There’s a certain false assumption among computer history enthusiasts that the age of rare and interesting machines ended around the time the IBM PC-compatible platform gained almost total dominance of the PC market. As a result, you’ll see endless celebrations of vintage PCs of the 1970s and 80s. But what about the decade after that?
While Windows’ pervasiveness did limit computer diversity in the 1990s, it by no means stamped it out. Here are 15 amazing and unusual machines that dared to swim against the tide of conformity–albeit with limited success that leaves most of these systems extremely hard to find today. Let’s pay tribute, at long last, to these rare computers of the 1990s.
Sega TeraDrive (1991)
Strange things grow in Japan, and the Sega TeraDrive is no exception. The 1991 computer combined a 286-based IBM PC and a Sega Genesis game console (known as the Mega Drive in Japan) into one unit that sold for about $1840 USD in its most robust configuration. This chimera didn't last long on the market in its native Japan and never made it out of the country, making it quite rare today. Surprisingly, British computer company Amstrad released a similar Genesis-PC hybrid called the "Mega PC" in 1993.
Be BeBox (1995)
With Apple swirling in a death spiral, 1995 seemed like a good time for ex-Apple executive Jean-Louis Gasseé to launch an all-new platform. His BeBox was a $1600 dual processor PC (two 66 MHz PowerPCs) that ran BeOS. Intended to spur development for the platform, the BeBox saw production of only about 1800 units, making it exceedingly rare today.
The BeBox was upgraded to 133 MHz CPUs in 1996. The following year, Be decided to abandon hardware and focus on software. BeOS's fate was already sealed when it lost out to NeXTSTEP as Apple's replacement for the Classic Mac OS.
Photo: Be, Inc.
Apple Network Server 500 & 700 (1996)
Here's the only Apple computer officially designed to never, ever run an Apple OS. Mac OS, despite being a highly usable consumer OS, just wasn't up to the task of powering this industrial-strength, PowerPC-based network server. So Apple turned to IBM's Unix-based AIX as the operating system of choice. This $11,000-$19,000 beast wasn't a Mac; in fact, it contained a ROM that prevented it from booting Mac OS.
Considering its high price and bizarre heritage, it's no surprise that both models of the Apple Network Server are rare today. If you find one neglected in your local server room, treat it kindly.
Photos: Apple, Jenne
AT&T EO Personal Communicator 440 (1993)
The iPad may be the first blockbuster tablet, but its ancestors have been around since at least 1989. The early 1990s saw the launch of a particularly large number of early monochrome tablets, some of which ran non-mainstream OSes.
AT&T's EO sold for around $3000, ran PenPoint OS, and had a wireless cellular modem that supported voice calls, fax, and e-mail - a novel feature back then. It was also one of the few products to use the obscure AT&T Hobbit CPU. Sales were poor, and it vanished from the market in 1994.
Tiger Learning Computer (1997)
"What happened in the '90s stays in the '90s." That could be the motto of the ex-Apple employees responsible for one of Apple's most embarrassing licensing deals. Tiger Electronics's kids' computer was based on hardware from the Apple II line of the 1970s and 80s. It came with cartridges that included a dusty copy of AppleWorks 4.3, some vintage educational titles, and a cartridge for storing BASIC programs.
The Tiger Learning Computer is absurdly cool from a collector's standpoint. But strapping 1970s technology to a 1997 children's PC makes no sense. That's probably why the unit never made it out of test marketing - and why it's so very, very rare.
Photos: Tiger Electronics
Commodore CDTV (1990)
Like Atari, Commodore found astounding ways to mismanage its most potent possessions in the late-80s and early-1990s. The Amiga was a powerful ace up its sleeve, but the company insisted on playing its best card in the worst hands.
The Commodore CDTV was supposed to be a multimedia living-room machine of the future. In truth, the $999 device was an Amiga 500 repackaged in a hi-fi style box with a remote, a CD-ROM drive, and TV output. The technology simply wasn’t there yet to deliver a compelling interactive video experience. Commodore later sold a pricey upgrade kit to turn the box into a full PC, which defeated the box’s purpose in the first place.
IBM ThinkPad Power Series 850 (1995)
The Apple Network Server isn’t the only computer that runs IBM AIX on this list. The second is the ThinkPad 850, which was unusual because it utilized a PowerPC CPU. IBM chose AIX as the default OS for the powerful $6,699 laptop because both OS/2 and Windows NT for PowerPC were still nascent.
PowerPC sprang out of a rare alliance among three fierce competitors who hoped to liberate the PC market from Intel’s stranglehold: Apple, IBM, and Motorola. Each produced PowerPC machines, but only Apple found consumer success. That means non-server, non-Apple PowerPC machines like the 850 are very uncommon today.
