1980s personal computers were expensive – and see how their features compare today

Computer costs from 1986 (2)

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Looking back at these old IBM-compatible 1980s personal computers will remind you just how incredibly far technology has come in the last 30 to 40 years.

These vintage personal computers from the ’80s weren’t just expensive — even by today’s standards — but some had hard drives so small that just one of these retro images below would have maxed them out. 

For a quick comparison, a 2019 base model iPhone 11 came with 64GB of storage space. That’s 64,000 MB, or 3,200 times the capacity of the high-end 20MB hard drive touted in one of these ads. 

Let’s take it one step further. On the Micromail ad below (“Disk drives for IBM PC”), a 320KB disc drive was $250 — that’s 78 cents per kilobyte. The iPhone has a capacity of 64,000,000,000 KB. So… if we were to use that same cost per KB, our math says a smartphone would end up with a price tag of nearly fifty billion dollars. ($49,920,000,000.) Such a deal!

Columbia VP portable for $2995, or MPC for $4995 (1983)

The Columbia family: IBM-PC compatibility plus outstanding value and performance

Columbia VP portable for $2995, or the MPC for $4995 (1983)

From Silicon Valley – The Pied Piper Professional for $1999 (1983)

From Silicon Valley - The Pied Piper Professional for $1999 (1983)

Micromail vintage PC price list from 1983

ALSO SEE: Vintage tech from The Good Guys: See 1987’s hottest TVs, VCRs, stereos, cellular phones & more

Micromail vintage PC price list from 1983

TeleCAT-286 for $2995 (1986)

Comes with a 20MB hard drive, 512K RAM and a 1.2MB floppy.

With TeleVideo, you always settle for more. Up till now, with a mid-range budget, you had to settle for mid-range performance. And a mid-range set of features.

But not anymore. Because now, there’s the new TeleCAT- 286; from TeleVideo. An IBM AT-compatible machine that lets you settle for an entirely new concept in medium-priced PCs: more.

ALSO SEE ANOTHER CAT: Look back at 1987’s Canon Cat word processor

More Performance: The TeleCAT-286 retails for $2995, roughly the same as a comparably-equipped IBM XT. But the similarity ends there.

Instead of starting you off with a stripped-down box, we’ve loaded up the TeleCAT-286 with 512K RAM. A 20MB hard disk. A 1.2MB floppy. And everything else you need. Like an Intel 80286 CPU that runs at either 6 or 8 MHz clock speed. There’s even a high-resolution monitor for text and graphics.

To make even better use of internal space, we socketed the TeleCAT-286 for one MB of RAM, and also included serial and parallel ports on the motherboard. As a result, we can still give you three extra expansion slots.

More Productivity: Using our experience in building terminals and systems for 750,000 users worldwide, we’ve designed a machine that’s the last word in ergonomics.

With sculptured keycaps on a high- quality keyboard. LEDs on the three critical locking keys. And a footprint that’s 28% smaller than the IBM AT’s. So you get more of your desk back, too.

TeleCAT-286 for $2995 (1986)

Comes with a 20MB hard drive, 512K RAM and a 1.2MB floppy.

Just $2599 for the Tandy 3000 personal computer, or $3599 for the 3000 HD (1986)

This retro ’80s Radio Shack ad features TV actor Bill Bixby, star of The Incredible Hulk, and, previously, The Courtship of Eddie’s Father and My Favorite Martian.

[As noted by a commenter, the 3000 HD model shown here was a business computer, and not a home computer like the 3000.]

1986 Tandy 3000 personal computer from Radio Shack

MORE: Digital watches: The hot tech trend of the ’70s & ’80s

Low end: Limited Turbo Personal Computer for $795 (1986)

Low end: Limited Turbo Personal Computer for $795 (1986)

Low end: JC Lips PC for $795 (1986)

Low end: JC Lips PC for $795 (1986)

The IBM Personal System/2 family (1987)

Any company can take the IBM PS/2 apart. Only one can put it all together.

The moment IBM introduced the Personal System/2 family, the race was on to copy or “clone” the new technology.

Easier said than done. And here’s why. When IBM set out to make the new computers, we could have simply installed a more powerful chip into our top PC performer, as some computer companies are doing. To us, that’s just pushing an older technology to its limits.

Instead, we broke ground with a new technology. One that would maintain links to earlier PCs, meet our customers’ needs for more power and performance, and serve as a platform for future growth.

The IBM Personal System2 family (1987)

For instance, you wanted us to give you more standard features, and we did, but not by plugging cards into the machine. Instead, we came up with a quieter, more reliable, more compact solution – a single board with printer, communication and mouse ports, even advanced graphics, built in.

In fact, the entire technology was developed from a “total system” philosophy — using IBM components, and IBM chips, specially designed and integrated to send overall performance and reliability up, and costs down.

We could even have been content to direct information through a traditional “single bus” highway. Instead, we created a superhighway called Micro Channel architecture in Models 50, 60 and 80, a much more efficient method of sending and receiving information.

We also introduced a new version of DOS which taps into the power of the new systems and runs current software better. And we just unveiled a new operating system, OS/2,that opens up a world of possibilities.

IBM Personal System2 family PC (1987)

For starters, it’s compatible with today’s DOS, protecting your investment in hardware and software. It works beautifully with Micro Channel, making it easier to do many jobs at once. What’s more, OS/2 establishes a consistent look for virtually all software and systems, part of a blueprint for the future we call Systems Application Architecture.

