IBM’s first PC, announced on August 12, 1981, was far from the first personal computer–but when it arrived, there was near-universal agreement that it was likely to be a landmark machine. It was. And 25 years later, it still ranks among the most significant computers ever.
Like the IBM Personal Computer, Model 5150, the greatest systems have always had ambitions to boldly go where no computer has gone before. Without these innovative machines, the PC revolution would have been a lot less…well, revolutionary. So we decided to celebrate the IBM PC’s 25th birthday by identifying the 25 PCs that have mattered most–from any manufacturer, and from any era.
No single characteristic makes a computer great. But we managed to boil down an array of winning qualities into four factors, all of which happen to begin with the letter I.
Innovation: Did the PC do anything that was genuinely new? Did it incorporate the latest technology?
Impact: Was it widely imitated? Did it become part of the cultural zeitgeist?
Industrial design: Was it a looker? Did it have clever features that made using it a pleasure?
Intangibles: Was there anything else about it that set it apart from the same ol’ same ol’?
Armed with this scale, we considered dozens of PCs–which meant that we also had to consider the question “What is a PC, exactly?” Ultimately we decided that a PC is anything that’s recognizably a desktop or portable computer in design–or, alternatively, anything that runs an operating system originally created for desktops and laptops. After a lot of nostalgic debate, we selected our winners. Which systems we picked–and didn’t pick–for our Top 25 may be controversial. If one of your favorites didn’t make our roster, check out our list of 25 near-great PCs.
Just to drum up a little suspense, we’ll reveal the Top 25 starting with number 25, and then work our way backward to the single greatest PC of all time. (Spoilsports can skip ahead to number 1; we won’t be any the wiser. You can also jump to the complete list of our Top 25 picks.)
Greatest PCs: 25-23
25. Non-Linear Systems Kaypro II (1982)
Non-Linear Systems’ Kaypro II didn’t break new ground when it appeared toward the end of 1982, but it was a classic case of the right product at the right time. Even more than the Osborne (which had pioneered the concept of the luggable microcomputer), it appealed to a growing group of nongeeks who were awakening to the productivity benefits of personal computers but couldn’t afford (or didn’t want to spend) several thousand dollars for an Apple or IBM PC along with the necessary software and peripherals (such as a printer).
Named for NLS founder (and digital voltmeter inventor) Andrew Kay, the Kaypro II–and its series of successors over the ensuing years, including the 4 and the 2x–was a moderately priced alternative. When first released, the Kaypro II cost $1795 and, like the Osborne, came with all the productivity software (word processor, spreadsheet) most people would need. Encased in grey and blue metal, the Kaypro was rugged and utilitarian in design: You could latch the keyboard over the 9-inch monochrome display (far roomier than the Osborne’s stingy 5-incher) and carry it like a suitcase. But at 26 pounds, it was a heavy piece of luggage. The Kaypro line also represented the last gasp of the CP/M operating system: By the mid-1980s, MS-DOS was already becoming the lingua franca of non-Apple personal computing.
The Kaypro’s affordability and out-of-the-box usability was very popular with journalists, including myself: In 1984 I took out a $1600 loan to buy a Kaypro 2x–my first computer–and by then the purchase price also got me a daisy-wheel printer. A year or so later, I became a TV critic for a newspaper, which bought me a Hayes Smartmodem that let me electronically transmit my reviews from home (the modem also enabled my introduction to online computing). I used that Kaypro and Hayes modem until 1992, when I took out another loan to buy my first IBM clone. I’ve never again used the same PC for eight years.
24. Toshiba Qosmio G35-AV650 (2006)
Increasingly, PCs have evolved into sophisticated entertainment devices. And the first truly entertainment-centric notebook to catch our attention was Toshiba’s Qosmio, which continues to innovate as a portable entertainment PC two years after its introduction. (Oh, that name? Toshiba says it derived Qosmio, pronounced “kozmio,” from cosmos, as in universe, and the Italian word mio, meaning “my.”) The latest iteration not only improves on the thoughtful design of its predecessors but is also the first notebook to integrate a blue-laser-based optical drive–in this case, HD DVD–for playback of high-definition entertainment content.
The current, third-generation Qosmio G35-AV650 packs a slew of features that will make it as at home in your living room as in your home office. A stylish 10.1-pound notebook, this $2999 model’s HDMI port supports HDCP and 1080i output, so you can connect it to an HDTV. It also runs Windows XP Media Center and comes with a TV tuner and remote control, so it can serve as a DVR. The 17-inch wide-screen LCD gets its power from two lamps instead of one, which we found generated greater brightness than competing models. The system features an integrated 1-bit digital amplifier, Harman/Kardon speakers, and Dolby Home Theater enhancements, as well.
