Geek Speak

Golden Apples: The 25 Best Macs to Date

- 2009.01.27 - Tip Jar

In Greco-Roman mythology, the Trojan War was touched off by a golden apple.

golden appleOffended that she was not invited to a party thrown by one of the goddesses for all of the rest, Eris, the Goddess of Chaos, Strife, and the Random Factor made a golden apple. On it was inscribed one word in Greek: καλλiστη. Roughly translated into English this means "for the prettiest one."

Of course, this disruptive little item was contended over by all the goddesses, until one of them tapped a young handsome shepherd, Paris, on the shoulder and asked him to decide which of the goddesses was most deserving of the apple. Paris chose Aphrodite, who rewarded him by producing Helen of Troy, the queen of Troy and wife of Menelaus.

The little detail of Helen being another man's wife basically started the whole messy business of the Trojan war.

Disruptive Technology

At its best, Apple technology is profoundly disruptive to the established technological order. Apple has indeed been all about "thinking different" - and it also never fails to give PC manufacturers fits. Thus it's quite applicable that the best and most disruptive of the Macs should be honored by a new designation: The Golden Apple.

In roughly chronological order, here are the first 25 recipients, plus a non-Mac product which deserves one:

Mac 512K1. Mac 512K (1984)

Yes, the 128K came first, but Apple had to use a "Fat Mac" prototype to run the famous Mac launch demo because the 128K was too weak to do it. As a little bonus, I re-recorded the soliloquy the Mac spoke at the launch demo using Alex, the new generation voice of Macintalk introduced with Mac OS X 10.5 "Leopard". Listen and enjoy.

Mac SE2. Mac SE (1987)

The SE was the first Mac that was strong enough to take on the PCs. It meant business. It could read PC 3.5" 1.44 MB floppies (after an update in August 1989). It was also the first to come standard with an internal hard drive and internal fans to provide the cooling Compact Macs needed but which were loathed by Steve Jobs. It was no accident that the fans were added to the Mac after Jobs was pushed out of Apple.

3. Mac SE/30 (1989)

The pinnacle of the Compact Macs - at least until its reincarnation as the iMac series. The SE/30 was the first Compact Mac to come standard with the SuperDrive PC-compatible high-density floppy, and many are still in action as web servers because of their power in a small size. Don't expect to find one for a steal on eBay . . . they remain very much in demand.

Mac IIci4. Mac IIci (1989)

Incredibly expandable, this machine is sought after by Vintage Mac enthusiasts to this day. I forgot how important this machine was until Fearless Leader Dan Knight reminded me. Although it came before the storied Mac IIfx, arguably it could be beefed up to the point where it was as powerful as one. Unlike the Mac SE/30, which was unable to use 32-bit addressing without the help of a CDEV, the IIci was 100% 32-bit clean, which made its useful lifespan greater than almost any other Mac of its era.

Mac IIfx5. Mac IIfx (1990)

The "Bull Goose Mac", as the editors of the original Macintosh Bible put it. A mighty monster with a mighty price tag, ($10,000!) with lots and lots of muscle - sort of the "muscle car" of Macs. It has its faults, that's why it's both a Golden Apple and a Second Class Mac. The black SCSI terminator that is necessary to keep the SCSI chain working is almost impossible to replace, the RAM it requires is rare, and the Mac OS never got the tweaks it needed to take advantage of the additional helper processors designed into the logic board. But it took the pinnacle of the Quadras to beat this computer as it arrived out of the box. A IIci might be able to beat it with lots and lots of tweaks and upgrades - upgrades that are also increasingly rare now.

PowerBook 1706. PowerBook 170 (1991)

The PowerBook 170 was the top model from the first generation of PowerBooks. The PowerBook 100 was sort of neither flesh nor fish nor fowl, having been manufactured for Apple by Sony. Many people loved it though and still do. However, I love the Cupertino-originated PowerBooks. The trackball was made of win, and the PB 170 was powerful enough to be used as more than just a "basic portable" model.

Quadra 7007. Quadra 700 (1991)

The first Quadra (along with the huge Quadra 900). Also the first with the Mac Chord instead of the Mac ding at startup. The 68040 was one hell of a chip. Too bad there was never a Mac with an '060. (I seem to remember the '060 made it into the Amiga.)

PowerBook Duo 2108. PowerBook Duo 210 (1992)

It was the Duo Series that were the truly revolutionary PowerBooks. Slim, slick, powerful, with a really nifty dock to turn your road warrior lappie into a very capable desktop. Apple got it right with the Duo.

This makes the MacBook Air particularly disappointing, because there is no way to turn that machine into something more functional. There should have been an AirDock sold with every MacBook Air, giving it more ports and an optical drive. For the "elegance factor" perhaps such a dock would be wireless, with some sort of high-security wireless link instead of a cable or a docking port. Apple didn't do this with the MacBook Air, and that's why I think it may end up a potential Road Apple down the line.

