The Macintosh TV: The worst of both worlds

While the newly revised Apple TV may be making headlines this month, the original box previewed in 2006 wasn't Apple's first major foray into television.

For that, we need to take a trip to 1993.


Clad in a ever-rare-for-the-1990s black case and matching accessories, the Macintosh TV was a LC520 with a few tricks up its sleeve.

In addition to being a regular LC520—which is in and of itself notable for being Apple's 1990s attempt to ship a compelling all-in-one—the Macintosh TV included a cable-ready TV tuner card.

The TV tuner card provided a coax jack on the rear of the Mac's casing, allowing users to run a television antenna or cable service directly into the machine. Its included remote could be used to control TV functionality, change channels and adjust the volume.

It wasn't all good news when it came to the Macintosh TV's hardware, however. While it was faster than the original LC520—it had a blazing 32 MHz Motorola 68030 processor in contrast to the 520's 25 MHz silicon—it shipped with a slower system bus, choking the entire computer.

RAM was another sore point: The Macintosh TV could be upgraded to just 8MB of memory, while its beige cousin could handle 32MB. It also lacked the then-standard DB-15 connector for passing video out to an external display.


Turns out smashing a TV into a Mac running System 7 was ... less than ideal.

Unfortunately, this computer didn't offer the ease-of-use that iOS 9 captured with Picture-in-Picture. No: The user could either watch TV or use their Mac as a computer. If you flipped over to the TV environment, MacOS basically disappeared. And forget about capturing any video coming into the system; creating individual frames as PICT files was as much as would-be pirates could manage.

To drive the dagger even deeper, the TV picture used 16-bit color—MacOS was still living in the 8-bit world.

Goodnight, sweet prince

The idea of TV on the Mac was—like several things Apple did the 90s—ahead of its time. It didn't do well on the market: The steep $2099 price tag turned off users, and four months later, it was gone from store shelves.

TidBits editor Adam C. Engst once named it the second-worst Mac of all time, right after the ill-fated Macintosh IIvi and IIvx machines. That said, the original black set top box still has a few fans: collectors. With only 10,000 or so sold before Apple pulled the plug, units go for a hefty price on eBay. It's one of the few places you can acquire a piece of Apple history—and see the earliest origins of the Apple TV.

Stephen Hackett

Stephen Hackett is the co-founder of the Relay FM podcast network. He's written about Apple for seven years at 512 Pixels, and has more vintage Macs than family members living in his Memphis, TN home.