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The Mac Turns 25: Best Mac Ever?

When my friends at Macworld called and asked me to contribute to their 25th anniversary issue, I jumped at the chance. Steve Jobs is so uninterested in the past that he had Apple’s famous icon garden not only ripped out, but junked. I, on the other hand, find it instructive to pay attention to the past because it both informs where we are today and, hopefully, enables us to avoid repeating our mistakes.

So when asked the question of what the best Mac of all time is, I didn’t have to think too hard – it’s the Macintosh SE/30. Despite Andy Ihnatko’s sage comment that one’s favorite Mac is one’s first Mac, the SE/30 was only my first Mac on the outside – it started life as an SE that Tonya and I later upgraded to an SE/30 with a motherboard swap in 1990.

My choice, shared by stalwarts John Gruber and John Siracusa, was not based on the fact that the SE/30 can in any way compete with a modern Mac, which Charlie Sorrel seemed to think was relevant on Wired’s Gadget Lab blog. It’s painfully obvious that the SE/30 has nothing on any modern Mac. If the best Mac ever was simply the most powerful, it would merely be a competition between Apple’s current models, and it would change as soon as a new Mac came out. Boring.

No, the SE/30 gets my nod as the best Mac ever for more subtle reasons.

  • It offered, for the time, an amazing combination of power, small size, and expandability, thanks to its 68030 processor and PDS expansion slot. It wasn’t the first to be that fast or the most expandable – both of those awards went to the Macintosh IIx – but it opened our eyes to the possibility that we could have a small Mac that made no compromises. The next Mac to do that for me was the PowerBook 100, which might be my runner-up for best Mac ever, thanks to what it showed was possible in a portable form factor.
  • That expansion slot was key, because it made multiple monitors an obvious and financially realistic option for many people. An SE/30 with a video card and an external monitor was a lot cheaper than a Macintosh IIx with two video cards and two monitors. Attaching a second monitor is one of the easiest ways to increase productivity to this day, something that New York Times writers noted back in 2006 and again just a few weeks ago. Since that SE/30, every one of my main Macs has had multiple monitors attached.
  • Even after I stopped using the SE/30 as my main Mac, the expansion slot kept it useful, since I was able to install an Ethernet card and use the SE/30 for various Web and mailing list server duties until 2001. Sure, a new Mac could have performed the SE/30’s tasks without difficulty, but I didn’t have to buy one for that purpose, because the SE/30 remained useful for over a decade, running continuously updated software the entire time. No other Mac I’ve owned has had such a lifespan, and with Apple ever more focused on getting us to upgrade frequently, I doubt any Mac will enjoy such longevity again.

In short then, the SE/30 was a great package that offered a glimpse of what the Macintosh could be in the future and then stuck around to watch that future come to life around it. And that’s why I keep my SE/30 around to this day in a bookshelf, where it can see the new Macs that trundle in and out of our offices and remind us of where we started.

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