When I first reviewed the Qosmio, I liked its winning combination of looks and design. I have big hands, and I found the notebook easy to navigate. I also appreciated its bright, high-resolution display. The roomy LCD provides plenty of on-screen real estate for when I’m working on spreadsheets, and its audio-visual prowess provides welcome relief after hours.
23. Apple eMate 300 (1997)
Over the past three decades, Apple Computer has released a bunch of great PCs that had a huge impact on the marketplace. Here’s one that had almost no impact during its short life–aside from its cameo in the film Batman & Robin as Batgirl’s (Alicia Silverstone’s) PC–but we love it anyway.
The $799 eMate was idiosyncratic in virtually every way a computer can be idiosyncratic, starting with its target audience: schoolkids. It ran an operating system designed for PDAs (Apple’s Newton OS). It didn’t have a hard drive, but it did have pen input. It looked vaguely like a notebook, but its industrial design–with a green, curvy case that looked like it had sprung from the mind of science-fiction illustrator H.R. Giger–was utterly unique.
The eMate attracted a cult audience among business users. But Steve Jobs, who returned to Apple soon after its launch, wasn’t a believer: Less than a year after the eMate shipped, he killed it, along with the rest of the Newton line. The cult continues, though–you can even find hacks to overclock the eMate at Stephanie’s Newton Web Site.
Almost a decade later, the eMate feels like an early pass at the kind of innovative, affordable educational PC that the world is still trying to create. Too bad it turned out to be a dead end.
Greatest PCs: 22-20
22. Hewlett-Packard 100LX (1993)
HP’s 100LX wasn’t the first would-be pocket PC, but it was the first one that nailed both the “pocket” and the “PC” aspects of the equation. (The Poqet PC wasn’t really pocketable, and HP’s own 95LX had a low-res screen that hobbled compatibility with desktop apps.)
The $749 100LX managed to squeeze a lot of functionality into its tiny clamshell design. It had a QWERTY keyboard (with a separate numeric keypad!), an 80-by-25-character monochrome display, and Lotus 1-2-3 in ROM. Best of all, it ran DOS 5.0, which meant that it was compatible with thousands of popular programs.
HP’s 200LX, a slightly improved version of the 100LX, was also popular. With the 300LX, however, the company dumped DOS in favor of the then-new Windows CE operating system. Compatibility with desktop software was lost–which might be one reason why the 300LX is forgotten but people are still using its predecessors to this day.
21. Alienware Area-51 (1998)
For as long as there have been PCs, there have been PC gamers. In 1996, Sakai of Miami–named after a Japanese warrior–began rethinking how to market its home computers. “The premise was that we could sell gaming PCs, that we could target people like us who were gamers,” recalls company cofounder Nelson Gonzalez. In 1997 the company renamed itself Alienware (“I was really into The X-Files and aliens back then, and I was into computer hardware,” he says) and launched its first gaming machine, The Blade, with a 3D video graphics card.
In 1998 that model evolved into the Area-51 (an Intel machine; its AMD counterpart, the Aurora, came out a year later). It was amped up with gaming hardware, including three video cards (one 2D card, plus two 3D add-on cards with 3Dfx’s Voodoo chip) and two sound cards (a Sound Blaster 16 for older games and a newer Diamond Monster Sound card, which took advantage of DirectX-capable features like 3D positioning). Back then a high-end system set you back $3799. In 2000, the company added an array of space-age colors to its still-ordinary Area-51 and Aurora case design; it wasn’t until 2003 that the vendor introduced its current hallmark design, the sci-fi “Predator” chassis.
Alienware’s innovative and startling design influenced PC cases in general, and gave gaming PCs new street cred (even Dell and HP have produced gaming systems in the years since). The company, which Dell bought last year, continues to refine its distinctive design and to produce top-flight gaming rigs: In May we named the Alienware Aurora 7500 one of the Top 100 Products of 2006, and in July the company introduced an improved alien-motif case design.
20. Gateway 2000 Destination (1996)
Back in 1996, when convergence was still more buzzword than reality, Gateway 2000 (the company later dropped the 2000 from its name) launched a system that was the precursor to today’s media-centric PC. At its debut, the Destination was priced from $3499 to $4699. But for that hefty cost of admission, you got a system that was ahead of its time: The Destination married a 31-inch CRT monitor with a multimedia PC, a combination designed to replace the gear already filling your entertainment center.
The PC itself was black and boxy, practically the size of two 1990s-vintage VCRs stacked on top of each other. It included a wireless keyboard and remote control, a TV tuner, and surround-sound speakers. As with today’s DVRs, you could browse TV listings–but you couldn’t record TV to the hard disk.
