Retro Tech: Vintage muscle machines that pushed the limits

These classic PCs pushed the boundaries of computing power when they were new.

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Pumping retro iron

Since the dawn of the PC market, most consumer users have been able to get by with the bare minimum of computing power. During the personal computer’s first two decades, that typically meant performing functions like word processing, light gaming, and home finance. Typical low- or mid-range PCs could handle those tasks with aplomb.

But not long after the first personal computers launched in the 1970s, manufacturers began to target businesses, universities, and government institutions with beefier machines. Those organizations often needed extra computing muscle for advanced production or research tasks, and later, high-end computers also served creative users such as graphic designers, video producers, and musicians.

That’s what we’re going to look at here—eight vintage “muscle machines” of the 1980s and 1990s that pushed the limits of personal computer capability at the time of their release. Accordingly, most of these had a high price to match, which makes them hard to find (and largely forgotten) today.

I’d love to hear about your own adventures with vintage muscle machines—whether you used them back in the day or you simply tinker with them now.

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Compaq DeskPro 386 (1986)

Retail price: $6,499 base ($14,120 today, adjusted for inflation)
CPU: 16MHz Intel 80386

Let’s start with the archetypical monster upgrade PC, the Compaq DeskPro 386. First introduced in 1986, this IBM PC-compatible beast was the first commercial PC to use Intel’s 80386 CPU, which made it instantly perform twice as fast IBM’s then-flagship AT computer—and faster than any other clone IBM PC on the market. The DeskPro 386 was basically the most powerful desktop PC in the world. Add to that the ability to support up to 10MB of RAM at a time when most PC users were happy with 640KB, and you had the recipe for a truly impressive piece of hardware. IBM wasn’t too happy about being bested by Compaq on its home turf, of course; Big Blue released its own 386-based PC the following year, which you will see ahead.

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Steven Stengel

AT&T UNIX PC (1985)

Base model retail price: $5,590 (about $12,371 today)
CPU: 10MHz Motorola 68010

In the 1980s, industry pundits almost universally thought that powerful UNIX-based workstations would soon overwhelm and supplant DOS-based IBM PCs as the industry standard. To that end, AT&T—the creator of UNIX—released a System V UNIX-based machine, the “UNIX PC,” in 1985. It included a built-in monochrome display, a mouse-based windowing GUI in ROM, support for up to 4MB of RAM, and through serial card expansion, could serve up to six simultaneous users (one on the main unit and five on their own serial terminals). That’s a lot of capability in a desktop form factor.

It’s interesting that while UNIX did not reign supreme on the desktop in the 1980s or 1990s, today we see UNIX derivatives and workalikes with a huge global PC footprint in UNIX-based Mac OS X and iOS, and Linux-based Android. Taken together, those platforms outnumber Windows PCs. So maybe the pundits were right after all—but just off by a couple of decades.

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Commodore Amiga 3000 (1990)

Base model retail price: $3,379 (about $6,156 today)
CPU: 16MHz Motorola 68030

Commodore made a big splash with its original Amiga in 1985 thanks to the machine’s impressive graphics and sound capabilities and its pre-emptive multitasking GUI-based OS. After a few successor models, Commodore significantly upped the ante in the Amiga space with the completely redesigned Amiga 3000, which sported a then-impressive 16MHz Motorola 68030 CPU (later upped to 25MHz), support for up to 18MB of RAM, a new ECS graphics chipset with VGA support, and a new high-speed DMA SCSI controller for fast hard drive and CD-ROM access. At the time, it was one of the most capable consumer-level PCs in the world—and for the price, it was very hard to beat.

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IBM PS/2 Model 80 (1987)

Base model retail price: $10,995 (about $23,048 today)
CPU: 20MHz Intel 80386

In 1987, IBM unveiled its next big step in the IBM PC space, the Personal System/2 (PS/2) line, which introduced innovations such as 3.5-inch floppy support, VGA graphics, OS/2, the Micro Channel bus, 72-pin RAM SIMMs, integrated mouse support (through the now-famous PS/2 mouse/keyboard ports), and most importantly, IBM’s first 386-based PC. The 386 arrived in the highest-end PS/2 unit, the Model 80, which shipped in a hulking tower-based configuration that could support up to 2MB of RAM and two 115MB hard drives (consumer hard drives were typically about 20MB at the time, and still very expensive).

