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The rise and fall of Apple's all-in-one machines

All-in-ones (or AIOs) are desktop computers where all the major components—logic board, storage, display and more—are in the same case. These designs are much neater and cleaner than your traditional PC setup, which requires a separate computer, screen, and lots of cables running everywhere.

For the last 17 years, Apple's AIO offering has been the iMac. While the 27-inch iMac with Retina 5K display is a far cry from the 9-inch black-and-white CRT Macintosh Steve Jobs unveiled way back in 1984, they share DNA and a common design philosophy: Simplicity is king.

In the beginning

The original Macintosh 128k wasn't a huge success, in part to the computer industry's response to the machine. While the simplicity and elegance is still obvious today, some looked at the computer as a toy—ill-equipped for real work.

Macintosh 128K

Macintosh 128K (Image credit: Apple)

Image Credit: iFixit

Part of this was due to the case and physical design of the machine. It was small and approachable, but because Apple kept users from being able to open the case and tinker—a standard at the time—many wrote it off before ever learning about its industry-changing software.

But Apple pressed on, rapidly innovating on the original design. The majority of early Macs were of the same "compact" design as the original—an all-in-one case built around a 9-inch black and white CRT—but the company iterated by adding internal hard drives, better disk drives and more RAM. The chassis was finally retired when the Color Classic II (also named the Performa 275) was pulled from shelves with little fanfare in May of 1994.

Losing the all-in-one way

By 1994, Apple was a mess. The company had multiple competing Macintosh product lines, few of which were successful.

One such line was the Perfoma: The computers were made up largely of recycled Mac internals from other lines, hidden within a case sporting a built-in 14-inch color CRT. They were often found in schools and homes, while the Quadras and Power Mac lines were sold to the higher end of the market.

These mid-90s all-in-one Macs are mostly all forgettable: Many of them were re-badged and named over the years, contributing to some of the most confusing product names I've ever come across.

There is one exceptional machine in the bunch: the Mac TV, which shipped with a black case and built-in TV tuner card. Past that, the all-in-one scene in the 1990s was a sea of endless, mind-numbing beige.

The turning point

When I was in high school, I worked at the student newspaper, laying out pages on a 1998 Power Macintosh G3 All-in-One.

Image Credit: Jonathan Zufi, iconicbook.com

I'm of the mindset that this machine—dubbed the "Molar Mac" for its tooth-like appearance{.nofollow}—is historically important, as it helped reintroduce the Mac community to AIOs that mattered. It's also the closest in design to Apple's perhaps most significant AIO of the 1990s: The original iMac, with its translucent plastic and swooping curves. The Molar Mac has largely been forgotten, set out to pasture with a bunch of other old Macs that no one really remembers. But it paved the way for something great.

The peak

In early 1998, Steve Jobs took the stage to introduce the original iMac. Clad in "bondi blue" translucent plastic, the design was a true return to the all-in-one design.

Gone were the expansion cards found in the Molar Mac. This iMac—with the exception of a small door allowing the user to add more RAM—was a sealed system. And, like the Macintosh 128k, it was approachable and friendly. It brought magic back to the Macintosh, and set the stage for Apple's return to profitability.

The 2000s are chock-full of some great iMacs. The original G3 line grew and expanded at an astonishing rate, only to be followed by the iMac "Sunflower" G4, the iMac G5 and, of course, an entire line of Intel-powered machines that range from the original 17-inch Core Duo machine in 2006 to today's Retina-infused 27-inch monster.

Looking toward the future

As great as the current iMacs are, I can't help but think the best days of the all-in-one design are behind it. I think there will always be room for the iMac in Apple's lineup, but it's clearly not where the company is making most of its money. That hasn't been true for a long time: Apple now sells way more notebooks than desktops, and that trend isn't going to reverse anytime soon. While the Retina iMac is a huge step forward, notebooks and iOS devices are where Apple is currently doing its strongest hardware work. (Of course, given that both are closed AIO systems, you could say that Apple's taken a bit of its history forward even as the iMac line starts to fade.)

No matter what comes in the years ahead for computers, iOS devices, or cars, the iMac will always have a special place in the company's—and many users's—hearts. I know it does in mine.

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.

