The Ten Most Beautiful Computers

Every now and then, a computer comes along that makes a mark, that sets a trend, or that simply stuns you – but not because of its internals, its processor or its software, but because of its appearance. Through the history of computing, there have been a number of computers that were actually designed to appeal not just because of raw technology alone, but also because of stunning looks. Read on for a countdown of my ten most beautiful computers.

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10. Honeywell H316 “kitchen computer”

Most likely the weirdest one of the bunch. I stumbled upon this machine while doing some normal browsing, and it stuck – and not only because of its use of red (I have an obsession with the colour red). That white plateau is actually a cutting board, where the wife (yes, back then, in 1969, it was the wife) could prepare the food she was cooking for her loving, hard-working husband and children. This computer was nothing more than a recipe storage device, and its designers were smart enough to allow the wife to prepare the recipe without having to move away from the computer’s ‘display’, a set of binary lights.

The machine had a 2.5Mhz processor, 4kb of core magnetic memory, and had some recipes pre-programmed, since learning how to program any new recipes into the device took two weeks. In all honesty – I could not care less. I love the machine because it is red, has a cutting board built-in, and is like nothing you have ever seen before (or will be seeing). And for USD 10600, it came with a cookbook and an apron. I mean, I dare you to resist that.

9. SGI O2

Readers of the popular webcomic User Friendly will know the SGI O2 as the body for the Erwin character, an artificial intelligence written in COBOL. Most people, however, will remember it as the last entry-level workstation by the once proud Silicon Graphics, Inc., introduced in 1996. It came with a single MIPS processor running anywhere between 150 and 400Mhz. It could house up to 1GB of proprietary SDRAM memory. It obviously ran SGI’s own IRIX operating system, but could run a selection of BSDs and Linux too.

I do not really know why I like the O2’s design so much. I usually refer to it as “the blob”, because let’s be honest, it sure does look like one. I guess my fascination for the O2 comes from the fact that, just like the H316, it is unique in its design. It is not a desktop, it is not a regular tower – it is special. May I coin the “blob form-factor”?

8. PlayStation 2

A machine that needs no introduction, but might need some justification instead. Some will say it is not a traditional computer like the others on this list, but I beg to differ. A gaming computer is still a computer, and since this thing can run a version of Linux fully blessed by Sony, I see no reason not to include the best-selling game console of all time on my list of ten most beautiful computers.

What I like about the PlayStation 2 was its unusual design (back then) for a game console. It lacked the playfulness of most other consoles of its era, and focused more on an industrial and hardcore image. I love the ‘ridges’, which remind me of NeXT’s hardware, and the fact that you can position it both vertically as well as horizontally (with a twisting PS logo to match).

7. Sun Ultra 20

Introduced in 2005, the Ultra 20 delivered an affordable AMD Opteron-based workstation to Sun’s customers, who complained heavily about the much more expensive W2100z and W1100z AMD workstations Sun had released earlier. It cost only USD 895 during launch, which made it one of the cheapest Sun workstations you could buy.

The Sun Ultra 20 is one of only two tower configurations in this list, since I generally dislike tower configurations. Many will say that the Ultra 20’s design was stolen from Apple’s PowerMac G5, launched in 2003, and to a degree, they would have a point. However, to me, it feels as if Sun took a long hard look at the PowerMac G5 and added a lot of its own design elements (I see some definitive cues from the Ultra 10 in there) to form a distinctive and industrial looking device, more so than the PowerMac G5. I love the Ultra 20’s angular and sharp design, and if I had the money, it would be my replacement of choice for my 6-year-old near-dying x86 desktop.

6. MacBook Air

Laptops are ugly. Yes, I am stating that as a fact. I have never seen a laptop that actually looked like something I would remember a few days later. They are too small to carry any memorable design features, and especially on the non-Apple side of things, they look less pleasurable than YouTube comments. Apple did not make the sexiest notebooks; they simply made the least pig-like notebooks. Which can hardly be called an achievement seeing the competition.

That is, until the MacBook Air came along. I was stunned. It was smaller than most other laptops, yet looked better than all of them; this was a laptop I would remember. Just for being by far the prettiest laptop out there, this machine deserves a mention. However, what gave it its 6th position is the fact that I owned one for a week. Its thinness and lightness are design features you can only appreciate by actually owning one.

5. IBM ps/2 model 50

The grand daddy of desktop computing. Big Blue’s Personal System/2 would define a set of standards for more than a decade to come – the ps/2 mouse and keyboard interface, the VGA connector, the 1440kb 3.5-inch floppy disk format, the 72pin memory module, they would all become standard on PCs for years to come. Despite all this, most will not remember the ps/2 for its spectacular design, right?

Well, I sure do. My brother owned a ps/2 model 50 (my parents have it somewhere collecting dust in their attic), and I loved its built-like-a-brick design. It was heavy like a brick, looked like a brick, and felt like a brick. What stood out most to me, and what I remember most vividly from my childhood days of staring in awe at the ps/2, was the big, red, tumbler on/off switch. That, and the pencil sticking out of it to keep the memory modules in place.

4. NeXTcube

Sometimes, a computer comes along that is far, far ahead of its time. The BeBox, the Amiga, and yes, the NeXTcube. For those that do not know (shame on you!), the NeXTcube was the brainchild of Apple-founder Steve Jobs, who had left Apple after being more or less ousted by the company’s leaders. He founded NeXT, and started work on an object-oriented operating system (NEXTSTEP), and the hardware to run it. The NeXTcube was an oddball piece of equipment, built out of magnesium, and lacking a hard drive, opting for a magneto-optical drive instead.

