By Jason Snell
September 21, 2020 9:00 AM PT
Last updated December 28, 2020
20 Macs for 2020: #13 – Mac IIcx and IIci
Note: This story has not been updated since 2020.
The original Macintosh was a squat, cute beige box with a little black-and-white screen and tiny keyboard. For a couple of decades, It was immortalized in the icon, designed by Susan Kare, that appeared when you turned on any Mac.
Almost nobody remembers the sequel. But there was one, a computer called the Macintosh II. It was unveiled three years after the original Mac, and it was a traditional PC in a whole lot of ways the original Mac wasn’t. Instead of a cute, compact, and closed single box, it was an enormous slab of a computer that you could open up and stick expansion cards into. You had to attach an external monitor—a color monitor, even.
(Although color support came to the Mac early in its lifespan, the Mac was very clearly a system designed for monochrome. If you used a color Mac in the late 80s or early 90s, the appearance of color anywhere tended to come as a shock. Color effects in classic Mac OS felt like they were painted over the original, black-and-white interface. Though color kept seeping in over the years, it wasn’t until the Aqua interface of Mac OS X that it felt like an essential part of the interface.)
The Mac II was huge—nearly 19 inches wide, 14.5 inches deep, and 5.5 inches high, weighing in at 24 pounds. And so, in 1989, Apple unveiled a much smaller box (shaving off seven inches of width and more than ten pounds) that still had room for internal expansion and supported external monitors. It was the Mac IIcx. In the fall of that year I started working at my college newspaper, and the paper’s IIcx was the Mac that everyone coveted. Three of us would lay out pages in Aldus PageMaker on Mac SEs outfitted with external full-page portrait displays. It was slow going, and unless you were zoomed in all the way, you couldn’t even read the text of your articles—it was just lines of gray rectangles, in order to speed up the graphics.
But the fourth editor, the lucky one who had managed to commandeer the Mac IIcx, got to navigate a two-page display powered by that magical little gray box. You could read the text without zooming in incredibly far. It was also the only Mac hooked up to our printer, so if you wanted to print your page for proofing, you had to load your PageMaker file onto a floppy disk, walk it over to the Mac IIcx1, insert it, and then print. (Within six months I had convinced the paper’s business manager to buy a bunch of adapters and some software so we could put every Mac in the office on a LocalTalk network. Then we could share files and print from any Mac in the office. And play NetTrek, too, sure.)
In time, we got more Mac II’s in the office. A Mac IIfx, the same enormous slab as the original Mac II, made its appearance. A curvy Mac IIsi with a color monitor arrived my senior year. But I never lost my love for that Mac IIcx design.
A few years later, I was working at MacUser, and the company was selling off excess equipment to employees at dramatic discounts. Since I switched to a PowerBook, my parents had been using my Mac SE to do the books for their business in a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet I had set up for them. (It’s basically the only thing my father ever did on a computer in his entire life. He knew exactly which cells to click on and what to input there.) But something had gone wrong with the SE—it was spontaneously rebooting at random intervals, which is bad if you haven’t saved your spreadsheet.
And sitting there on the conference room table was a Mac IIci, that same adorable little boxy computer I had fallen in love with in 1989. I spent some ridiculously small sum of money on it—$50 maybe, including monitor?—and set it up for my parents. Until they sold the house, retired, and moved into a motorhome, it served them well—word processing for my mother and Excel for my father.
The IIcx/IIci design stuck around for a long time. It was so well balanced that you could stick it up on its side to save some desk space, or lay it flat and pop a small monitor on top of it. The final iteration of the design, the Quadra 700, actually displayed its name and Apple logo with the assumption that you’d use it as a tiny upright tower rather than laying it flat.
In the Power Mac era, Mac desktops devolved into larger towers or flatter “pizza box” style designs. But I’ll always consider the Mac IIcx and IIci as the pinnacle of early Mac desktop design.
I’ll be back next week with number 12.
- This is what “sneakernet” means, folks. Using shoe leather to move files from point A to point B. ↩
If you appreciate articles like this one, support us by becoming a Six Colors subscriber. Subscribers get access to an exclusive podcast, members-only stories, and a special community.