Top 10 best Apple products of all time

Top 10 best Apple products of all time

Next week in San Francisco will be the annual Macworld Expo in San Francisco, so we figured it was time to look at all things Apple..

Next week in San Francisco will be the annual Macworld Expo in San Francisco, so we figured it was time to look at all things Apple.

While Apple may have pulled out of the event, the Expo remains the biggest annual gathering of the Macintosh, iPhone and iPod software and accessory industry. It's a meeting of minds, and we'll see a huge number of Apple fanboys (and girls) in San Francisco next week.

In the interest of balance we'll be looking at Apple's failures next week (suggestions in the comment section please) but now sit back and enjoy the best things to come out of Cupertino.

Honourable mention: The Newton

Iain Thomson: Shaun nearly choked on his burger when I suggested the Newton at our traditional Thursday planning session at Morty's. But I can't help feeling that the Newton is a little hard done by. At the time it was an honest attempt to make a device that's nowadays in widespread usage – it was just too far ahead of its time.

The Newton was one of the few good ideas Scully had as head of Apple, and I'm willing to bet he was a Star Trek fan too. The device looked as though it should have been on the bridge of the Enterprise when it was first launched in 1993.

Scully coined the term personal digital assistant (PDA) for the Newton and it was designed to replace diaries. Key to this was the handwriting recognition software which, while initially buggy, actually turned out to be quite good by the time the device was cancelled. However, initially failures in the software were so common, and mocked everywhere from The Simpsons to Doonesbury, that the device got an very poor reputation.

I too was one of the mockers but then started going out with someone who collected them and actually got to use the things hands-on. They were quite remarkable little devices and can be seen as a valid starting point for the whole PDA and smartphone market. When Apple rehired one of the Newton team leaders last year it boded well for the new iPad.

Shaun Nichols: Iain, you can't really make the case for something being a good product after you've conceded that the single most important feature, the feature which pulls everything else together, is next to useless.

It's a bit like the engineers of the Ford Pinto saying "yes, but it has a really nice interior, and the seatbelt design is fantastic."

I'll give the Newton credit for having some pretty innovative features and likely helping to shape the design of the PDA in the 1990s, both in terms of what to do and what not to do. Still, I had a hard time putting this one on the list, and it was only after Iain reminded me of my pending pay review that I relented.

On the other hand, the Newton did inspire one of the better Simpsons jokes of all time.

Honourable mention: MacOS 7.6

Shaun Nichols: Most Mac fans look back fondly on MacOS 7 as the best of the 'Classic' MacOS builds. The best of the OS 7.x line was also the last, the MacOS 7.6 build.

With stability fixes as well as improved management of extensions and optimisation for the PowerPC chip, OS 7.6 was a long-time favourite of Mac users even after the transition to OS X.

The high regard for MacOS 7 wasn't entirely due to its balance of features and performance, however.

By the late 1990s, the MacOS was becoming antiquated, to say the least. The central components of the operating system were in sore need of repair and Apple was already committed to switching entirely to a new format with OS X. The knowledge of this was very apparent after the release of MacOS 7.6, and that cloud hung over the OS 8 and OS 9 builds.

Iain Thomson: OS 7.6 was the last of the Apple operating systems that was anywhere near good enough, until OS X came along that is.

With the move to Intel processors this operating system is dead in the water but it's certainly the mos popular before OS X according to the Mac fans I talk to. It's kind of like aficionados of DOS, everyone has their favourite flavours.

10. Blue and White G3

Iain Thomson: The G3 range were a good example of what Apple does at its best – create powerful systems that look stunning.

If you look around offices across the Western world you'll still find these bits of kit, sometimes even if they aren't working any more. The casing is a thing of beauty, much nicer than the utilitarian G5, but the guts of the machine were up to spec too. Designed for the workstation market the G4 range was an instant hit and sold very well.

However, there's another reason for IT administrators to like the G3; upgradability. Unusually for a company that guards its internal workings from prying fingers, Apple actually made the G3 exceptionally easy to get into. One clip and a bit of a tug and the enclosure opened perfectly and you could do this with the machine still switched on. Truly a design win.

Shaun Nichols: It's a shame that Apple didn't continue to offer the high-end consumer tower line. The low-end Mac Pro comes in at around twice the cost of those G3 towers and well out of the price range of consumer buyers.

The G3 tower series was great not only for their power, but for their longevity. Like the much-loved PowerMac 8600-9600 lines, the big size meant plenty of room for expansion. Provided you didn't have one of the revision A models with the faulty ATA controller, you could cram two hard drives in along with another optical drive and up to 1 GB of RAM.

Everything from the video card to the hard drive to the processor itself on the blue and white towers could be expanded or replaced. In fact, if you don't mind using OS X Tiger, a nicely updated blue and white tower could still be a perfectly useful system today.

