What the PC world was like 10 years ago

The other day, I stumbled across a Word document I created almost exactly 10 years ago, on June 5, 1999. It listed all the computers I owned, with some of their specs and notes about how I planned to use them. Windows 2000 was in the final stages of its development process, and so I was planning which machines would be migrated from Windows NT to Windows 2000. Interestingly, although Windows Me had just been released, my notes mentioned nothing about replacing Windows 98 Second Edition with the new OS. [Update: Oops. Windows Me was still a year away from RTM and wasn’t released until September 2000. Windows 98 Second Edition was about to be released in fact. That explains why there was no mention of Windows Me in my notes.]

Ten years doesn’t seem all that long, but this list really brought home a few facts about how much the PC world has changed since then.

NEC_notebook For starters, none of the companies that manufactured the seven computers I owned then is still in the PC business in the United States. I had a desktop PC and a notebook from Digital Equipment Corporation and a hideously ugly Compaq Presario desktop. DEC and Compaq were eaten by HP years ago (the Compaq brand name is still in use as HP’s budget line). NEC, which made my Versa SX notebook (shown at right), still sells computers in Europe, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East, but not in the United States. The others were homemade or built by local shops that long ago ceased to be.

I didn’t note which processors were in use in any of the PCs, only clock speeds. Intel had just released the Pentium III a few months earlier, and I’m pretty certain that a 450MHz Pentium III was running the Compaq Presario. The rest were a mix of first-generation Pentiums and some Pentium IIs, at clock rates from 150 MHz to 300 MHz.

What was most startling to see on my list were the hard disk sizes. My big desktop machine had a whopping 13GB of storage, spread over three hard drives (6.4GB + 1.4GB + 4.2GB). The largest single hard drive in use was 8.6GB, and the rest all had either 2GB or 4GB drives. The total amount of storage in all seven systems was 47 GB on 12 physical drives.

Memory was expensive in those days. I probably paid an extra $300 for the 192MB of RAM in the NEC notebook. The machine I was using as a Windows domain controller had 64MB of RAM.

There were no price tags attached to the entries on my inventory list, but I recall being deliriously happy to get a Digital Hi-Note notebook (the forerunner of today’s small and light portables) for around $1500. Each desktop was over $1000, and those hard disks were several hundred dollars each as well. In total, there was easily more than 10 grand worth of hardware represented on that list.

Most of the machines had no USB controllers and could only be expanded with ISA add-in cards. With the exception of that small DEC notebook they were all ridiculously heavy. The Compaq came with a first-generation flat-panel display. My main display was a 21-inch CRT that weighed more than 50 pounds. Everything else was connected to small monitors with a lot of switch boxes in use.

When I look around my office right now, I see six desktop PCs, four notebooks, and three servers. The oldest machine dates back to around 2002. Collectively, they have around 15 TB of storage. With the exception of a single P4 desktop and an AMD Sempron in the HP MediaSmart server, the CPUs are all Core 2 Duo or quad-core systems. All of the desktop and notebook systems have at least 2GB of RAM each. There isn’t a CRT in sight. Ironically, the average price of each system is between $500 and $1000.

If that much technological evolution could have happened in only a decade, what sort of computing power will we have at our fingertips in 2019?

19 thoughts on “What the PC world was like 10 years ago

  1. I have kept a similar document on all the PC’s I’ve owned since 1992 when I finally gave up on Atari. My list the same items you’ve mentioned plus notes about significant new features in each model and anything I might have added or upgraded. I was really impressed with the Compaq (pre HP) that had my first network card. My most common upgrade in the early PC’s was to the modems, in the later models it is the video cards.

    Every time I update this document I marvel at the changes we’ve seen- and at the money I’ve spent. Besides the huge changes in memory, storage, power and price over this period. the other big change I’ve noted is how I disposed of the older computers. At the beginning of my list the older models were happily taken by local charities. That avenue is largely closed now and recycling has taken its place.

  2. And to think, I just bought a 2GB SD card for $10 and 2GB of RAM for an old Dell Inspiron laptop for around $30.

  3. Ed, Thanks for the flash back. Its always fascinating to look back at the PC’s and software we used back then and the tiny (by today’s standards) hard drives we considered plenty of real estate. The biggest drama involved moving this back breaking gear around including the entanglement of cords and cables which by the way is still a problem these days. In today’s IT world we are flush with options and choices when it comes to hardware, software, wireless connections etc.

  4. Ed, I remember when RAM peaked around $100 a MEG ! (AU dollars anyway)
    An 8MB stick or RAM cost me around $650, I think it was for my 486 machine. This would have been around 1993-4 I think.

    Prior to this I upgraded a 286 to a whopping 2MB RAM – I had to insert 8 discrete 1M bit RAM chips onto the motherboard for that upgrade !!

    I think I worked out the other day that the price of RAM has dropped by at least a factor of 10,000 since then !!


