My Turn

Not Another Ten Best List

Mike Sherman - 2002.01.23

My Turn is Low End Mac's column for reader-submitted articles. It's your turn to share your thoughts on all things Mac (or iPhone, iPod, etc.) and write for the Mac web. Email your submission to Dan Knight .

Over the past few weeks, I have read several articles on the all-time best and worst Macs ever built. I figured it was time to put in my two cents.

My qualifications? I have been an avid Mac fan and evangelist since 1989 and own 28 Macs (including nine mentioned in this article) ranging from a 128K in the original box to my current G4/500 Dualie.

So what constitutes a great Mac?

There were several criteria that I considered. Outstanding design, either from a physical or technological standpoint, on-target fulfillment of a market demand, or simply a machine without which the world of Macintosh computing might not have been the same.

That said, here are my Top Ten Macs of all time listed in chronological order.

1. Mac Plus (1986-90)

Mac PlusWhile it spent most of its long life as the budget Mac, when it was introduced the Plus was a true "Wunderbox." A full megabyte of RAM (expandable to 4 MB!), SCSI (external 20 MB hard drive), an 800K floppy drive, and a beefed up ROM containing the HFS (Hierarchical File Structure) made the Plus the first Mac ready to do real work. Despite being overshadowed by the Mac II and SE a little over a year into its run, the venerable Plus remained on the price list nearly five years! How many computer models today could survive a run of half that duration? Truly the Model T of Macintosh.

2. Mac II (1987-90)

I can hear the howls now - the Mac II? What is it doing on a "ten best" list? It's a fact thatMac II the Mac II did not age well. Bulky and equipped with the short-lived 68020 processor, it was a dinosaur by the end of the decade. But to appreciate the Mac II, one must return to the beginning of 1987 when Apple offered the Plus and the 512Ke. Both were 8 MHz 68000 machines with 9" black and white monitors. No slots, no color (or gray!), and no speed - just a great graphical interface and the promise of better things to come. The II opened the door to the future of Macintosh computing. It did not reign long as the speed champ, nor was it a particularly endearing design. But its importance for what it brought to the platform cannot be overstated. Merci, Monsieur Gassé.

Mac IIcx3. Mac IIcx (1989-91)

While the Macintosh world welcomed the enhanced performance and expandability of the Mac II in the spring of 1987, the huge PC-style case was most "un-Mac-like." Seen as a necessary evil, it was everything Mac's weren't supposed to be. So whack it in half and place a perfectly matched 13" monitor on top and voilà - a Mac that is again easy on the eyes and desktop. The two slots that remained after the video card was installed proved adequate for most users, and the 16 MHz 68030 processor was plenty sprightly running System 6. The IIcx proved immensely popular, and its replacement with the IIsi in the fall of 1990 was viewed as a premature passing.

4. Mac SE/30 (1989-90)

SE/30The closing year of the 1980s was unarguably one of the Mac's finest. A compact, all-in-one design, the SE/30 was the perfect number crunching box for busy executives with crowded desks. A built-in hard drive, RAM expandability to 128 MB (if you could afford it), a 1.4 MB floppy SuperDrive that could read PC disks, and a speedy '030 processor freed of most of its video duties made for a machine that begged to run Excel and FileMaker. For nearly a decade, the Mac SE/30 remained a useful tool for basic financial analysis, and their price on the used market reflected this.

5. Mac IIfx (1990-92)

I know, you've all read a thousand times how "wicked fast" the fx was, but it really was. Motorola cranked the aging 68030 up to 40 MHz, and Apple added a slew of "helper" chips onto the motherboard to keep the CPU doing what it did best. The fx really shone on complex mathematical and graphics calculations, turning in results more that twice as fast as the IIci, the previous speed champ. Even by today's demanding standards, loaded with System 6.0.5 and "period" software, the fx flies. All this performance came at a healthy price, however, and the fx shares the dubious distinction with the 20th Anniversary Mac of having broken into five figures. But today, who really cares? For around fifty bucks, you can acquire this object of extreme envy from only a decade ago.

PowerBook 100 Series6. PowerBook 170 (1991-92)

Okay, so the original Mac Portable wasn't very portable, but when Apple finally "got it," they did it right. Of the three original P-books, this one was the prize. While the lower-end Books featured a marginal supertwist LCD screen and ho-hum performance, the 170 sported an active matrix screen, a "IIci-class" processor with a math coprocessor (remember those?), and a built-in modem. Ready to roll - again though, at a healthy price.

7. Quadra 840av (1993-94)

The Quadra 840av sent the old CISC 680x0 architecture out with a bang. Equipped with an AT&T digital signal processor (DSP) chip, the 40 MHz Quad 840 was able to pull off some amazing video and audio tricks that many of its successors remained unable to accomplish even years later. (See Adam Guha's excellent series on this computer elsewhere on this site.) Fact was, until your software was "PowerPC native," the Quad 840av blew the doors off the first generation PowerMacs.

