The ten SEXIEST computers of ALL TIME
Gorgeous kit that looks as good now as it did the day it came out
Product Round-up Does a computer need to look sexy? You might say that the looks of such a pragmatic gadget don’t matter. After all, most of us have, at one time or another, had to make do with bland, beige boxes almost exactly like everyone else’s bland, beige box, and it didn't hinder us from getting the job done, or made play any the less engaging.
But you can also say - and I do - that if you’re going to use a computer, why not have one that looks good too? So long as form doesn’t hinder function - something Apple’s designers have, not unjustly, been criticised for - surely it’s better to have a tasty machine than a flavourless one?
These days vendors think so too. Over the past five years, thanks to the so-called consumerisation of the personal computer biz, desktops and laptops have been given something of a makeover. They’re not the boring, utilitarian boxes they once were. Yet few of them truly stand out as design classics.
So what machines do? Which computers don’t merely look good but have genuine aesthetic appeal and cool? I’d say all of the following ten computers from the past 30-odd years fall into that category, some landing further in than others. All of them still look great, even those going back so far their specifications are positively poor by today’s standards. There’s not one of them - apart from the mainframes, of course - that wouldn’t sit rather nicely on your desk now. Their designs may be of their time, but each has transcended their era of origin.
Apple MacBook Air
Many a jaw dropped when Apple’s then CEO slid the first Macbook Air out of an everyday office envelope on 15 January 2008. Could a notebook computer really be that skinny? It could, and the 13-inch Air proved it, though its 4-19 millimetre thickness wasn’t achieved without compromise: you couldn’t upgrade the 2GB of memory, and even getting into the thing was hard. It had a relatively weak (for the time) processor and relied on integrated graphics. There was no Ethernet, and only one USB port, a 3.5mm audio socket and a mini-DVI port.
But here’s the cute part: to keep the Air’s narrow edge running all around the laptop, designer Jonathan Ive tucked the three ports into a small flip-down tray that, retracted, fitted flush with the casing, as did the power port on the other side of the machine.
Opting for a 13-inch screen allowed Ive to design in a full-size keyboard, something Apple made much of when comparing the Air to the small, cramped netbooks becoming popular at the time. Weighing only 1.4kg, the Air wasn’t much heavier than its netbook rivals, especially second-generation, hard drive-equipped versions, and its high degree of portability was praised almost as much as its sleek, skinny styling.
Apple’s Air line continues today, though it now features a more wedge-like look for greater practicality: it makes room for more ports, exposed this time for easy access. Much imitated, the Air is arguably the inspiration for Intel’s Ultrabook initiative.
Designer Jonathan Ive
Debuted January 2008
Apple Power Mac G4 Cube
Designed by Apple’s industrial design wiz Jonathan Ive, the Cube was then CEO Steve Jobs’ attempt to bring a variant of his famous NeXT machine look to Apple, to which he’d returned in 1996 when Apple acquired NeXT for its operating system software.
Ive placed the Mac’s components inside a seven-inch cube, itself placed within a clear plastic 19 x 19 x 25cm box to give it the grey cube computer the appearance of floating above the desk. The slotload optical disc drive faced upward and was placed next to the computer's central ventilator, air convecting up through the Cube to draw heat away from the innards - components which could be easily extract by yanking a handle on the underside of the Cube. Ram, storage and graphics card were all accessible and upgradeable, though expansion beyond that was limited.
Codenamed Trinity, the Cube debuted in August 2000, though its high price, a flaky heat-sensitive power switch and manufacturing problems with the polycarbonate enclosure ensured only limited sales. Apple put the product “on ice” less than a year later, in July 2001. Still, the Cube lives on through a cult following and its place in the collections of major institutions, including London's Design Museum and New York's Museum of Modern Art.
Designer Jonathan Ive
Debuted August 2000
The original Commodore 64, unveiled in January 1982, simply used the casing that had been designed in 1980 for the company’s first home micro, the Vic-20. Come the summer of 1984, it was decided that the now familiar but by now tired-looking squat shape needed a revamp, in part the result of its acquisition of Amiga Corporation. The result was a sleek, flat, wedge-shaped look that was a world away from the chunky C64. The way the back of the unit fell away from the keyboard gave the machine a slim and futuristic feel, accentuated by the recessed ports on the right side - there were more round the back. Very swish and sexier looking than the bulkier Amigas that followed it, even if lesser in spec.