Along with other proto-Media Center PCs such as Compaq and RCA’s PC Theatre, the Destination attracted lots of attention but failed to make its way into many living rooms. However, it did find a niche among businesses and schools as a presentation machine. And the basic idea it pioneered returned in 2002, when PCs based on Microsoft’s Windows XP Media Center operating system appeared.
Greatest PCs: 19-17
19. Apple iMac, Second Generation (2002)
The first-generation iMac of 1997 may have been the machine that told the world that Apple, and its recently returned cofounder Steve Jobs, were back. But its second-generation successor was a vastly different, far more inventive computer. And even though it didn’t turn out to be an influential one, it remains a high point in PC design history.
With its dome-shaped base and its flat-panel screen that “floated” on a swivel arm, this iMac was, quite literally, like no computer that came before it. It had a friendly, anthropomorphic feel, in part because it bore a spiritual resemblance to Luxo Jr., the plucky desk-lamp hero of the Oscar-winning short film from Pixar, Steve Jobs’s other company.
The design looked cool, saved space, and provided near-infinite adjustability for the display. But it didn’t last long: In 2004 the second-gen iMac was replaced by yet another all-new model, which squeezed the entire computer into the back of the flat-panel monitor. That elegant design is probably more practical than its lamp-like predecessor, but it lacks the older machine’s whimsical exuberance.
18. Hewlett-Packard OmniBook 300 (1993)
The innovative OmniBook 300 wasn’t just one of the first subnotebooks–it was one of the most innovative hardware designs ever, albeit one that didn’t prove particularly influential. Weighing 2.9 pounds, the system stored Windows 3.1, Excel 4.0, Word 2.0, and MS-DOS 5.0 in ROM memory rather than on a hard drive; this allowed it to boot up instantly. User storage was solid-state too, on a 40MB PCMCIA Type III hard disk or a 10MB PCMCIA Type II flash-disk drive.
Productivity was a central theme for the OmniBook, which started at $1950. The unit came with LapLink Remote Access and HP’s organizational tools (contacts, appointments, and a financial calculator, same as in the HP 100LX), and provided one-button access to all applications. It also had a unique integrated mouse that popped out of the laptop’s right side on a thin piece of plastic; the design eliminated the need for an annoying mouse cable, but the mouse was small and awkward to move about.
Given the OmniBook’s basic 386SXLV CPU, monochrome 9-inch VGA screen, and power-friendly ROM storage, it’s not surprising HP gave the notebook a high battery-life rating–up to 9 hours of power for the 10MB flash-disk version. (In a pinch, the unit could run on AA batteries–unheard of for a computer with a full-size keyboard.) Although the solid-state approach to laptop storage didn’t catch on at the time, it’s back today in products like Samsung’s new 16GB and 32GB flash-memory drives. Funny how things come full circle.
17. Toshiba T1000 (1987)
Toshiba’s wildly popular T1000 brought DOS in a truly lap-friendly portable size. The T1000 measured 12 by 2 by 11 inches and weighed 6.4 pounds–a veritable featherweight compared with suitcase-size luggables, and more than 3.5 pounds lighter than its nearest competitor, the Datavue Spark. It was also cheaper than most laptops of its time.
The T1000’s durable clamshell design accommodated a full-size 82-key keyboard, a 720KB 3.5-inch floppy drive, 512KB of RAM, and an internal modem. The unit embedded MS-DOS 2.11 in ROM–which eliminated the need to have two floppy drives, as some competing notebooks of that era had, but also made it impossible to use certain software (such as WordPerfect Executive, which required two disks to run).
To achieve its size and cost, the T1000 made some sacrifices in CPU and battery performance. Nonetheless, this model helped catapult Toshiba to the fore of mobile computing, and it paved the way for the next wave of laptops, including number 18 on our list, HP’s OmniBook 300 (above). (You can read the T1000 quick-reference guide at this fan site.)
Greatest PCs: 16-14
16. Tandy TRS-80 Model I (1977)
Tandy’s TRS-80 Model I lacked the pizzazz of the Apple II, but it was the first computer to be truly marketed to the masses: Over 200,000 of the monochromatic little machines were sold by Radio Shack, an electronics retailer with thousands of locations in an age when almost nobody had ever heard of a computer store.
For $600, the first iteration of the TRS-80 gave you a measly 4KB of RAM and a rudimentary version of the BASIC language, and it stored programs on sluggish, flaky audiocassette tapes. As with other early PCs, the best way to get it to do something was to write a program from scratch. “There was an almost indescribable joy to be had the first time a program that you wrote yourself actually worked,” remembers early owner Craig Landrum.
Over time the Model I gained more memory, disk drives, networking, and other enhancements; acquired a library of thousands of programs; and saw the debut of progeny such as the TRS-80 Model 100 portable (number 8 on our list). TRS-80 computers were the first to be the subject of magazines devoted entirely to one company’s PCs; today, they’re impressively documented at Ira Goldklang’s TRS-80.com.