Even IBM’s legendary dealer network has been improved. A special certification program gives dealers advanced training, so service and support are even stronger. In fact, support comes from many sources – right now, hundreds of outside developers are creating new cards, software and peripherals.

So you see, the world of the Personal System/2 is far greater than any single computer or chip or component. And when you try taking apart a system like this, you can just wind up with lots of bits and pieces. “Nobody’s got it together like IBM.”

IBM PCs in late 1987

Personal computers from the ’80s: $848.95 for the Tandy 1000 HZ computer from 1987

ALSO SEE: Vintage fax machines: When this new tech was poised to conquer all in its path (1989)

Tandy 1000 HZ computer from 1987

Dell computers from 1988: SYSTEM 310

System 310: $4,099 (base model with mono monitor) up to $7699 (top of the line with color monitor)

THE NEW SYSTEM 310. The top of the line. It’s our highest-performance computer available, faster than the IBM PS/2 Model 80 and the Compaq 386/20. It runs at 20 MHz with the latest 32-bit architecture.

Since it also has Intel’s Advanced 82385 Cache Memory Controller, and high-performance disk drives, the System 310 is ideal for intensive database management, complex spreadsheet development, CAD/CAM, desktop publishing or performance as a network file server.

MORE: See some of the first laptop computers: Clunky, slow & expensive tech everyone wanted

Standard features:

  • Intel 80386 microprocessor running at 20 MHz.
  • 1 MB of RAM (640K usable) expandable to 16 MB without using an expansion slot.
  • Advanced Intel 82385 Memory Controller with 32 KB of high speed static RAM.
  • Socket for 20 MHz 80387 or Weitek coprocessor.
  • 85,25” 1.2 MB or 3.5” 144 MB diskette drive.
  • Dual diskette and hard disk drive controller.
  • Enhanced 101-key keyboard.
  • 1 parallel and 2 serial ports.
  • 200-watt power supply.
  • 8 expansion slots (6 available).

Performance Enhancements (Systems 310 and 220): 384 KB of dedicated RAM is used by portions of the system software for increased performance.

Dell computers from 1988 System 310 and 220

Did you know the Commodore VIC computer could do all this? (1983)

Did you know the Commodore VIC computer could do all this (1983)

But did you know for about $100 you can also get it to do all this?

A Commodore Vicmodem

What those extra few dollars get you is a simple little device called a Commodore VICMODEM. It connects your telephone to your VIC 20 or Commodore 64 computer (resulting in something aptly called telecomputing), giving you access to information such as you see on the screens to your right. Normally, you’d have to type a short program into your computer to help it make the final transition into a telecomputer.

However, when you buy a VICMODEM, you’ll find we’ve included a free software program. You just load it into your Commodore Datasette Recorder and presto (give or take a moment or two), you have access to a vast library of information and games.

Speaking of free, Commodore also includes a free subscription and a free hour’s time on CompuServe and Dow Jones News/ Retrieval Service, a free trial offer on The Source, and a discount program offer with Comp-U-Store and General Videotex Corp.

But did you know for about 100 you can also get it to do all this

Commodore Information Network

Let’s see. Did we leave anything out? Oh, yes. Along with CompuServe comes a free membership in the Commodore Information Network. This is your HOTLINE to Commodore. (How often do you get to speak directly to a manufacturer?) Through it we can answer any questions you might have about your computer, or programming, or anything else Commodore-related, via electronic mail.

The Commodore Information Network is also your direct line to the Commodore Bulletin Board, which Commodore owners use to keep in touch with each other, for programming tips, Public Domain Software, and technical support.

Altogether, these little extras we’ve included with our VICMODEM add up to a value of $197.50. A nice return on an investment of about $100.

Some computer companies think it’s reasonable to ask as much as $500 for telecomputing capabilities such as ours. However, with the Commodore VICMODEM selling for around $100, we feel we’re being a whole lot more reasonable. Don’t you agree?


Commodore VIC ad, featuring William Shatner (1982)

Commodore VIC 20: “The wonder computer of the 1980s. Under $300… The best computer value in the world today. The only computer you’ll need for years to come.” – William Shatner

Commodore VIC ad, featuring William Shatner (1982)

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Comments on this story

One Response

  1. The Tandy 3000 HD was a business machine, not a home PC. Tandy made the 3000 NL and HL for the home market, and they were a lot cheaper. What makes the 3000 HD so expensive is the hard drive (naturally) and that it has 10 ISA slots on the motherboard, making it more complex than the motherboards in the home machines. It was meant to be a multi-user Xenix server, so it needed the 10 slots for cards that connected to dumb terminals. Nobody would have been buying one of these for home use. Believe it or not, the price for the 3000 HD was actually very reasonable when you consider what IBM was offering cost over $1000 more. You still see an NL or HL on ebay maybe 2 or 3 times a year, but the 3000 HD is practically non-existent. I managed to snag one several years ago on ebay from someone who obviously didn’t know what they were selling, and were going by past sales of NL and HL models for their pricing. Because it was marketed to businesses, and had such a high price, and the fact that one machine could serve many users at a time, not as many of these were sold as the NL and HL, and even fewer survived. Many businesses would also lease computers instead of buying them outright, so they would have been returned to the vendor when the lease was over and either scrapped or stripped for reusable parts to service machines still in use that needed repairs.

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