9. Macintosh II

Shaun Nichols: The first incarnations of the Macintosh didn't come off well in many offices. A lot of users scoffed at the idea of replacing the boxed computer and monitor setup with a single machine. The lack of access to internal components turned off many, as did the idea of being boxed into a tiny screen.

Apple remedied this with the Macintosh II. They took the Mac design out of the small box and beefed up the hardware with a big, powerful desktop system. Most importantly, however, they made the monitor an external component to the rest of the system.

I say most important because the external monitor allowed users to hook up larger screens. Combine this with the Mac's powerful graphics capabilities and another member of our list, the LaserWriter, and you had the dawn of the Macintosh as a tool for graphics professionals.

Applications such as Aldus Pagemaker, Adobe Photoshop and Quark Xpress all played a major part in establishing the Mac as a graphics and publishing powerhouse as well, but the big 'eureka' moment was when Apple rolled out the Macintosh II.

Iain Thomson: The Macintosh II is one of the first cases of Apple really solidifying a market position.

The original system was a powerhouse in computing terms, and letting people hook up larger monitors was, as Shaun points out, key to its success. I've never met a designer who didn't want a bigger monitor and the Macintosh II let people actually see what they were doing. While built-in monitors are cute they don't match the real thing.

8. LaserWriter

Iain Thomson: The LaserWriter would have been higher on the list but for the fact that its success was down to two companies: Apple and Adobe.

Apple had a problem in the mid 1980s, it couldn't get much of a foothold in the business market. Steve Jobs' solution was the Macintosh office concept, whereby macs could be networked and share printing facilities. The LaserWriter was its first move in this direction and was hugely popular. It also cut the cost of setting up a publishing operation massively, allowing a host of new magazines to spring up without the millions that would have been needed in capital before the LaserWriter came along.

What made the LaserWriter so good was PostScript, code developed at XeroxPARC and now being developed by a small start-up called Adobe. Postscript made it possible to render text accurately and scale it, making it perfect for designers and anyone who wanted to produce good looking documents without going to a commercial printer.

The printed results were stunningly good by the standards of the time. Remember, this was an era where the bulk of printing was dot-matrix and of very poor quality. LaserWriter text was a pleasure to read.

The LaserWriter was a huge success and established Apple as the de facto standard computing platform in the design and publishing industry, and Adobe did pretty well out of it too.

Shaun Nichols: This may be one of those items we regret not putting up higher on the list.

In 1985 Apple introduced the LaserWriter and for the first time users could take full advantage of the Macintosh's graphical capabilities. Suddenly, all of those fancy typefacing and design features Steve Jobs insisted on seemed to really be of use in a larger role.

When the Mac combined with the LaserWriter, a huge new enterprise market opened up to the company. Suddenly publishers and print shops were able to produce high-quality prints at a low cost. The result of this was the creation of an entirely new industry: desktop publishing.

The old LaserWriter models were so good that for decades after their release, many companies kept them around for use in printing in black and white. I wouldn't be surprised to find more than a few twenty-something LaserWriter still in use today.

7. iTunes store

Shaun Nichols: One of the newer items to make our list, the iTunes store seems to become a better and better idea with each passing year.

Not long ago, getting music onto your computer and iPod meant one of two things; going out to the store and buying a CD then manually importing it, or downloading MP3 files online and putting yourself at risk of incurring the wrath of the RIAA.

Apple got the idea that maybe it could sell music directly through its MP3 player. They made a deal with a couple labels in which Apple sold the music and paid out 70 per cent of the sale to publishers. A few years later, iTunes was the biggest music retail source on the planet.

While Apple doesn't pocket a ton of cash from the music sales itself, the store has been a boon for Mac and iPod sales. I don't like to use buzzwords like 'synergy' too often, but in this case it's warranted. Every iPod sold means a new customer for the iTunes store, and each new user on the store is a prime candidate to purchase more Apple hardware.

Iain Thomson: iTunes may be getting worse as a media player but the App Store and music buying system is a wonderful thing in many respects.

Firstly the App Store. This has been a boon to developers, even if some hate it because Apple doesn't want competing applications in there. They have a point on that front, but for the bulk of developers Apple is now their primary conduit to making money.

As for the music selling system Apple did what the music companies should have done a decade ago, but were too lazy to. A contact at EMI confided that the company had been considering selling music online since the mid 1990s but decided that the ensuing legal battles over rights would make it too problematic. Maybe if the company had followed through it wouldn't be facing bankruptcy now.

6. PowerBook 170

Iain Thomson: Sure the MacBook Pro line is all very pretty but if you want a game-changing laptop then my money's on the PowerBook 170.

The 170 was the most high end model of the original PowerBook line and was a highly popular laptop. Users got almost all of the power of a desktop computer but in a portable format. It was conceived and designed totally by Apple but the format has affected laptop design ever since.