15. Shuttle SV24 Barebone System (2001)
For years, the PC was all about the big beige box. But in 2001, Shuttle came up with a toaster-size design for do-it-yourselfers that would push the limits of how much you could pack into a tight space. And it was tight: The case measured just 10.6 by 7.5 by 6.7 inches, and its components were so crammed in that airflow seemed to be an afterthought. To get an idea of just how small it was compared with a standard midsize tower, turn to Anandtech’s review of this system.
The $250 SV24 Barebone System offered the basics, namely a compact Flex ATX motherboard with integrated audio and graphics and a 150-watt power supply, housed in Shuttle’s small, aluminum case. You supplied the processor, memory, and storage. Appropriate for home or office use, this tiny system sparked a slew of imitators, all trying to match and improve upon its combination of size, functionality, and style.
Today, Shuttle not only sells bare-bones systems but also offers fully hatched PCs, like the XPC G5 2100
we recently tested for the value half of our Top 10 Desktop PCs chart. The company’s compact models have upped the ante considerably with regard to performance and construction.
14. Atari 800 (1979)
Two years after Atari unleashed its first video game console, later dubbed the Atari 2600, the company shipped its first home computers. In many ways the Atari 800–the more advanced of the two models Atari introduced in late 1979–redefined the expectations of what a home computer could do, especially in graphics and sound.
Part game machine, part productivity enhancer, the $999 Atari 800 was the first home computer to feature a custom video coprocessor in addition to its CPU, which was the same 8-bit 6502 used in the Apple II. This design enabled the Atari 800 to generate 128 colors (256 in later versions) on screen. The system could also display four programmable animated screen objects at once–a boon for action games such as Star Raiders, the system’s “killer app”–and it had another custom chip that helped it produce superior sound (four voices, across 3.5 octaves). Two cartridge slots under the hood were available for games and other applications, and four joystick ports were included, too.
While Atari eventually replaced its 8-bit computers with the 16-bit ST line, designer Jay Miner, who led the team behind the Atari 800’s video chips, went on to lead the group that developed the Commodore Amiga 1000‘s graphics system.
Like all kids my age, I wanted an Atari 2600 to play games. But my mom thought it would be a good idea to get something that could be educational, so my family decided on an Atari 800. Many a night of head-to-head Star Raiders, Missile Command, and Pac-Man tournaments ensued with my dad (all very educational, of course). But the Atari 800 wasn’t entirely about the games; I also used mine to learn BASIC programming and compose my school papers. For years my memory retained AtariWriter’s string of control codes–conceptually similar to HTML coding–for such common tasks as making text italic or bold. Little did my mom know then where all of that would lead…
Melissa J. Perenson
Greatest PCs: 13-11
13. IBM Personal Computer/AT Model 5170 (1984)
Three years after IBM’s first PC shipped, the PC/AT marked both a revolution and an evolution in personal computing. The revolution came in the form of powerful specs; the evolution came in the system’s design refinements (no, we’re not talking about its honking big beige box). It was another IBM hit, although it also turned out to be the last IBM model to serve as a standards bearer for the entire PC industry–a year later, Compaq’s Deskpro 386 ended IBM’s stranglehold on PC innovation.
The $5295 PC/AT was the first system to use Intel’s 80286 CPU (first a 6-MHz model and later an 8-MHz model). It also featured a 20MB (or greater) hard disk that was faster than, and had double the capacity of, the PC XT’s original hard drive; supported both 8-bit and 16-bit expansion cards; used IBM PC-DOS 3.0, which supported high-density 1.2MB (5.25-inch) floppy disks; and even integrated a battery on the motherboard to power a real-time clock. Its keyboard, meanwhile, introduced the basic layout we still use today, including a number pad (with cursor keys and a key lock) and dedicated function keys. And the system could handle advanced graphics with its optional 16-color Enhanced Graphics Adapter (EGA) or 256-color Professional Graphics Controller (PGC).
Like many PC model designations, AT stood for something–and no, it had nothing to do with the Imperial AT-AT walkers featured in The Empire Strikes Back. The term was short for Advanced Technology.
12. MITS Altair 8800 (1975)
Computer historians are still squabbling over whether MITS’s Altair was the first true personal computer. (Earlier candidates include the Kenbak-1 and Micral-N.) What’s undeniable is that it was “the first machine to really capture the imagination of the geek sector in a big way,” says Erik Klein of Vintage-Computer.com. “The fact that other companies quickly jumped onto the bandwagon was proof of its power and allure.”
