Mac Musings

The Top Ten Macs

Daniel Knight - 2000.11.15

There's a fair bit of personal subjectivity in creating a Top Ten list - just ask Jay Leno and his staff. In recent days, Gene Steinberg has listed The Top Seven Macs of All Time, while Charles W. Moore has created Top Ten lists for both desktop Macs and PowerBooks.

Both lists have merit. Steinberg's list is short on PowerBooks, while Moore ends up naming 20 Macs between his two lists. Here are my choices for the ten most significant Macs:

  1. Mac Plus, 1986-90
  2. Mac IIci, 1989-93
  3. Mac IIfx, 1990-92
  4. Mac LC, 1990-92
  5. PowerBook 170, 1991
  6. Quadra 900, 1991
  7. Quadra 840av, 1993
  8. PowerBook 540c, 1994
  9. Power Mac 8100, 1994
  10. iMac, 1998

Mac Plus, 1986-90

Steinberg starts his list with the Macintosh, the original 128K machine with a 400K floppy drive. I consider the 8 MHz 128K a "proof of concept" machine. It worked, but it had too little memory to be taken seriously. The September 1984 upgrade to 512K made it a more practical computer, but it was still hobbled with a remarkably slow hard drive that connected to the floppy port.

Two years after the original, Apple rolled out the Mac Plus, which was destined to stay in the product line longer than any other Macintosh (it was finally discontinued in October 1990). The Plus had plenty of memory (1 MB, which could be expanded as far as 4 MB), a double-sided 800K floppy, a numeric keypad, and, perhaps the biggest breakthrough of all, a SCSI port.

Thanks to SCSI, it was possible to connect up to seven external devices to the Mac Plus: a hard drive, a tape drive, a scanner, and more. As icing on the cake, a startup called Radius figured out how to attach a full-page portrait monitor to the Plus. With PageMaker, a LaserWriter, and a portrait display, the Mac Plus was at the heart of the desktop publishing revolution.

Mac IIci, 1989-93

In March 1987, Apple introduced the Mac II, the first modular Mac and the first Mac to support a color monitor. It was huge (18.7" wide), had six expansion slots, and allowed Mac users to choose from a multitude of video cards and monitors. It was designed to handle up to 128 MB of memory, but before the high capacity SIMMs became available, the industry made some changes in the memory specification. Both the Mac II and IIx required a different, more costly type of memory to go past 8 MB.

Two years later, Apple shipped the Mac IIcx, a compact three-slot version of the IIx with a much more accessible price tag. Six months later is was superseded by the 25 MHz Mac IIci, which had onboard video, eliminating the need to buy a separate video card.

The IIci also had a processor direct slot (PDS), which could accept a cache card or a processor upgrade, making the computer even faster. It was a real workhorse and remained a top choice among Mac users until the Quadra line shipped in late 1991. The IIci remained in the Apple line until February 1993.

Mac IIfx, 1990-92

Nice as the IIci was, the DOS world started moving to 33 MHz 80386 systems. Apple decided to one-up them with a 40 MHz barn burner, the Mac IIfx. From the day it was announced in March 1990, the IIfx has borne the label "wicked fast" for its 40 MHz 68030 processor, fast system bus, fast (and usually more costly) memory, and fast SCSI (twice as fast as earlier Macs). With the optional Apple 8•24GC accelerated video card, it even had "wicked fast" graphics.

Not only fast, the IIfx was also huge, filling the same case as the earlier Mac II and IIx, it had six NuBus slots and room for two or three internal hard drives. The most significant drawback of the IIfx was it's Promethean $10,000 price. (These are great values on the used market, if only so you can point to the box and say, "That's my $10,000 computer.")

Mac LC, 1990-92

Back in 1990, the IIci sold for about $5,000. More affordable than the IIfx, it still wasn't a home computer by any stretch of the imagination. Apple addressed that with the $2,400 Macintosh LC in October 1990. Coupled with an inexpensive (for Apple, whose 13" monitor typically sold for $750-800) 12" color monitor, the LC was the most affordable color Mac to date. And, for educators who couldn't afford even that, Apple offered a special dual-floppy version to the education market at an even lower price.

Things Apple did to keep the cost down and keep the LC from competing with more expensive Macs were using a 16 MHz 68020 processor (the same one used in the 1987 Mac II), only giving it a single expansion slot, and using a 16-bit system board (so it only needed two SIMM slots for memory). All this allowed use of a very compact power supply.

But the other big reason for the LC was the vast number of Apple II computers in schools around the world. Apple wanted to migrate the schools to Macs, but they balked at losing their huge investment in Apple II software. Apple's solution: an Apple IIe on a card that fit inside the LC. Coupled with a 5.25" floppy, schools could now run both Mac and Apple II software.

