10 Most Popular Computers in History

The nostalgia for classic computers is intense -- and for good reason. Lots of the people who would go on to create the tech industry as we know it were e-weaned on machines and accessories like these. © Michal Fludra/Demotix/Corbis

As personal computers became affordable, must-have Internet gateways in the late 1990s, individual models took a backseat to larger brands. Dell didn't bother advertising special model names. It just advertised one major selling point: cheap. When Apple made a comeback with iMacs, and later MacBooks and MacBook Pros, you were either a Mac person or a PC person. Whether that PC was a Dell, or an HP, or an ASUS didn't make much difference.

But when the PC market was younger, smaller and much more expensive, things were different. Your PC was everything. In the late 1970s and 1980s, buying a computer was a huge investment, likely costing thousands of dollars and determining what kind of software you'd be running for the next several years. As a result, computer hobbyists picked favorites. And they stuck by them.

The wars between IBM fans, Tandy owners, Apple devotees and Commodore diehards were fiercer than any Mac versus PC argument. As a result, those early systems had an immense impact on those early home computer users, creating a generation of tech-savvy programmers. Ask any of them about their first (or favorite) computer, and they'll be able to tell you exactly what it was.

A few extremely popular breakout models sold millions of units. These are 10 of the most popular computers ever built. Your favorite may be among them.

10
Timex Sinclair 1000
The ZX81 was actually released in a year earlier (1981) in the U.K. -- it wasn't until Sinclair struck a deal with Timex that the computer hit U.S. shelves. SSPL via Getty Images

In 1981, Sinclair released a computer at a price that is still crazy 30 years later: $99.95. The Timex Sinclair 1000, also known as the ZX81, was small, ran on BASIC, and offered a mere 2KB of RAM to go with its 3.25 MHz processor. Even by 1981's standards, it was slow -- but it also cost a mere 100 bucks, making it an attractive entry point for aspiring hobbyists who couldn't spend a thousand dollars on a PC.

Thanks to its price, the Timex Sinclair 1000 sold over 600,000 units in the United States [source: Old Computers]. The Timex Sinclair 1000's performance was infamously slow--because the computer contained a mere four chips, it relied on its CPU to handle all of its processing and refresh whatever external display it was attached to. Switching to "FAST" mode would speed up calculations but cause a terrible screen refresh rate. Thankfully, the computer supported tons of expansions, like floppy drives and RAM add-ons, that greatly improved its functionality.

9
Tandy TRS-80
This is the TRS-80 Model 100, an extension of the original TRS-80 with a built-in liquid crystal display (LCD) screen. How's that for a tablet? SSPL via Getty Images

Ah, Radio Shack. Once upon a time, it sold computers under its very own brand. And they were hugely successful. In the 1970s, when cassette tapes, and not floppy disks, were the go-to storage medium for computers, Tandy put out a personal computer called the TRS-80. Thanks to the TRS-80, the Tandy name was as big as IBM or Apple or Commodore in the PC market of the 1980s.

The TRS-80 launched in 1977, before the home computer market had really exploded. Tandy offered its first model with 4K of RAM, a 1.77 MHz processor and a 12-inch monitor for $600. Later models and a $300 Expansion Interface greatly increased the computer's capabilities, adding floppy support, extra ports and more memory [source: Goldklang].

Tandy's TRS-DOS (disk operating system) was a popular OS predating MS-DOS. Microsoft's early operating system bore some similarities to TRS-DOS -- no surprise, since Tandy sold more than 200,000 units and followed the TRS-80's success with more popular systems such as the 1980 Color Computer, or CoCo [source: Old Computers].

8
MSX
This MSX is displaying "Jet Set Willy," the follow-up to "Manic Miner." Thanks, readers, for helping us to name the game. Creative Commons/Flickr user quagmirez31

While the United States and European markets were ruled by companies like IBM, Commodore, Sinclair and Apple, Japan had its own hardware giants in the '80s. The MSX is a unique computer, because its name -- which could stand for Microsoft Extended Basic or Machines with Software Exchangeability -- actually applied to a number of similar systems created by Japanese companies like Toshiba and Sony.