LC III9. Mac LC III/Performa 450 (1993)
10. LC III+/Performa 460 (1993)

The LC series was a good idea but didn't live up to its potential until these lovely machines came out. I'm a bit prejudiced in that the Performa 460 was my first color Mac. It even had enough muscle to run Photoshop 5.5! It was also a precursor of things to come with Mac design. The little wonder weighs only 8 pounds and is only 3" tall. It was the most compact desktop Mac ever, up until the Mac mini. They loved these little machines in the schools, and for good reason: The low profile made these machines easy to bolt down to desks with a couple of strips of metal.

Quadra 63011. Mac Quadra 630, especially those with DOS compatibility cards (1993)

In the bad old days, when Apple was the red headed stepchild of computing and Microsoft/PC fanboyism intersected with real life circumstances that kept the company on death watch, there were often attempts to make Macs play nice with the DOS and Windows world. This started with the MacCharlie device that fit certain compact Macs and continued right until Apple's switch to Intel/x86 architecture allowed for dual-boot Macs and running PC operating systems like Windows and Linux in virtualization.

The Quadra 630 allowed the option of a processor card that added first a genuine Intel 486DX2/66, then later the cheaper Cyrix 486/70. The computer had its faults: a 68LC040 instead of a full-fledged 68040, but that could be remedied. And the DOS compatibility card took up residence not only in the CPU socket, but the Processor Direct Slot as well. Still, pretty amazing to have something that could run DOS alongside the Mac OS. I'm guessing that when you consider the era, it also ran Windows 3.11 and Windows 95.

Quadra 840av12. Quadra 660av (1993)
13. Quadra 840av (1993)

Although Amiga used DSPs (digital signal processors) to beef up processing power and offload certain graphic and sound intensive functions, this was the first time it was tried in the Mac. Although weak by today's standards, the AV Quadras were full of win in their day. I also think the 660av was one sleek and sexy design. I have a fatal weakness for the "flat" Macs. The Quadra 840av, unfortunately, uses the Quadra 800 case, a design so bad it merited being ranked as a Road Apple.

14. PowerBook Duo 2300c (1995)

The pinnacle of Duo-dom. Color screen, PowerPC processor, and the convertible pleasure of the Duo experience. I don't know why this wasn't carried over into future PowerBooks. It would have been nice to see G3 and G4 Duo lappies.

Newton eMate 300Newton eMate 300 (1997)

No, it's not technically a Mac, which is why I'm not assigning it a number. However, it was incredibly ahead of its time and displayed the first hint of the design philosophy that would explode into the iMac, G3 and G4 minitower, and iBook lines. In fact, this durable little machine, designed for K-12 students and only available through Apple Education channels, was so tough it could survive drops and live to fight another day. It also prophesies the eventual rise of the netbook, a trend Apple has yet to jump into. I think if Apple revived a similar form factor and basically adapted the iPhone/iPod touch build of Mac OS X to it, they might have a netbook for the ages.

Power Mac 960015. Power Mac 9600 (1997)

After moving from the knuckle-busting case of the 9500 and sporting 6 PCI slots (one must be populated with a video card), this was a machine made for such rarefied applications as AVID and ProTools media workstations. For example, I saw one of these as late as 2003 as the heart of a professional recording studio, its 5 "free" slots crammed with DSP cards and handling 30 tracks of digital audio. A truly mean machine, one that should have the same legendary status as the IIfx.

original iMac16. iMac Bondi Blue (1998)

This was the computer that saved Apple. There were better, faster, and more useful iMacs, but this was the first, the one that broke Apple out of its doldrums, resurrected the Compact Mac heritage, and put the phrase there's no step three! into the geek vocabulary.

Blue and White Power Mac G317. Mac G3 Yosemite (Blue & White) (1999)

Just like the Bondi Blue iMac, this reinvented the Power Macintosh. And indeed, there were better Power Mac minitowers that emerged afterward, but the Yosemite was the first. It introduced FireWire, albeit in a rather crippled and ineffective way. The version 1 Yosemites were borderline Road Apples, thanks to a broken IDE bus. The puck mouse sucked, and it used the iMac keyboard, which I love but a lot of people hate with a passion. But they were revolutionary in their own way. And they still look beautiful and new, even to this day.

Pismo PowerBook18. PowerBook G3 Pismo (2000)

The PowerBook would never be this good again, in my humble opinion. Some cite the aluminum PowerBook G4 as being close to or even better than the Black 'Books, but I still say that these elegant, beautiful machines were nothing short of awesome with their incredibly beautiful LCD screens. The Pismo finally lived up to the promise of the G3 PowerBook, added FireWire, and got rid of the last vestiges of "Old World" Mac architecture.

Graphite iBook SE19. iBook SE (FireWire) (2000)

This Special Edition iBook was of the generation that added FireWire to the groundbreaking design of the "Clamshell" iBook, and this model raised the ante by adding a more powerful chip. Theoretically, you could use it to edit DV video. It might not be as muscular as the 500 MHz G3 Pismo, but in its day it was the economy choice.

