Classic PCs vs. New PCs: Their True Cost

Doing the math makes technology's relentless progress even more amazing.

By  |  Sunday, October 25, 2009 at 10:30 pm

PC FaceoffYou’re familiar with Moore’s law.  You know all about the accelerating pace of information technology.  Regardless, you’re still amazed at how many gigabytes you can fit in your pocket these days.  Remember how your first computer’s entire hard disk only held 20 megabytes? You could accidentally swallow a thousand times as much data now if you weren’t careful.

But how much did that old hard drive cost?  I mean really cost?  Our memories get fuzzy on this point, because the buying power of the U.S. dollar has not remained constant over the years.  Inflation has decreased the value of the dollar, per dollar, continuously for over a century.  That means if you bought an IBM PC for $3,000 in 1981, you were actually spending the equivalent of $7,127.69 in today’s dollars.

Wait..what?  $7,000 for a PC?  Does anybody buy a $7,000 PC these days?  Does anybody even sell a $7,000 desktop PC now?  In our present climate of plentiful sub-$1,000 computers, surely a $7,000 PC must be the most incredible machine ever invented.  But for a business-oriented machine in 1981, that sounded cheap.

To examine this trend, let’s take six classic personal computers from yesteryear–some cheap, some expensive–and see what you could buy today for the same price.  And we’re not talking original retail price here; we’re going to take inflation into account.  For example, the Commodore 64–once considered a low-cost home computer–originally sold for $1,331.62 in 2009 dollars.  Today you can get quite a bit for that much money.  How much?  That’s what we’re going to find out.

Special thanks to Steven Stengel for providing many of the vintage computer photos in this article.

About the Methodology

Every specification listed in the charts below is what a buyer received for the retail price at the date listed, not the best possible configuration.  So before you say, “Hey, but you could get a hard drive for the Commodore 64!” hold your breath, count to ten, and read the following key to our charts:

Price (2009 Dollars): Retail price adjusted for inflation to 2009 US Dollars
Price (xxxx Dollars):
Retail price adjusted for inflation to xxxx US Dollars
CPU type included at retail price listed
CPU MHz (Total):
Total clock speed (in MHz) of all CPU cores combined at retail price listed
RAM in kilobytes included at retail price listed
Fixed Disk:
Capacity of fixed storage (i.e. hard drive) in megabytes included at retail price listed
Removable Type:
Removable storage type included at retail price listed
Removable Cap.:
Capacity of removable media (per media) in kilobytes for drive included at price
Operating System:
Operating system included at retail price listed
Extra features included that appreciably influence the price listed

Note: I know that CPU clock speed is not a particularly good indicator of performance between CPU architectures. The only problem is that other measurements of relative CPU capability–such as exact transistor counts, or MIPS–are hard to pin down for some of these processors. For our purposes, the clock speed merely serves as an approximate indicator of CPU performance.

I’m also aware that multiplying the CPU’s clock speed by the number of its cores doesn’t mean much from a technical standpoint, but it does serve as a rough continuous indicator of performance from the old days of single-core CPUs into our modern multi-core era. Theoretically, each core multiplies a machine’s computational ability.

All inflation adjusted prices have been calculated using the U.S. Department of Labor Consumer Price Index as of September 2009.

MITS Altair vs. Dell Precision T7400

MITS Altair 8800 (1975) vs. Dell Precision T7400 (2009)


MITS Altair 8800

Dell Precision T7400

Year Sold
(2009 Dollars)



(1975 Dollars)
CPU Type
Intel 8080
Quad Core Intel Xeon E5410
CPU MHz (Total)
Fixed Disk (MB)
Removable Drive Type
Removable Capacity
(KB, Per Media)
Operating System
Microsoft Windows Vista Business Edition
Fully assembled (vs. kit form)
256MB PCIe x16 nVidia NVS 290 graphics card, USB Optical Mouse, Keyboard

At first glance it seems rather unfair to compare what some consider to be the first personal computer — the Altair 8800 — with a modern Dell workstation. It’s obvious even without a chart that the differences between the two are almost absurdly dramatic. But perhaps more than the other examples below, this comparison shows how far we’ve come in the PC industry. Altair, the first popular PC, sold for $1,987.08 (2009 dollars) and included no storage and only 256 bytes–yes, not kilobytes, bytes–of RAM. Today, the Dell Workstation (one of many possible modern PCs to sell for about $2000) contains 15,625,000 times as much memory, among other whiz-bang improvements.