MSX was designed to be a hardware standard and was spearheaded by Microsoft Japan's Vice President Kazuhiko Nishi. The computers used Microsoft BASIC and weren't as expensive as some other computers of the 1980s. Since the launch of MSX in 1983, the computer family has sold more than 5 million units [source: Lyon]. MSX never became a global hardware standard, but it was very successful in Japan (as some video game fans know, Metal Gear was originally released on the popular MSX before Nintendo's Famicom).

7
NEC PC-98
The NEC PC-98 line was extremely popular in Japan. Creative Commons/Flickr user acidlemon

While the MSX was a popular range of Japanese computers united by a common set of hardware standards, NEC's PC-98 was a monstrous success all by its lonesome. Released in 1982, the PC-98 ran on a 5 MHz Intel 8086 CPU, had two display controllers, and a base 128KB of RAM. The PC-98 was a powerful computer for its time, and NEC ruled the Japanese market with roughly a 50 percent market share, thanks to the system's success.

While the 1980s computer market was eventually dominated by IBM PCs and IBM knock-offs, NEC's unique architecture ruled in Japan. The PC-98 line sold more than 15 million systems over a lifetime of more than a decade, though NEC obviously released multiple updates to the computer over that lifetime -- the original PC-98 launched in 1982 didn't rack up all of those sales itself [source: Computing Japan].

Even so, NEC was Japan's go-to computer company in the 1980s, making the PC-98 the eastern equivalent of the mighty IBM PC.

6
iMac
Not visible here: The handle on the top of the all-in-one iMac that made it easy to carry. And tempting to throw in times of frustration. © Reuters/CORBIS

The iMac is the exception to the rule of modern computing that no single model is unique enough or popular enough to match the fandom of groundbreaking '70s and '80s computers. Of course, that was Apple's point. When they released the iMac in 1998, they advertised its colorful body by criticizing the beige color of drab PCs. Today, Apple's moved away from the candy colored aesthetic for the iMac, but the computer's main draw remains unchanged. It's a simple, all-in-one design that incorporates all of the computer's components into the monitor housing. Easy to move, easy to set up.

The iMac was the beginning of a new era for Apple, which would usher in tremendous success with "i" products such as the iPod and iPhone. The iMac was never a massively successful product line -- Apple struck gold a few years later with its MacBook and MacBook Pro laptops -- but it was still the first Mac in years to make a dent in the Microsoft-dominated PC market of the 1990s.

The iMac also rebranded Apple as a style-conscious company worthy of imitation. In 1999, they sued a pair of computer companies for ripping off the iMac's look, which they'd promoted with a $100 million marketing campaign [source: McCarthy]. Given their success with virtually every product released since the iMac, that campaign was likely a worthy investment.

5
Commodore Amiga
The Amiga computer offered high speeds and quality graphics at an affordable price. © Bettmann/CORBIS

The Amiga 500, released in 1987, followed in the footsteps of wildly successful computers like the Commodore 64 and Apple II. It was newer, faster, better: The Amiga 500 made the jump from an 8-bit CPU up to 32 bits and 7 MHz of speed. The computer shipped with 512KB of RAM, support for up to 4096 colors, and an internal 3.5-inch floppy drive. Not bad for a launch price of $700.

The Amiga was a speedy computer, thanks to a design featuring multiple coprocessors that were dedicated to certain duties such as audio or video. The central processing unit didn't have to do everything by itself. Commodore released many Amiga models over the course of a decade, but the inexpensive 500 was the most popular. The Amiga was an especially popular software platform for games and creative programs for video and sound work. Thanks to its coprocessors, the Amiga was powerful enough to do graphic and animation work previously impossible on a consumer PC.

Overall, the Amiga family sold approximately 6 million units -- an amazing number for any computer launched in the 1980s [source: Amiga History Guide].