It’s not known exactly who designed the C128’s case. Possibly it was Ira Velinsky, though he left Commodore to join ex-CBM chief Jack Tramiel at Atari and design the first ST micros during 1984, and may have gone before the 128 case was conceived. Yet the C128’s look owes more than a little to the case design that Velinsky devised for the ill-fated Commodore Max - aka the Vic-10 - in 1982. Like the C128, the Max sported a wedge-like look, albeit a chunkier one, with a rear section well below the top row of keys. If Velinksy had quit Commodore before the C128 appeared on the drawing board, his work influenced its look.
Designer Ira Velinsky?
Debuted January 1985
Cray Research Cray 2
In the mid-1980s, if you wanted the fastest computer then known to mankind - and had a very large room to put it in - you chose Seymour Cray’s second-generation machine. Cray’s focus was building the most powerful supercomputers he could, but he wasn’t above an appreciation of machine aesthetics. The Cray 2 is “elegant in appearance”, his company boasted. Computers’ form shouldn’t entirely come out their function: they should look cool too. To that end, he and his engineers were not above equipping the various cabinets and containers that made up the Cray with coloured panels, eerie coloured lighting and even massive matrices of flashing lights. All very sci-fi.
There was a practical component to some units’ design too: one part of the Cray 2 was the transparent glass tank through which Cray’s chosen processor-cooling liquid, 3M’s Fluorinert, would flow to release the heat it had absorbed from the machine’s working parts. “This liquid immersion cooling technology allows for the small size of the Cray 2 mainframe,” said Cray Research’s sales brochure. It also allowed jocular users to drop plastic fish in the tank, and led to the unit being nicknamed ‘Bubbles’.
The Elan Enterprise may not have set the mid-1980s UK home micro market alight, and it may have undergone more pre-arrival name changes than all its rivals put together, but it did have one the most stand-out industrial designs of the period. The Enterprise was conceived in 1982 as a direct rival to the then newly announced Sinclair ZX Spectrum. The company behind the machine, Intelligent Software, took its concept to three design firms, but it was the team of Geoff Hollington and Nick Oakley, neither of whom had designed a computer before, that got the gig to turn their napkin sketches into reality.
In an age of angles, the Hollington and Oakley design was smoothly curved at the front and home to not only rounded keycaps but a joystick mounted on corrugated rubber. That said, the rear section is boxy, and it almost seems the two halves don't go together. Hollington told Your Computer magazine in 1983 after the Enterprise’s launch that he wanted to “seduce people into buying the machine yet say a little about the technology” and to get away from what he called “currant bun” designs: “printed circuit boards sandwiched between two sheets of cream plastic, with a few keys sticking out of the top”.
The design was completed early in 1983, with extra work on the colour scheme from a separate graphic design agency. Alas, it had a turbulent time ahead, and despite an autumn 1983 launch, it would be 1985 before the Enterprise finally came to market - a much tougher one than the glory days of 1982 and 1983.
Designers Geoff Hollington and Nick Oakley
Debuted September 1983
Booted out of Apple, Steve Jobs went off and set up another computer company, cheekily attempting to sidestep the non-competition clause in his termination package by working on a high-end workstation rather than a personal computer like the Mac. The result was the 1988’s NeXT computer, designed unlike any other desktop machine of the time. Back then, the black-cased ThinkPad was merely a glint in IBM’s corporate eye, so the NeXT computer stood out for its colour not just its shape.
The casing was styled by agency Frogdesign, which had recently created the look of the slimline Apple IIc and would later style the Sun SparcStation. Measuring a foot in each dimension, the cube’s design was stark, the plain, magnesium alloy faces relieved only by the coloured NeXT logo low down on the front, and by corrugation that run up the centre of the sides and across the top. Tying into the ribbing was a small, ridged panel on the front that housed the floppy and optical drive slots. Naturally the black block came with similarly shaded keyboard, mouse, monitor and laser printer.
Eye-catching design statement it may have been, but the Cube was no great shakes commercially, perhaps not surprising since a new one would have set you back $6500 in 1988 - the equivalent of $12,650 in today’s money. Tim Berners-Lee only created the web’s first protocol and browser on one because of generous funding from CERN. Still, its looks got it into a number of movies of the early 1990s and into the collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Debuted October 1988
Sharp’s 1987 home computer isn’t well known outside of Japan because it was never released overseas. Based on a Hitachi version of Motorola’s 68000 processor, the X6800 shipped with 1MB of Ram and no storage beyond a couple of 5.25-inch floppy drives. It ran a custom command-line OS called Human68k on top of which sat a crude GUI called VS, for Virtual Shell. This being a Japanese home system, there were dozens and dozens of games released for it.
The X68000 comprised a pair of slim tower units mounted side by side and connected at the base and at points in between. Running up the gap between the towers was a retractable carry handle. The base was home to the volume control linked to the speakers, DIN ports for keyboard and mouse, and the power jack. LEDs flashed disk activity and, in later models, hard drive usage and whether the machine’s CPU was running 10MHz or 16MHz. The top of the towers were all cooling mesh.