The Altair started life as a $397 build-it-yourself kit–little more than a box, a board, an Intel 8080 CPU (which MITS bought at a discount because of cosmetic blemishes), and 256 bytes of RAM. At first you needed to program it by flipping switches, until Bill Gates and Paul Allen started a tiny company called Micro-soft (yes, with a hyphen) and came up with a version of the BASIC programming language that would work on the system.
Software from Bill Gates wasn’t the only thing the Altair had in common with today’s systems. Much of the infrastructure that would support later PCs–from disk-drive manufacturers to software developers to computer stores–sprung up to support it. There were even clones, such as the popular IMSAI 8080.
The Altair’s time as the dominant computing platform was brief, and in 1978 it was discontinued altogether. But what a legacy it left.
11. Sony VAIO 505GX (1998)
In late 1997 Sony introduced the VAIO PCG-505 in Japan, proving not only that thin was in, but that being thin no longer meant compromising on computing power. The PCG-505 measured just 0.94 inches thick–amazingly slim for the time–and weighed a mere 3 pounds (the chassis was made of magnesium alloy). And when this notebook first hit the United States in the latter half of 1998 as the Sony VAIO 505GX, it spurred an ultraportable revolution.
At $2699, the 505GX didn’t come cheap. But it packed in a fair amount of functionality for a compact notebook PC, including a roomy, comfy 10-inch-wide keyboard (1 inch wider than the keyboards of competing subnotebooks of its time). The 505GX improved on the Japan-only version with specs that included a Pentium MMX-266 CPU and a 56-kbps modem. In PC World‘s tests at the time, the notebook’s lithium ion battery lasted 4.7 hours, which we deemed “an adequate figure but hardly stellar.”
Sony continued the 505 line with later iterations such as the X505; its current ultraportables, such as the TX line, retain some of the 505’s design flair.
Greatest PCs: 10-8
10. Apple PowerBook 100 (1991)
If your first portable computer doesn’t succeed, try, try again. That’s the lesson of the PowerBook 100, Apple’s splendid successor to the famously awful Mac Portable, a machine we named to our list of the 25 worst tech products of all time.
Along with the higher-end PowerBook 140 and 170, the $2500 100 sported two features that the rest of the industry quickly cribbed. First, the company pushed the keyboard back toward the screen hinge, freeing up space for a wrist-rest area that made typing more comfortable. And in the center of that wrist rest sat a nice, large trackball, the best mobile pointing device of its era. (At the time, folks who ran Windows on portable computers were still futzing with unwieldy clip-on trackballs.) Those were just two of the more striking innovations in a slick laptop design that, according to Jim Carlton’s book Apple, took the company from last place to first in laptop sales.
The PowerBook 100–which was, by the way, manufactured by Sony–was discontinued in 1992. But the PowerBook line went on and on, coming to an end just this year, when the final 12-inch PowerBook was replaced by the MacBook.
9. Columbia Data Products MPC 1600-1 (1982)
When IBM created its first PC, it used an Intel 8088 CPU, off-the-shelf parts, and Microsoft’s DOS–which meant that other manufacturers could build machines that were at least reasonably compatible with it. They did, and the very first to ship one was Columbia Data Systems.
The $2995 MPC, whose name was short for “Multi Personal Computer,” had double the typical IBM PC’s RAM, more expansion slots and ports, and two floppy drives rather than one. At the time, Columbia’s Fred Conte told InfoWorld that he didn’t see the system going head-to-head with Big Blue. “It is a multibillion dollar marketplace, and if we can pick up a small percentage–say, 2 to 3 percent–it will be a luxury,” he said.
Columbia’s PC soon had lots of company. At the COMDEX show in November 1982, a flurry of what were then called “IBM look-alikes” were announced–so many that the show also saw the announcement of the first magazine specifically “For Second-Generation IBM PCs and Compatibles.” Its name? PC World.
By the mid-1980s, Columbia foundered, and though the company still exists, it hasn’t built a PC in a long time. But by producing the clone that other clones cloned, the company helped to define the Intel-and-Microsoft platform that dominates to this day.
8. Tandy TRS-80 Model 100 (1983)
Though not quite the first notebook computer–Epson’s forgotten HX-20 preceded it–Tandy’s Model 100 was the first that caught on. (One thing that didn’t catch on: Tandy’s desire that the machine be known as a MEWS, for Micro Executive Work Station.)
In a day when most “portable computers” were 25-pound behemoths, the 3.4-pound Model 100 was indeed the size of a notebook, which meant it could go places that computers had never gone before. Yet it packed a 2-by-7.5-inch screen that could display 40 characters across and eight lines of text; a full-size keyboard that’s still impressive today; built-in software such as a word processor and spreadsheet; and a 300-bps modem that let you connect to services such as CompuServe.