4
Apple II
Steve Wozniak, designer of the Apple I and II series, shows off an Apple IIe. And a great belt buckle. © Roger Ressmeyer/CORBIS

In 1977, the same year Sinclair released the $100 Timex Sinclair 1000, Apple released the Apple II. Apple's second hobbyist computer cost a bit more than the Sinclair at a starting price of about $1300, but there's a reason one company no longer exists and the other is the richest corporation on the planet. The Apple II was an incredible success. It built on the design of the Apple I by retaining a simple 1MHz processor and 4KB of RAM and adding a case and keyboard.

Eight expansion slots on the Apple II board made the computer extremely customizable for hobbyists, and the system could be configured with up to 48KB of RAM. That was a ton in 1977. But it was software that truly set the Apple II apart. Apple's Steve Wozniak designed an affordable 5 1/4-inch floppy drive add-on, the Disk II, that was relatively inexpensive to produce, thanks to a new software approach to reading and writing. More importantly, spreadsheet software VisiCalc made the computer a powerful tool for corporations, who were perfectly willing to pay more than $1000 per machine.

The Apple II was one of the best selling computers on the market for five years, selling more than 1 million units in the young computer market, spawning offshoot models like the Apple IIe, and placing Apple on the Fortune 500 list [source: Old Computers]. Apple introduced the Macintosh in 1983 and had sold 1 million units by 1987. While the Macintosh name has stuck, the Apple II made a tremendous impact on the computer industry.

3
ZX Spectrum
A Sinclair ZX Spectrum computer on display at the Science Museum in London, 2006. Getty Images

While computer company Sinclair found success in the United States with the Timex Sinclair 1000, its greatest contribution to the industry was the ZX Spectrum, launched a few years later in 1982. The design was similar: The Spectrum was a small, affordable (£ 125 in the U.K.) system that incorporated a keyboard into its body. But the Spectrum was a much better computer than its predecessor thanks to 16KB of RAM and a real hardware keyboard (the Timex, known as the ZX-81 in the U.K., had a poor plastic membrane keyboard).

The ZX Spectrum line was successful worldwide, selling more than 5 million units during its lifetime [source: Old Computers]. But the Spectrum is also the computer that brought the PC into the home in the U.K. It was the first computer many people owned. The Spectrum launched hundreds or thousands of careers, as young hobbyists discovered a passion for computers thanks to the affordable machine. For British IT and video games, it all started with the ZX Spectrum.

2
IBM PC
U.S. Senator Mark Kirk pulls a 3.5-inch floppy disc (remember those?) from a IBM PC Convertable. The historic machine was on display as part of the 25th anniversary of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act in 2011. Getty Images

Today's non-Mac personal computer is, essentially, an IBM PC. The Intel-based, Windows-running computers that have dominated the market since the 1990s were born from the IBM PC, which was released in 1981 with a humble 4.77 MHz Intel 8088 processor and 16KB of RAM. IBM Model 5150 wasn't the company's first effort to move into the personal computer market -- they'd released an expensive PC back in 1975 -- but it was the one that did everything right. The system wasn't the fastest around, but it was equipped with Intel's 16-bit processor, rather than the older 8-bit processors most computers at the time were using. Despite being a new chip, the 8088 used an 8-bit bus, making it compatible with existing peripherals and memory expansions [source: Reimer].

The IBM PC cost about $1600 in a base configuration, which was affordable for a powerful computer at the time. The system was popular, and software was coded specifically to take advantage of IBM's design and maximize the Intel 8088's performance. So, other companies cloned IBM's BIOS and put out IBM PC clones.

Within a few years, all x86 computers -- those using Intel's processors -- were compatible with the IBM PC and virtually identical to IBM's design. They all ran MS-DOS, and the x86 PC field went on to become the de facto standard. There's only one reason the IBM PC isn't the most popular computer ever made -- too many other companies made their own versions!

