" high, ran the same 16 MHz 68020 CPU as the Mac II, and made it possible to buy a color Mac with keyboard and monitor for $3,000 for the first time ever. It even had its own processor direct slot; the LC PDS would live on for years.
Where the Classic was simply underpowered and the IIsi was simply underclocked (it could have run at 25 MHz, but by running it at 20 MHz it wouldn't take as many sales from the IIci), the LC was deliberately crippled. Apple arbitrarily decided that it would support no more than 10 MB of RAM and, to keep costs down, put two SIMMs on a 16-bit memory bus while the CPU had a 32-bit bus.
The First PowerBooks (1991)
The Mac Portable (1989) had been impressive in many ways, but its roughly 16 lb. weight kept it from being very popular. (The $6,500 price tag didn't help.) Apple went back to the drawing board and came up with a new design for notebook computers - the keyboard would be close to the display, and a trackball and button would sit in front of it. Although we use trackpads nowadays, the design went on to dominate the notebook computer industry.
There were three PowerBooks in the first generation. The PowerBook 100 was developed with Sony and essentially reduced the size and weight of the Mac Portable. The PB 100 was one-third as heavy and had an 8.5" x 11" footprint. It had an external floppy drive - shade of the MacBook Air with its external SuperDrive!
The PowerBook 140 had a 16 MHz 68030 CPU, a 1-bit passive-matrix display, and two hours of battery life, and the PowerBook 170 stood at the top of the line with a 25 MHz CPU and an active-matrix display. Both weighed 6.8 lb. and had 9.3" x 11.25" footprints.
The PowerBook name would live on into 2006, when Apple retired it with the introduction of the MacBook Pro line.
AV Quadras (1993)
Apple rolled out two Macs with special AV circuitry in July 1993. The Quadra 840av was the top-end workhorse with its 40 MHz 48040 CPU and 67 MHz digital signal processor (DSP). The more affordable 660av was smaller, ran a 25 MHz 68040, and had a 55 MHz DSP.
The AV Quadras could receive live video, overlay text or graphics, and output the results in real time. They became indispensable in the broadcast industry, providing usability years after most contemporary computers had been retired.
The First Power Macs (1994)
In early 1994, Apple managed its first transition from one CPU family to another. Apple began to phase out the Motorola 680x0 CPUs and using the PowerPC 601 in its place. Just as with the more recent transition to Intel, compatibility with existing software was paramount, and Apple did a bang-up job with its 680x0 emulator. Most programs ran just fine on the Power Mac 6100, 7100, and 8100.
These were excellent bridge machines, taking proven designs from the 68040 Macs, retaining the familiar NuBus expansion slots, but paving the road ahead with their PowerPC chips. With this under its belt, it should be no surprise that 12 years later the transition from PowerPC to Intel was also relatively painless - at least for those using only Mac OS X apps.
PowerBook 500 Series (1994)
Many longtime Mac users consider the PowerBook 500 Series (five different models) to be the best 680x0 notebooks Apple ever built. Unlike the later PowerBook 190, ethernet and a modem were built in - not extra cost options. The keyboard was excellent, and this was the first notebook with a trackpad instead of a trackball. This was also the first PowerBook with a 640 x 480 display (earlier models were 640 x 400) and PC Card expansion slots - and the first notebook with stereo speakers and "intelligent" batteries.
The 500 Series had an expansion bay, could hold two batteries, and would automatically go to sleep when you shut the lid. Except for the PowerBook 550c, which was available only in Japan, these used 25 MHz or 33 MHz 68LC040 CPUs. There was even a PowerPC upgrade available.
Performa/LC/Quadra 630 (1994)
There were three versions of this computer. The LC 630 and Performa 630 Series were powered by a 33 MHz 68LC040 CPU, while the Quadra 630 had a full-fledge 68040. These were the first desktop Macs to use IDE hard drives, and the compact design included a SCSI CD-ROM drive (optional). Memory could officially be expanded to 68 MB, although later users sometimes managed to break that barrier with the right modules.
The 630 had an LC PDS, a comm slot for a modem or ethernet card, and a video slot for either Apple's Video System Card or TV/Video System card. Later on, Apple made the Power Mac PDS card, and the 630 was also offered with a built-in DOS card. This was probably the most flexible consumer Mac ever made.
Power Mac 7500/8500/9500 with CPU Daughtercards (1995)
After the "bridge" computers of the first Power Mac generation, Apple abandoned NuBus and embraced PCI expansion slots. Three of the new PCI Power Macs had their CPUs on removable cards, so it was easy to make them more powerful by plugging in a daughter card with a faster CPU.
The Power Mac 7500 was the traditional desktop design, the 8500 was a minitower, and the 9500 was a 6-slot tower. Thanks to their daughtercard slots, these could later be upgraded with G3 and G4 CPUs. That kept them viable for year to come, much as the Mac IIci had done in 1989.
DayStar Genesis MP (1995)
The only Macintosh clone on our list is the DayStar Genesis MP, which was introduced in October 1995 with four 132 MHz PowerPC 604 CPUs. At the time, Apple's fastest model was a Power Mac 9500 with a single 604 CPU. It was DayStar that introduced multiple processors to the Mac, and Apple actually licensed the technology for use in later Macs.
Perhaps most significant is that the Mac OS itself had no support for multiple processors, so only programs specifically written to take advantage of them would benefit. Of course, that included Photoshop, so the DayStars quickly became favorites of high-end digital photographers.
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.
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