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40 Comments For This Post

  1. Tech Says:

    It's amazing how computing technology advances in leaps and bounds. My first computer was a 486 with 64mb RAM. And I thought it was the greatest thing around when I got it.

  2. drew Says:

    My first was a Leading Edge Model D. About $1600 in 1988, running at 4.77 MHz. It had a 20 MB hard drive, and they had "tweaked" it to get 30 MB out of it, but it had all sorts of problems,and they ended up installing a regular 20 MB in the machine. Amberchrome monitor to top it off. That thing lasted me through graduate school….

    I just started using a new Macmini, and I don't think I have done much of anything to come close to taxing it.

  3. gargravarr Says:

    My first computer was a Commodore Vic-20. It had a mind blowing 3.5 kilobytes of RAM. Including cassette tape drive, it would have cost several hundred Australian dollars back in 1982.

    I am typing this on a 2009 Macbook Pro with 4 gigabytes of RAM. I reckon in 1982 it is possible there wasn’t 4 gig of RAM in all the personal computers in Australia combined.


  4. Renchub Says:

    Anyone want to try this for gaming systems? The original NES v. Wii? Atari v. X-Box 360? How about early PDA’s compared to the iPhone?

  5. Bouke Timbermont Says:

    There’s a mistake on page 4: the iMac doesn’t come with a Xeon, let alone dual CPUs 😉

  6. Benj Edwards Says:

    You’re right, Bouke. I fixed it — a simple copy/paste error on my part. Looks like everything else about that entry is correct.

  7. Travis Butler Says:

    Yeah, I remember many of those old classic machines – but where are the TRS-80 and Commodore PET? 🙂 It would be interesting to see some other form factor comparisons, too – Compaq Portable vs. Shuttle XPC? Data General One vs. ThinkPad? GRiD Compass vs. MacBook Pro?

  8. R.J. Caldwell Says:

    My first PC was the Ohio Scientific Challenger 1P, one of best 6502 based machines of its time. Very obsolete by todays standards but not forgotten.

  9. OHaleck Says:

    Guys, when are you going to learn that 1KB is 1024B, not 1000B?
    256B is not 0.256KB. It’s 0.25. Also, 4GB is not 4,000,000KB. It’s 4,194,304 etc., etc…. HDD capacities are sometimes given in billions and trillions of bytes to trick the customers. However, it would be very impractical to make RAM chips like that.

  10. micropartsusa Says:

    Lol, great comparison between technology yesterday & now. Really it cant be measured where it will be tomorrow. Lets imagine what might be the change in computers, dare to do it?

  11. TKO Says:

    I’m another who started with a Vic20 with 5kb RAM (3.5kb usable with the built-in Microsoft Basic 2.0 ..that was easy to fill up.) Had a tape drive for storage (ie: standard cassette tapes.) As I recall the tape drive cost around US$100 ..a 5.25″ disk drive (128kb, single sided) cost as much as the computer! Great machine though.

    As I recall, the Sinclair ZX-81, the original UK version of the Timex-1000, had only 1kb of RAM. And the CPU did *everything*.. including drawing to the screen. (32×24 characters.. pure black and white.) 🙂 In the picture shown in the article, the Timex has a whopping 16kb RAM expansion plugged into the back. Great things, but didn’t seat itself particularly firmly and could crash the machine if it moved too much.

  12. Says:

    ok guys, lets speak about 2010. what do you expect about processor, memory module & graphics ?? lets share our expectations 🙂

  13. daviesow Says:

    Now come on, this isn’t fair. C= 64 cost $595 when it was the absolute cutting edge fastest thing around whereas $1330 for the HP Pavillion does not represent a huge new-tech premium.

    I know for a fact that my mom… er, Santa that is… didn’t spend nearly $600 when I got my C= 64. We just didn’t have that kind of money.

    How much did it cost at the rock-bottom prices Jack Tramiel’s marketing schemes brought it to? Now compare it to hardware at that price inflated to today’s dollars and it’s not quite the same picture, eh?

  14. Sailor Enlil Says:

    Indeed things have come a long way. I practically lived through much of the home computing history. My first computer was the venerable Texas Instruments TI-99/4A (CPU: Texas Instruments TMS9900 @ 3.0 MHz; RAM: 16Kb; storage: cassette recorder and ROM cartriges, though 5.25" floppy drives were supported; Video: NTSC video output), and my first game console was the original Atari 2600 (CPU: MOS Technology 6507 @ 1.19 MHz: RAM: 128Kb; Storage: ROM Cartriges; Video: NTSC Video output).

