Opinion: The top 10 standout Macs of the past 25 years

Not all of them were home runs, but they all made a big splash

Back before Apple Inc. made computers that fit in your pocket, it made computers that fit on your desk. Some were big-box machines, others were not so portable portables and still others were -- literally -- cube-shaped. But the first Macintosh, the one that started Apple's rise to iconic status, is to the computer industry what the wheel was to cave men.

It was launched during the Super Bowl on Jan. 22, 1984 -- in a minute-long commercial directed by Ridley Scott that became a classic of its own -- and went on sale two days later. It was the first of a string of Apple computers that would captivate users for the next quarter of a century.

Much has changed in technology over the course of the past 25 years, with Apple often at the center of the advances we now take for granted. To celebrate the Mac's 25th anniversary, I looked back over the years and picked 10 Apple computers that altered the company's course and changed the way the world works and communicates. My first pick, naturally, is the first Mac.

The Macintosh (1984)

The original Mac, with its compact all-in-one design, innovative mouse and user-friendly graphical user interface (GUI), changed the computer industry. Like the wheel, the Mac just made things convenient for the rest of us.

original Macintosh 128k

The original Macintosh 128k (photo: Marco Mioli, All About Apple, GNU FDL 1.2 license)

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Most computers in the early 1980s were controlled exclusively through text commands, limiting their audience to true geeks. True, Apple had released a GUI with the introduction of the $9,995 Lisa in 1983, but the Mac, priced at $2,495, was the first computer to capture the attention of everyday people, who could now use a computer without learning an entirely cryptic command-line language.

The mouse, coupled with a user interface that closely followed the physical "desktop" metaphor, allowed users to tackle tasks unheard of for rival computers using its two included applications: MacWrite and MacPaint. Thus was born desktop publishing. Coupled with the Postscript software licensed from Adobe Systems Inc., Apple was able to also sell the Apple Laserwriter, which helped bring about WYSIWYG design, allowing artists to output precisely what was on the Mac's 9-in. black-and-white screen.

In case you forgot, the first Mac came with 128KB of RAM and zipped along with an 8-MHz processor. Reviewers were not always friendly, but the stories of those who helped bring it to life, collected at Folklore.org, offer a fascinating look at the first computer to capture mainstream attention.

The PowerBook 100 series (1991)

On Oct. 21, 1991, Apple unveiled its new portable lineup, which included the PowerBook 100, 140 and 170. These "good, better and best" models, the culmination of a joint venture between Apple and Sony Corp., featured a 10-in. monochrome screen and yielded a design that became the blueprint for all subsequent laptop designs from all computer manufacturers.

Mac PowerBook 100

The PowerBook 100 (photo: Danamania, GNU FDL 1.2 license)

Click to view larger image.

Apple's earlier attempt at a portable Macintosh -- aptly named the Macintosh Portable -- weighed in at a not-so-portable 16 lb. But the Macintosh Portable did introduce the trackball to mobile computing, in this case located to the right of the keyboard.

The PowerBook line placed the keyboard back toward the LCD screen, allowing room for users to rest their palms. It also conveniently allowed Apple to locate the trackball at the center of the palm rest. That made it easy for either left- or right-handed users to operate the machine.

The PowerBook series also introduced Target Disk Mode, which allowed the laptop to be used as a hard drive when connected to another Macintosh using the built-in SCSI port. It also came in a fashionable dark gray, breaking from the standard beige of the PC industry.

The PowerBook 100 series brought in $1 billion in revenue for Apple in its first year, and its impact is still felt to this day. If you're using a laptop with a trackball or track pad between your palms, you can thank the PowerBook 100 design. (If you've got a track pad, you can thank the PowerBook 500. In 1991, that particular model was still three years away.)

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