Like all IBM PCs back then, the Model 80 was built like a tank (out of high-quality components and materials) and carried with it a tank-like price to match: $10,995, which could quickly go up to $20,000 or more depending on the configuration. To add insult to injury, customers had to buy an operating system (PC-DOS 3.3) for their Model 80 as an add-on item. That’ll be $120 extra, please.

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Apple Macintosh IIfx (1990)

Base model retail price: $9,900 (about $18,037 today)
CPU: 40MHz Motorola 68030

“Wicked Fast”—that’s what Apple’s advertising called this impressive workstation, the Mac IIfx, which was the first Mac to ship with a 40MHz 68030 CPU (its predecessor, the Mac IIx, sported a 16MHz 68030). At the time of its release, it was both the fastest and most expensive Mac to date—and beyond the Mac platform, it was one of the fastest personal computers, period. It could support up to 128MB of RAM, which was an insane number at the time, and like all members of the Mac II product line, the IIfx could be expanded with multiple internal NuBus cards, which allowed the IIfx, among other options, to support multiple high-resolution/high-color graphics cards (technically as many as there were slots). That made the IIfx the most versatile PC-based digital graphics editing and production workstation in the world.

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IBM ThinkPad Power Series 850 (1996)

Base model retail price: $12,399 (about $19,374 today)
CPU: 100MHz Motorola PowerPC 603e

The PowerPC CPU project originated as a joint project between Apple, IBM, and Motorola to design a powerful next-gen microprocessor that would help to unseat the Intel microprocessor hegemony. At the time, Intel x86 CPU-based machines (often running DOS or Windows) had already devoured the desktop and laptop PC markets and were just beginning to eat into the workstation and server markets as well. The antidote, they hoped, would be the PowerPC CPU.

Most people probably recall Apple’s PowerPC-based Macs, but few remember IBM’s forays into the PowerPC architecture. Perhaps the most interesting of those products was the ThinkPad Power Series 850, a bona-fide IBM laptop which shipped with a meaty 100MHz PowerPC 603e CPU, 16MB or 32MB of RAM, and a 640x480 color LCD. For the OS, you could run Windows NT 3.51 (which supported PowerPC) or IBM AIX, a UNIX derivative. With a price starting at $12,399, however, few could afford such a beefy machine—and even fewer actually bought one.

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Radio Shack

Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 16 (1982)

Base model retail price: $4,999 (about $12,335 today)
CPU: 6MHz Motorola 68000 and 4MHz Zilog Z-80A

Motorola first introduced its 16/32-bit 68000 CPU way back in 1979, but it was years before the then-expensive but capable chip made it into any desktop PCs. One of the first such machines was the unusual TRS-80 Model 16, a derivative of the business-oriented TRS-80 Model II series, that came equipped with both the TRS-80 standard Z80 processor and a 6MHz 68000. Radio Shack positioned the Model 16 as a multiuser business machine that could run either TRSDOS-16 or Microsoft XENIX (Microsoft’s version of UNIX). Thanks to the Z80, it was also backward-compatible with all 8-bit Model II software.

And your eyes aren’t deceiving you: Yes, those are two 8-inch double-sided floppy drives tucked into the Model 16’s massive case. The drives could store 1MB of data per disk—a very impressive number at a time when a typical IBM PC’s disk drive could only write 160KB of data per side. This was a very powerful PC at the time of its release.

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Computer History Museum

Tadpole ALPHAbook 1 (1995)

Base model retail price: $13,950 (about $21,797 today)
CPU: 233MHz DEC Alpha 21066-A

They said it could never be done: To stuff a 233MHz DEC Alpha CPU, one of the fastest and most powerful server/workstation processors in the world, into a laptop form factor. But Tadpole Computers did just that in 1995, resulting in the ALPHAbook 1, which was probably the world’s most powerful laptop at the time. (For comparison, Dell sold a high-end $2,499 laptop with a 75MHz Pentium in December 1995.)

Due to the power-hungry nature of the DEC Alpha CPU, this trailblazing PC’s internal battery only provided one hour of cordless run time. To remedy this, Tadpole sold an optional 4-pound external battery pack (the laptop alone weighed 7.5 pounds) that not only added more minutes of power, but also provided an easy way to lift weights on the go. Aside from short run time, the Alpha CPU also made ALPHAbook 1 insanely expensive; with a $13,950 base price, you can be sure that few of these machines actually made it into customers’ hands. As a result, it’s quite the collectible today.

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