Sharp offered and upgraded the X68000 throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s. Toward the end it developed a smaller version, the X68000 Compact, though this looked more like a regular slimline desktop upended. The original, larger version remains an attractive-looking chassis that wouldn’t be out of place on a modern desktop or alongside a TV.
Sony PlayStation 3
Surely even the most eager Xbox aficionado or Nintendo nut has to concede that Sony has the best looking console. Chunky though it was the first of the Japanese giant’s three PS3 designs to date was a looker, but the console’s second, “slim” incarnation showed its look could be refined. The latest version, number three, may have lost its predecessors’ slotload Blu-ray drive, but giving it a sliding cover allowed Sony’s engineers to make the machine not merely a little thinner, but smoothed out the look too.
The result: a sharp, oval profile and a jet-black upper surface that curves gently and elegantly up and then down toward the back. A corrugated section relieves what was previously smooth plastic and highlights both the PS3 logo and gives visual cue to the location of the BD drive. It’s so much more stylish than the latest Microsoft console’s current ‘squashed box’ look or the bland ‘DVD burner’ styling of the Nintendo Wii-U.
This will undoubtedly be the last PS3 design. The PS4 is coming to market later this year, and it’ll be interesting to see what Sony’s industrial design team comes up with. Ditto the folks carving a new look for the next-generation Xbox, as yet unannounced but widely expected to debut this year too. Can Microsoft come up with an even more sophisticated look than the PS3, or will it again be topped by Sony? Roll on Christmas.
Debuted 2005 (first version) 2012 (third design)
Sinclair Research ZX81 and ZX Spectrum
I have saved the best until last. No one designed home micros in the 1980s like Rick Dickinson. The industrial design talent behind the ZX81, the Spectrum, the QL, the Microvision flat-screen portable TV and - beyond Sinclair Research - of the Cambridge Computers Z88 portable, Dickinson’s distinctive black cases look as modern today as they did 30 or more years ago. Love Sinclair’s products or hate them, whatever their failings as computing devices and no matter how much their capabilities were compromised by ‘Uncle’ Clive’s cost-engineering efforts, they are undoubtedly among the most stylish personal computers ever made.
Nowadays, when the pale cream or grey boxes like the Acorn Atom, the BBC Micro, the Dragon 32 and the Oric-1 have all become a peculiar shade of yellow, the black ZX81 and Spectrum still look smashing, knocks and bumps notwithstanding.
Dickinson graduated from Newcastle Polytechnic, now Northumbria University, in the summer of 1979 and joined Sinclair the following December - he’d already done some work for the company on placement from college. Taking over full-time from John Pemberton, he became the company’s sole industrial designer, working not only on the casings of the machines but their port layouts and keyboard designs too, and of the various peripherals Sinclair released.
The design of the ZX81 took about six months to complete, Dickinson told The Register, but the Spectrum came together more quickly. Each machine went through a variety of designs before the final look was settled upon, the Spectrum in particular as it evolved from a ZX81-style angular box to the ‘straight lines and curves’ look we know today.
Particular emphasis was placed on the keyboard, it being the prime interface between user and computer. The ZX81’s keyboard hardware was straightforward, but required plenty of careful work to get the decal layout right. Dickinson had just three colours - black, white and red - with which to present clearly letters, numbers, control functions, graphics glyphs and Basic keywords.
Spectrum Basic’s extended array of keywords made it even trickier next time around, though he had extra colours to play with this time.
“I believe that form should follow function,” he told an interviewer from Your Sinclair magazine in 1982. Few would deny he’d achieved it, and it’s no surprise that Dickinson’s early work was recognised by his peers with a British Design Council award, which he won for the ZX81.
Rick also designed Sinclair's Z88
Dickinson went on to design later Sinclair products, but quit in 2006 to form his own design agency, Dickinson Associates. Since then he’s done work for Amstrad, ARM, Fujitsu and Motorola, among others, and he even tackled the ill-fated Gizmondo handheld console. Right now, he’s got military radios and a portable digital microscope on the drawing board.
But it’s his ZX micros for which he will be most fondly remembered. Dickinson says he was inspired by an Olivetti typewriter, and in the ZX81 you can certainly see the look of the emerging flat, electronic typewriters that were just starting to appear back then. They, however, have since been largely forgotten, but the look of the ZX81 and Spectrum remain instantly familiar. ®
Designer Rick Dickinson
Debuted March 1981 (ZX81) April 1982 (ZX Spectrum)