Before the MacBook’s fall: The greatest laptops Apple ever built

By

Before the fall of MacBook: The greatest laptops Apple ever built
What's your favorite MacBook of all time?
Photo: Apple

The current MacBook Pro is the worst thing since unsliced bread — at least if you believe my colleague Charlie “glass is half empty” Sorrel. But while people might be happy to dump on Cupertino’s current laptop selection, Apple brought us some amazing laptops in its 40-plus year history.

Here are the inarguable top five Apple laptops of all time.

A few notes on notebooks

OK, small print up front. If you don’t like today’s MacBooks, due to Apple’s flawed butterfly keyboard or some other reason, this isn’t a list of machines you should necessarily consider as a replacement. (Although in one case you might be able to.)

It’s also a subjective list — meaning that my “inarguable” claim is, well, kind of arguable. Comparing a computer made in the early 1990s to one made in 2019 isn’t easy to do at the best of times. What this list comprises is the Apple laptops most beloved by their owners, who were hard-core Mac fans.

Unfortunately, that means I left some genuinely influential — but underpowered — machines off this list. That includes the likes of the colorful clamshell iBook and the MacBook Air, both of which were triumphs of design more than portable powerhouses.

With that said, on to the list of best Apple laptops ever built.

5. 1991 PowerBook 170

1991's PowerBook 170 was a game-changer in its era
This was a game-changer in its era.
Photo: Bluedisk/Wikipedia CC

Comparing a 1991 laptop to one of today’s portables is a fool’s errand (well, maybe a blogger’s errand). But the PowerBook 100 series (of which the 170 was the highest-spec version) was a game-changer on a level that’s impossible in today’s laptop climate. While people had been toying about with the portable computer form factor for a while, Apple’s 1991 PowerBooks turned notebooks into a mainstream technology.

The PowerBook 170 came with a hefty price tag of $4,599 — in 1991 money. However, for this you got a computer that weighed “just” 6.8 pounds and could do just about everything you’d manage on a desktop Mac. Maxed out, the PowerBook 170 rocked 8MB of RAM and a 40MB hard drive. It came with a floppy drive, internal modem and an attention-grabbing trackball. Its active-matrix display was the Retina of its day, considerably sharper than the fuzzier, passive-matrix displays on lesser models.

These laptops arguably marked the time Apple became a mobile-first company. Granted only a fraction of the marketing budget for desktop Macs, the PowerBook became an oversized smash hit for Apple. In its first year, the PowerBook line generated more than $1 billion in revenue for Apple. In 1992, the PowerBook helped Apple soar to its most successful fiscal year to date.

Apple continued to make history with its innovative, fresh laptop designs over the years. But while some of them were more about appealing to the masses than to hard-core Mac fans, the PowerBook 170 served up a great blend of looks and power.

4. 1994 PowerBook 540c

With impressive specs and a fancy screen, the PowerBook 540c took Apple laptops up a notch.
With impressive specs and a fancy screen, the PowerBook 540c took Apple laptops up a notch.
Image: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

There aren’t too many times in Apple history that fans could legitimately argue that the company’s laptops are better than its desktops. However, that could be said in 1994. That’s the year Apple launched its PowerBook 540c, one of the best laptops in the company’s history.

The PowerBook 540c brought the world’s first 16-bit portable display. At the time, Apple claimed it “may well be the finest screen ever to grace a notebook computer.” While its 9.5-inch, 640×400-resolution display looks primitive today, it was a stunner at the time. With a color active-matrix display, Apple’s QuickTime video software and the PowerBook 540c’s built-in stereo sound, this was the multimedia laptop you wanted in the mid-1990s.

It wasn’t just about looks, either. This was the first Apple notebook to include a 33MHz Motorola 68LC040 CPU. Its RAM was upgradeable to 12MB, which was again very impressive for the day. In benchmark tests, it ran an epic 80% faster than the fastest previous PowerBook. Oh, and the trackpad was a big upgrade over the previous trackballs of Apple laptops.

