iMac G4: Form, meet function

In 2002, One year after outlining the Digital Hub strategy, Steve Jobs unveiled one of the most iconic computers of the 21st century: the iMac G4.

This new computer made the machine that helped save Apple look much older than it actually was. Gone was the heavy, bulky CRT; in its place, a 15-inch LCD screen. Twice as bright and twice as sharp as the old CRT, it was a major upgrade. The new iMac also featured a G4 processor making things like DVD creation in iDVD possible on a consumer machine for the first time. Also on board was a SuperDrive, allowing users to burn both CDs and DVDs.

In teasing the new design, Apple joked about simply "chopping off the back" of the iMac, putting the logic board and other components behind the display. And indeed, while Apple would design the iMac G5 just that way two and a half years later — and every iMac thereafter — in 2002, the technology just wasn't ready.

According to Jobs, to do so, Apple would need to need to slow down the spinning drives, lowering hard drive performance, and the SuperDrive would be unable to ship. Instead, Jobs said, Apple "let each element be true to itself. If the screen is flat, let it be flat," he said. "If the computer wants to be horizontal, let it be horizontal."

This lead to an amazing design. The result, to my eye, is still stunning:

When it first rose from the stage during the keynote, people gasped. The base was a small, all-white half-dome that measured just 10.6 inches across. All of the ports, including power, modem, Ethernet, USB and Firewire were arranged horizontally around the back for easy cable management:

The screen floated above the base, suspended in mid-air on a chrome arm. And that arm had several tricks up its shiny, metal sleeve: In addition to allowing the user to adjust the height of the display, the screen could be angled up or down and even swiveled to the side, all with the touch of a finger. The engineering that went into this is, to this day, impressive, and opening one of those machines up for repair was no trivial task.

The arm also gave the iMac boatloads of personality, which Apple showed off in this ad and the product video used to introduce the machine:

The 15-inch model wasn't the only iMac G4 SKU Apple sold. In July 2002, Apple added a 17-inch model that used the same panel used in the 17-inch PowerBook G4. In November 2003, a massive 20-inch model was added to the line as well:

By the time Apple replaced the iMac G4 in the summer of 2004, it'd become quite powerful as well. Packed with USB 2.0 and a 1.25 GHz G4, the iMac was beginning to creep into what was considered desktop territory just 12 or 18 months earlier.

Today, the iMac line is far broader than it was back in 2002. From the low-end machine to the loaded 27-inch Retina monster, the iMac can meet the needs for almost all desktop users. And while this iMac G4 was the start of that to a small degree, its true place in history is cemented by its industrial design: 14 years later, it still looks modern.

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.

  • I loved mine, I used it to death and my I remember using some tool and getting 10.5 and was blown away because they said it was unsupported but worked just fine. I wish it wasn't in pieces in my garage right now..
  • I still have a 15" w/ Superdrive running OS 10..4 and Adobe CS2; also a 17" 1.0GHz from 2003 running 10.5. I use them with my old FireWire Sony cams with "pass-thru" to digitize old VHS/S-VHS tapes. These Macs are still going strong, and I'll keep 'em 'til they no longer run. Never did care for those speakers though, bass was to weak for me.
  • I loved mine too. One of the best Apple designs ever, despite being basically abandoned immediately afterwards. Such a shame. Anyone who used the early G5 iMacs knows also, that they probably shifted to the new design far too soon, replacing this beautiful design with the big ugly slow box that was the G5. Here's a thought for something similar to replace it. A Mac Pro cylinder, with a "monitor" that's just the arm part of the G4 iMac. Instead of an attached screen, there is just an attachment point for ... iPad Pro. Now that is my "dream machine." OS X when docked, iOS when mobile, giant touch screen plus awesome desktop power.