    Fast forward to today, I use a custom-built desktop PC which I'm typing on right now (CPU: Intel Core 2 Quad @ 2.43 GHz; RAM: 2GB; Storage: total fixed storage over 1TB in RAID 1 configuration, 22X Dual Layer DVD Burner; Video: NVIDIA GeForce 8600 GTS), and I have a Sony Playstation 3 as my game console (CPU: Sony/IBM/Toshiba "Cell" Processor @ 3.2 GHz; RAM: 256MB System + 256MB Video; Storage: upgradable 80GB 2.5" SATA Hard Disk, 2X Blu-Ray Drive; Video: "Reality Synthesizer" aka NVIDIA G70).

    Amazing how far technology has advanced.

  15. Gundark Says:

    The Lisa vs Mac Pro comparison floored me. FOUR 30 inch cinema displays?! LOL!

    You just have to keep throwing in “stuff” to bring the price up.

    overheard while preparing this article:
    “Um, dude, we’re like $5000 short of the adjusted price target.”

    “Max out the RAM.”

    “Already is. So are the hard drives, burners, and video cards.”

    “Hmm…Give it a bigger display.”

    “It’s already got Apple’s top of the line Cinema display.”

    “Only one? We’ve got four graphics cards, give it four displays!”

    “We’re close now, but still not quite there.”

    “Throw in one more video card. I don;t know what we’ll do with it, but just throw it in there.”

  16. Mark Colan Says:

    Nit: Your numbers for RAM are incorrect. 1K = 1024 bytes, not 1000. 1MB = 1024*1024=1048576. 256 bytes = 0.25 KB, not 0.256 KB.

    Unfortunately, your numbers are “correct” for disk size, as somehow the hard disk industry has made 1k = 1000 a standard.

    Aside from the nit, these are very interesting comparisons. I had no idea the Apple Lisa was as expensive as that back then!

  17. G Jiggy Says:

    My first computer was an Atari XL running TOS. I forget how much RAM it had but it was far less than a pimple of the a** of what we use today. My first hard drive was for an Atari ST and I believe it was 5 megs and it cost me around 5000 bucks. All my friends were green with jealousy and at that price thought it was a steal (!). When I finally went PC it was a 486/DX and man I was rockin’ at the Ritz then! For two grand it had all the bells and whistles with Windows 3.1. Woohoo!

    Man have we come on long way baby!

  18. G Jiggy Says:

    Oops! That would be 500 bucks, not 5000.

  19. Ward Crutcher Says:

    My first pc was a Xerox 820. I don’t remember the specs. other than it had dual 8 inch floppies and CPM was the operating system. Wordstar was the word processor and Supercalc was the spreadsheet program, all on floppies. Extra was the 300 baud modem. I got the system at Goodwill for $50. It was over $5000 when new.

  20. Greg Lindsey Says:

    Actually, although I hate to admit this… their numbers ARE correct. ISO standards now specify that “kilo,” “mega,” “giga,” et cetera, refer to powers of ten, while “kibi,” “mebi,” “gibi,” et cetera, refer to powers of two. So a kilobyte (kB) is 1000 bytes, and a kibibyte (kiB) is 1024 bytes.

    Yes, it sounds ridiculous, and yes, nobody actually uses the things, but *technically* they are correct.

  21. John Pocze Says:

    It might be interesting to compare a current laptop to a state of the art mainframe computer of the late 60’s.
    The first computer that I used was a Control Data Corporation 6400. The hardware took up three climate controlled rooms with halon fire suppression and required a full-time staff of at least three people to maintain the central processing unit and the refrigerator sized tape drives. Programming code was entered (one line at a time) on punched cards prepared on a keypunch machine that weighed as much as an average linebacker. Results were printed out on a dot matrix printer the size of six old fashioned manual typewriters combined and just as noisy.
    The first “simple” program that I ever wrote used over 1500 punch cards and needed four revisions before it would even run.
    So where is the comparison? Well, that stack of punchcards was twice the size and three times the weight of my laptop.
    Seriously, there is no comparison. That was a different world with different technology and different expectations.

