Beauty may well be in the eye of the beholder, but only the most rabidly anti-Apple beholder wouldn’t agree that some of its hardware is utterly beautiful by any objective standard.
What is completely subjective is this list. It was a wrench to leave out so many stunning and important designs, but since nobody's ever heard of a list of things on the internet that wasn't ten items long, I had to make some tough decisions.
What follows is as best as I can make it a list that showcases not just some of Apple's most enduring designs throughout its history, but also machines that represent seminal moments in the industrial designs of consumer technology artefacts – moments when there was an inflection point or a crazy weird squiggle in the slow, steady evolution of hardware design.
And then just for fun, and to show that neither I nor Creative Bloq are boggle-eyed Apple fanboys, we'll also look at a few Apple designs that, shall we say, history has not remembered kindly. In fact, it would be better for all our sakes, history, if you could do us a solid and just forget about them entirely.
This is my list, but you'll have you own ideas, and I'll doubtless agree with all of them – leave your suggestions for your top 10 (and bottom five!) in the comments!
01. Apple IIc
Early in its history, Apple contracted Frog Design to come up with a design language for its hardware; it would become known as Snow White, and emphasised stripes for ventilation and to make the case seem smaller, subtle textures and other specifics.
The Apple IIc – or '//c' as it's often written – was the first bit of hardware to use it, and to this day it looks not just pretty but also inviting and friendly, especially with its cheery, eager little monitor perched over it. Although nobody would mistake it for a modern computer, there's a timeless retro-futurist quality to the IIc and its era of hardware that is utterly compelling.
02. Macintosh Classic
The chunky shape of the original Macintosh – all thick chamfers and beige-and-brown plastic – has a certain historical appeal, and I know that many Macheads hold the powerful SE/30 dear, but for me, the ultimate expression of the original all-in-one Mac is the Classic.
Clean, essential, completely considered from every angle, and with that sense of playfulness and anthropomorphism that so characterised Apple's early hardware.
03. Power Mac G3
I know you might say it looks a bit garish and bulbous today, but however well you think Apple pulled it off, this was the exciting moment when it decided that even professional desktop computers didn't have to look like anodyne beige boxes, and for that its designers deserve kudos. Besides, I think it still looks glorious – such a confident and uncompromising use of different materials.
I don't know if this would be confirmed objectively, but for me there's something about this era of translucency in Apple's designs that makes the machines less intimidating, less enigmatic; I feel, however misguidedly, that this isn't a sealed box of magical trickery, and that I have a chance of understanding what's going on inside.
This peculiar little beast, which ran the Newton OS designed for Apple's MessagePad PDAs, and which was sold exclusively to the education market, was the first time Apple used translucent plastic. It's a spectacularly friendly and characterful machine, and that sense of personality extends to the audio design too.
When you tap items on-screen, you don’t get the same click sound every time, you get a cheery burble of 'bik', 'bok', 'beek' sounds. So sweet.
05. iMac G4
Apple's current design language produces inscrutable slabs of metal and glass, but its earlier designs were much friendlier and approachable. This beauty of a machine is a great example of how something can still look smart and professional at the same time as being cheerful; just like we anthropomorphised the original Macintosh with it’s 'chin', so too does this Mac look like a cute little friend when you push the monitor down and tilt it up towards you.
It reminds me, these days, of Luxo Jr, the little Pixar lamp. That screen tilt and rotate mechanism – something you can adjust with a fingertip but which hold its position perfectly – is still unequalled, and every computer Apple has made since the iMac G4 has been a step backwards for ergonomics.
06. PowerBook G4
In these days of laptops you can nearly shave with, the idea that a computer being a full inch thick was ever praiseworthy is amusing, but when the first PowerBook G4 came out, it was breathtakingly svelte.
What's more, it looked like nothing that had come before, had a bezel around the screen that even today looks astonishingly slim, and was, excitingly, made of titanium – which earned it the nickname 'TiBook'. The fact that its sleek, desirable shell contained a genuinely powerful computer only added to its appeal.
While the first three generations of Apple's iconic music player get points for introducing the world to the iPod, it was with the fourth generation and later that the basic design was reduced to its essence.
That Click Wheel, which acted not just as a touchpad but as a four-point button for playback control, is nothing short of genius, and this beautiful, simple, but life-changingly wonderful device is an object lesson in how simplifying a design makes it stronger, not weaker.
Few people remember Apple's range of rack-mounted servers, and it's not altogether surprising; Apple only made them for a few years before giving up on specialised server hardware altogether, and anyway they're things only bought by businesses.
Their design deserves to be celebrated, though; server cases are often unconsidered plastic shells wrapping powerful internals, but Apple’s design was not only attractive – in an overtly techy, blinking-lights kinda way – but considered and useful. A rack of Xserves and Xserve RAIDs with their lights glittering away as they worked always looked like particularly well-designed sci-fi.
09. iPhone 5
You could pick the original iPhone or the stunning, dense iPhone 4, but for me it's the iPhone 5 that looks the best – especially this black version. I'm totally on board with the bright colours of the iPhone 5c, or the Champagney gold Apple is using more and more, but the stealth styling of the black iPhone 5 takes some beating for a particular brand of masculine beauty.
Its almost military appearance makes it look like a prop from a film set it the near future, a feeling compounded by how light it felt when you held it.
10. MacBook (2015)
Apple's most recent Macs are preposterously slim, and there's something incredibly beguiling about a machine whose form has been shaved so thin that it's almost not there at all. It's very nearly a two-dimensional screen hinged onto a two-dimensional keyboard, and that – Apple's ability to do things in industrial design that just don't seem like they should be possible – is one of the reasons Apple makes some of the most beautiful and covetable hardware in the world. However, it also makes some absolute dogs...
Now: five of the ugliest Apple products ever made!
01. Macintosh Color Classic
While the Macintosh, the SE/30, the Classic, Classic II and Performa 200 all looked balanced and considered, the Color Classic – the last of the iconic compact Macs built around a 9-inch screen – was an abomination.
Sure, you get a colour screen, which was a big deal, but look at that styling! The proportions have been completely destroyed, the case bulges in unnatural place as if it's been injected with steroids, and the whole effect is utterly jarring to the eye. Do not like.
02. Power Macintosh G3 (All-in-One)
Happily for the general population, this monstrosity was limited to education markets, though what the poor kids had done to warrant having it thrust upon them is anyone's guess.
It's a hideous bastard love-child of traditional beige boxes and the just-around-the-corner swooping styling of the iMac and Blue and White Power Mac G3 – or to put it more kindly, it was a 'transition' design – and the styling is incredibly uncomfortable. It was nicknamed the 'molar', and since it sets out teeth on edge that seems entirely appropriate.
03. Performa 6400
At first glance, there's nothing terribly wrong with this design, but the more I look at it, the more I get annoyed by the unnecessary layer of 'design' that's slathered all over it. You can see what they were going for – soften the sharp edges of traditional tower designs and it looks friendlier and more modern – but actually it ends up just looking like someone took a perfectly good, honest block of wood and then not been able to stop themselves when they started to sand off the edges.
And that silly-looking foot! And that daft-looking, top-heavy protuberance above the floppy drive! (It was really a spare drive bay, but does rather look like the bulging forehead of a porpoise.) Ugh.
04. Apple Keyboard
When you took this new keyboard out of its box in 2003 you might have been forgiven for thinking it was very attractive. And it was, at that point. But oh my; give it a few months. I don't care how fastidious you were about keeping clean and not eating at your desk, it drew crumbs, dust and hair to it like a very picky black hole. Except it wasn't black; the case was clear, so what you ended up with was a perfect window into all the disgusting crap that had accumulated under the (now also grubby) keys.
More than once I've given one of these a blow to dislodge this gunk only to be rewarded with a faceful of antique detritus and a deep feeling of resentment and sorrow. This keyboard was pretty for about a fortnight, but every one you see in the wild now looks stomach-turningly bad; let's make them extinct.
Ask me tomorrow, and I might put this in the 'most beautiful' category rather than the ugliest. Certainly, it was a bold and welcome break from all the black plastic slabs that dominated laptop design around that time, and I'm certainly not hating on it because it's not butch enough. It hasn’t aged well though, has it? To my eyes today, it looks less 'bold' and more 'wacky' – daft and frivolous for the sake of it.
Note: With thanks to Jonathan Zufi. Many of the images in this post were kindly supplied by Jonathan Zufi, the author of one of my favourite indulgent books about Apple design, Iconic. Jonathan took many hundreds of photos for Iconic – some of which, above, have never been published before – and spoke to some terrific people in the Apple industry about its enduring design prowess. If you love Apple’s hardware a tenth as much as I do, I urge you to treat yourself to a copy. Oh god, that Special Edition!