Variants of the Model 100 included 1984’s Model 200, which introduced the clamshell case that almost every portable computer would eventually adopt. Well into the 1990s, some journalists were still toting these Radio Shack systems–and sites such as Club 100 continue to help people use them.
Greatest PCs: 7-5
7. Commodore Amiga 1000 (1985)
The Commodore 64 may have been the best-selling computer of its time, but its follow-up, developed by a Silicon Valley startup that Commodore acquired, was a vastly better computer. Years ahead of its time, the Amiga was the world’s first multimedia, multitasking personal computer (see an early commercial for it on YouTube).
The $1500 (sans monitor) Amiga came with the same Motorola 68000 CPU used in the Apple Macintosh. But the most innovative thing about its architecture was its three coprocessors–they helped provide the Amiga’s graphics and sound, which were stunning for the time. Its main video processor (dubbed Denise) helped Amigas accomplish feats like 3D animation, full-motion video, and fancy TV processing years before other computers. And the four-voice stereo sound chip (Paula) provided speech synthesis, produced more realistic audio than the Commodore 64’s famous SID chip, and helped inspire Soundtracker, the first “tracker-style” music sequencing program.
The original Amiga was rechristened the Amiga 1000 when it was replaced by the Amiga 500 and 2000 in 1987; later Amiga-based products included the Amiga 4000T tower and the CD32, a gaming console. Commodore declared bankruptcy in 1994, and the Amiga name and technologies bounced from owner to owner in subsequent years. Modern iterations of NewTek’s Video Toaster and LightWave 3D software continue to be used for major TV and movie productions to this day.
In 1987 I had sort of lost interest in PCs–until I got my first real job, which happened to be in an office next to a computer store called The Memory Location. I walked by its window and saw an Amiga 500 showing off everything it could do. And what it could do was astonishing, given that garden-variety IBM PCs often didn’t do color at the time. I collected enough paychecks to buy an Amiga and stuck with the platform until the IBM world caught up–which took years.
6. IBM Personal Computer, Model 5150 (1981)
Many key moments in PC history weren’t identifiable as such when they happened. (Was there any reason to pay much attention when a couple of young guys named Steve decided to start a microcomputer company and name it after a type of fruit?) But when the company that was synonymous with computers announced its first PC on August 12, 1981, everyone knew it was a great milestone in the history of a very young industry.
Technology-wise, the most interesting thing about IBM’s Personal Computer, Model 5150, was its CPU: Intel’s 8088, a powerful 16-bit processor in an era when most popular models still used basic 8-bit CPUs. IBM offered the system with several operating systems, including the then-popular CP/M, something called P-System, and a new OS that IBM named PC-DOS but that most people would remember as MS-DOS for versions marketed by publisher Microsoft. (Legendarily, Microsoft’s OS was based on QDOS, or “Quick and Dirty Operating System,” which it picked up for a song from a small Seattle company.)
Within 18 months IBM’s machine sat at the center of a booming PC ecology, with a bevy of hardware add-ons, third-party software, clones, books, and magazines. Some of IBM’s later machines were hits and some were flops, but all of them, like the vast majority of computers on the planet today, were direct descendants of the IBM Personal Computer. (Read IBM’s take in its own archives.)
5. IBM ThinkPad 700C (1992)
Unveiled at Comdex in 1992, IBM’s ThinkPad 700C ushered in a new era for laptop computers: Now, the laptop could be both useful and stylish. The first ThinkPad’s distinctive black case and its red TrackPoint pointing device in the middle of the keyboard were striking departures from other notebooks, which tended to be practically interchangeable, chunky, dull gray or beige boxes with trackballs that hung off to the side or sat like a lump below the keyboard.
One of three ThinkPad models at launch, along with the 300 and 500 (the numbering scheme was reportedly inspired by BMW’s car lines) the $4350 ThinkPad 700C was IBM’s top-of-the-line system. It came with an eye-catching 256-color, 10.4-inch TFT VGA color screen (large by 1992 standards), a removable 120MB hard drive, a 25-MHz 486SLC processor, and a comfortable touch-typist-friendly keyboard. Current ThinkPads–now manufactured by Lenovo–may be radically more powerful than the 700C, but they retain the black case, TrackPoint, and fine keyboard as major selling points. (See the ThinkPad’s evolution at Lenovo’s archive.)
PC World recognized the ThinkPad’s significance right away: The product won a World Class award in 1993. In 2004 it became the first–and to date, only–product inducted into the World Class Hall of Fame.
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.
Greatest PCs: Number 1
1. Apple II (1977)
The Apple II wasn’t the first personal computer, or the most advanced one, or even the best-selling model of its age. But in many ways it was The Machine That Changed Everything. On all four of our criteria–Innovation, Impact, Industrial Design, and Intangibles–it was such a huge winner that it ended up as our Greatest PC of All Time.