The LC begat the LC II in March 1992, which in turn begat the 25 MHz LC III in February 1993. The end of the slim-bodied LC line was the Quadra 605 (a.k.a. LC 475 and Performa 475) introduced in October 1993. Rumors are this was the most popular computer line in Apple's history until the iMac.

PowerBook 170, 1991-92

Ten years ago, laptops didn't have touchpads. They didn't have trackballs in front of the keyboard, either. Apple changed that when it introduced the first three PowerBooks in October 1991 - each had a trackball in front of the keyboard, where most laptops to this day have their pointing device.

All of the original PowerBooks had black-and-white 640 x 400 screens - no grays. The PowerBook 100 was essentially a 16 MHz laptop version of the Mac Classic; it even used the same 68000 processor. It was small, light, and relatively inexpensive, but definitely an entry-level laptop. The PowerBook 140 had a 68030 processor, but ran it at the same 16 MHz as the 100. The PowerBook 170 takes the cake for offering the same 25 MHz speed as the Mac IIci, which was still in Apple's lineup.

One year later Apple replaced the 170 with the PowerBook 180, which boosted speed to 33 MHz and displayed shades of gray.

Quadra 900, 1991-92

In October 1991, Apple raised the performance bar with the Motorola 68040 processor. Running at the same clock speed as the older 68030, it offered about three times the performance. And the new flagship was the Quadra 900, which ran at 25 MHz and easily outperformed the "wicked fast" 40 MHz 68030-based IIfx.

The Q900 was Apple's first tower design, standing an impressive 18.6" tall. It had a security lock that could prevent shutting down the computer or using the floppy drive. Inside were five NuBus slots, high performance video, 16 slots for memory, and four 5.25" drive bays.

Apple boosted performance to 33 MHz when it introduced the Quadra 950, which replaced the 900 in May 1992. This case was later used for the Workgroup Server 9150.

Quadra 840av, 1993

The Q950 was a workhorse and a great server, but the Quadra 840av was the fastest Quadra ever, bopping along at a blistering 40 MHz - that's about 3x the performance of the old IIfx!

Along with the slower 25 MHz Centris 660av, the 840av introduced GeoPort serial ports, digital signal processors (the AT&T Hobbit chip), and asynchronous drivers for the hard drive.

To this day the AV Macs, especially the 840av, are very desirable among those who want to turn video to QuickTime without breaking the bank.

PowerBook 540c, 1994-1995

Until Apple released the "Blackbird" series in 1994, all PowerBooks had 640 x 400 screens. With the Blackbird500-series, PowerBooks moved to the traditional 640 x 480 display. And the Blackbird came in four models: two color, two b&w; two at 25 MHz, two at 33 MHz. The PowerBook 540c was the best of the bunch.

The 540c had a 16-bit active matrix color display, stereo speakers, a 19.2 modem, ethernet (the first PowerBook so equipped), and a pair of intelligent batteries. The 540c weighed 6.6 pounds with one battery, 7.3 with both installed.

The entire Blackbird family brought true desktop performance the the PowerBook line, making them the first PowerBooks that could reasonably replace, not just supplement, a desktop computer.

Power Mac 8100, 1994-95

Apple unveiled their line of Power Macs in March 1994. Based on an new RISC processor called the PowerPC, these represented a significant departure from the older 68k Macs. Thanks to brilliant emulation of the older processors, most users made a seamless transition from Macintosh to Power Mac.

The entry-level model, the 6100/60, had very limited expansion and a very attractive price. Based on visits to profiles on this site, we suspect the 6100 was one of the most popular Macs ever.

Next up was the 7100/66, a slightly faster machine with three NuBus expansion slots and two monitor ports.

Then came the 8100/80, which was later available in 100 and 110 MHz versions. The minitower design had room for a CD-ROM, floppy, hard drive, and one more SCSI device, such as a tape drive.

iMac, 1998

No list would be complete without the iMac, the computer that arguably saved Apple from obscurity. Now in it's sixth iteration, the iMac has gone from a 233 MHz G3 to models as fast as 500 MHz. There are literally millions and millions of iMacs out in the field, ranging in color from the Bondi blue of the original through five fruity colors to today's more sober shades.

The iMac is a worth successor to the original Macs and their all-in-one design. It is also a worthy successor to the LC, the first Mac to make color affordable for home users. In many ways, the iMac embodies the Macintosh vision in a way no PowerBook or Power Mac ever could.

But more than that, the seemingly radical design ignited public interest, became the best selling computer on the market for many months, and returned Apple from "beleaguered" to its traditional leadership role in the computer industry.

Honorable Mention

It's hard choosing just ten "most significant" Macs, especially when it means leaving models such as the SE/30 (best b&w compact Mac), Color Classic (still a cult favorite, despite some design compromises), PowerBook 1400 (best combination of size, power, and screen size to date), and "Yosemite" Power Mac G3 (if only for that clever drawbridge design).

But I guess that's the point: leaving out even some favorites to hit the target. Still, all of these are worthy runners up.

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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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