By Jason Snell
January 4, 2021 5:13 PM PT
20 Macs for 2020: The cutting-room floor
Note: This story has not been updated since 2021.
As I filed my final entry in the 20 Macs for 2020 project, I decided to dig around in my document archive to see if I could find when the project really got started.
While I had been noodling over the idea in late December of 2019, the moment that the project officially started was when I made a new document in BBEdit and titled it
20 macs. It was January 2, 2020, at 11:32 a.m.
So the project really bracketed the year, though originally my intent was to launch it in the spring. The pandemic derailed my plans, though I kept working on it and launched it with 22 weeks left in the year, giving me a couple weeks of headroom that I would end up needing.
With the project complete, I thought I’d address one of the most common questions I got while I was spooling out my list: “How could you not include [name of computer here]?” Of course, as I explained back in August, my list is based on my ranking of Macs in terms of the squishy category of notability, and is intended to be completely subjective. I’m not ranking the best Macs (because some of the ones I picked are real stinkers!) or even my favorite Macs.
The truth is, my biggest consideration when I picked my final list of 20 Macs in early January (and yes, they appeared in the same order that I chose back then) was if there was a good story to tell about that particular model. Some of the earlier entries were a bit esoteric, but I enjoyed unearthing strange corners of Mac history and using them to tell larger stories about Apple. (For example, my essay about Xserve is really about Apple’s quixotic quest to be a player in server hardware. The Power Computing entry allowed me to write a story about the strange couple of years when Mac clones were for sale.)
My initial list of possible contenders for my top 20 list was much larger—there were more than 40 items. I’m sure I could’ve written essays about each one of them, though I’d probably end up repeating myself a bit—and there’s no way I could’ve written 40 more essays and produced 40 more podcasts and edited 40 more videos. (When I decided 20 Macs for 2020 would be a multimedia extravaganza, I dramatically increased my workload.)
In any event, as the project rolled along, there were a few Macs that people asked me about that just missed making the list. Limiting myself to 20 meant that some of them were left on the outside looking in.
The 12″ PowerBook G4 was my favorite Mac of all time for a long time. Until the MacBook Air hit the scene, it was the ultimate small Apple laptop. And its edge-to-edge keyboard wouldn’t really be replicated until the 12-inch MacBook hit the scene.
2006’s original MacBook wasn’t quite as small as the 12″ PowerBook G4, but it was the smallest Intel-based Mac laptop for quite a while, and introduced the chiclet-style laptop keyboard that remains on Apple keyboards to this day. And yes, even though you had to pay a $150 “black tax” to get it, the matte black MacBook was a thing of beauty.
The 12-inch MacBook would be an interesting computer to write about, not only because of its status as the most aggressively tiny Mac laptop ever, but because it introduced the hated butterfly keyboard and also seemed to be a preview of what ARM-powered Macs might look like. (Wrongly, it turned out.)
A strong case can be made for the Mac Plus, Mac Classic, and plain ol’ Mac SE, but I rolled them into my coverage of the original Mac and the SE/30. (I also thought about cheekily including the Lisa, which I also covered in the essay about the original Mac.)
I considered the iMac Pro and the 2013 Mac Pro for inclusion because they would both allow me to tell the story of how the Mac lost its way in the middle of the 2010s. It felt like ground I’ve covered an awful lot at Six Colors already, though. If this were 25 Macs for 2025 I’d definitely make space for one or both.
(This is also one reason why most of the Macs on my list are of an older vintage. You need a little bit of historical perspective before deciding if a particular Mac model is notable—and if my goal is to tell some interesting stories about the grand sweep of Apple history, it’s probably wise to allow some time to pass before doing so.)
I strongly considered writing about the Centris 610/Power Mac 6100 pizza box—a boring yet omnipresent mid-90s Apple design, and also about the Power Mac G3 product line, which might be the apotheosis of boring Mac design, released just before the revolution came.
The project was well underway when Apple released the three first M1 Macs, and many people asked if they would make an appearance near the top of my list. That was never going to happen—as I wrote earlier, my list was locked in January 2020. Regardless, we don’t know what the story of Apple silicon Macs will actually be. These M1 Macs are impressive for what they are on the inside, and what they represent, but they’re also just Apple silicon versions of extremely familiar Mac designs.
I have a lot of hope that Apple will use its transition to Apple silicon to create some dramatically new and interesting Macs that will go down in history as some of the most notable Macs of all time. But those Macs are yet to come. Sure, the M1 MacBook Air might go down in history—but I’m inclined to believe it’ll just be a footnote. We’ll have to wait and see.
Finally, is there a 21-item list coming from me in 2021? Back in 2020 I definitely had a few ideas about what a follow-up project might look like. But after spending a couple of very intense months writing essays, writing and editing podcasts, and editing videos, I am not in a mental state where I am willing to commit to another longform project. We’ll see if that changes as the year goes on.
In any event, I am grateful to everyone who sent in positive feedback about the essays (thanks to Scholle McFarland for copy editing them), podcasts (thanks to Brian Hamilton for smoothing out my edits), and videos (thanks to Stephen Hackett for collaborating and co-hosting). I hoped 20 Macs for 2020 would be a fun project that would spur some fun discussion, and it was! I’m happy with the quality of the work, it gave the shape to my 2020 work life that I was seeking, and writing and editing a scripted podcast provided a unique creative challenge.
Thanks for coming along for the ride.
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