The first thing people noticed about it was that the keyboard had a trackball in it for mouse control, something which no other mainstream laptop company was doing at the time. Today, almost everyone uses the keyboard layout pioneered by the PowerBook.

By the standards of today the 170 looks ridiculously clunky and at seven pounds it was a pain in the neck to carry. However it was very popular, so much so that novelist Jeanette Winterson named a book after the device she used to write it with, The Powerbook.

Shaun Nichols: A lot of people don't know this, but the Powerbook line wasn't the first laptop Apple made. That honour goes to the 1989 Mac Portable, a 7.2 KG beast of a system that would have set you back $6500 before the chiropractor bills. Not so much as "laptop" as a "very sturdy tabletop."

While it may not have been the first portable machine, the Powerbook 170 and 100 were the first Mac systems that were recognizable as a modern notebook system. The 170 was the higher end of the two, with the addition of a floating point unit and better screen, it was the ancestor to what would become Apple's high end notebooks and what we today know as the MacBook Pro line.

Most importantly, it weighed just 3.6kg and retailed at less than half the cost of the Mac Portable, making the notebook a viable option both in terms of cost and convenience for business travellers and those who work on the go. As someone whose livelihood depends on a notebook computer, I have a soft spot in my heart for the clunky old Powerbook 170.

5. Apple II

Shaun Nichols: The original Apple showstopper. The Apple II transformed the company from a garage-based side project for two guys named Steve into an electronics powerhouse.

Aside from propelling Apple into PC history and cementing Steve Wozniak's status as an engineering and programming legend, the Apple II helped to establish computers both as home systems and as educational tools. While other systems were either sold as hobbyist kits or marketed as little more than toys, the Apple II was a powerful, relatively affordable system that was also easy to use.

While the Macintosh was the brainchild of Steve Jobs, the Apple II was largely Woz's baby. His clever engineering style is apparent all over the system as hardware requirements were kept to a minimum and the system was able to offer loads of capability without a huge price tag or massive


It also had amazing longevity. Not to date myself, but when I entered grade school nearly 25 years after the first Apple II was released we still had entire labs full of IIe systems and closets full of floppy-disk games and utilities for the systems.

Iain Thomson: Woz's baby is, to my mind, the first computer actually designed for people not engineers.

The Apple II took computers out of the world of the hobbyist and into the mainstream. It was a computer designed to be used off the shelf by people who wouldn't know what a soldering iron was if it bit them on the backside. An Altair this was not.

Considering this was a computer of the 1970s it's impressive that you'll still see models working today. Sure they can't do much but the fact that people still cherish them says an awful lot about the passion they inspire.

4. iMac G3

Iain Thomson: When the iMac launched it carried the slogan 'Not available in beige' as a dig against the ubiquitous colour of PCs at the time. True enough, the iMac looked like no other computer out there and soon began appearing everywhere, particularly on TV and films.

As a computer it wasn't anything particularly amazing, although it did have two key innovations. Firstly it was the first Apple computer to include a USB port, allowing people to connect a wide variety of devices using a common standard.

Secondly it didn't have a floppy disc drive, which was at the time a bit of a pain. The idea was that you would use CDs, the internet or the network to send data around, but the iMac was a complete pain to network, internet connections were slow and recordable CDs quite pricey.

The iMac was also important because it did more than anything to convince people that Steve Jobs' return to his company really was a revolution and Apple would be one to watch in the future. It also established Jonathon Ives as one of the most industrial designers of the computing era, even if he did make that useless hockey puck mouse that came with it.

Shaun Nichols: The big thing about the iMac, aside from its design, was the audience it targeted.

Most every other personal computer on the market was designed to go from the home to the office to the lab with few changes. For other vendors, a "home" PC meant dropping in cheaper hardware and bundling a few games and an encyclopedia.

The iMac was one of the first systems designed for consumer use. It was sleek and compact because most people had desk space at a premium. It was hard to upgrade, because most users bought new systems rather than upgrade individual components. It didn't have a tone of connections or extras because most people didn't use their home computers for much more than surfing the web and printing out documents.

In essence, it was the first computer designed specifically for the way people would use their home computers in the first decade of the 21st century. In that sense, the iMac wasn't just a revolution in case design, but also system design and product marketing.

3. iPod nano

Shaun Nichols: While the iPod is generally recognized in its early form as a pocket-sized rectangular device, it's the tiny Nano that is Apple's big seller.

Though it has existed in various shapes and sizes over the past few years, the basic concept of the Nano as a low cost, ultra portable flash-based media player has made the player quite popular.

Also helping to sell the Nano is its variety of colours. It may seem like a stupid gimmick, but it really is a selling point, particularly with teenagers and college-age buyers.