26 Comments
  • I don't feel laptops are as necessary for the average person as they used to be. These days we can accomplish the most common tasks on a iPhone or an iPad. If you're a student or a professional however, then portability is very important.
  • Yup, that's me. I'm planning on buying an iMac and eventually getting an iPad for when I need to have a mobile (large) screen. I'm no longer a student, and I'm not a writer or a traveling professional, so an expensive laptop makes little sense for me, personally.
  • My youngest is choosing an iMac over a laptop. For portable he uses his phone - for other use the iMac is significantly nicer...
  • Yep, I was just about to comment to the effect that the author has his conclusion backward here. The demand for mobile computing is increasingly going to be satisfied by iPads and the like, and if you can get most of your mobile work done on an iPad, why spend the extra money to also get a laptop? I've had Mac laptops for years, but my next full computer is going to be an iMac.
  • Not to be picky, but wouldn't a laptop be an All In One?
  • AIO's are considered a desktop design, separate from notebooks. But there are lots of similarities. Many iMacs have shipped with notebook parts, for example.
  • I still have my first Mac Classic from 1991. I can't see myself buying a iMac these days. I have a couple Macbook Airs for when I am on the road, but I use my primary desktops (Pro and Mini) pretty much every day.
  • Performa 575 for life.
  • I don't see iMac fading anytime soon. In fact, as many of my friends are out of school, getting married, and having children, I see more of them buying desktops rather than laptops. Personally, I'm planning on buying an iMac in the near future. As much as I'd love to have a laptop, they don't last as long and are more susceptible to damage, eapecially when toddlers are involved.
  • When my wife's aging iMac was getting really slow she wanted an iPad or laptop instead of a new iMac. She ended up with both and my Windows desktop is in the computer room upstairs only used for gaming. Everything else I do on the iPad or Macbook.
  • Not to be picky, a lot of this information is wrong. The classic Mac was actually a huge success over the course of it's life whereas you just mention the 128K and then describe it as a failure. The era of the Performa that you describe is an era of mostly *not* "all-in-one's," and has really nothing to do with the history of all-in-one desktop computers at Apple. The "molar" Mac (we used to call them "Frankenstein" macs due to their resemblance to Frankenstein's head), was hardly available for even a season and quickly replaced with the first iMacs. It did not play a significant part in anything. It was more of an ugly, clunky, test-run for what would eventually be revealed as the iMac. Then you stop the article right there, essentially at the very *beginning* (the first iMac) of a long, long line of all-in-one's from Apple. So you're writing an article purported to be about Apple's all-in-one's but then you stop right after the very first modern example of that? WTF? Also, your thesis/title "The Rise and Fall ...." is bullsquirt since you don't actually talk about a rise, a fall, or even the history of the all-in-one. You just mistakenly mention the first ever model as a failure, and then mention the very first iMac as a return to that design "success." This makes no sense at all.
  • I am afraid I have to agree here. This article is largely inaccurate or incomplete. I have been in IT just about this entire period - I don't think reality is reflected in the article. 1. You miss a handfull of important models all together and you strangely lack pictures of a lot of models.
    2. Just because you used a model in your youth does not magically qualify it as "historically significant" (although you do clearly state that you are just voicing your opinion).
    3. You dedicate barely a sentence or two to every iMac model since the bondi blue in 1998. You don't even mention the iLamp models!
    4. I don't understand where the "rise and fall" comes from.
    5. The original Macintosh line was successful. What is your measure of success? Sure - they were no AppleII - but then the AppleII may possibly be the most successful single computer line in all of history.
    6: You make no mention of the eMac which was the single model of computer which kept Macs viable in education.
  • Well said Gazoobee.
  • Yes, the original Macintosh (128K) sold slowly because it was odd and considered expensive (the very same list price as the original 27" Retina iMac!), but the 512K 'Fat Mac' sold much better and the Macintosh Plus was the longest selling model ever made.
    "Rise and Fall"? The only all-in-one I ever thought of as a (design) failure was that G3 eMac you have a picture of. I was looking for the 'fall.' The all-in-one iMacs are now doing better than ever and are truly desirable machines.
    Expandability? One of the big reasons I went for an Atari 800 as my first computer was that the Apple ][s I saw always had ribbon cables trailing out the back and more often than not had the lid off. A VERY unfinished look, IMHO (also their graphics were never as good as on the Atari).
  • That picture is not a G3 eMac - and the eMac was not a design failure at all, they were perfect for their intended marketplace. Schools. Here is an eMac: http://www.kewlwallpapers.com/images/wallpapers/emacwkb_2-285988.jpeg
  • I sure don't remember any regular commercial models that looked like that G3 all-in-one that he posted. The only G3 all-in-ones I remember were iMacs. Yes, I remember the one you show, volkraider, but I think that's a slightly newer one. The eMacs I remember from the mid 90s tended to look more like the picture he posted, but usually boxier, like the one next to the iMac in the top photo.
  • "The era of the Performa that you describe is an era of mostly *not* "all-in-one's," and has really nothing to do with the history of all-in-one desktop computers at Apple." During this era the Performa 5xx models were introduced (1993), which moved the design of Apple's AIO's away from the classic "box" design. That line was the first to include a larger monitor, which basically looked like they took a monitor and fused it on top a desktop computer. From there, it was redesigned after the switch to the PowerPC (5xxx models / 1995), which brought about the first modern AIO look - one that truly started looking like a single computer. That then morphed into the G3 All-In-One (1998) that you described in your post and was quickly replaced by the iMac later that year. So when talking about the history of Apple's All-In-One systems you cannot overlook this very important "era".
  • I'll take my Retina iMac over my Macbook Pro Retina and iPad any day.
  • You were laying out pages for high school in 1998? I was six years removed from college. Thanks for making a guy feel old Stephen.
  • yep. I get that all the time. Like i was speaking to a nice young woman at the Starbucks and it occured to me she was born in 1992. in 1992 i was drinking 40s of Old English and Mickeys.
  • I have coworkers as young as my children. :( Eff You Father Time!
  • I'd argue that Peak iMac is actually right now, with the 5k machine hopefully getting ready for the Skylake treatment. That being said, design wise the original iMac really looks stunning even today. A real classic.
  • I'm probably not the best person to answer however I will always have a desktop alongside any laptop or mobile device because they always force me to actually sit down and get into the "work" mindset. Where on a laptop or a phone I always have the tendency to answer any emails immediately or start to wonder off into different directions.
  • My imac is my favorite piece of equipment. I really don't see not having a desk top. I have an ipad that does many things but it does not have adobe creative suite and the imac does.
  • How can the author say the iMac has waned? it's pushing a freaking industry here with it's beyond crazy 5k display; external monitors have barely caught up. Face it, desktop computers are not bulk selling anymore (excluding enterprise machines). iMac's are iconic and the latest generation is still pushing things.
  • The current line of iMacs are the most visually stunning and powerful all-in-ones Apple has ever made. While their ranking in the sales charts is undetermined, the machine is beautifully engineered and the machine is so powerful, many of us are buying them for situations where we would have normally held out for a Mac Pro. Thin, fast, and the most beautiful stock screen on the market.... I think the machine is wonderful.