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TidBITS Anniversary: Looking Back over 15 Macintosh Years

This week marks our 15th anniversary of TidBITS, and although we remain somewhat astonished that we’ve maintained a weekly publication schedule through so many years, the evidence that we’ve done so is incontrovertible. In many ways, the world has changed around us; back in 1990, could anyone have anticipated what it would be like to use Mac OS X on a dual 2.5 GHz Power Mac G5 or 17-inch PowerBook G4? But although TidBITS has evolved to accommodate such changes, we’ve also stayed true to our core mission of attempting to bring clarity and understanding to the Macintosh community. Both evolution and the avoidance of unnecessary change remain ongoing tasks, and I’m sure we’ll be walking that fine line for years to come. After all, we’re only at issue #776, leaving us 224 more weeks (about four and a half years) before we’re forced to face up to our 1992 decision to use a three-digit numbering scheme!

Along with offering a 40 percent-off sale on Take Control ebooks this week, we wanted to take a trip back through the last 15 years of Macintosh models, looking briefly at the models that meant the most to us from each year so you can see just how far we’ve come (thanks to the Apple History site for jogging my memory on dates and details). Sherman, set the Wayback Machine for 1990!


1990 — In 1990, Tonya and I were recently out of college, sharing a Macintosh SE that we had later upgraded to an SE/30. It had a 30 MB hard drive that I’d built from a bare mechanism, a case, and a SCSI card. We had also added a video card to drive a second monitor – an Apple color display that ran at 640 by 480 and ensured I would never use a single-monitor system again. But the SE/30 was old hat in 1990, when Apple pushed the high end with the Mac IIfx (the "wicked fast" Mac) and the low end with the Mac Classic. The Mac IIfx was ludicrously expensive; in fact, it was reportedly the most expensive Mac Apple ever made at $9,870 (presumably in some seriously tricked-out configuration).

The IIfx shipped in March; in October of 1990, Apple released the inexpensive all-in-one Mac Classic, which we purchased early the next year so Tonya could have her own Mac – and because we needed a 1.4 MB SuperDrive floppy disk, and buying one built into a Classic wasn’t much more expensive than buying a new floppy disk drive for our SE/30. We never liked the Mac Classic, and it was passed on to a friend a few years later after we had no more use for it. The main interesting thing about the Mac Classic was that it could, if you held down the right keys at startup, boot from ROM.

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1991 — Ah, the year of the PowerBook. Apple’s first non-desktop Mac had appeared in 1989 – the Mac Portable – but at almost 16 pounds (7.3 kg) it barely deserved the name. So in 1991, when Apple released the PowerBook 170, the PowerBook 140, and my favorite, the tiny PowerBook 100, the Macintosh world was agog. We purchased a PowerBook 100, and it remained one of our favorite Macs. In fact, it’s still in the attic; with a minuscule monochrome screen and a 16 MHz 68000 processor, there isn’t much we can do with it, but every now and then I ponder the possibilities.

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1992 — In 1992, Apple began to ship a collection of truly undistinguished desktop Macs, and made many of them even more indistinguishable by coming up with the Performa name and giving each model a different number. On the PowerBook front, however, the company redeemed itself by creating a machine even smaller than the PowerBook 100: the PowerBook Duo. Tonya bought a Duo 230 and loved it; its small size matched her small hands perfectly, and she has griped about too-large keyboards ever since. What truly set the Duo apart were the docking stations Apple also sold; the full-fledged PowerBook Duo Dock, which the Duo slipped into like a really big disk into a drive, and the PowerBook Duo MiniDock, which clamped onto the back of the Duo and provided all the necessary ports. Our Duo 230 remained in service for years after it was too slow for real use; it ran a data-collection program hooked to an analog-to-digital converter that monitored weather conditions when we lived in Seattle. The Duo still works; I just brought it down from the attic the other day to see if I could set it up to monitor our Internet connection and power cycle the cable modem via Sophisticated Circuits PowerKey Pro 600 we have (I ran out of time when trying figure out what was necessary to get the Dayna SCSI-to-Ethernet adapter and the old Linksys hub that supported 10Base-2 Ethernet cabling to connect to our network).

