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Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

20 Macs for 2020: #16 – Blue-and-White Power Mac G3

I’m not sure there’s a more emblematic example of the transformation of Apple from its mid-90s blahs to the excitement of the Steve Jobs-Jony Ive era than what happened to Apple’s flagship Mac tower, the Power Mac G3. Today we colloquially refer to the original Power Mac G3, introduced in late 1997, as the “beige G3.” It was old-school Apple, a boring beige tower—but with a teeny triangle of green translucent plastic as a hint of what was to come.

A little more than a year later, in January 1999, Apple introduced a new Power Mac G3. It had the same name as the tower it replaced, but they looked nothing alike. Bye bye, beige. iMac style design had finally reached the pro desktop. This computer was wrapped in blue and white polycarbonate reminiscent of the iMac, with an enormous “G3” silkscreened on the metal shell beneath. It was the computer defined by its color scheme: The Blue and White Power Mac G3.

This computer is notable in so many ways, it’s practically a box of Apple-themed Trivial Pursuit questions. It was the first Mac with FireWire. (“FireWire is going to explode,” Steve Jobs boasted.) The first Power Mac to ditch the longstanding SCSI peripheral interface. The final Mac to ever be released with an ADB port, the old Apple Desktop Bus that was used to connect keyboards and mice for more than a decade on the Mac. These were the days of the awful iMac hockey-puck mouse, so being able to keep using your ADB devices a little while longer was a major selling point. Many people were still hanging on to their old excellent Apple Extended Keyboards, too. (Me? I used an ADB Kensington Turbo Mouse—a gigantic trackball, in beige—for way too long.)

As you might expect, Mac users didn’t react well to a Power Mac that ditched some old technologies. “How many high-end users don’t have a significant investment in SCSI peripherals? This makes no sense,” one prepress specialist complained to MacWEEK. “It’s frustrating, being Steve Jobs’ guinea pigs,” another design manager said.

Fortunately, Apple offered a SCSI expansion card for $49, for users with a huge pile of SCSI peripherals who didn’t want to make the move just yet. (Having available expansion slots made the transition to a Power Mac G3 a lot less painful than the same transition to an iMac, which offered no internal expansion.)

The Blue and White G3 was also the first Mac that didn’t contain the Macintosh Toolbox in ROM, instead relying primarily on Open Firmware—an esoteric technical issue, to be sure, but if you consider how Macs start themselves up, this is the dividing line between the before time and what we do more or less to this day. Stuff that’s in ROM is, like the name says, read only. The Blue and White G3 read the toolbox from a file on the disk, ushering in an era where a lot of the hardwired contents of the early days of computers were replaced with firmware that could be updated over time.

The ports and the plastic weren’t what really set the Blue and White G3 apart, though. It was its design—one driven in large part by ergonomics. This is the first professional Mac that came with handles and a hinged access door. It was revolutionary.

Let’s start with the handles. Power Macs didn’t use to have them. But in the late 90s Apple’s design team really got into the functionality of handles. The iMac had them. The iBook got a flip-out one. And the Power Mac G3 got these big arcs of polycarbonate on all four sides that you could use to pick up and carry them around. The Power Mac G4 continued the tradition, and improved on it. When the Power Mac G5 arrived, it had handles, too—though they were metal and less pleasant to grasp. The modern Mac Pro is a reversion to form, with some very nice stainless steel handles. This is where all of that started.

Now let’s lower the drawbridge and storm the castle. The Power Mac G3’s motherboard was mounted on the side of the computer on a door hinged at the bottom. Pull a plastic tab at the top of the case and the entire side opened up so that you could lay it flat, giving you access to the entire computer—even if it was still running. It was incredibly easy to swap out removable media (the Blue and White G3 had a CD drive, but the Zip drive was optional), install more hard drives, add RAM, pop in a PCI card or three, you name it. It was the best.

I picked the Blue and White G3 as my choice for this list because it came first, and because that blue coloring was adorable. It could even be paired with a color-matched Apple Studio Display—either a 17- or 21-inch CRT monstrosity—with enormous plastic tripod feet and a VGA cable. (Apple had finally given up on its own, proprietary Mac display port.)

I’ve cheated a little. I’m also honoring the entire Power Mac G4 line, which was basically a less colorful re-skin of the Power Mac G3. I had a “Sawtooth” Power Mac G4 for years and I can’t recall how many different hard drives I stuck in that thing. I know I swapped in a new video card and a new processor card at some point. In an era where it was easy to cut yourself on the sheet metal from which most PCs were constructed, that drop-down door kept me safe and secure.

Six years later, the Power Mac G5 moved the motherboard to the other side of the case in order to facilitate a different cooling system. While the G5’s door was still easy to take off, it just wasn’t the same. Opening up the entire computer provided a level of free movement that the removable-door approach didn’t. And of course, the Power Mac G5 was made of metal. Not only did those handles bite into your hands, but the door itself was a bit sharp.

Today’s Mac Pro doesn’t ape the accessibility of the Power Mac G3, but it comes close—mostly because now the entire metal wrapper comes off, giving you access from both sides. It goes to show just how groundbreaking the Blue and White G3 was. Even in 2020, when I judge a Mac tower I compare it to one from 20 years earlier.

Today, silver metallic is the new beige. The Blue and White G3 showed that professional Macs could be fun, but once again Apple seems convinced that Macs—especially professional Macs—are deadly serious. I think it’s high time for another blue Mac (white translucent plastic optional). Why should iPhones have all the fun?

I’ll be back next week with number 15.

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