Personal computers have reached a tipping point in recent years where the innovations are more about speed and capabilities than absolute technological advances. They’re getting faster and smaller but for the most part ground-breaking technological leaps are a thing of the past. That’s not to say we won’t see anything amazing come out soon. Other than tablet technology, there simply hasn’t been anything that shook the computer world recently.
As we look back in history over the last 40 years, there have been true game-changers. For some, it was simply a matter of changing the way we interface with computers. For others, it was a new style of technology that moved us to adopt personal computers to fill a void that we didn’t even know existed before. The first time I played around with my Commodore 64, I was moved.
Here are the top 10 game-changing computers of all time. As with any list, there will be disagreements, omissions, and probably a few insults flung my way, but that’s the risk one takes when making lists like these.
10. Commodore Amiga 1000
Right around the time when computers were starting to make the world flat and boring, the Amiga made the world of computers beautiful again. Launched in 1985, it retailed at $1,295 which instantly put it out of most casual computer users’ price range at the time. This was a shame because this was the first true multimedia computer. Its graphics and sound were stunning, allowing for 3D animation, full-motion video, and a TV interface that was well ahead of its competitors.
9. Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.7
As the most recent release on the list, this 2012 tablet entered a game that was already flush with competition from all angles. The thing that made it stand out was that it was appropriately right-sized. It’s the thinnest 4G LTE tablet and fits not-so-comfortably in the palm of one’s hand. It’s the first tablet computer featuring a Super AMOLED Plus display, making it much more useful on the go than anything out there currently running Android OS. This is the baseline going forward for modern Android tablets.
8. MITS Altair 8800
From the newest on the list to the oldest, the MITS Altair 8800 quietly shook the world in 1975. It wasn’t the amazing technology that sparked interest – there were better options available – but rather it was the interest that the public took in the computer that opened eyes and made companies like Microsoft look to the personal computer as a faster-growing wave than expected. It was originally sold through mail order ads in Popular Electronics with the goal of selling a few hundred for hobbyists, but when several thousand were ordered the first month, an industry was unofficially born.
7. Sony VAIO 505GX
In 1998, the office became portable. That was the promise of the Sony VAIO 505GX and it delivered. The ability to have a computer, screen, speakers, microphone, and touchpad all in 3.1 lb portable case changed the way we thought about computing. It was the early days of the internet and so the world was already used to being able to transmit data from the office to a destination, but this really opened up an entirely different view of data portability. Productivity on the road increased exponentially thanks to the grandfather of popular laptop computers.
6. Apple II
Most computer geeks over the age of 30 have a story or two to tell about the Apple II series of computers. It allowed is to game in ways that other computers couldn’t, a surprise to many who never look to Apple for gaming. When Steve Wozniak designed it, the 1977 release gave us an entry point into the world of personal computers that was different from anything else out there. They were the first to hit schools in bulk and turned many a child towards the world of computers.
5. Tandy TRS-80 Model I
While Apple was pushing the II, Radio Shack was pushing the Tandy TRS-80 Model I. It was the personal computer that had a store of its own, making it a popular entry point for the family’s first home computer. The thing that helped it succeed as a model and that pushed the PC world was the selection of software. In the two years of the big PC rush of the late 70s, the TRS-80 was able to accumulate the most. Had that not happened, it’s conceivable that Apple or Commodore could have won the early rounds of the personal computer battles and the landscape would be much different than it is today.
4. IBM PC 5150
In 1981, the IBM PC was born. International Business Machines was already a huge name around the world, but they had missed the mini-boom of personal computers in the 1970s. They corrected course quickly and took a different path than their competitors by opening up development to a wide range of OEMs. Instead of building everything from scratch, they took components from a wide range of companies and forged them together. By abandoning the proprietary model that the competition had adopted, they moved quickly ahead and gave birth to the modern era of personal computing.
3. Apple iPad 2
The iPad changed the world, but the iPad 2 was the device that really made tablets the new “thing”. By adding a camera, long battery life, and a more portable design, it was the launching pad that tablets needed to get into the mainstream. It was the validation that was needed to let everyone know that the tablet wasn’t a fad like the netbooks which were still relevant at the time of release. This was the real deal and any geek worth their weight in motherboards needed to have one. More importantly, any family worth their weight in gadgets needed to get one, too. Unlike the 1st generation iPad, the 2 has continued to sell well even after two more device releases with the New iPad and iPad Mini.
2. Commodore 64
One might make a case that it was sentimental value that propelled the Commodore 64 so close to the top of the list, but that wouldn’t be a fair statement. The best selling personal computer of all time made 8-bit a thing for kids and adults of the 80s. Released in 1982, it has gone on to sell somewhere between 12- and 17-million units (not sure why there’s a mystery about the actual number but it’s a lot either way) and even has a nostalgic variation alive and well today.
If one were to look solely at sales and adoption of personal computers, the Macintosh wouldn’t make the top 10 list. What made the 1984 release of the Macintosh so stunning was that it changed everything that we have today even if the origins of those changes didn’t manifest initially for Apple itself. With a mouse and graphical user interface, the computer was too far ahead of its time in many respects but helped spark enough ideas over at IBM, Microsoft, and Intel to allow them to capitalize by the early 90s. The Macintosh was the inspiration for modern personal computing, period. Though there were dark days at Apple after the subsequent failure of the line, they were able to revitalize with the 1998 iMac and the rest is history.
In case you haven’t seen it… lately… here’s the commercial that changed the world: