The most important PCs in history, ranked

Forty years ago this week, the iconic IBM PC made its debut, cementing the personal computer as a mainstream product category to be reckoned with. Within a few years, America – and the world – computer went wild, with home computers suddenly the domain of everyday people.

But which desktop computers are called the most influential of all time? Here are 10 that changed the game.

#10. Microsoft Surface Studio

The Surface Studio is probably the most controversial choice on this list. It’s also by far the latest computer, debuting at the end of 2016, with a successor, the Surface Studio 2, arriving two years later. Like Apple’s iMac, the Surface Studio is a sleek minimalist all-in-one. Unlike the Mac, it didn’t become a huge hit whose survival is virtually assured. So why is it on the list? Simply put: because personal computers change.

The line separating personal computers from surrounding product categories has always faded a bit, but never more so than in 2021. Today, most PC enthusiasts build their own computers, making chipsets far more important than individual PC model numbers. In addition, the tasks once performed on PCs can now be performed on touch-enabled devices such as tablets and smartphones.

The Surface Studio is an attempt to reconcile the new role of the PC: a mix of touchscreen interface, beautiful quality monitors and traditional PC functionality. Nothing about the advancement of personal computers feels inevitable. But the Surface Studio is as good a picture as you could hope for from the future.

#9. Apple Lisa

The Lisa is one of those strange computers on this list: a big flop at the time, but it nevertheless paved the way for the undisputed future of computers. Thanks to a deal between Apple and Xerox PARC, the Lisa came up with Apple’s version of the WIMP interface (windows, icons, mouse pointer). However, Apple had honed this technology and was the first to introduce it to the masses.

With a launch price of $9,995 in January 1983 (that’s $27,000 today), those masses weren’t exactly, well, masses. But the Lisa paved the way for the Macintosh a year later. And it was advertised with a great TV spot starring a very young Kevin Costner.

#8. iMac G3

The translucent, colorful iMac G3 from 1998 was one of the most memorable designs of its time. “It looks like it’s from another planet,” said Steve Jobs, Apple’s CEO who had just returned to the company he co-founded after more than a decade in the wilderness. “A good planet. A planet with better designers.” That designer was Jony Ive, the man who would go on to design the iPod, iPhone, iPad, and countless other Apple products over the next two decades.

In terms of innovation, the iMac G3 eliminated the diskette drive and leaned on the kind of simple, out-of-the-box usability that Apple is still known for. This was the machine that announced to the world that, after a few painful years of decline, Apple was once again a force to be reckoned with.

#7. The beige box

Yes, this is a cheat, but how can you not acknowledge it? By the 1990s, the era of the beige box computer was underway. Aside from Apple, few other companies made their own distinctive machines, preferring to use off-the-shelf, generic components to assemble affordable personal computers for an ever-expanding market.

However, were these machines boring? Far from. They may have often looked basic, but they nevertheless laid the foundation for the way PCs have evolved: modular machines that can be assembled to meet the whims and demands of their owners. Missing the beige box of a list like this is like missing the white Beatles album from a list of great albums because it doesn’t have a distinctive cover.

#6. Xerox star

xerox star information system

Not every computer on this list set the world on fire in terms of sales. Part of the greatness of these machines is more about looking back than their reception back then. None more than the Xerox star: A personal computer that brought the world a bitmap display, graphical user interface, two-button mouse, Ethernet networking, email, and a plethora of other innovations 40 years ago in 1981.

Unfortunately, an eye-watering price of $16,500 with software (the equivalent of $48,000 today) was a contributing factor to the dismal market performance. Nevertheless, without the pioneering work of Xerox PAR, to which the Star owes its existence, computers would look very different today.

#5. MITS Altair 8800

MITS Altair 8800 microcomputer, the first system to be sold in large numbers (5000 in the first year).
Michael Hicks

It is difficult to determine exactly when the personal computer revolution began. But for those trend-spotters who got on personal computers before most of the world had even heard of them, the MITS Altair may well be ground zero. The beginning of a revolution, the MITS Altair 8800 (to use its full name) appeared on the cover of Popular Electronics magazine in 1976.

Compared to the room-filling or at least refrigerator-sized computers found in corporations and major universities at the time, the kit-based Altair was small enough to fit on a desk. It was, of course, much less powerful than the large commercial computers of the time, but it was also a huge step forward from what most hobbyists had access to. It was powered by Intel’s then-new 8080 microprocessor.

Some unknown student entrepreneurs named Bill Gates and Paul Allen (wonder what happened to them!) used the Altair to create a version of BASIC. It became the first product Microsoft ever launched.

#4. Apple II

Apple II computer
Rama/Creative Commons

The clue that this wasn’t Apple’s first computer was in the name, but make no mistake, the Apple II was the computer that Apple launched to the world. Unlike other PCs of that year, the 1977-era Apple II was capable of displaying color. Designed by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, Jerry Manock’s iconic industrial design looks more like a home appliance than a geeky piece of hobby technology.

Apple continued to produce Apple II models of some sort until the 1990s, with incredible longevity. All in all, the Apple II has laid the foundation for not just Apple, but the mass-market personal computers as a whole.

#3. Commodore 64

Commodore64 with monitor 1701.
Francesca Ussani (WMIT)

If commercial performance were the only measure that mattered, Eagles: Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975) would be the best album ever, Avatar would be the cinema’s best film, McDonald’s would rake in Michelin stars like there’s no tomorrow—and the Commodore 64 would be the easy winner on this list.

Released in January 1982, the Commodore 64 was a true sales juggernaut, with estimated sales of 17 million units. It had some great graphics for its time, a programmable sound chip, and a dazzling 1MHz CPU and 64KB of RAM. The success of the Commodore 64 was the fact that, like a game console, it could be easily connected to a TV. It also sold a lot more, in non-specialized stores, compared to many computers of its day. The Commodore 64 wasn’t as revolutionary as some of the entries on this list, but its incredible claims to fame can’t be ignored.

#2. Macintosh 128K

Launched in 1984 with a spectacular Super Bowl commercial directed by Ridley Scott, the first-generation Macintosh was massively underpowered. It also didn’t sell in the numbers Apple had hoped. Nevertheless, it was an utterly revolutionary machine that remains an iconic piece of computer history and design 40 years later. It took Apple a few more iterations to get a Mac that lived up to the promise the original alluded to (by the late 1980s, he sort of figured it out), but this remains one of the most important personal computers. the history.

#1. IBM PC

IBM PC XT with green monochrome phosphor screen and 10MB full height 5.25" hard disk drive.
Ruben de Rijcke

Ask the average person on the street to name a computer company in 1981 and almost without exception they will name IBM. But IBM’s computers were almost exclusively big room-filling behemoths owned by giant corporations. That changed in 1981 when IBM introduced the IBM Model 5150, better known as the IBM PC. Based on the Intel 8088 microprocessor and utilizing Microsoft’s MS-DOS operating system, the IBM PC made personal computers a mainstream product in both homes and businesses.

In the months following its release, an ecosystem of software and peripherals sprung up around the IBM PC as other manufacturers rushed to release their own clone versions. Unlike a company like Apple, IBM’s reign as a top PC hardware manufacturer didn’t last too long. However, the impact of the IBM PC cannot be underestimated. The combination of long-term impact and immediate commercial success gives it the number one spot on this list.

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