3. 2000 “Pismo” PowerBook

Apple Pismo PowerBook raised the bar for laptops.
The “Pismo” PowerBook was a brilliant early Steve Jobs-era laptop.
Photo: CG Hughes/Flickr CC

I’ve always had a massive weakness for the Macs of the 1990s. Sure, this was the period when Apple came perilously close to the end, but it would be wrong to blame that on the Mac. With the company focused on upgradability and high specs, the ’90s was a great (if occasionally frustrating) time to be a Mac user.

By 2000, Steve Jobs had been back running Apple for a couple of years. The “Pismo” PowerBook, however, combined the innovations of Jobs-era Apple with the heart of a classic ’90s Mac. It introduced USB and Apple’s revolutionary FireWire. But it was also highly expandable, which made it a great Mac for the long run.

The Pismo PowerBook proved great for multimedia. It sported a 400 MHz PowerPC 750 G3 processor with 64MB of RAM. On the ports front, users got a PC Card slot, two FireWire and USB slots, S-video out and more. With dual batteries installed, the laptop could support 16 hours of real-world usage.

On the downside, it was a bit of a backbreaker. It weighed 6.1 pounds, which was reducible if you removed the DVD-ROM module. Its polycarbonate plastic case was less futuristic than Apple’s later aluminum creations. But its curved design compared favorably with other laptops of the day.

This laptop was a turn-of-the-millennium winner — and well beyond, too.

2. 2002 “Titanium” PowerBook G4

The Titanium Powerbook was a jaw-dropper back in the day
This was a jaw-dropper back in the day.
Photo: Redjar/Wikipedia CC

I loved the “Pismo” G3 PowerBook, but the Titanium PowerBook G4 was even better: a rare sequel, like The Godfather Part II or Aliens, that surpassed its predecessor. Sure, the $3,199 price tag felt exorbitant in 2002. But with all due respect to Luther Vandross and Janet Jackson, the best things in life aren’t always free.

The PowerBook G4 boasted a luxurious, extra-wide, 15.2-inch display, marking the first time Apple made a widescreen laptop. It also featured an 800MHz PowerPC G4 processor, support for up to 1GB of RAM, and an ATI Mobility Radeon 7500 video chip for graphics work.

Combine that with a DVD/CD-RW combo drive and a generous 40GB of hard drive storage, all packed into a new, lighter-weight titanium form factor. Even approaching two decades on, this laptop still looks extremely attractive.

If you were drooling over a laptop in 2002, chances are it was this one. How do I know? Because I’m still kind of drooling over it today.

And the best Apple laptop of all time is …

1. 2015 15-inch MacBook Pro

The 2015 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro tops the list. You were expecting something else?
You were expecting something else?
Photo: Apple

The 2015 MacBook Pro doesn’t necessarily enjoy the name recognition of other computers on this list. It wasn’t the first in a series. It didn’t benefit from an amazing Steve Jobs keynote that blogs trot out every year on the anniversary of its introduction. But it was a great, great computer. In my opinion, it’s the best laptop Apple ever built.

Apple introduced the 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro series shortly after Steve Jobs died, in June 2012. The company then refreshed the line multiple times in the following years. However, the mid-2015 upgrade reigns as the undisputed champ. A productivity powerhouse, the top-end 15-inch MacBook Pro boasted an upgradable 2.5GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 processor. It added new fast flash storage, a superior battery, a Force Touch trackpad and an AMD Radeon R9 discrete graphics card. The design felt solidly rugged. The screen looked as stunning as ever. The keyboard didn’t make you want to throw your new MacBook across the room in a fit of rage. It came with a plethora ports, including MagSafe 2, two Thunderbolt 2 ports, two USB 3 ports, an HDMI port, a 3.5 mm headphone jack and more. It was an easy computer to love.

The next year, Apple introduced the controversial MacBook Pro update with the flawed butterfly keyboard, four USB-C ports and a Touch Bar as a replacement for the function keys. Apple discontinued the 15-inch 2015 MacBook in mid-2018. However, you can still pick it up secondhand online. Of all the computers on this list, this is the one you might actually want to consider as your 2019 MacBook Pro alternative.