The 8-bit system came with 4KB of memory, expandable to 48KB. It used a cassette rather than a disk for storage. It cost $1200, about twice the base price of its two biggest competitors, the Tandy TRS-80 Model I and the Commodore PET 2001. It couldn’t even display lowercase letters (in the first several years of its existence, anyway). Yet it packed more pure innovation than any other early computer, and was the first PC that deserved to be called a consumer electronics device.
Born out of the Home Brew Computer Club by Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs’s tiny Apple Computer in 1977, the Apple II was the company’s second PC, but it boasted more than its share of firsts: It was the first color PC (you could even use it with a television), the first to be easily expandable by users, and the first to run the VisiCalc spreadsheet–proving that these new boxes had a place in business.
Perhaps its greatest innovation was its design. Jobs wanted the machine to look at home on people’s desktops, so he insisted that the Apple II have a sleek look, as opposed to the sheet-metal-and-exposed-wire appearance of most other early PCs. The machine’s coolness factor–an Apple trademark to this day–was as important to its long-term success as Wozniak’s inventive engineering was.
And we do mean long-term: From the original Apple II model that debuted at the first West Coast Computer Faire in April 1977 to the discontinuation of the final iteration of the IIe in December 1993 (outlasting the 16-bit IIGS model that was introduced years after it), more than 2 million Apple II-family PCs had been produced. The Apple II line, well documented at Steven Weyhrich’s Apple II History site, kept the company going through the Apple Lisa debacle and other turbulent events of the 1980s. By the middle of that decade, though, Apple had turned its attention to that other world-beater, the Macintosh Plus (number 4 on our list). But it was the Apple II that put the personal in the nascent personal computer industry. The rest is history.
I didn’t own the Apple II; I waited for one of its successors, the Apple IIe, a big, big step up from the very first Apple II. My Apple IIe came with a color screen, a floppy drive, and an 80-column display instead of the original’s 40-column display. I have fond memories of using the Apple IIe to index and abstract tech articles, although I could fit only four records on each 5.25-inch floppy, which meant I had to carry stacks and stacks of floppies between home and office. I also remember having a love-hate relationship with the integrated keyboard: Its stiff keys made it a pain to use, sometimes literally.
The 25 Near-Greatest PCs of All Time (1971-1983)
As we whittled down our picks for The 25 Greatest PCs of All Time, we realized that some machines that didn’t make the cut were still worthy of celebration. Some were breakthroughs hobbled by drawbacks, some were obscure pioneers, some were intriguing one-trick ponies–but all are worth remembering. Here they are, in chronological order.
Kenbak-1 (1971): Arguably the first personal computer–it was sold for $750 via a tiny ad in Scientific American magazine–this hobbyist kit was so ahead of its time that it had to use TTL (Transistor-Transistor Logic) components, instead of the newly invented microprocessor, to crunch binary code.
R2E Micral N (1973): Developed in France, this system was the first fully assembled, general-purpose computer built around a microprocessor, Intel’s 8-bit 8008 chip. And it featured software written by Philippe Kahn, later founder of the Borland software empire.
Commodore PET 2001 (1977): Along with the Apple II and TRS-80 Model 1, this was one of 1977’s pioneering trio of PCs aimed at the masses, but its weird calculator-like keyboard and kludgy all-in-one case made it the crudest of the group. PET stood for Personal Electronic Transactor; rumor had it that the name was also a nod to the Pet Rock craze of the 1970s.
Heathkit H-89 (1979): When do-it-yourselfers wanted to build gadgets in the 1970s, they turned to Heathkit, and this $1800 computer kit made assembling your own color TV passé. It ran either H-DOS or CP/M, included a 90KB floppy disk drive, and was also sold in fully assembled form as the Zenith Z-89.
Epson HX-20 (1981): The forgotten first laptop, Epson’s HX-20 even included a tiny printer in a case that was the same size as the similar, far more popular TRS-80 Model 100.
Osborne 1 (1981): In 1981 the first “luggable” computer was appealingly portable–all 26 pounds of it–and its array of bundled software made it a bargain. Osborne Computer crumbled when it preannounced a new model and customers stopped buying its old ones–a classic business blunder that’s known as “The Osborne Effect” to this day.
Commodore 64 (1982): In 1982 64KB was a heck of a lot of memory for a home PC, and the C64 had it. That advantage helped make it the most popular system of its era–maybe any era–with about 30 million units sold over its 11-year production run.
Apple Lisa (1983): Call it the proto-Mac: The Lisa sported radical innovations such as a graphical user interface complete with bitmapped fonts, and a mouse. At $10,000 it was more mainstream than the Xerox Star but still too pricey. This model was one of the most important flops ever.