However, there is nothing that causes a Mac technician to break into cold sweats more than the prospect of upgrading a Clamshell. These first iBooks were celebrated for their durability, but the durability came with a price: the guts of the Clamshell are buried deep within layers of metal shielding and high-impact plastic. Tearing it down is a scary job; putting it back together right is even worse. Still, these are sweet machines. And cute, too. A little on the heavyset side, but cute.

15 inch iMac G420. iMac G4 (iLuxo) (2002)

Yes, everyone loved the Cube, however, it was overpriced and underpowered. It was the iMac G4 with its Luxo lamp-like monitor arm that people bought and loved. Beautiful design, beautiful functionality. However, it's best to leave Mac OS X 10.4.x on this machine, even if you can hack it to install Mac OS X 10.5, because you run into video problems with Leopard.

Power Mac G421. Power Mac G4 (Mirror Doors) (2002)

The penultimate translucent Power Macs, and also the very last Mac that could boot into Mac OS 9.2.2 natively. They were followed by the last translucent Power Macs, which could not boot 9.2.2 but had the higher-speed FireWire 800 ports. However, these machines could use Mac OS 9.2.2 as the "Classic" compatibility layer, just like the rest of the newer Power Macs. These machines all can officially run Leopard, which is more than can be said for my dual-processor Gig-E G4.

Mac mini22. Mac mini G4 (2005)

The Mac mini was a bold play that should have been bolder: It should have been priced into the bargain basement, not stopping at $499 for the entry level version. By this time, PC makers like Dell and eMachines were pushing cellar dwellers cheaper than this - and including monitor, mouse, and keyboard with them.

The Mac mini G4 is pretty good in spite of the timidity with which Apple pushed it. It's downright dinky . . . this marvelous "bitty box" is the dimensions of five stacked CD jewel boxes. The G4 version had dedicated VRAM and a ATI Radeon 9200 video chip separate from the logic board chipset. After Apple adapted the design to the Intel Core architecture, it began to use built-in video from the Core chipset and take system RAM for video.

Mac mini stomps all over VIA's EPIA platform, because it's just plain better. Better chips, better components. Unfortunately that edge is not obvious to the average low-end computer buyer. If Apple wants to save the mini (and I'm not sure they do) they are going to have to price it way, way down to compete with netbooks and EPIA. Of course, that might mean going to the same crappy parts that you see in the ultra low end of PCs.

iMac Core Duo23. 20" Core Duo iMac (2006)

Apple made its first step into the wider world of the Intel x86 architecture with this iMac. Yonah was a big step forward, although it would take Core 2 Duo (Merom and after) with its 64-bit architecture and higher efficiency to really meet the full potential of the chips. After the disappointing G5 microprocessors, Intel Inside was a breath of fresh air.

iPhone 3G24. iPhone 3G/iPod touch (2008)

Like the eMate, the iPhone isn't a Mac; it's a completely different animal. However, it does run a build of OS X, and it augurs well for the future of Apple's low end - perhaps even an eventual Apple netbook. A convergence device about the size of an eMate with a beefed up version of the iPhone's OS running under the hood with built-in 3G wireless next to WiFi and Bluetooth would be nothing short of awesome.

The iPod touch, which does not have the 3G wireless and the lock-in to AT&T's wireless service, is a great alternative for those who prefer other wireless carriers and/or don't want the single point of failure that a multifunction handheld device represents.

MacBook White25. MacBook White (Nvidia Graphics) (2009)

And now we come to the newest Golden Apple, the white MacBook with Nvidia graphics. In many respects this is actually a better machine than the higher-end unibody aluminum MacBooks.

  1. It uses the Digital Rights Manglement-free mini-DVI port rather than the DRM-laden DisplayPort.
  2. It has a FireWire port, and the aluminum MacBooks don't.
  3. Although it actually got a raw processor speed downgrade rather than a speed bump, as you would expect in an enhanced model, the new processor may make up for the speed downgrade in efficiency, and it got a faster frontside bus, making the downgrade a wash.

The DRM problems hurt everyone, as was shown with new restrictions on viewing iTunes video content on "unsupported" monitors and projectors. As Free Software theorist Richard Stallman correctly points out, computers with these kinds of "protections" are defective by design and in essence transfer control of your computer from you, the user and owner, to the Big Media consortiums known as the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). The industry-hated "analog hole" that theoretically allowed copyrighted material to be captured in an unprotected form is "patched" - at least in the industry's viewpoint - by the chips that control DisplayPort. This may be the very last Mac made that does not have DisplayPort, and that alone makes it worthy even at this early stage of the game of the Golden Apple designation.

One suggestion for use of USB 2.0 devices with this machine: Invest in a powered hub, because this Mac can only provide the full 500mA of power to one high-powered USB device at a time. Put another USB device on a bus-powered hub, or even on the second USB port, and you will only be able to get 100mA out of it. Use a powered hub, one with a plug-in "wall wart" power supply, and you will likely have the workaround you need. LEM

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