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1993 — The Performa line bred like bunnies in 1993, adding 13 models, all of them slight variations on a theme so different retail outlets could advertise "the lowest price!" on a particular model. The Performa trend would continue through 1996, ensuring an inexhaustible supply of difficult trivia questions for the next century. For me, though, 1993 was the year I finally moved away from the SE/30 and purchased a Centris 660AV (with a second video card and a second monitor, of course). The Centris name was short-lived, soon to be replaced by "Quadra," and my particular Centris 660AV was even more unusual because it had a transitional floppy drive. Until that point, Macs had automatic-inject floppy drives – a fancy way of saying that the drive sucked the floppy disk out of your hand. Some models of the Centris 660AV had automatic inject floppy drives, but mine didn’t. Like the Quadra 660AV that would replace it three months later, it had a manual inject floppy drive, for which you had to push the floppy disk in yourself. The AV stood for audio-visual and was based on the fact that the 660AV had a DSP (digital signal processor) chip for voice recognition and video processing, which, honestly, I never used at all.

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Despite switching to the 660AV for my main Mac, I managed to hold onto the SE/30 by writing an article for MacUser on Apple’s PowerTalk communications technology; for that I needed two Macs, and I earned more from the article than I would have from selling the SE/30. The SE/30 went on to be our Web server for some time, and then to run mailing lists in LetterRip Pro until we moved from Seattle to Ithaca in 2001; now I can’t get it to boot from the internal hard disk.

1994 — With 1994 came Apple’s well-handled transition from the 680×0 CPU to the RISC-based PowerPC CPU in the Power Mac 6100, 7100, and 8100. Tonya moved from her Duo 230 to a Power Mac 7100 for her main Mac, and I finally admitted that the PowerBook 100 could no longer cut the mustard and replaced it with a PowerBook 520. I was never all that fond of the PowerBook 520, and the main memory I have of it is its hard drive making one of the loudest noises I’ve ever heard emanate from a computer before it eventually died.

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Tonya’s 7100 saw 10 years of service, since it was still running ListSTAR and managing our main TidBITS distribution list until 2005, when we finally moved that list to Web Crossing running on an Xserve. The Power Mac 7100 merited another footnote in history, since it was initially codenamed "Carl Sagan," a move that drew a lawsuit from the Cornell astronomer. It was a bit of a fuss, with many people claiming that Sagan was overreacting given that it was just a codename, but even as a codename, it was an insult, given that the 6100 and 8100 were codenamed "Piltdown Man" and "Cold Fusion" respectively; in other words, the theme was scientific hoaxes. Apple changed the codename to "BHA," which reportedly stood for "Butt Head Astronomer," but which was sufficient to appease Sagan. Personally, I thought it was at best poor manners and at worst rather offensive to associate with a pair of scientific hoaxes a living scientist who had worked tirelessly to popularize science, but I wasn’t exactly unbiased, having taken Sagan’s "Seminar in Critical Thinking" while at Cornell and having come away with a high opinion of him.

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We also later bought an Apple Workgroup Server 6150, which was essentially a speed-bumped Power Mac 6100, to act as our Web and mailing list server. Amusingly, the 6150 has most recently seen action as Tristan’s Mac, because every small child needs his or her own Apple Workgroup Server! That task is coming to an end, though, since something has gone wrong with its caddy-loading CD-ROM drive, and if I remember right, that drive was already cannibalized from our 660AV due to problems with the 6150’s original drive. Tristan doesn’t care for the computer much, but he occasionally likes to mess around with CD-based Living Books, so a working optical drive is essential, especially since I was never able to get disk images of those CDs to work.

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1995 — In 1995, I replaced the PowerBook 520 with a PowerBook 5300c, one of the first PowerPC-based laptop Macs. It wasn’t one of Apple’s better portables, suffering several recalls for burning batteries and cracked cases, but mine worked fine. I did like the fact that it could run an external monitor in extended Desktop mode, since it was also my backup Mac in case anything happened to my Centris AV. I never needed to use it as a backup Mac, but toward the end of its life, it had the distinction of serving as our first kitchen Mac and MP3 player when I wasn’t travelling.