  22. The Old Coug Says:

    I got my first home computer in 1983, an Atari 800 for which I spent $550. It used the Moto 6502 chip running at a full 2 MHz (the Commodore and Apple 6502 machines ran just slightly under 2 MHz) and had 48 KB of user available RAM. It didn’t come with a floppy (that was an add-on extra) but it did have a tape storage drive. It took a full 15 minutes to load in the game Zaxxon from tape to memory.

    In 1985, I moved up to an Atari ST, for which I spent $800. It used a Moto 68000 chip running at 8 MHz (interestingly enough, the Commodore and Apple 68000 machines ran slightly under 8 MHz) and had 512 KB of available RAM. It came with a built in 3.5″ floppy drive. A year later I added a homemade external 5 MB hard drive for $500. Those were fun times.

  23. Yonsy Solis Says:

    do you forget to mention that the Atari 1040ST was the first machine whit the ratio 1KB < $1

    do you no mention any other Amiga model :(, the Amiga 1000 was the first one, but one favorite was the Amiga 2000/3000/4000AGA with VideoToaster card for video edition … or the Amiga 500 that come closer to the C64 record to be the most selled computer in the world … until the same commodore killed the product :/.

    my first PC was an Atari800XL with SpartaDOS …. i was going to buy an Atari ST, but instead, bought an Commodore 128 with several extras (2 5 1/4 drives, mouse, 512KB Ram expansion) and after this, my beloved Amiga 1200 … my first x86 PC was to install and run Amithlon, the system to run AmigaOS almost natively in x86 PC (killed for another set of stupid companies related to Amiga 🙁 )

  24. SDS Says:

    Guys – a bit off topic, but your conversion argument (1kb = 1024 bytes) reminds me of a discussion I heard a while back between a sales rep and a disgruntled customer, both of whom were completely oblivious to any technical knowledge. (note the item purchased was used, but certified like new)

    Customer: I bought this XBox 360 with a 120GB hard drive, and when I turn it on, the system says there is only 91 GB available on the hard drive

    Salesman: Well the Xbox Operating system takes up some space on the drive

    Customer: But I paid for 120GB of space, you must have given me a faulty one, I want a new one with all the space on it

    Salesman: I’ll be glad to replace it if you are not satisfied, but lets test the new one to make sure.

    …Salesman picks up a different HDD module for the Xbox360, walks over to their demo machine, which is up and running fine with no HDD in it, turns it off, plugs in the HDD, boots it up, and checks the HDD capacity… System states 91GB

    Customer: Well whatdoyaknow, the XBOX operating system does take up space on the drive. What a rippoff.

  25. Baldguy Says:

    It was frustrating for me, a 70’s teen, to see that home computers were out there, and knowing that I could never afford them. Finally, in 1993, I got a 486-66 setup for 1500 bucks. Now, I have several PC’s with various operating systems all networked and sharing a 2 meg internet connection. I have a ten-year-old Dell GX-1 backup server with mirrored drives that cost me 25 bucks. What a great time to be alive!

  26. Bruce A. Brown Says:

    I wrote the following about the PCjr in a comment on your Fifteen Classic PC Design Mistakes article before I even read the Classic PCs vs. New PCs: Their True Cost:

    … These add-ons and modifications (of a PCjr) gave me a 640K, 2 floppy, 104 key wired keyboard system for about $750. Sure it wasn’t very elegant (a couple sidecars for instance) but it worked fine especially for the money. Around the same time –1983 or 4, I used my IBM employee discount to save my dad some money on the purchase of a real IBM PC. This 256K 2 floppy system still cost over $2000 and that was with a 50% employee discount. PCs cost a LOT MORE back then, adjusting for inflation you could at least double the dollar amounts to get current equivalents. So taking in to account inflation and my discount today’s equivalent would be $8000, with that you could buy a super high-end giant monitor and hard drives (including a SSD), dual graphic card, ultra fast gaming system. …

    Using this article’s more accurate inflation figures gives me $9,504 instead of $8000 to spend. I went to the Alienware web page and configured this system for $9,482:

