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Movie star: top 10 computers featured on screen


While computers are unlikely to replace actors any time soon, our daily companions have long been co-starring on screen. We've made a list of real-life devices that were featured in movies and TV series most often. And the number one is not what you think it is.

Many people have a close relationship with computers. After all, we do spend a lot of time interacting using the machines. A computer collector and blogger, James Carter, took his fascination to another level and compiled a database on real computers featured on-screen.

Carter's website, aptly named 'Starring the computer,' catalogs each appearance and rates it on importance, realism, and visibility in the shot. Most importantly, Carter included only real devices, so, unfortunately, Stanley Kubrick's HAL 9000 is not on the list.

It also became clear to me that for many older machines there is very little in the way of photographic documentation left and that identifying them in film could be a useful resource,

James Carter.

"I've had a long standing interest in the history of computing and it also became clear to me that for many older machines there is very little in the way of photographic documentation left and that identifying them in film could be a useful resource," Carter told CyberNews.

'Starring the computer' is a hobby project, so it's unlikely that every single on-screen appearance is covered. However, there is no better alternative to compare Carters' database with. Since the website does indicate how many times a specific device was featured, we've worked some Microsoft Excell magic to get the desired results.

Apple is the most commonly represented brand, with 65 of its devices featured in film or TV. IBM takes second place with 33 devices, followed by HP (24), Compaq (23), Dell (23), DEC (21), and Commodore (20). We will spoil the surprise a little – the most popular device is not the same as the most popular brand.

#10 Commodore PET 3000/4000 series

Commodore PET 2001-8N (CBM 3008). Image posted by u/macintoshcollector03.

According to 'Starring the computer,' a successor to the legendary P.E.T. 2001 device was featured in 31 different films and TV series. With its first appearance in 1982's film Bird of Prey, more than half of Commodore's appearances happened in the 21st century. Love for vintage computers apparently has spilled over to the filming industry.

Commodore released the second iteration of the P.E.T. 2001 in 1979. The company dropped the tiny chiclet keyboard, introducing a full keyboard. Commodore also removed the onboard cassette unit, and the letters CBM (Commodore Business Machine) appeared on the device.

#9 Apple Macintosh

Apple Macintosh. Image source.

With 32 appearances, the Macintosh ranks 9th. Featured in movies like Captain America: Civil War and The Big Short, Macintosh steadily appeared on-screen through the late '80s, with its latest feature in a 2017 flick Atomic Blonde.

Released in 1984, the Macintosh became one of the most iconic PCs in history. The device is credited for being the first commercially successful PC to use a Graphical User Interface (G.U.I.), a crucial feature of the computing experience.

#8 IBM PC XT

IBM PC XT. Image source.

Featured in 32 films and TV series, IBM's PC TXT has had a steady on-screen career since the mid-'80s. With features in the legendary series Knight Rider and Magnum P.I., the device found a place on modern television with a feature on Mr. Robot.

Released in 1983, PC XT was the second personal computer from IBM. Visually and technically, the device is very similar to the original IBM PC 5150 model. Unlike its predecessor, the XT had a built-in hard drive and extra expansion slots.

#7 Apple Powerbook G4

The Powerbook G4 notebook. Image by Shutterstock.

A more recent device, the Powerbook G4 notebook, was featured 36 times. Prominently showcased when released, the device saw little attention in the second decade of the 21st century. According to 'Starring, the computer,' Powerbook G4 starred only in movies.

Apple released the device in 2001 and was last in Apple's Powerbook line. Discontinuation of the series in 2006 is associated with companies' transition to Intel processors instead of older PowerPC CPUs.

#6 Apple Macbook Pro

The Macbook Pro with a closed lid. Image source.

Featured 39 times, the Macbook Pro was a replacement for the previously mentioned Powerbook G4. Since the device was released in 2006 and is on its 5th generation, it is no wonder that it mostly appeared in recent movies and TV series. 