Compaq Portable (1983): A hugely popular luggable PC, this workhorse put a startup called Compaq on the map–and was the first 100-percent IBM compatible clone.
IBM PC XT 5160 (1983): IBM’s follow-up to the PC was another hit. With its Intel 8086 CPU, it was the first 16-bit personal computer. Unlike the original IBM Personal Computer 5150, which used an 8088 processor for its 16-bit processing and an 8-bit data bus to keep costs down, the XT was 16-bit all the way. And its hard drive, all 10MB of it, helped mass storage go mainstream.
More Near-Greatest PCs (1984-1989)
Apple Macintosh (1984): Some people may wonder why the first Mac–the extraordinarily influential system whose development is superbly chronicled at Folklore.org–is on our list of also-rans rather than at the top of our list of the greatest PCs. Blame its placement on its skimpy 128KB RAM, which made it almost unusable. Apple quickly addressed that shortcoming with a 512KB model (the “Fat Mac”), and 1986’s Mac Plus (number 4 on our list of the greatest) made the Mac truly usable.
Hewlett-Packard HP 110 (1984):HP’s first laptop, this 9-pound portable had a flip-up screen, Lotus 1-2-3 and other productivity software stored in read-only-memory, and a whopping (for the time) 272KB of nonvolatile CMOS RAM.
Atari 520ST (1985): Nicknamed the “Jackintosh” after Atari CEO (and Commodore founder) Jack Tramiel, Atari’s first 16-bit PC provided lots of computing power at a low price; its built-in MIDI capabilities made it popular with musicians for years.
Apple Macintosh II (1987): A Mac that draws inspiration from the IBM PC-compatible world? Yep–the II, aimed at business users, was the first Mac in a PC-like case with internal expansion slots, and the first to come with a full-size PC-like keyboard. And it was the first color Mac.
IBM PS/2 Series (1987):
Though the PS/2 line was entirely software-compatible with previous AT-Architecture PC models, most PS/2s used Big Blue’s proprietary Micro Channel Architecture. The new architecture was incompatible with AT add-in cards–a big stumbling block for widespread industry and buyer acceptance. But the list of innovations for the MCA PS/2s is impressive: They were the first 32-bit personal computers, they had a plug-and-play BIOS, and they introduced the PS/2 keyboard and mouse interface still in use today. They also introduced the VGA graphics standard (a huge step up over its EGA predecessor) and the familiar VGA connector port, which remains the standard plug for most CRT and other analog monitors. Unfortunately, all that new technology kept prices high, and IBM’s tight licensing policies kept clone makers from helping to create a new standard.
NeXT Cube (1989): Steve Jobs’s second computer startup after Apple may have failed, but its forward-thinking machine boasted optical storage, a megapixel display, and incredible industrial design–and its operating system evolved into Mac OS X. There’s still a market for used Cubes; Black Hole has them starting at $299.
Still More Near-Greatest PCs (1992-2005)
GRiD Convertible 2260 (1992): Better in some ways than current Tablet PCs, this well-designed, extremely sturdy portable could work as a clamshell notebook or a tablet.
SGI Indy (1993): As Unix workstations go, the $5000 Indy was semiaffordable, but it didn’t lack for cool features, including a neat pizza-box case, a built-in camera for videoconferencing, and floppies that stored a massive 21MB.
IBM ThinkPad 701C (1995): This subnotebook-like ThinkPad was nicknamed the “Butterfly” because it sported one of the most inventive PC features ever: When you opened it, the keyboard unfolded into a wider size than its small case would otherwise allow for.
Toshiba Libretto 20 (1996): Toshiba’s clever, teeny-tiny notebook had a (barely) touch-typeable keyboard and a pointing device mounted near the LCD screen–and it ran Windows 95, too. Arguably, it’s a better ultramobile PC than today’s UMPCs.
Apple iMac (1998): Welcome back, Steve Jobs. The first iMac may not have been a great computer. Its all-in-one design, however, was unique and influential, and it also started the trend toward lollipop-style colors for computer cases. Most important, it marked the Mac brand’s return to relevance.
Apple PowerBook G4, 17-inch model (2003): This 17-inch wide-screen notebook proved that huge was cool, and its classy aluminum case only heightened its appeal.
Fujitsu LifeBook P1500 (2005): With its touch-sensitive swivel screen and comfortable keyboard, this 2.2-pound featherweight, which runs either Windows XP or Windows XP Tablet Edition, may be the most highly evolved supersmall PC yet.
The 25 Greatest PCs of All Time, The Complete List
PC World‘s list of the top 25 PCs of all time was assembled after we polled our editors for nominations. We then rated the nominated gadgets for innovation, impact, industrial design, and intangibles. Here are the results. (For more on our 25 Greatest PCs project, see the full story.)