    Overclocked Intel Core i7 975 3.86GHz (8MB Cache)
    Alienware Area-51 ALX + TactX Headset
    Genuine Windows 7 Ultimate, 64bit, English
    Dual 2GB GDDR5 ATI Radeon HD 5970 CrossfireXEnabled
    12GB DDR3 1333MHz (3x 4GB) Tri Channel Memory
    512GB RAID 0 (2x 256GB Solid State Drive)
    1.5TB RAID 1 (2x 1.5TB SATA-II, 7,200 RPM, 32MB Cache
    Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi Titanium
    Logitech Performance Mouse MX
    Logitech Cordless Desktop MX 5500 Revolution Keyboard
    6X Blu-ray) Burner and 24x CD/DVD Burner (DVD+/-RW)
    Dell 3008WFP 30 inch UltraSharp Widescreen Digital
    19-in-1 Media Card Reader
    Logitech Cordless Rumblepad 2

    I selected the most expensive component in every category except the following:
    No PCIe slots available to add better wireless or TV tuner. Went with higher capacity (1.5TB) rather than faster rpm (10K) and lower capacity (300G) on second hard drive setup, which would have been $150 more. Didn’t add $200 flight sim controller or $80 gameboard.

    I’m more of a Audio/Video guy than a gamer (Could become one with this outrageous system) so I would be more than happy with much less expensive video card like the ATI All-IN-Wonder HD with an additional USB TV Tuner. A 30-inch monitor wouldn’t fit in my computer cabinet and seems almost too large. Anyway this is super system compared to what you got in the 80s.

  27. Hamranhansenhansen Says:

    > Guys, when are you going to learn that 1KB is 1024B, not 1000B?

    No, that’s no longer true. The traditional binary-based computing measurements have been standardized in decimal, just like all the other standardized measurements. The computer measurements have grown up, so to speak. You can see this change reflected in capacities of solid state storage and in Mac OS Snow Leopard.

    1 kilobyte is indeed 1000 bytes, just like 1 kilometer is 1000 meters. If you want to refer to 1024 bytes, that is a kibibyte. 1024 kibibytes is a mebibyte, and 1024 mebibytes is a gibibyte. Cute words, huh? The traditional kilobyte, megabyte, gigabyte, and petabyte and so on are all decimal-based now: 1000 inside each of them. 1000 gigabytes is a terabyte.

  28. tpistor Says:

    Yo – this is an invalid comparison. As you can clearly see, the Timex Sinclair has the 16KB memory extender pack added. So, it’s 16KB, not 1KB!

  29. noop Says:

    Hmm, judging from the title, I expected actual technical comparison. With price breakdown for most important components and maybe even profit margin estimation. Instead, you research work mostly amounts to USD inflation adjustments.

    BTW, my first PCs were soviet Sinclair ZX Spectrum clones, x86 PCs and Yamaha MSX-2 at school. Also BK0010, PDP-11 – based microcomputer.

    P.S. Sorry for bad english
    P.P.S. Anyone wants to compare responsiveness of early PCs with laggy modern operating systems?

  30. jebbyderinger Says:

    One other thing to take into account is wages which don't necessarily follow inflation. Spending $4000 1980 dollars might have been easier than spending the equivalent in 2009.

  31. The_Heraclitus Says:

    The equivalent today is ~$17,000. The last 2 years have been VERY hard on wages.

  32. Jsparco Says:

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  33. Gearldine Corby Says:

    Thank you for the sensible critique. Me and my neighbor were just preparing to do a little research about this. We got a grab a book from our area library but I think I learned more from this post. I’m very glad to see such wonderful info being shared freely out there.

  34. barrycohen Says:

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  35. carpets Toronto Says:

    WOW, very interesting post! I remember when I bought my first PC, it was a 386 and for me it was super advanced!

  36. Angela Says:

    LOL, we had a mac plus, and spent nearly $10,000 on an external hard drive of 20MB, that's MEGAbytes, not GIGABytes. Damn thing sounded like a plane taking off as well!
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  37. Signs Says:

    Thanks for sharing! PC Prices have been staying the same for the last couple of years. Although new technology comes out, I think we will see the base price of a PC remain around what it is for a while. I don't see them possibly getting any cheaper.

  38. PrismaBanners Says:

    It's amazing how computing technology changes. I remember when my computer finally had 1GB of HD space. thought it was the greatest thing in the world….

  39. Event Banner Says:

    It's amazing how computing technology changes. I remember when my computer finally had 1GB of HD space. thought it was the greatest thing in the world….

  40. ferricoxide Says:

    Given that modern PCs have more grunt than the mainframes of 30 years ago, it's no wonder that we're partitioning these "low end" systems in much the same way we partitioned mainframes.

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