The thirtieth anniversary of the Mac has come and gone, and if you missed the special on apple.com and you're a Mac geek, you should really check it out. It's beautifully done, and I really enjoyed clicking through the years, and I felt a whole lot more nostalgia than I thought I would. But I'm a longtime Mac user, born and raised a stones throw away from Cupertino, so I guess I'm prone to that sorta thing.
It got me reminiscing (like so many others) about the Macs I've owned and enjoyed over the years, and I could't help but compile a list for your reading and my writing pleasure.
Macintosh Classic Looking back now, it's kinda funny that they called it "Classic". But I guess even back then the Macs that came before it were already old and yellowing. The Classic had that familiar all-in-one appliance-y shape, and when my dad brought one home in a giant box (why the hell was that box so big?) we were all excited. The only other computers I'd ever played with were the Apple II's we had at school (You have died of dyssentary!), the PCs that belonged to my friends, and dad's Osborne 1*. So this was quite a departure.
There were two things that I found particularly striking about the Classic. The first was its clean design. All the computers I'd used before were these ugly, finicky things with wires hanging off the sides. But the Classic was so beautifully put together, and you could just turn it on and start using it without having to mess around with a command line. And yes – when I switched it on, it smiled right back at me.
The second thing that struck me was the screen: it was small, and only black and white, but it was so sharp! I've read that Steve Jobs was really picky about typefaces and font rendering, and I always thought "whatever". But I realize now that I loved staring at that screen with it's smooth, unpixelated (well, less pixelated anyway) type. It was a huge contrast to PCs which always had these bland and fuzzy typefaces. Looking at type on a Mac felt far more … adult.
I wrote a lot of papers and played a lot of Test Drive on the Classic. I would have browsed the web, but of course it hadn't been invented yet.
Macintosh IIci I didn't really get into computers until high school, where in my first year I accidentally enrolled in a digital multi-media class (I thought I was signing up for drafting … but this was way better). It was a room full of Mac IIci's with 13 inch color monitors, loaded up with Macromedia Director and what would one day become the Adobe suite. We built interactive projects that were pretty cutting-edge at the time. It was fun, and somehow I managed to convince my parents that I needed a IIci for home so I could work there too. We bought it from my friend Ross who upgraded to a Quadra 840AV, which felt like a Cray supercomputer by comparison.
I was glad to finally have a computer that I could call my own. Unfortunately, it only had 4mb of memory (that's 4 megabytes, yo) and you really needed 8 to do the stuff we were doing at school. But upgrading from 4 to 8 was really expensive back then so I just had to live with it.
PowerBook Duo 280C The Iici lasted through high school, and when it was time for me to go to college, it was time for something new. The internet had arrived, and we were all excited to fire up our modems and log in. You could even use this new thing called Netscape to "surf" the "web".
I was leaving multi-media behind and heading off to study computer science, which meant that I'd be doing my work on the CSC department's servers, and using my machine as a dumb terminal. That meant I could switch to a laptop, and I was fascinated by the notion of a truly portable workspace. There were a few PowerBooks then, but it was the PowerBook Duo that really captured my imagination.
The moment I saw the Duo, I new that I'd found the setup of my dreams: a tiny laptop (it weighed only 4.1 pounds; the 13” MacBook Air weighs 3) that could be docked on the desktop. The Duo Dock even increased the CPU speed and hard drive space. Genius! Go out into the world with your laptop, then come home and turn it into a full-on desktop.
At least it was perfect in theory. Back then the technology just wasn't there to really make it fly. I didn’t by the Duo Dock … in fact I don’t think anyone bought it – it was far too expensive. Though I did buy this little Micro Dock thing so I could plug into the network and my little StyleWriter II printer. What a great little printer that was – so simple, and such a lovely design.
Ironically, I only ever used the Duo at my desk. I guess I felt too conspicuous sitting in the library with a laptop. The only people who had laptops back then were business stiffs and techy show-off types, and I certainly wasn't either of those. Besides, the battery probably only lasted like two hours anyway.
Power Computing Something Back then, working on a laptop really did mean sacrificing performance and storage for portability. And since I wasn't taking advantage of the Duo's portability, halfway through college I went back to a desktop.
Apple had (finally!) begun licensing it's OS to other hardware manufacturers, and PowerComputing had the most convincing line of machines out of all the cloners (they also had the best advertising by far).
I think mine was a PowerCenter 166 or 180. It was just an ugly beige box, and performance-wise, it was rather unremarkable. But when it came to the price-to-performance ratio, it was a breakthrough. I remember it being much cheaper than a comparable machine from Apple, and while I still had a big allegiance to Apple, it just felt like such a bargain to get a Mac so cheaply. The so called "Apple premium" was real back then, but the Apple machines at the time just didn't justify it.
PowerBook G3 ("Pismo”) I graduated and got a job as a software developer which meant I was sitting at a desk in front of a crappy PC all day, and the only way to recover from that was to go home and sit in front of a really great Mac all night, amiright? And hopefully not at a desk.
Laptops had come a long way – especially the PowerBook G3, which I think I bought from my brother. It was just a gorgeous piece of equipment – curvy in all the right places, and built with a really delicious combination of plastics. There was the black plastic that made up most of the body, there was the darker plastic that ran down the center of the lid with a really cool velvety feel, and then there was the transparent brownish plastic that made up the keyboard and trackpad button. Finally, after years of wandering through the valley of beige plastic boxes, Apple had gone back to making Macs that weren't just trying to blend in (thanks Steve!). And the PowerBook really stood out next to every other ugly-ass laptop in the world at the time. This time Apple had stopped allowing clones, but this thing was so great I didn't mind paying extra.