Atari Falcon030 (1992)
The 32-bit Falcon030 was Atari’s last gasp in the computer market before it chose to focus entirely on its Jaguar game console. But what a gasp it was: the $1,299 machine incorporated a 16 MHz 68030 CPU, an internal hard drive, advanced graphics (for an Atari, anyway), MIDI ports, and most impressively, the ability to output and digitize CD-quality audio.
The Falcon was popular with the same MIDI-sequencing crowd that had earlier flocked to the Atari ST platform but failed to entice those entrenched in the Wintel duopoly. Of the few Falcons produced, almost all are coveted by their owners today.
Apple Macintosh TV (1993)
The Macintosh TV combined a Mac, a cable-ready TV, and a CD stereo system into one box, but did each of those tasks badly. For reasons unknown, Apple crippled its data bus speed and limited its RAM expandability. It contained a tuner card, but it couldn't digitize still images from the video input and wouldn't allow you to watch TV in anything but full screen mode. All this for only $2079?
As if Apple knew the machine's weaknesses in advance, it produced just 10,000 units and barely promoted them. Today, the ultra-rare computer is best known for its black case.
Canon object.station 41 (1994)
After Steve Jobs left Apple in 1985, he founded NeXT, which created an entirely new platform based on a Unix-like OS called NeXTSTEP. NeXT designed and sold a line of computers (all of which are very rare themselves) from 1988 to 1993, at which point it left the hardware business to focus on software.
In 1994, NeXT investor Canon created its own NeXTSTEP machine, the 486-based object.station 41. But the NeXTSTEP OS didn't have the popularity to sustain a specialized machine, and the object.station sold poorly. Of course, every modern Mac runs OS X, which is based on NeXTSTEP - making them unlikely relatives of Canon's unsuccessful system.
Atari ST Book (1991)
In 1991, Atari briefly released an ultra-thin laptop member of its 16-bit Atari ST computer line in Europe. The ST Book followed the earlier Atari STacy laptop (1989), but it sacrificed features like an internal floppy drive to reach its impressively svelte 1.4″ depth and sub-5 lb. weight. Such a small size was impressive for the time. However, the ST Book's extremely fragile plastic case and LCD screen were prone to breaking, which may have been the reason Atari limited its production to a staggeringly small 1000 units.
Tadpole ALPHAbook 1 (1996)
In the early-to-mid 1990s, DEC's Alpha microprocessor was the fastest CPU on earth. A unique architecture and high price relegated it to the high-end server market, where it was popular for awhile. So it's strange to discover that a small company called Tadpole Computer created a fully portable notebook computer powered by a 233MHz Alpha processor in 1996.
The ALPHAbook 1 was the first and only Alpha laptop, which makes it a coveted machine among Unix aficionados. Its $13,950 price and niche architecture severely limited its potential market, making it exceedingly rare today.
Photo: Computer History Museum
Gateway 2000 Destination PC (1996)
Be warned, ye living-room PCs out there. The history of your kind is a sad one. Exhibit A was the Commodore CDTV. Exhibit B, the Macintosh TV. Here’s Exhibit C: the Gateway Destination PC, a $4,000 Windows-fueled multimedia monstrosity that included its very own 218-pound, 36-inch monitor, which was limited to 800×600 resolution.
A TV tuner let you watch ESPN while playing Windows Solitaire, and the wireless keyboard and mouse meant you could do it from your for couch. The price ruined the party for Gateway and made this Destination a lonely place indeed.
HP Omnibook 300 (1993)
For its time, the HP Omnibook 300 was the smallest PC to feature a full-size keyboard and full VGA screen. The 386-powered laptop weighed only 2.9 pounds and included software like Microsoft Word and Excel in ROM, available instantly at a key press. The Omnibook's most distinguishing characteristic, however, was a pop-out mouse that stowed away in the side of the machine when not in use.
Despite these novel features, few sprung for the HP Omnibook at a time when the portable PC field was flooded with competitors. As such, they are difficult to find these days.
Photos: Hewlett-Packard, Centre for Computing History
Apple Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh (1997)
The stylish, sleek design of the 20th Anniversary Macintosh foreshadowed later LCD-display iMacs. But with a $7,499 price tag and limited production run of 11,000 units, it stood conceptually opposite the universally accessible iMac that would be released only a year later. Mac fans who were lucky enough to afford one of these in 1997 treasure them today, as they are among the most rarest Apple machines of all time.
On the Road to Extinction
Computers present a unique preservation challenge. Their short commercial life cycle means they often get thrown out before we realize their historical significance. If you have a rare PC you no longer want, please consider donating it to an organization that can preserve it, its software, and any accompanying literature. The Computer History Museum (US) and the Centre for Computing History (UK) both accept donations of certain machines. So do some private collectors such as this article's author. With your help, we can preserve interesting systems like the ones seen here for future generations to enjoy.
Photo: Curtis Palmer