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1996 — The time had come to upgrade my desktop Mac again, and in 1996 I moved from the Centris 660AV to a Power Mac 8500/150 and a pair of Apple 20-inch monitors. After years of using monitors of varying sizes to extend my desktop, having a matched set was heaven, and the Power Mac 8500 put the performance of the Centris 660AV to shame with PowerPC-native software. Tonya also felt the need to upgrade to a Power Mac 7600, which replaced her 7100. By now we needed an ever-increasing number of servers, so whenever we bought a new desktop Mac, the Mac it replaced was often immediately pressed into service, either as an internal file server or as an Internet server.

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Speaking of Internet servers, 1996 also brought the release of the only Performa we’ve ever owned, a Performa 6400 that has worked for years as a server. It was our second most-recent internal file, print, and backup server; we replaced it with a Power Mac G4/450, and I’m planning to use it in place of the 6150 as Tristan’s Mac.

1997 — As far as I can remember, we didn’t buy any Macs in 1997, a fact that was largely related to Apple’s heavily publicized woes, which I commented on in TidBITS-392 in an article about MacUser and Macworld merging. Ad sales were down across the industry, and we simply didn’t feel as though we had the money to buy new Macs. Nevertheless, Apple did release two interesting, if short-lived, models in 1997: the elegant Twentieth Anniversary Mac and the diminutive PowerBook 2400. Neither spawned any direct successors, though it’s possible that some of their design decisions influenced later Macs.



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1998 — As Apple’s death spiral continued, we stayed on the sidelines when it came to buying Macs. However, in 1998, my PowerBook 5300c was stolen when our house was burglarized, and our homeowner’s insurance provided a PowerBook G3 (Wallstreet) as a replacement. In fact, the PowerBook 5300c was the only Mac to be stolen, most likely because it was small and relatively recent. Woe to the thief who tried to walk off with my 20-inch monitors! The insurance agent was fine to work with on the purchase, though I did have a bit of explaining about why I need a Road Rocket PC Card-based video card as well, since the PowerBook G3 couldn’t run two monitors in extended desktop mode as the 5300c had been able to do, and I’ve always wanted my PowerBooks to be able to take over for a dead desktop Mac.


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The PowerBook G3 was a good machine, and one I liked quite a lot. It has stayed in constant use (running Jaguar) after being replaced by other laptops since it has a PC Card slot into which I put the Lucent WaveLAN Silver card cannibalized from our original AirPort Base Station. That Lucent WaveLAN card hooks to a pigtail that then connects to the 24 dB parabolic antenna used for our long-range wireless Internet connection. The PowerBook then routes all the traffic internally; it also ran LetterRip Pro and Swiki until we switched to Web Crossing.



Of course, 1998 also saw the release of the original iMac, which almost single-handedly reversed Apple’s fortunes, though we’ve never owned one.

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1999 — By the time 1999 rolled around, things had changed rather a lot for us. Tristan was born, and Tonya switched into mother mode, which changed the way she used her computer significantly. At first, we brought her desk and Power Mac 7600 up into the dining room from our basement offices, but providing it with an Internet connection required running 10Base-T Ethernet cable along the floor, which only the cats and Tristan liked. But then, in July, Apple announced the first iBook along with AirPort, and when they became available, we bought Tonya an AirPort-equipped blueberry iBook and an AirPort Base Station, which enabled her to read email and browse the Web while nursing. And, of course, we promptly dragooned the 7600 into being a server; for the last number of years, it acted as our primary Web and email server, finally giving way to our Xserve in 2004.

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That blueberry iBook has been another solid performer; it’s a little large and unwieldy on the lap, but it has worked well for us as our kitchen Mac and MP3 player. The 800 by 600 screen is a small liability, and we’ve had trouble with replacement batteries over the years, but for some unknown reason, it’s charging the battery now, and in conjunction with the AirPort Express Base Station, which also hooks to our stereo, can be used entirely wirelessly again.

