Greatest PCs: 4-2
4. Apple Macintosh Plus (1986)
In 1984 Apple released the original Macintosh, which, while heavily influenced by the Xerox Star, was a breakthrough personal computer. But its 128KB of memory was so skimpy that the machine was virtually unusable. The company really hit the ball out of the park in 1986 with the Macintosh Plus (see the specs of this Apple model and others at Apple-History.com).
The $2599 Mac Plus had the same Motorola 68000 processor as the original Mac, but it came with a roomy 1MB of RAM and was upgradeable to 4MB of RAM. It supported the brand-new 800KB double-sided floppy-disk format, and was the first Mac with a SCSI port for fast data transfer to and from an external hard drive. Like earlier Macs, its cute beige all-in-one case housed a monochrome 512-by-342-pixel display and the 3.5-inch floppy drive. It also came with matching beige input devices: a sturdy keyboard with a numeric keypad connected by a coiled cord, and a boxy, rectangular mouse.
Apple sold the Mac Plus until 1990, making it the longest-selling Mac model ever. By then it had received cult notoriety via a cameo in the movie Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Today, working Mac Plus models sell on eBay for about $25. Nonworking models have found an entirely different afterlife: They've been reincarnated as fish tanks.
3. Xerox 8010 Information System (1981)
As Winston Churchill might have put it, rarely have so many computers owed so much to such a flop. The flop in question is Xerox's 8010 Information System (better known as the Star), the computer that commercialized many of the breakthroughs invented in the company's legendary PARC research labs and first seen in the Alto computer (which was never sold as a commercial product).
Announced in 1981 and shipped in 1982, the Star had a graphical user interface with what-you-see-is-what-you-get graphics and a desktop metaphor (which, as documented at the DigiBarn computing museum, still look impressive today). It used a mouse, a device that was so unfamiliar that Xerox's documentation also called it a "hand-held pointer." It had built-in ethernet networking, and could work with "a 12-ppm laser printer that was three-fourths the size of a washing machine," says Dave Curbow, who joined the Star team as a software engineer in 1983. "There were way too many firsts to enumerate."
It also had a hefty price tag--$16,500 per unit--that was just the beginning, since the whole idea was that a business would outfit itself with multiple networked workstations, servers, and peripherals. "You couldn't buy one machine and do anything," Curbow explains.
Given that the notion of buying even a single small computer was so new at the time, it's not startling that Xerox had trouble selling companies on the Star. A couple of years later, Apple's far cheaper, Xerox-influenced $2495 Macintosh found more success. And over time, virtually every one of Xerox's out-there ideas became a core part of the everyday computing experience.
2. Compaq Deskpro 386 (1986)
For the first few years of the IBM PC-compatible era, the industry had one undisputed leader--Big Blue itself. Then an odd thing happened: Intel introduced the powerful 80386 CPU, its first 32-bit processor, and it was Compaq, not IBM, that brought a 386 PC to market before anyone else.
The Deskpro 386's $6499 starting price wasn't as sky-high as it sounds today considering that decent configurations of IBM's AT cost at least $5000 and its high-end RT usually topped $16,000. With a 32-bit bus and 16-MHz clock speed, "on CPU performance alone the Deskpro 386 inhabits another league," PC World wrote at the time.
In 1986 it wasn't a given that a next-generation PC would run previous-generation software out of the box; the IBM RT, which used a RISC CPU, didn't. And so the fact that the Deskpro ran DOS, Windows, Lotus 1-2-3, and other major applications perfectly was as much of a selling point as the fact it did so with blazing speed.
The Deskpro 386 wasn't just one of the most powerful, most popular PCs of its time--it was also compelling proof that the PC platform was far bigger than any one company.