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Nov. 22, 2003, 12:29AM


Presenting the top 10 personal computers of all time

Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle

Nothing brings home how important the personal computer has become than having teenagers in the house.
Tell us your opinion on what are the most important PCs of all time.

As I watch both my daughters work four or five instant messaging windows at once -- and knowing that the friends with whom they're chatting are doing the same as well -- I realize that the home computer has changed a major aspect of middle-class American life.

My children, and most of their friends, spend more time chatting online than talking on the phone. The stereotype of the teenage girl tying up the line for hours is crumbling -- unless, of course, you're still using dial-up Internet access, in which case the line is still tied up!

This amazing machine, which has altered our lives in so many ways, has had many important milestones in its history. With that in mind, I'd like to offer my list of the 10 most important personal computers of all time, ranked in order. There are certainly a lot more than 10 important PCs, but space and the venerable precedent set by David Letterman dictate that I limit it.

Of course, there will be grousing with the choices here, and certainly with the order, but that's what makes lists fun. I invite your comments, criticisms and insights. Click here and leave your thoughts. They'll be the basis for a future column.

10. OSBORNE 1 -- Considered the first real, affordable portable computer, the Osborne 1 gave credence in 1981 to the idea that a PC didn't have to sit on a desk. About the size of a sewing machine case, its keyboard served as the bottom and folded down to reveal a tiny monochrome screen and a pair of 5 1/4-inch floppy drives. At less than $1,800, it was a steal at the time. The design was later adapted for two major players -- Kaypro and Compaq.

9. PCS UNLIMITED TURBO -- Although the name will only be familiar to fans of tech trivia, this computer is best known for starting a revolution in the way PCs are sold. PCs Unlimited was the original brand of IBM clones made by Michael Dell in his Austin dorm room. Running on an 8-MHz Intel 8088 processor, the term "Turbo" would be a joke today but was pretty zippy for 1984. What's more important, though, is that Dell made his computers to order, a way of marketing that is still sending shock waves through the industry and has made Dell the No. 1 manufacturer.

8. TANDY SENSATION -- Tandy, the parent of Radio Shack, was the first to sell an IBM-compatible computer that came with everything needed for quality graphics and sound. It combined a stereo audio card, speakers, Super VGA graphics and -- most importantly -- a CD-ROM drive into an affordable package, at $2,200. Although some models of Apple's Macintosh already had these features in 1992, the Sensation showed the IBM-clone market how multimedia should be done.

7. APPLE NEWTON MESSAGE PAD -- While the Palm Pilot gets credit as the first successful personal digital assistant, Apple's short-lived Newton Message Pad was the product that defined the modern PDA. While criticized for being expensive and overhyped -- then-CEO John Sculley's prototype made more promises than the production model could keep -- and serving as the butt of jokes for its lame handwriting recognition, it nevertheless inspired in its users the same type of impassioned fervor seen for the Macintosh.

6. COMMODORE 64 -- At one point, the Commodore 64 was the best-selling home computer, with estimates ranging from 17 million to 22 million sold. Launched in 1982, it combined a keyboard and computer into one unit. It cost $595 -- floppy disks and tape drives were sold separately. You could either write your own software in the BASIC programming language, which was the C-64's operating system, or select from titles ranging from surprisingly powerful business software to games. Among the games that got their start on the C-64: the original SimCity and what became Microsoft's Flight Simulator.

5. MITS ALTAIR 8800 -- The Altair was one of the first minicomputers aimed at hobbyists, but what makes it most important was two of its first customers -- Paul Allen and Bill Gates, who talked MITS founder Ed Roberts into letting them write a version of BASIC to be used with the computer. With its only human interface being a bank of blinking lights, the Altair (named after a star that was prominent in a Star Trek episode) appealed only to the most geeky, but it ultimately gave birth to Microsoft, which helped make PCs available to the masses.

4. APPLE II -- Steves Wozniak and Jobs get credit for two major milestones -- envisioning computing for Everyman and founding the company that others would rip off to ultimately make that vision a reality. The Apple II was an attempt to move personal computing away from the realm of hobbyists and into everyday life. The original Apple II was actually sold in retail stores, and in 1977 was aimed at people who might otherwise ask, "What do I need a computer in my home for?" Starting at $1,200, it was expensive for the time, but early adopters snatched them up.

3. APPLE MACINTOSH -- No other personal computer has inspired such devotion as the Macintosh. Although not the first commercial computer to use a mouse and window-based interface, the $2,495 Mac popularized both features, as well as the 3 1/2-inch floppy disk. It also proved that computing could be a graphical rather than a text-based experience. Dismissed as a toy by "serious" computer users at its 1984 launch, it inspired Gates and Microsoft to move away from the text-based MS-DOS and push the copycat Windows found on the vast majority of PCs in use today.

2. IBM PC 5150 -- The smartest move IBM made in developing its entry in the growing personal computer market in 1981 was using off-the-shelf parts that were interchangeable. That was also its undoing. The IBM PC became a standard not because of the IBM brand, but because the design was easily copied and sold for less. Its original price tag was $3,000 for a base model with a single 5 1/4-inch floppy drive and 64 kilobytes of memory, and its Intel 8088 chip chugged along at 4.77 MHz. Still, the design of most of today's Windows-based PCs is little changed.

1. COMPAQ PORTABLE PC -- No, I am not just being a homer in picking this as the most important PC. The Compaq Portable -- aka the "luggable" -- was the first copy of the IBM PC and launched the clone industry that ultimately put a computer in the homes of a majority of Americans. By now, the story of Compaq's birth is legend: A group of Texas Instruments managers gathered at the House of Pies in the Montrose area and sketched the design for this PC on a napkin for a venture capitalist. The pie was good, the design was better, and the modern PC industry was born. The Compaq Portable sold for $3,000 in 1982, had a similar design to the Osborne and Kaypro computers and offered more features -- including a built-in monitor and more memory -- than the base IBM. But Compaq would eventually be overwhelmed by the business it helped create and has since been consumed by Hewlett-Packard.

Send e-mail to dwight.silverman@chron.com. His Web site is www.dwightsilverman.com.

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