It wasn't the fastest machine ever, but it got the job done, and it had some cool features like the two bays in front that offered you a choice of a battery and CD-ROM, or two batteries for ultra long battery life (like what, four hours?). And it was the first machine I'd ever had with wifi, which must have felt like magic the first time we hooked it up (so to speak).
PowerBook G4 (Titanium) If the PowerBook G3 stood out because of its curvy plastic, the TiBook stood out because of its distinct lack of curves, and the wonder metal from which it was made. This was a huge change. So thin and light! Those precisely carved corners! That widescreen! And the cyclist in me was so excited to own something made of the uber-exotic Titanium. It was a joy to work on with its big G4 processor, and easy to slip into a bag for some on-the-go working action.
Years later we all came to realize what a flimsy machine it was. Titanium, turns out, is a lousy material to use for the body of a laptop. It was too soft and too thin and too easy to dent and scratch. I remember seeing people pick up the early versions of the TiBook and watching it sag like a piece of Dominoes pizza. And then a year later the paint would start flaking off all the white bits.
But I’ve never been hard on equipment, so mine stayed in pretty good shape, and it really was a pleasure to use.
15" PowerBook G4 (Aluminum) This was my workhorse throughout ad school. I had to upgrade because suddenly my Mac had gone from a high tech toy to my main work machine. I was doing a lot more surfing and writing, and on top of that I had to comp up stuff in the Adobe suite. The new aluminum PowerBooks were a great upgrade – fast and really well built.
I could have gotten away with the 12", but I was fine with taking a weight penalty to get the bigger screen and more power. It was a really sturdy machine – not noticeably lighter than the TiBook, but solid as a rock. I travelled the world with it, and didn't get a single ding or scratch. My inner-cyclist kept telling me that going from titanium to aluminum was a downgrade, but it became obvious that aluminum is a much better material to use when building a computer. And apparently Apple would agree with that sentiment.
13" Black MacBook Once I got a job at an ad agency I was back to using a company machine all day**. So when it was time for a new machine I didn't need anything too fancy. And a funny thing happened – after a lifetime of wishing I could buy the fastest, bestest machine, I realized that I no longer needed the most powerful machines to do the stuff I needed to do. It was a relief for my budget.
However, at the time Apple had just discontinued the white iBook, and replaced it with a new plastic MacBook in white and black. The black version came at a $200 premium, and it was so totally worth it – what a great looking machine.
It had cool new features like the chiclet-style keyboard, MagSafe power adapter, and the non-mechanical magnetic latch. On their own, these weren't big breakthroughs, but they came together with the decent Core Duo processor and 945M graphics chipset to make a wonderful little package. I won NaNoWriMo on that thing. And when I started doing freelance work, I took it with me all over Germany. And even years later, people at ad agencies would still say things like "Woah, is that a black Mac? Did you paint it?"
13" MacBook Air (2010) Years ago, laptops were big, chunky, slow, and clunky. But I remember thinking to myself that thanks to the unstoppable march of technology, one day I'd have a laptop where the screen and the base were no thicker than cardboard, and the whole thing would be light as a feather. It would probably be a bit tricky to open the lid, but it would be totally worth it. And when Apple announced the first MacBook Air in 2008, I new we were almost there. The first version was full of compromises – the CPU was hobbled, and the SSD was crazy expensive. But the vision was there.
And sure enough two years later it all came together. I've read that with the domination of the iPod and iPhone, Apple was able to help drive down the price (or at least their price) of flash memory to reasonable levels, which is why an SSD in every MacBook Air was finally possible. And now you can only get and SSD in a Mac portable. Wow.
Anyway, the 2010 MacBook Air was the computer I'd been waiting for all those years. Improbably thin, impossibly light, unbelievably snappy. The processor wasn't exactly lightning fast, but the SSD was. And together they made for the fastest computer I'd ever owned. For the first time in my lifetime, choosing a laptop meant no sacrifice in performance. In fact, I bet it was faster than the iMac at the time. Battery life was fantastic – truly a leap forward – and I took that thing with me everywhere. It was my workhorse machine for almost four years.
It finally started showing its age in the last few months. Mavericks seemed like a bit too much for it, and using iBooks Author was like walking through a muddy swamp***. Time for an upgrade.
13" MacBook Air (2013) In a way, upgrading to the new Air was a bit disappointing because from the outside it’s practically indistinguishable from the old one. That’s never happened to me before with a computer, although I've experienced this with the iPhone – with each generation, the hardware differences are less and less noticeable, and because the software is replicated, each upgrade becomes less and less impactful. Still, it’s great because my MacBook Air experience has become snappy again, and battery life is even better.
I splurged and got a Thunderbolt display, and I even got one of these things to mount the Air on the back of the display. After all these years, I have the perfect portable machine, and the perfect desktop setup. Total computing nirvana****!
* It had a 5 inch screen, and two 5 1/4 inch floppy disk drives with a handy dandy slot underneath each drive for storing extra floppy disks. Despite the fact that it weighed over 20 pounds, it was "portable" – the keyboard attached to the main unit, and it had a handle. Even in the late 80s I found that hilarious.
** The first company computer I got was a … wait for it … eMac. It was NOT EASY for this Mac lover to not throw a hissy fit for the two years or so that I was on that thing. Eventually they let me upgrade to an iBook. Ad agencies always seem to think that us copywriters don’t need anything more than an old beat up bottom-of-the-line machine. I think this is a big part of the reason I eventually became a freelancer.
*** Though to be fair, I think this might just be a poorly written hunk of software. I tried doing some basic tasks in iBooks Author on a new Mac Pro at the Apple Store, and it was still shockingly sludge-like.
**** Though it would be EVEN COOLER if the MacBook Air came in black anodized aluminum, dontcha think?