  5. Hear, hear. I’m old enough to have lived this too. I remember paying $2000 back in 1988 for an Amiga 2000 with no hard drive and 1 MB of RAM. Today, I’m writing this on a 8 core Nehalem Mac Pro with 12 GB of RAM and 2 TB of hard drives (one of which is SSD), all for approximately the same amount of money ($2000 from 1988 is $3500 in 2008 dollars adjusted for inflation…). If someone told me this back in 1988, I wouldn’t have believed them 🙂

  6. My first PC was a Compaq Presario desktop, which was purchased by my dad in 1994. It had an AMD 486 SX2 (no FPU!) clocked at 66MHz. I was lucky enough to have the model with 8MB of RAM. It also came with a 340 MB hard drive, and a SCSI CD-ROM drive, as the ATAPI interface hadn’t been invented yet. The SCSI controller was part of the (full-length!) Sound Blaster 16 sound card, in ISA form. This machine had no PCI slots or USB ports. I believe we spent $1600 on it. I recently donated said machine to Goodwill so, the saga has come to an end.

  7. That was a neat flashback — thanks.

    I remember when I installed a 20 megabyte hard drive on my Leading Edge 8086. I would never use all that glorious space; after all, that’s how much space the IT department at my newspaper had to store all of our work in the newsroom…

  8. I paid $600 for a used 200MB hard drive more than 10 years ago. Just got a 2TB NAS RAID drive for under $400. // A little over 2 years ago, I bought a 4GB flash drive for $90; a pack of 3 of those is close to $30 today. All that money we burned. peace, mjh

  9. My first computer I bought was in 2001. I can’t remember the price but it had to be anywhere from $500 – $1,000. It was an E-Machines Pentium 4 (can’t remember the speed) with 256MB of ram (a few years later upgraded by 256 to 512 for about $60), a 60GB HD and it was right when XP was released. It was the envy of everyone I knew. I had friends telling me to defrag often because of the MASSIVE 60GB HD.

    My friends dad was recently telling me that back in the 80’s he paid $200 for 1MB of ram.

  10. I remember that my first PC (then referred to as an IBM compatible) had no hard drive. I had to insert a 5 1/4 inch floppy into the slot before it would boot. There wasn’t a GUI in sight, either. The CRT displayed in two colors: black and white! And, yes, I remember my favorite game; it consisted of two vertical lines and a bouncing pixel. Ah, sweet days of DOS.

    If my memory serves me well, my first computer had only 64K of RAM. When I was able to upgrade to 128K, my heart beat out of control. Later, Microsoft delivered its first OS with a GUI. I wasn’t happy. I grumbled about giving up too much control of my computer. How little did I know that that was exactly what I did when I finally upgraded to Windows 3.0.

    But what I remember most about my early days of computing, of the glory days of AOL and the Internet, is that all software came with an instruction “book,” not a folded piece of shiny paper written, for the most part, by the illiterati–or someone for whom English is a second or third language. My other outstanding memory is that I could always pick up the phone and call a toll-free number 24 hours a day for great tech support. It seems ironic that the more complicated and expansive the computer age becomes, the fewer support options we have at our service.

    Now ain’t dat a kick in da pants?

  11. Well, my first computer was a Sinclair ZX81 with a whopping 1K (not meg!) memory. And a Radio Shack cassette deck. It had Sinclair BASIC in the ROM. You’d be typing away and if you used up the 1K memory, your cursor would instead start to delete whatever you typed! I managed to save the $$$ to buy the 16K memory expansion cartridge, which plugged into the back of the machine. Who’d ever need more than 16K?

  12. I forgot the law, but there is some law that says technology advances exponentially. So what we have in the future will be far beyond anything we can even imagine

  13. Oh I found it, it’s moore’s law, which states the number of transistors that can be placed inexpensively on an integrated circuit has increased exponentially, doubling approximately every two years.

    Not exactly what I originally thought it was but I’m sure this similarly applies to computer technology

    1. Yes, Moore’s Law actually works pretty well for PC performance in general if you use 18 months as the time frame for doubling. For hard disk capacities, that means roughly a 128X increase in a decade if my math is right. So from 8GB drives in 1999 we get to 1TB drives in 2009. And by that measure we should have 128TB drives in 2019. Memory is advancing a bit more slowly but still getting there. 128MB in 1999 would equal 16GB today, which isn’t exactly mainstream yet. But we’re getting close! If you assume 4GB as the standard today by 2019 that would mean we would all have half a terabyte of RAM to work with. Wheeeeeee!

  14. My first ‘computer’ was a Texas Instruments TI 94A. I won’t mention how long ago that was except to say that I owned Fred Flinstone’s used car.

    My first store bought PC was an IBM model 30, with 2 3.5 inch floppy drives. I added a hard drive a while later with a whopping 10 meg capacity. WoHo!

  15. IE 5 was already released in spring 1999 and MS Office 2000 was released either in late June 1999 or in July 1999. Netscape was still a popular web browser back then.

  16. ED it’s off topic but i need help on something i just finish downloading Windows Vista SP2 integrated ISO 3.02GB using bit torrent to make OS reinstalling easier. If the MD5 hash, SH1 and crc match the Windows Vista with SP2 integrated ISO does it mean that it’s the original copy and unmodified, untouch? could i use my Vista rtm? serial key on Vista SP2?

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