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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

20 Macs for 2020: #6 – Macintosh SE/30

Mac SE
Photo by Stephen Hackett.

What is the best Mac ever?

It’s a nigh-unanswerable question, because it begs for qualifiers. The best one ever made up to now? The one that lasted the longest? The one that towered the furthest above the other Macs that existed when it was released? The one you loved the most?

There’s a reason this series ranks its Macs in order of notability, because it’s very hard to pick a “best” Mac that isn’t one of the current generation, thanks to the relentless advance of technology. What would I rather do my work on today, a Mac from 2020 or one from 1990? Nostalgia is great, but I’ll take today’s wireless networking, fast processors, massive storage, and on and on.

But if you leave the march of technology out of it and try to equalize the playing field, as you might if you were in the business of comparing baseball players from different eras, you might well end up deciding that the best Mac ever was released in 1989. And while it looked like every other unassuming compact Mac of the era, the Macintosh SE/30 was much more than that.

Just ask its fans

If a Mac is known by the company it keeps, the SE/30 is in the finest company. Three of the most engaged, long-time Mac lovers I know consider the SE/30 to be the finest example of the species.

Back in 2009, we put together a special issue of Macworld for the Mac’s 25th anniversary. A part of that package was a segment about the Best Mac Ever, and three of the five people we asked gave the same answer: the Mac SE/30.

“The Macintosh SE/30 was the pinnacle of the original Mac hardware design,” wrote John Gruber. “It [was] the first all-in-one Mac where the software could really sing… But like any great Mac, the SE/30 wasn’t a terrific system just when it debuted; it remained eminently usable for years to come.”

“The Macintosh SE/30… represent[ed] the apex of the original Macintosh form factor,” wrote John Siracusa. “Though future models with the original upright shape were released, they were all tagged with the derisive moniker ‘Classic.’ The SE/30 bore no such shame. It was and is the undisputed king of the original, iconic Macs and, therefore, of all Macs for all time.”

And Adam C. Engst of TidBITS concurred:

It offered, for the time, an amazing combination of power, small size, and expandability… it opened our eyes to the possibility that we could have a small Mac that made no compromises….

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…. 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….

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.

The second generation

Photo by Danamania.

The Mac SE and SE/30, along with the Mac II and IIx, represent the second generation of the Mac. The original Mac was gradually updated to the Mac 512 and the Mac Plus, but that original design was swept away in the late 80s with a new generation of platinum-colored Macs.

Other than the new shade of gray, the SE and SE/30 looked more or less like the original classic Mac, including that nine-inch display. But they were architecturally quite different. The Mac went from a computer to a platform with this generation of Macs. Apple standardized the Mac’s ports and introduced the Apple Desktop Bus to connect keyboards and mice.

Perhaps most transformative was the addition of the space for an internal hard drive and an expansion card slot. Anyone who used a Mac in its earliest days will remember the endless swap of floppy disks that was required to do anything. Having a hard drive not only gave you space, but eliminated so much floppy shuffling. Having the hard drive inside the computer itself? Even better.

As for the expansion slot, that opened the door to an external monitor—which was a big deal, given that tiny built-in display. The first Mac I used for any appreciable amount of time was an SE connected to a Radius full-page display, at the office of my college newspaper. That little SE became a desktop publishing workhorse thanks to its expansion slot.

The SE and SE/30 looked identical, but the performance (and price) difference between them was huge. The SE/30 was powered by the same Motorola 68030 processor as the Macintosh IIx, concentrating all the power of one of Apple’s huge, pricey desktop machines in the body of a compact Mac. But users had to pay for the privilege—it cost $4369 without a hard disk and $4869 with one. The SE, in contrast, started at $2900.

The sweet spot

Photo by Stephen Hackett.

John Siracusa called the SE and SE/30 “the apex of the original Macintosh form factor,” and I think he got that exactly right. The SE line was perfectly placed between the original Mac models and the Mac Classic product line.

The original models hadn’t yet figured out what it meant to be a Mac. The Classic line, on the other hand, felt like a nostalgia-tinged theme park version of the original Macintosh, with bland plastic shells that didn’t have the character of the SE and SE/30 designs.

What they had going for them was price: the Mac Classic models were cheap. That’s what they were for, to sell old technology—the Mac Classic was not appreciably better than the SE, and the Mac Classic 2 was essentially an SE/30—in a retro shell at lower prices.

What is the best Mac ever? So often the answer will be, “the first one you ever used,” or alternately, “the one that made you a Mac user.” The first Mac I ever used was that SE in my college newspaper offices. And it made me into a Mac user—so much so that, the next spring, I dipped into my college savings, went down to the university bookstore, and bought an on-sale Mac SE so that I wouldn’t have to spend my summer without a Mac.

Throw in the votes from Siracusa, Gruber, and Engst, and it’s quite clear that leaving best aside, the SE/30 is undoubtedly one of the most notable Macs of all time.

I’ll be back in two weeks with number five.

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