In 1999, my family also purchased a pair of iMacs, a tangerine one for my grandmother and a blueberry one for my other grandparents. I spent quite a bit of time setting them up in grandparent mode, and both have worked well overall. The tangerine iMac gets little use these days, given that my grandmother is 89 and suffering from the human equivalent of bad RAM coupled with directory corruption, but I just upgraded the blueberry iMac my other grandparents use with more RAM and Mac OS X so they could use a modern Web browser necessary for online stock trades.

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2000 — In 2000, it was time to replace my desktop Mac again and move the Power Mac 8500 down to server duties (it’s currently hosting some of our article databases). I opted for the mid-range Power Mac G4/450, which had actually been introduced in 1999, though Apple had trouble getting enough chips of the right speeds and had to rejigger the performance and price points for a while. I quite liked the Power Mac G4/450, and in fact, the reason I replaced it in 2002 was not due to performance problems, but because of the cost of supporting a pair of monitors.

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2000 also saw the release of the Power Mac G4 Cube, which had numerous adherents, including my parents, who still use it as their main desktop Mac. The Cube was, of course, a design tour de force, and wonderfully silent, but it was too expensive for the fact that it couldn’t be expanded. Apple didn’t sell many, and quietly (but never officially) discontinued it in 2001.

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2001 — We made our move from Seattle back to Ithaca, NY in 2001, and the move figured directly in several Mac purchases. I had a number of trips scheduled in the May through August time frame, and our move itself was on June 30th, so I decided it was a good time to replace the PowerBook G3 with the just-released 500 MHz white iBook. I didn’t regret that decision at all; the iBook was a great workhorse machine for a number of months when I was using it more than the Power Mac G4, and its combination of decent performance, solid construction, and wireless networking endeared it to me.


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Tonya kept relying on her blueberry iBook for much of the year, but after we were settled in Ithaca, she wanted to switch back to a more-powerful desktop Mac, so we bought a Power Mac G4/733 (Quicksilver) and an Apple 17-inch LCD monitor. That enabled the blueberry iBook to take up its kitchen Mac and MP3 player duties full time. The Quicksilver has performed fairly well, but it came with a CD-RW optical drive, which has proven quite irritating on a number of occasions when we need to install something from DVD.

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Interestingly, although we tried to give away as many old Macs as we could before we left Seattle, we ended up moving the SE/30, the PowerBook 100, the PowerBook Duo 230, the Centris 660AV, the Apple Workgroup Server 6150, and the Performa 6400. Only the last two have seen much use (and I cannibalized parts from the 660AV for the 6150), but it can be tricky to get rid of Macs that require so much obsolete knowledge to set up and use.

2002 — As you can see, I generally go 3 to 4 years between new desktop Macs, so buying a dual 1 GHz Power Mac G4 (Mirrored Drive Door) to replace my perfectly functional Power Mac G4/450 was a bit unusual. It was driven by two factors. First, one of my two 20-inch Apple CRT monitors finally died, and although I worked for a while with mismatched monitors, I wasn’t happy about it. The problem was that I wanted a pair of Apple 17-inch LCDs, which would have required expensive adapters for their ADC connectors, and possibly a new video card as well. If I remember my calculations at the time, it was going to cost about $600 in adapters and cards alone, which seemed ridiculous given that the dual 1 GHz Power Mac G4 had a double-headed video card and would support the two Apple LCDs with the addition of only a single adapter. Adding urgency to the decision was the fact that the Performa 6400, which had been acting as our internal file and backup server, was having real troubles with Retrospect. It was too slow, and we were having issues with the SCSI-based VXA tape drive as well that caused me to want to switch to FireWire hard disks. Clearly the solution was to decommission the Performa 6400 and replace it with my Power Mac G4/450, and buy the new dual 1 GHz Power Mac G4. Don’t you love geek rationalizations?

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I did end up buying another Apple 17-inch LCD monitor, and absconding with the one that Tonya had been using, replacing it on her desk with a pair of refurbished Dell 17-inch LCD displays that are extremely decent and especially cost-effective when purchased refurbished.

