Apple has been in the computer business since the early days. There have been some absolute classics over the years, dating back to the company’s first product, the Apple I in 1976.
But it wasn’t until the Macintosh line that Apple’s computers really took off. They were so successful that today’s best Macs are synonymous with quality, durability, and performance. But even with such a storied history, it’s possible to single out a few key milestones along the way. These are the greatest hits, a list of the greatest Macs in history that helped propel Apple to new heights.
Macintosh 128K (1984)
Remember the Super Bowl commercial for the Macintosh 128K? you know him Dubbed “1984” and directed by Ridley Scott, it features a young athlete crushing a Big Brother on screen and freeing hordes of captive viewers from bondage and conformity. This commercial was for Apple’s Macintosh 128K and was intended to herald a new era in computing.
This wish was not unreasonable. Like the commercial itself, the Macintosh 128K was a game changer. Not only was it the birth of the Macintosh name, which is still used today for Apple’s computers, but it completely changed the perception of what a computer could be.
Small and light, the Macintosh 128K was a true home computer, something that could find a place in any living room. It was also affordable, lowering the barriers to entry for people who might have balked at the computers of the past.
And it touted a number of features that we now take for granted. It was the first computer to popularize the computer mouse, something that had been conceived a decade earlier but never caught on in the mainstream. Its operating system standardized the easy-to-use graphical user interface with windows and desktop metaphors that competitors tried to imitate. And it showed that there was an alternative to IBM, whose products almost monopolized the market.
iMac G3 (1998)
When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, the company was a total mess. A shaky product strategy, years of poor management, and disappointing sales had brought Apple to the brink of bankruptcy. But just a year later, Apple launched a computer that not only saved the company, but revolutionized the entire industry.
Everything that went into the iMac showed that it was unlike anything that had been done before. It came in bursts of color, a radical departure from the beige boxes that were dominant at the time. The case was translucent so you could see the inside, which helped demystify how computers worked. And it had a carrying handle, not because Apple expected you to move it often, but to overcome many people’s fear of computers and encourage them to touch it.
It was all intentional and designed to make computing accessible, friendly, and even fun. This would never have worked if the software had been a nightmare, but Apple has succeeded here too. Like the Macintosh 128K before it, the iMac was notoriously easy to use.
But it wasn’t just a toy – it was fast, too, much faster than one would expect given its innocent demeanor. And, perhaps most importantly, it made it easy for people to connect to the internet. It was perhaps the first mega-hit computer of the internet era, paving the way for everything that followed, and was certainly one of Jony Ive’s greatest achievements.
iMac G4 (2002)
If the iMac G3 helped Apple take the fear factor out of the computing world, its successor, the iMac G4, established the company as the king of cool. Ditching the bright colors for classic white and silver, the iMac G4 adopted the design language established by the iPod and used by Apple for years to come.
It owes its creation to a moment of inspiration. After the success of the iMac G3, Steve Jobs and Jony Ive struggled to find a successor. Illumination came during a walk in Jobs’ garden. Laurene Powell Jobs, Steve’s wife, had planted an abundance of sunflowers. I spotted them and excitedly began sketching: with a monitor attached to a movable arm, the next iMac would appear so fluid it could reach for the sun like a sunflower.
Unlike the iMac G3 with its CRT display, the G4 introduced flat LCD panels to the Mac lineup and redefined how thin and light an Apple computer could be. Its LCD panel was a key selling point, but it also excelled in ergonomics. Not only was the cantilevered monitor arm pretty, it could be easily manipulated into a comfortable position for the user. And with all the components hidden inside the base, it drew stunned reactions, “Where’s the computer?” by amazed onlookers.
Steve Jobs stated that the iMac G4 has “a beauty and grace that will endure for the next decade”. Unfortunately, it actually only lasted two years before it was discontinued. But its legacy lives on as proof that Apple knew how to combine stunning design with excellent usability and software.
First Generation Intel Mac Pro (2006)
When Apple re-launched the Mac Pro in 2019, it immediately drew comparisons to the 2006 Mac Pro thanks to its “cheese grater” design on the front. But aside from that unusual face, what else made the first Mac Pro look like this? especially? As it turns out, quite a lot.