8. Power Macintosh 8600/9600 (1997-98)

Power Mac 8600After years of scraped knuckles and little piles of Phillips-head screws, Apple finally took the hassle out of upgrades with an ergonomically designed case that almost begged the owner to "pop the hood." With tons of expansion room (5 bays and 12 DIMM slots in the 9600!), complete legacy I/O support (ADB, SCSI, serial port and a floppy drive), quick processors (especially the last 604ev "Kansas" line at up to 350 MHz), a conservative beige case, and tons of upgrade options, these models remained the choice of many graphics professionals for several years after their discontinuance. Demand has only recently been dampened by their inability to run OS X.

9. The Original iMac (1998)

Any color you want, as long as it's Bondi Blue. A funky color and an undersized mouse and keyboard couldn't keep the masses away. They came in droves and returned Apple to financial health - for a couple of years anyway. The iMac was Steve's first big success after returning from his long sabbatical, introducing millions to the joys of the Mac OS. (Apple sold 6 million iMacs before rolling out the new LCD model.) The iMac proved to be a true Internet "appliance" without the severe limitations of the Wintel efforts. While getting long in tooth today, the CRT-based Mac has enjoyed numerous upgrades and minor revisions throughout its nearly four-year life. And remember, without the iMac, Apple might never have made it to OS X.

10. Titanium PowerBook G4 (2001)

Titanium PowerBook G4Abandoning the gently curved "gothic" look of the PowerBook G3, Apple dazzled the world in January 2001 with the brushed titanium, sharply angular look of the PowerBook G4. Only an inch thick and weighing in at a svelte 5.3 pounds, the TiBook was thinner, lighter, faster, cheaper, and had a wider screen than its predecessor. DVDs never looked so good. Progress like that is tough not to like.

And lest anyone think Apple can do no wrong, the following five machines are proof that even the world's greatest computer company ain't perfect. The criteria for the worst machines, like those for the best machines, are varied. But in this brief list, I will attempt to focus on designs that were out-of-step with the market, exceptionally poor values, or miserably engineered.

The Worst Macs

Models such as the recent Cube, though overpriced and commercially unsuccessful, certainly don't merit inclusion with this sorry bunch. Again, in chronological order:

1. Mac Portable (1989-91)

Mac PortableThis one was a tough call. While the Portable was not a bad computer, it was a bad portable computer, and therein lay the rub. A sixteen-pound, lead acid battery powered, briefcase-sized machine was not what busy execs on the go wanted to be hauling up and down the terminal concourse. Once set up and in place, the Portable was a respectable 16 MHz computer with a decent screen and keyboard. But if that was what you were after, the IIcx would have filled the bill nicely, for less money, and included an '030 to boot. As an attempt to fill the mobile niche, the Portable just didn't cut it. Early Mac-heads on the go could always turn to Outbound.

2. Mac Classic (1990-92)

Mac ClassicJust as the IIfx looked three years ahead in performance, the poor Classic looked three years (or more) in the opposite direction. After all, Apple wasn't going to let you leave the computer store too happy for less than a grand. So what did you get for your hard-earned $999? Not much. One megabyte of RAM (with extremely limited, proprietary expansion), no hard drive, and a nearly eight-year old processor running at a six-year old clock speed. (For $500 more, you could get a Classic with 2 MB RAM and a 40 MB hard drive.) A year later, Apple finally got around to introducing the machine they should have originally - the 16 MHz '030-based Classic II. In fairness to Apple, $999 was not much for a computer in 1990. In fairness to us, the Classic was not much of a computer. An antique at birth.

3. Mac IIvx (1992-93)

Talk about a disappointment. Take an aging four-year old processor with a 32-bit bus, hobble it with a 16-bit bus, overprice the computer, and replace it four months later with the much faster and cheaper Centris 650, and you have one of Apple's sorriest efforts ever. The ill-conceived IIvx offered 3-4 year old performance upon its introduction - inexcusable in the fast-changing computer industry - and clearly reflected the hubris of John Sculley in his waning days at the helm. The only bright spot - a built-in CD ROM drive.

4. PowerBook 5300 (1995)

Incendiary batteries, a self-destructing case, and quality control from hell almost ruined what until that point had been one of the bright spots in Apple's mid-90s lineup, the PowerBooks. In an attempt to update the line with the PowerPC processor, Apple engineering simply dropped the ball and rushed a thoroughly under-tested product to the market. Given proper testing, problems with Sony's lithium ion batteries might have surfaced, and the high mortality rate of minor accessories like the logic board might have as well. Coming at the nadir of Apple's rocky journey through the mid-90s and prior to the return of St. Steven the Wise, I guess it could have been worse. Apple at least offered a modicum of relief to beleaguered owners.

5. Power Mac 5200/5300/6200/6300 (1995-96)

What worst Mac list would be complete without these relics of the dark Spindler/Amelio era. A confused product in a confused product line, this "wicked bad" series suffered from about every ill a Mac could - poor engineering, mediocre speed, reliability problems, and some unique architectural issues that crippled Internet performance. As a general rule, anytime Apple built a computer "down" to a price, they came up with some extremely creative and cruel ways to handicap the machine and make the buyer regret not spending more. On this series, they pulled out all the stops.

And there you have it - one Mac collector's biased look at the last 17 years. There are those who will question my sanity putting the clunky Mac II in the ten best, and rabid fans of the Portable who will do worse, but I have a thick skin and would love to hear from you regardless. After all, it's just an opinion, and, moreover, just a hobby.

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