Perhaps the universe knew that line of thinking was a rationalization, since the dual 1 GHz Power Mac G4 has struggled a bit. It has never seemed as fast as I think it should be, but I’ve never been able to prove there were any problems. For quite some time it would go into a tight loop and just lock up for 10-20 minutes… assuming I let it go that long. That problem defied all efforts at troubleshooting, though in my attempt to isolate the RAM I did end up with a whopping 1.75 GB of RAM that I quite enjoy. Oddly, the problem eventually disappeared, and I was never able to associate the improvement with any particular change. I also replaced the power supply to make the Mac somewhat quieter, though it’s still far louder than I’d like, particularly when my office is hot. A lightning strike near our house took out its onboard Ethernet, but I worked around that with an Intel Ethernet card that didn’t require extra drivers.



2003 — In 2003, I had a fair amount of travel, including a keynote address to give at the O’Reilly Mac OS X Conference several days after we released our first Take Control ebooks and Apple had released Panther. I was running Panther on an external hard disk, since I hadn’t dared upgrade my iBook from Jaguar just before an important trip, and the amount of work I had to do while away convinced me that I needed a more powerful laptop. Luckily, Apple had just released the 12-inch PowerBook G4, and I bought an early unit (something I seldom do). So, I handed the iBook down to Tonya, and I’ve liked the 12-inch PowerBook G4 a great deal. Perhaps the only criticisms I can make is that I can’t change batteries while it’s in sleep, and it doesn’t feel quite as indestructible as the iBook did.

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In 2003, we started on our great server migration by purchasing a dual 1.33 GHz Xserve G4 to run Web Crossing. I’ve only seen pictures of it, since it was delivered directly to digital.forest for hosting, but I’ve been extremely happy with it from afar.

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2004 — All of our computers had been doing their jobs acceptably, so 2004 didn’t bring any new additions. However, I did receive a third-generation 20 GB iPod as a Christmas present at the end of 2003, so I’ll count it in the 2004 category. Initially, I thought I’d use the iPod for bringing music into our bedroom, given that everything we owned was now in MP3 format, and I couldn’t bear to deal with physical CDs any more. I also thought the iPod would be useful on car trips, and for that purpose bought a TransPod from Lifestyle Outfitters for the car; it holds the iPod in a dock, charges it from the car’s outlet, and provides a relatively easy-to-use FM transmitter. Thanks to the awkwardly jointed arm that plugs into the car charging socket, it’s tremendously clumsy to use. As much as it works and does provide the collection of features I wanted (hold the iPod so it can be used, charge it, and transmit it via FM or cassette adapter), I rather dislike the TransPod and explicitly do not recommend it. Luckily, thanks to living in Ithaca, where you’re hard pressed to drive more than 15 or 20 minutes at a time, we use the iPod in the car only for occasional long trips. Where the iPod has proven life-changing is in helping us go to sleep every night – we’re now on our second listening of Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything audiobook, and we’re still learning things.

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2005 and Beyond — So far this year, we’ve managed to resist a Mac mini, although bad noises have been emanating from the fan of the Power Mac G4/450, which continues in its role as internal file and backup server. The Mac mini is so cheap that I’d have to think carefully about the cost of replacing the power supply in the Power Mac G4/450 if it died entirely. Of course, the other, more likely alternative is that we’d buy Tonya a new Power Mac G5 after the June/July time frame, when my research for "Take Control of Buying a Mac" indicates that we’re likely to see either a speed bump or a major model change. Then her Power Mac G4/733 could take over server duties. And of course, I’m starting to itch for a new desktop Mac that’s quieter than my current one, but I want to see what appears with the next round of Power Macs.


I hope you’ve enjoyed this trip through the history of Apple’s Macintosh development, seen through my eyes over the past 15 years. I’m a little shocked that we’ve owned so many Macs – 20 all told – but I’m also tremendously pleased to see how long we use them. In fact, every Mac we’ve bought since 1998 is still in everyday use, and of the seven Macs we bought from 1994 to 1996, only the PowerBook 520 and stolen PowerBook 5300c either aren’t still in use or were finally turned off in 2005. I’ll gladly pay a little more for computers that I can rely on in varying capacities for 7 to 10 years.

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