#5 Burroughs B205

Burroughs B205 console (above 'Batcomputer' sign) was frequently used a prop in TV and movies. The full computer, however, is much larger. Image source.

Featured 39 times, Burroughs Corporation's device B205 was a star of the '60s sci-fi genre. Shown on The Angry Red Planet, Battle for the Planet of the Apes, City Beneath the Sea, and many others. Thanks to its striking appearance, the B205 was sometimes mistaken for a fictional device.

The B205 was a tube computer released in 1956. The computer was equipped with blinking lights, which likely prompted how computers were portrayed through the '60s and '70s. B205 console was a frequent prop in Hollywood studios, gaining fame thanks to its use in the Batman TV series where it served as the 'Bat Computer.'

#4 Apple II

The Apple II. Image source.

Member of the ‘1977 trinity,' Apple II was featured in 41 films and TV series since its release. As with any legendary machine, Apple II was steadily shown on-screen since its release in the late '70s. Most recently, the device appeared on Terminator Genisys and Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Designed by the legendary Steve Wozniak, the PC signified how computers shifted from machines to house appliances. One of the defining features of the computer was that it was able to display color graphics.

#3 Apple iMac G3

The Apple iMac G3. Image source.

We enter the top three with iMac G3, featured in 42 films and TV series. The legendary computer has enjoyed film industry attention since it was released in 1998, with the latest feature in the 2019’s Between Two Ferns: The Movie. 

iMac G3, famous for its translucent cover, kickstarted flailing Apple and thrusting Steve Jobs back into the spotlight as this was among the first devices released after his comeback to the company. Design-wise, Apple took a relatively new approach, introducing different colors to the casing of the device.

#2 Commodore 64

C64 device connected to a monitor. Image source.

Featured 71 times, the Commodore 64, otherwise known as C64, is undoubtedly a legendary device. The device has been in the spotlight since its release in 1982, with the most recent feature in an episode of an American sitcom The Good Place, released in 2020.

The device has entered the Guinness World Records as the highest-selling single computer of all time, with high sale estimates at 17 million units sold. C64 has a large fanbase up to this day, with many using the device to play old-school video games. 

#1 IBM AN/FSQ-7

IBM AN/FSQ-7 with an Intercom System on its side. Image source.

With a whopping 95 features, AN/FSQ-7 is an undisputed king of computer actors. The computer has enjoyed continuous attention in movies and TV series released since the '60s, with the latest feature in the 2018 movie Bumblebee.

Manufactured in 1955, AN/FSQ-7 holds the record as the largest computer system ever built. Only 24 machines were made, each weighing 250 tones and employing a colossal 60 thousand tubes to operate. No wonder its energy consumption was a mind-boggling three megawatts, enough to power a house for almost four months.

The IBM's device was a crucial Cold War tool used for ground-controlled interception. Famously, AN/FSQ-7 was used to control the U.S. Air Force's SAGE system, which monitored airspace for Soviet air attacks. The military used the device to calculate interception points in case of a foreign attack. 

Situation Display console and other equipment, connected to the AN/FSQ-7. Image source.

According to Carter, AN/FSQ-7 popularity might be related to public's idea of what a massive computer looks like. However, the very image might have been created due to practical realities of movie making.

"When it first started appearing in the mid 1960s there really weren't many decommissioned computers around to use as props so the fact that SAGE was made obsolete with the rise of ICBMs meant panels became available. [...] After a number of props had been built they just kept being reused - why go to the expense of building a new one," Carter told CyberNews.

Below you'll find the next 10 devices that appeared on screen the most. Number of features shown in brackets.

  • Apple Powerbook G3 (31)
  • Commodore Amiga 1000 (27)
  • Apple Macintosh S (26)
  • Commodore Amiga 2000 (23)
  • Apple Clamshell iBook G3 (22)
  • Commodore PET 2001 (21)
  • Apple iMac G4 (21)
  • IBM System/360 (20)
  • IBM PS/2 Model 50/70 (19)
  • Panasonic Toughbook (19)

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