1
Commodore 64
The Commodore 64 never caught on in Europe or Asia the way it did in the U.S., but it still reached plenty of users. Here, German children try out a model in 1985. © Karl Staedele/dpa/Corbis

The Commodore 64 is the single most popular computer system ever sold. Released in 1982, the Commodore 64 had a 1MHz CPU and two big draws: a powerful, programmable sound chip and powerful graphics for a 1982 computer. Even better, the Commodore 64 cost a reasonable $595 and had 64KB of RAM (hence the name). And the Commodore 64 could be plugged into a TV, making it a hybrid computer/video game console.

When it was released in 1982, the Commodore 64's graphical capabilities beat the pants off other popular computers like the Apple II. Thanks to its price, the Commodore 64 sold well. And it kept selling. As the computer became cheaper to produce, Commodore cut the price, keeping it popular throughout the 1980s. It continued to be produced until 1994.

Affordable modems made the Commodore 64 a great computer to get online with, and like most systems of the day it used the BASIC programming language. It was a popular software platform. By the end of its life, the Commodore 64 had sold more units than any computer before or since. Estimates vary from as few as 12 million to as many as 30 million. The Commodore 64 likely sold an incredible 17 million by the end of its life [source: Old Computers].

UP NEXT

White House Aims for Supercomputer Capable of Achieving Exascale

White House Aims for Supercomputer Capable of Achieving Exascale

Supercomputers are getting backing from the White House. Learn more about supercomputers in the U.S. at HowStuffWorks Now.


Author's Note: 10 Most Popular Computers in History

Picking out 10 of the most popular computers of all time was tricky, and inevitably some beloved systems like the Atari didn't make it onto the list. But writing this was fun, and highlighted just how incredible the computer market was in the 1980s. No computer in the past 20 years has had the market power of a Commodore 64 or an Apple II.

Related Articles

Sources

  • Amigahistory.co.uk. "Commodore-Amiga Sales Figures." (Sept. 10, 2012) http://www.amigahistory.co.uk/sales.html
  • Apple2History.org. "The Disk II." (Sept. 10, 2012) http://apple2history.org/history/ah05/
  • Dediu, Horace. "Apple sold more iOS devices in 2011 than all the Macs it sold in 28 years." Feb. 16, 2012. (Sept. 10, 2012) http://www.asymco.com/2012/02/16/ios-devices-in-2011-vs-macs-sold-it-in-28-years/
  • Denyer, Silas. "Sinclair ZX 81." (Sept. 10, 2012) http://www.old-computers.com/museum/computer.asp?c=263
  • EBSCohost.com. "PC98 sales hit 15 million." (Sept. 10, 2012) http://connection.ebscohost.com/c/articles/9705190046/pc98-sales-hit-15-million
  • Goldklang, Ira.. "TRS-80 Computers: The TRS-80 Model I." (Sept. 10, 2012) http://www.trs-80.com/wordpress/trs-80-computer-line/model-i/
  • Lyon, Tony. "The Toshiba MSX (HX-10) 64K." (Sept. 10, 2012) http://retrovideogamesystems.com/the-toshiba-hx-10-64k-msx/
  • McCarthy, Jack. "U.S. court to halt sales of of iMac lookalikes." Nov. 12, 1999. (Sept. 10, 2012) http://articles.cnn.com/1999-11-12/tech/9911_12_haltimac.idg_1_imac-sotec-daewoo-telecom?_s=PM:TECH
  • Oldcomputers.net. "Apple II computer." (Sept. 10, 2012) http://oldcomputers.net/appleii.html
  • Oldcomputers.net. "Commodore 64 computer." (Sept. 10, 2012) http://oldcomputers.net/c64.html
  • Oldcomputers.net. "Commodore Amiga 1000." (Sept. 10, 2012) http://oldcomputers.net/amiga1000.html
  • Oldcomputers.net. "Tandy Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 1 computer." (Sept. 10, 2012) http://oldcomputers.net/trs80i.html
  • Oldcomputers.net. "Timex Sinclair 1000 computer." (Sept. 10, 2012) http://oldcomputers.net/ts1000.html
  • Reimer, Jeremy. "Total share: 30 years of personal computer market share features." Dec. 14, 2005. (Sept. 10, 2012) http://arstechnica.com/features/2005/12/total-share/