The most expensive PCs in computing history

Raspberry Pi-like specs at recreational vehicle prices -- as computed in today's dollars

The most expensive PCs in computing history
Credit: ClkerFreeVectorImages via pixabay
The most expensive PCs in computing history

We all like to complain about our computers and devices. It's our inalienable right as 21st-century digital age consumers. In fact, a case can be made that it's become something of a national pastime.

But the truth is, in the year 2015, we have access to unprecedented computing power for our spending dollar. Click around online retail sites or visit your local big box store, and you'll find startling numbers in those specification charts -- whether you're looking at desktop systems, laptops, mobile devices, or the emerging spaces in between. Processors measured in gigahertz. Hard drives measured in terabytes. Display technologies straight out of science fiction.

How good do we have it, relatively speaking? One way to crunch the numbers is to turn back the clock. Here we take a look at some of the more expensive systems ever put to market in the personal computing era, along with their technical specs and pricing at the time. To make things manageable, we limited our archaeological dig to pre-1999 desktop and portable computers marketed to individual users, with some detours into hybrid variations and multiuser systems. Hold on to your wallets, it's about to get weird.

The Programma 101 (1965)
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The Programma 101 (1965)

Surely one of the coolest machines in this history of computing simply from a naming point of view, the Programma 101 was an Italian device that many consider the very first desktop computer. In an era when computers were the size of Buicks, the Programma looked like an Art Deco typewriter and made its debut at the 1964 New York World's Fair.

The Programma was a kind of supercalculator -- it could add, subtract, multiply, and divide huge numbers. But because it could also load and record programming sequences on magnetic cards, most historians consider it a genuine desktop PC. NASA purchased several of the machines to plan the Apollo 11 moon landing. Each device cost about $3,500 ($24,000 today), making it easily the most expensive PC of its time -- considering it was the only PC of its time.

IBM Portable Computer (1975)
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IBM Portable Computer (1975)

About the size of a small suitcase and weighing in at 55 pounds, the IBM 5100 Portable Computer was marketed at the time as the world's first mini-computer. Indeed, it was one of the first (relatively) portable computers and was aimed primarily at scientists -- well, scientists with plenty of university grant money. The top-end 64KB model had a list price of $19,975. That's around $88,000 today, adjusted for inflation.

For your investment, you got a state-of-the-art, self-contained machine. The 5100 boasted an integrated 5-inch CRT display and magnetic tape drive. The display could output 16 lines of text, with 64 characters each. The quarter-inch cartridge tape drive could store 204KB. Absent a true CPU as we know them today, the 5100 used a circuit board processor called PALM, for Program All Logic in Microcode, which included a 16-bit data bus.

Cromemco System Three (1979)
Cromemco System Three (1979)

Founded by two Stanford doctoral students, Cromemco was a California computer company named after the Stanford dormitory reserved for engineering Ph.D. students (Crothers Memorial Hall). In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the company made several key innovations in the area of computer peripherals, including technology for cameras, joysticks, and graphic cards.

In 1979, the company released its System Three multiuser computer, designed to accommodate between one and six terminals and a printer attached to the heavy central chassis. It was a nice option for certain buyers -- NASA and U.S. Air Force were early adopters -- with a top-end configuration that boasted 512KB of RAM and a 5MB external hard drive. System Three was capable of running both Fortran IV and Z80 Basic, and the company’s Cromix was the first Unix-like OS available for microcomputer systems. List price: $12,495 in 1979; around $36,000 today.

The Apple Lisa (1983)
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The Apple Lisa (1983)

In January 1983, a little company called Apple put a profoundly curious specimen on the market called the Lisa. The first personal computer with a mouse and GUI successfully marketed to mainstream buyers, it was a giant step for user-friendliness. (Yes, the Xerox Alto came 10 years earlier, but was never sold to the public.)

For a machine aimed at Joe Computer User, the ticket price on the Lisa was an alarming $9,995 -- the equivalent of almost $24,000 today. For your money, you got a 5MHz Motorola CPU, 1MB of RAM, and a 12-inch monochrome display. An external 5MB drive was offered as an option, or the external dual floppy drives had 871KB of storage capacity each -- but they were notoriously unreliable. FYI, the Lisa was indeed named after Steve Jobs' daughter, although later marketing efforts came up with the backronym Local Integrated System Architecture.

Osborne Vixen (1985)
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Osborne Vixen (1985)

One of the first "luggable" computers, the Osborne Vixen split the difference between desktop and portable with a unique design. The attached keyboard folded down and out of the front casing, lifting up the front of the system -- the better to view that dazzling 7-inch CRT display.

After some corporate drama and delays, the Vixen was released in 1985 with a 4MHz processor, 64KB of RAM, and dual disk drives. It also came bundled with a generous suite of software, including programs for word processing, spreadsheets, business graphics, and even a side-scrolling adventure game. The Vixen is a good example of how even generous midrange systems could set you back in the 1980s. Add in the optional 10MB external hard drive, and the Vixen cost $2,800 -- around $6,200 now.

Apple Macintosh Portable (1989)
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Apple Macintosh Portable (1989)

Apple's first portable Macintosh was designed to be a fast and powerful alternative to the laptop designs available in the late 1980s. And it was, at the time. But it's interesting to crunch the numbers versus Apple's laptop offerings 25 years later.

The Macintosh Portable was built around a 16MHz Motorola CPU, with 1MB of RAM (expandable to 9MB). The two-pound lead acid battery -- a miniature automotive battery, essentially -- provided around six hours of power with typical usage. The hard drive held 40MB of data, and the display provided 640-by-400 resolution, monochrome. The optional onboard modem: 9,600 baud. (Younger readers will want to Google that.) Consider those numbers and reflect that the Macintosh Portable sold for $6,500 in 1989 -- around $12,500 today.

Risc PC (1994)
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Risc PC (1994)

U.K. computer company Acorn -- occasionally referred to as the "British Apple" -- made a series of popular systems across the pond in the 1980. In 1994, the company released its next-generation Risc PC system. In addition to an innovative case design that allowed for easy and extensive expansion, the Risc PC featured a second CPU slot for running IBM PC-compatible software alongside Acorn software running on the Risc OS.

Spec-wise, you got dual processors, a 420MB hard drive, and a 17-inch monitor. The numbers get a little tricky, but U.K. list price for a fully loaded RISC PC 600 in 1994 would convert to around $3,000 in U.S. money. Further adjusted to today's prices, that's about $5,000.

Dell Dimension XPS T600 (1999)
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Dell Dimension XPS T600 (1999)

The market for personal computers crested in the late 1990s, and soon nearly everyone had a computer at home, at work, or both. Outlier instances of crazy expensive computers gradually faded away, with a few exceptions, as the market matured and prices stabilized. Various price points emerged for different kinds of computing needs. But still -- some computers were more expensive than others.

For our last twist of the time-travel dial, let's go back a mere 15 years, to those heady days shortly before the turn of the millennium. Thanks to the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine, we can see PCWorld magazine's Best Buy pick for Power PCs in December 1999. The Dell Dimension XPS T600 topped the charts that month, with its Pentium III-600 CPU, 128MB of RAM, 20GB hard drive, and 17-inch CRT display. Average retail price? $2,300, or about $3,400 today.

Takes you back, doesn't it?