Cube-shaped computers rock, and the NeXTcube set the trend. With its black, ridged design, built out of magnesium, with similarly themed monitor, keyboard, and mouse, it embodied what Apple would become almost two decades later. Again, this is one of those machines whose uniqueness made sure it would get its place in the history books. And it ran the first webserver.

3. Sun SPARCstation 20 “pizza box”

The second Sun machine on this list, and by far the best-looking thing ever to come out of Santa Clara. As I already mentioned, I prefer the desktop form-factor. It is sleeker, less intrusive, and its internals are easier to access than a tower’s. The SPARCstation 20 is the epitome of the desktop form-factor; very thin, no ports or slots of whatever kind on its front-bezel. The ultimate incarnation of the pizza box form factor. It could pack a serious punch too: up to four SuperSPARC or HyperSPARC processors (200Mhz max. each), and 512 MB of RAM.

It is too bad the pizza box design has been abandoned in favour of ugly towers and even uglier laptops. The SPARCstation 20 would be my ultimate computer. Thin, clean, angular: it has all the characteristics of computer design that I like. And just look at those cute purple feet!

2. The BeBox

Put your hands in my hands / and come with me, we’ll find another end / and my head, and my head on anyone’s shoulder / ’cause I can’t be with you.” I should probably be scared that The Cranberries’ “I Can’t Be With You” makes me think of the BeBox. The BeBox was supposed to become the platform for the BeOS, but in the end, only around 1800 of them were sold, making them extremely rare today, and whenever one does end up on eBay, prices go into the I-can’t-justify-not-eating-for-5-years range quite quickly. In fact, I wonder if there even is a BeBox in The Netherlands at all.

The BeBox’ story started in 1990, when Be, Inc. produced the first prototype, which consisted of just a logic board with a single At&T Hobbit processor, which gave the Be engineers a platform to code for. In 1991, the BeBox had already turned into a machine with 5 Hobbit processors, of which 30 prototypes were built. The Hobbit BeBoxen would never actually make it to customers, seeing At&T ceased production of the Hobbit processors in 1994.

Enter the PowerPC BeBox, designed by Joe Palmer, and the object of my affection. It had two PowerPC 603/603e processors, running at either 66 or 133Mhz, and could eat up to 256MB of RAM. It had support for a wide range of PCI graphics cards, audio cards, and all sorts of other standard devices and interfaces. On top of that, it had the infamous GeekPort. “The ‘GeekPort’ is a new feature connector unique to the BeBox. It provides digital and analogue I/O and D.C. power through a 37-pin connector at the back of the chassis. This port is aimed at experimenters and small entrepreneurs so that they may bring unique functions to the BeBox. The GeekPort is located on the ISA bus and can be accessed by the CPU, a PCI busmaster card, or an ISA busmaster card.”

However, this article deals with looks, not character. The PowerPC BeBox’ most distinctive feature was its front bezel, designed by Mark Brinkerhoff. Brinkenhoff said in an interview: [Be, Inc.] wanted a bezel designed that had, ah, a look of power, as well as one that displayed both CPUs running.” And so it did: the two ‘columns’ at the sides of the bezel represent the power element Gassee was after. These two columns also house two series of LEDs (the Blinkenlights), one in each column, that indicate processor activity. Each of them was connected to a processor, and the series of LEDs would light up according to actual CPU activity. You cannot seriously say you would not want that on your machine.

The BeBox has a very special place in my heart, not only because of what I described above; the BeBox’ best feature was its software, the BeOS, which I still consider the best operating system ever conceived – despite its obvious shortcomings. The BeBox represents my ideal computer in hardware and software, and it almost represents my ideal computer in looks. Almost, because the BeBox is number 2 on this list.

1. PowerMac G4 Cube

It will be no surprise to OSNews regulars that my favourite computer design of all-time is the PowerMac G4 Cube. I owned one for a while, but had to sell it due to it not being fast enough to run Leopard. I sold it to a guy who was going to replace his NeXTcube with my PowerMac Cube. I cried tears of joy inside. I already detailed the Cube fairly well in a previous article of mine:

“The Cube is Apple’s pinnacle of design; a cube-shaped computer suspended in a glass plastic housing measuring 10″x8″x8”. The computer itself is grey, the Apple logo embossed on the housing is the dark greyish-blue variant (smoke). On top there are two air vents, as well as a slotloading optical drive. There is no power button; instead, there is what I refer to as a power ‘sensor’; the sensor ‘feels’ it when you lay your finger on it, and powers up (or down).

It came in either a 450Mhz or 500Mhz G4 version (with lots of cache; remember, it is a PowerMac), with 64Mb or 128Mb pc100 SDRAM respectively. It had a 20GB or 30GB hard drive (according to Eugenia, “the slowest drive ever”). There were no audio ports; instead it came with a USB amplifier with two Harman Kardon ‘sphere’ speakers attached to it. It had one ethernet port, two USB ports, two FireWire ports, VGA and ADC display ports, a modem, and an Airport slot. The Cube had an Ati Rage 128 Pro video card with 16Mb of RAM (meaning no Quartz Extreme). It did have a free AGP slot, so many Cubes, including mine, were fitted with the more powerful, Quartz Extreme-capable GeForce 2MX cards with 32MB of RAM. The optical drive could be a CD-RW or a DVD-ROM drive.

The entire device is passively cooled; not a fan to be found. In other words, this device is completely silent, no noise whatsoever (except from the drives, of course).”

Little has changed since then. I still hope Apple will, one day, revive the Cube, and position it in between the dreadfully ugly Mac Mini, and the hopelessly overpowered (for ordinary desktop use) Mac Pro.

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