A year earlier, Steve Jobs had promised that Apple would soon switch from PowerPC processors to Intel chips. This promised a huge increase in performance, and nowhere was that more evident than with the Mac Pro. It was the first Mac to hit the 3.0 GHz mark, which Jobs said was not possible on the old PowerPC architecture.
Additionally, Apple drove the point home by outfitting every Mac Pro with not one, but two Intel Xeon processors. The chips were 64-bit and increased the performance per watt of the machines. In fact, Apple claimed they offered twice the performance of the previous Power Mac G5.
All that power was housed in a chassis that was as eye-catching on the inside as it was on the outside. Once open, there were no messy cables and fiddly screws. Everything was neatly organized and the drives snapped easily into place. It showed Apple that design wasn’t just about how something looked, but also how it performed – something Steve Jobs had been preaching since the days of the iMac G3.
First generation MacBook Pro (2006)
While the 2006 Mac Pro was Apple’s most powerful computer in its early move to Intel chips, it wasn’t its first. That honor goes to the 2006 MacBook Pro. And it’s been such a leap forward that it truly deserves the Pro moniker.
Compared to its predecessor, the PowerBook G4, MacBook Pro offered up to four times the performance thanks to Intel Core Duo, the first dual-core processor in a Mac. It did so while occupying a thinner, lighter aluminum body and its display was two-thirds brighter than the PowerBook, starting a trend toward brilliantly bright MacBook Pro screens that continues to this day.
It was also the first Mac to introduce the popular MagSafe, which has made a welcome return in recent years. And at the top of the display was the first built-in iSight webcam, something the PowerBook G4 completely lacked.
The transition to Intel processors resulted in a monumental leap in performance for Apple’s Macs, and one of the places where this was most evident was with the first MacBook Pro. It was so significant that it led to a name change that still accompanies us all these years later.
First generation MacBook Air (2008)
We all know that Steve Jobs was a master at keynote presentations, but nowhere was that more evident than in his iconic unveiling of the first-generation MacBook Air in 2008. After explaining how thin and light the device was, he sauntered Jobs then walked over to a side table and pulled a MacBook Air out of a Manila envelope, to cheers and disbelief from the audience.
But it wasn’t just noise. The MacBook Air was like nothing we had ever seen before. Jobs explained that Apple wanted to do several things: Make a laptop that’s thinner than the competition but still more powerful, has a better display, and a better keyboard. And boy, did the MacBook Air achieve that?
At its thickest point, MacBook Air was thinner than the thinnest point of the world’s thinnest laptop to date—so incredible was Apple’s engineering. Unlike competing devices, it has a larger 13-inch display and full-size keyboard. And it had a full-throttle processor that crushed the competition.
It was so unprecedented that it drew stunned gasps from Jobs’s audience on several occasions. Its achievement was that it showed that it is possible to build an ultra-thin laptop without making the compromises other companies were forced to make.
M1 MacBook Pro (2020)
The move to Intel processors may have brought huge gains in 2006, but nearly 15 years later, Intel’s chips have become more of a hindrance than a help to Apple’s Macs. They ran too hot for Apple’s lean aspirations, and didn’t run nearly fast enough either. Something had to change.
This something was a complete transition to Apple’s own chips and completely reinvigorated the Mac lineup. Macs no longer looked like overpriced underperformers – if anything, they were absolute bargains with the performance and efficiency of Apple silicon. The M1 MacBook Air was a great example of this, and yet it’s the 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pros that make the list here.
After all, nobody had any doubt that Apple couldn’t replicate the capabilities of an ultra-thin laptop like the MacBook Air. But to replace the power of a high-performance CPU and discrete graphics cards? This was a challenge that many of us were skeptical about.
And yet Apple totally nailed it. The redesigned chassis brought back popular features like MagSafe and extra ports, while the performance of the M1 Pro and M1 Max did things no one had seen before in a laptop in this class.
Even more amazing, however, was that the MacBook Pro managed to do this while also significantly increasing battery life, continuing to orbit its competitors. Last but not least, these MacBook Pros were proof that Apple’s move to its own silicon would pay off in the long run, and in many ways it’s only just begun.