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Looking back on 40 years of Macintosh


The Apple we know today is far removed from the one that created the first Macintosh computer that Steve Jobs showed off in a very silly presentation on January 24th, 1984. It’s been the most valuable company in the world for most of the last decade. It has a global, meticulously curated supply chain, retail stores around the world, and near-constant legal and regulatory trouble. And its primary hardware driver is a phone.

But Apple still makes the Macintosh, and some would argue that we’re living in a new golden age for the machines. They’re faster than ever and as sleek as any made during Jony Ive’s time going ham on the company’s industrial design, but they’re also practical in a way they haven’t been since MacBooks started abandoning all but the USB-C ports in 2015.

The Macintosh line has had plenty of fantastic computers over the years, and just about all of them have at least a small and dedicated group of fans (even the lowly Performa 550, aka the first computer I ever owned). But there are plenty, too, that have left an indelible mark on the computing world and even society at large. The iPhone might be Apple’s bread and butter these days, but its 15-plus years of being a flat thing with a screen has nowhere near as many ups and downs as the last 40 years of the Mac.

The early Macs were not so colorful.
Image: Cath Virginia, Wes Davis / The Verge | Photos by Getty Images

1984 – 1997: From revolution to stagnation

Apple’s first few years of Macintoshes didn’t take root in every home, but they did leave a big impression on the world: They kicked off the desktop publishing revolution, thanks to their introduction of the computer mouse and software like Aldus PageMaker.

The original Macintosh on display in Amac, an Apple store in The Netherlands, on January 24th, 2024.
Photo by Michel Porro / Getty Images

The pinnacle of these beige all-in-ones with black-and-white screens was the Macintosh SE/30 in 1989. It looked a lot like the first Mac, but it was faster, could be equipped with an internal hard drive, and it supported up to 32MB of RAM (though you could ultimately cram in 128MB). Just about every part of it was accessible and upgradeable, including the CPU.

The PowerBook set the standard for laptop design.
Photo by Frederic Pitchal / Sygma via Getty Images

Apple desktops in the 1990s didn’t make the same splash. In fact, the company was nearing bankruptcy by the time Steve Jobs returned to it in late 1996, thanks to a run of computers that were less capable than competing PCs and just as plain to look at. But the company still made moves that set the course for modern computers, particularly when it came to the laptop. The PowerBook 100 in 1991 set the standard for laptop layouts when it moved the keyboard back from the front edge and stuck a mouse input in the palm rest area (in this case, a trackball). Practically every laptop since has followed that design.

Macs take off.
Image: Cath Virginia, Wes Davis / The Verge | Photos by Wes Davis / The Verge / Getty Images

1998 – 2019: The Mac’s heyday (and mayday)

You’re not stretching things if you say there would be no modern-day Apple without the iMac — it saved the company with its translucent plastic exterior and friendly face, and it came with USB ports, a first for Macintosh computers. Also, Jeff Goldblum kept telling us to buy it.

Early iMacs in a Japan showroom.
Photo by Kazuhiro Nogi / AFP via Getty Images

For years afterward, Apple products adopted an approachable plastic design. This era saw the release of the white MacBook, the first iPod, and what I won’t hesitate to call Apple’s coolest computer design, the iMac G4. This period of Apple design also clearly inspired other products, like the clear blue plastic George Foreman iGrill.

The Mac’s vibes shifted at MacWorld in 2008.
Image: Tony Avelar / AFP via Getty Images

Ten years after the original iMac, Steve Jobs pulled the first MacBook Air out of a manila envelope and Macs in general became Serious Business. Apple abandoned plastic and began to push the limits of the congenial minimalism of Macs to an uncomfortable degree. 

The MacBook Air’s surprising thinness came at the cost of port selection, but its portability made the tradeoff worth it. But it turns out, those qualities were…  portentous of things to come, as the ultra-slim MacBook Pro models from 2016 to 2019 dropped everything but USB-C — even MagSafe.

The iMac Pro was one of a kind.
Image: James Bareham / The Verge

Apple’s compression obsession also hit Mac desktops. The iMac during this time was cleverly conceived and pretty, though in a rigid way that was everything the original iMac wasn’t. Its back tapered to a convincing lie of an edge that was only 5mm thick, giving the illusion of impossible thinness, and the models from 2014 to 2020 had gorgeous, sharp 5K retina displays. It may have been a little impractical, but like the MacBook Air, it seemed to have a place.

The naked core of the Mac Pro.
Image: The Verge

But Apple pushed the limits with the 2013 Mac Pro, also known as the “trashcan Mac.” It was an impressive feat of artistic design and engineering, but it was also kind of a mess. The new Pro’s compactness, it turns out, made it incompatible with the entire direction of the GPU market, leaving a whole segment of Mac fans who wanted modularity nowhere else to turn. At the same time, it was too expensive for anyone else.

Apple Silicon comes to save the day.
Image: Cath Virginia, Wes Davis / The Verge

2020 – Now: The Mac is back

Nobody expected the MacBook Air that came out in 2020 to be so good. Packed into the same chassis as the last Intel model, it now had an M1 chip, Apple’s new generation of super-efficient ARM processors. Its CPU performance was, unbelievably, faster than even the best Intel processor in the 16-inch 2019 MacBook Pro, and the battery felt like it could go all day long.

There should be more purple computers.
Photo by Dan Seifert / The Verge

The next year, Apple put the same chip in a totally redesigned iMac that, for the first time since 2001, came in colors. Seven of them! It came with a 24-inch, 4.5K retina display, a new Magic Keyboard with a Touch ID sensor, but just two Thunderbolt 3 / USB-C ports (plus two more standard USB-C ports if you upgraded).

Glowy.
Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

Since then, Apple Silicon chips have come to every part of the Apple line, sticking them in MacBook Pro models, the Mac Mini, the new Mac Studio (the Mini’s chunky and powerful big sibling), and even the Mac Pro. The company also brought ports back in a big way, endowing its 14- and- 16-inch Pro models with HDMI, SD Card, and even MagSafe, which was taken away during the dark times. Apple also released a MacBook Air in 2022 with MagSafe.

There are so many more iconic Macs than I’ve mentioned above — computers like the titanium PowerBook G4 (the “TiBook”) or the colorful clamshell iBook. There’s the original aluminum-enclosed Mac Pro (the “cheese grater”) and a whole slew of non-Apple Macs from the ‘90s. All of them have their fans, and many also have their drawbacks — whether it’s the chipping paint and fragile hinges of the so-called TiBook or the compact but woefully underpowered 2015 12-inch MacBook, with its single USB-C port.

The Mac Pro: not as expandable as it once was, but at least it’s still around.
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Today, Apple seems to have finally learned some important lessons. As much as people might love the premium, high-concept look and feel of Apple’s computers, many — if not most — of their fans shell out the extra money because they plan to use them, often for many years. If Macs aren’t practical, there’s no reason to buy them. Thankfully, the reuptake of ports on computers aimed at professionals, keyboards that don’t seem to break from using them, and three revisions of the Mac Pro in five years leave the impression that Apple is again willing to meet its users a little closer to where they are. 



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