For the older crowd, the advantage of the Nano is the small size and solid-state storage. The small form factor means that the Nano can be held in a pocket or armband, while the absence of moving parts keeps the player from skipping while you're running or jogging. Next time you go to the gym or out on a run, try to count how many people you see sporting white ear buds and a rainbow-coloured Nano.

Iain Thomson: On my return trips to dear old England I ferry back numerous things. For the editor it's almond M&Ms, for my female friends it's Kiehls products but everyone else wants an iPod Nano.

The full sized iPod is great for purists who want to store everything they own on one device. The Nano is for people who want music on the go in a pretty package. That might sound rather snarky but pretty isn't a pejorative term in this case. While the Nano is undeniably attractive visually if you hold one in your hand and think about the technology involved to make it it's rather stunning.

I was an early user of media players, and suffered numerous failures from the likes of Creative (guys, seriously, look at your user interface) before the iPod came along. The Nano is one of the best devices I've seen and I'm sure will continue to be a success.

2. iPhone

Iain Thomson: At the launch of Apple's iPhone the assembled journalists were all having the same collective thought – WANT. The public seems to have the same reaction.

The iPhone was a revolution in design, and one that has been copied by all the competition. I said in an interview at the launch that the phone would mean high end mobiles with keypads would become a thing of the past, something which is growing more evident.

The actual phone, when it launched, was actually quite poor. It didn't support 3G for a start, and the lack of multitasking is still a niggling flaw. But that didn't matter to the bulk of the buying public because it just looked so good. One Silicon Valley journalist actually used his early model to get dates with interested women, and was highly successful at it.

With the launch of the 3G model businesses started getting interested in the iPhone. Around 70 per cent of the Fortune 100 companies now support the platform internally, and in most cases IT administrators are saying that they are getting told to support the devices by senior management, who are iPhone users, rather than because of any superiority in applications..

To date Apple has sold over 40 million iPhones, making it the most commonly used Apple computing platform on the planet. Sales are still rising fast and Apple's move into the Chinese market is going to make those sales go through the roof.

Shaun Nichols: The hype cycle in the tech world refreshes at a pace that makes Moore's Law seem slow. What is a hot new gadget today will often be a woefully out-dated and forgotten relic in a few months.

It's pretty impressive then to think that the iPhone is still one of the most talked-about pieces of technology kit on the market a full three years after Steve Jobs introduced it at the Macworld Expo.

Like most of Apple's great products, the iPhone doesn't excel due to a laundry list of bells and whistles, but rather because of the way it integrates all of those features into the overall device.

Other phones may have more powerful hardware and more features and connections, but all of those add-ons don't always work well with the rest of the system and users can often disregard them. With the iPhone, most of the features work the same way and they all integrate with one another.

This is mostly due to Apple's obsessive control over partner access to its product, but you have to admit that the system works pretty well most of the time.

1. MacOS X

Shaun Nichols: It's a bit weird to think about what Apple would be like without OS X. It's quite possible that there may not even be an Apple right now.

And we came very close to seeing that reality. Originally Apple had wanted to use BeOS as its operating system of choice, but talks broke down and instead they went with NeXT and Steve Jobs.

At its core, OS X is a Unix system, borrowing from a number of open source technologies as well. On top of that sits the graphical user interface developed by NeXT and later Apple engineers. This allows the system to be both easy to use and extremely stable and powerful. It also allows administrators with Unix experience to get in under the hood and poke around, something which has caused more than a few of those crusty old Mac-haters to become converts.

The 'Classic' MacOS system that existed prior to OS X was beloved, but unquestionably flawed. The system had been designed to have a sleek, easy to use interface and then the nuts and bolts of the system were built around that. This made the OS age horribly and be notoriously weak and unstable by the end of its development time.

OS X was designed the other way around. Jobs and his developers took the lessons they learned from the Mac and decided to first construct a solid, reliable and powerful foundation for the OS and then build the interface based on that. It was the difference between designing a car for the chassis of a Ferrari versus that of a go-kart.

Iain Thomson: Much as I love BeOS for its funky media handling the move to NeXT was the right one.

OS X is one of the reasons I'm seriously tempted to make my next laptop an Apple system. It's the puppy's packet of an operating system; robust, flexible and as close to open source as you can get with an off the shelf product.

After Jobs was kicked out of his own company he went away, brooded and then came up with the NeXT product line. While the hardware behind that was overpriced tat the operating system was pure gold, and gave Apple a much needed shot in the arm.

OS X also had the gift of timing. While Microsoft was struggling with the pathetic Windows Vista Apple took the fight directly to its door with OS X. It must have been galling for Gates and Ballmer to see Apple beating them at their own game, and OS X is still winning converts.

Could this be the operating system that puts Apple back on the road to beating Windows? Not really, there are too many other obstacles in the way. But it's a bravura performance, of that there's no doubt.

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