While we wait to see Apple’s new Mac desktop for hardcore computing professionals (you can't buy one any more) – having already hung around the Apple Store for over a decade without even a sniff of a new-look model – let’s remember the days when pro Macs were towering beasts using more plastic than a nursery full of Lego. See also: New Mac Pro release date, rumours and leaked images
Today some pro Mac users are happy with a flimsy bit of aluminium like the MacBook Air. Wimps. We demand something that looks like it contains a nuclear reactor. It needs to be bigger than a suitcase, hotter than a barbeque and noisier than a drag car. Yes, something like the old Power Mac G5. See also: The Mac that time forgot
Pro Mac history: Apple I
The Apple I’s users didn’t work in Final Cut, Aperture or Adobe Creative Suite. Indeed they would have fainted at the very thought of MacPaint. And it’s hard to call them “professional”. Some of them looked like they’d lived wild in a forest for the previous half of their life, and that was just the guys from Apple. The users might have spent most of their time in their bedrooms but the Apple I was certainly big enough to qualify for tower status and was so open to user tinkering you had to build the case yourself from bits of wood.
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Pro Mac history: Apple III
While the Apple I looked like a Victorian dressing table the Apple II actually looked like a smart electric typewriter. While used professionally it doesn’t pass the grade at looking powerful enough for true Pro status. The Apple III, on the other hand, looked much more impressive and cost at least $4,000. Rather than allow users to install upgrades within its case you could buy extras that stacked on top of the computer increasing its height to the extent that you had to put extra cushions on your chair.
Pro Mac history: Apple IIgs
1986’s Apple IIgs was the first Apple computer to nail the deep-box look and allowed you to swap in and out various third-party expansions, including 8MB of RAM and a processor upgrade that pumped iron at 18MHz!
Pro Mac history: Lisa
At $10,000 the pre-Mac Lisa was Apple’s most expensive computer and was aimed at large businesses. So far so pro. Sadly that’s where it’s pro Mac credentials fade away as it was a closed all-in-one system that looked like ET’s head rather than an imperial Walker from Star Wars. And it was named after a girl!
Pro Mac history: Mac II
The original Mac looked too friendly to be a professional machine. It had a goofy smile and said Hello. We had to wait three years before we got the super-expandable Mac II that came in a case the size of a Christmas hamper. It boasted six NuBus slots for extra bits and pieces, such as a new graphics card that could display colours. If you wanted one with 1MB of RAM and a 40MB hard disk it would set you back $5,500.
The IIx and IIcx were in a smaller box with just three NuBus slots but still cost a small fortune.
1989's Mac Iici was a box so high that it was nearly a cube. If Steve Jobs had still been at Apple I'm sure it would have been. It was the first Mac to have built in-colour video circuitry and despite costing $6,700 was one of the most popular Macs ever.
The IIfx was the Daddy of the pro Macs, costing a minimum of $12,000 and accommodating two floppy drives and eight high-speed 64-pin RAM slots. It also had a range of cool codenames, including Stealth, BlackBird, F-16, F-19 and Weed-Whacker. That’s pro.
Pro Mac history: Quadra
Frank Casanova, who sported a curious Brian May-like head of hair, was the brains behind the IIfx and his Quadra range continued the pro features but this time expanded vertically in proper tower fashion, starting with the Quadra 700. The name Quadra was in part chosen from the major quadriceps muscle group to show off its strength. We’ll ignore the wimpy looking Quadra 605/610 but bow before the 700, mini-tower 800 and mighty $7,500 Quadra 900/950 machines, which had three internal bays and stood 18.6 inches high – a sequoia among computer saplings.
Pro Mac history: Mac clones
Apple made the decision to let other manufacturers make and sell Mac hardware too late to stop crappy Windows PCs taking over the world. And it then made the mistake of letting the Mac clone makers produce pro computers – such as the Power Computing PowerTower Pro – more powerful than Apple’s own. On his return to Apple Steve Jobs quickly killed off the clones, and we were back with a not-so-brilliant range of professional Macs to choose from.
Pro Mac history: Power Mac
The first Power Macs looked much like the Quadras they replaced but packed new PowerPC processors. The Power Mac 8500 was big but, at a mere 15 inches in height, no match for the Quadra 900. Even the 9500 measured just 17 inches tall, but it was the most expandable Mac yet, with six PCI slots and seven internal drive bays. Seven! Unlike today where Apple hates the thought of users tinkering under the bonnet the 9500 didn’t even ship with a graphics card. You had to add your own.
The later 9600 came in a new-look case, which at 9.7 inches was the widest Mac tower ever, and was the easiest to get inside to add up to six drives, 12 memory chips and six PCI cards.
The Blue & White Power Mac G3 came in easy-to-open iMac-like coloured polycarbonate. The Apple logo was squeezed in between the giant G and 3 lettering and reminded many of Mickey Mouse – starting plenty of baseless rumours (some by me) about Disney planning to buy Apple. (In the end Apple sort of bought Disney. Sort of.)
While it looked nice this was the beginning of the end for the tower Mac. The G3 had just four RAM slots, and no SCSI. The graphite-coloured (later Quicksilver) Power Mac G4 looked more impressive and boasted internal FireWire, two separate USB buses and up to 1.5GB of RAM. A later “Mirrored Doors” Power Mac G4 was so noisy that it was nicknamed “Windtunnel”, gaining extra pro points.
Pro Mac history: Power Mac G5 / Mac Pro
The now moribund Mac Pro’s aluminium-enclosure design was little changed from 2003’s Power Mac G5 and, at 20.1 inches, was the tallest Mac tower yet. You could take the side off and use it as the roof to a small building. The G5 ran so hot that the case was divided into four separate thermal zones, each with its own cooling system. Its nine fans occasionally allowed you to pretend that you worked on the deck of an aircraft carrier in a state of emergency.
With Jony Ive and co making everything cool, quiet and rigidly closed I fear the next generation of professional Mac is unlikely to be as huge, hot and noisy as these majestic beasts, although rest assured the prices will be just as astronomical.
Also by Simon Jary: Why Apple gouges out the eyes of its Genius Bar employees