Sure, we love iPods, TiVo, and fancy-schmancy digital cameras, just like everyone else. But let’s talk about advances that make a difference where it really counts: in the PC.
While myriad best-of lists have ranked the greatest gadgets, software products, and videogames ever made, here we turn our attention to advances that have impacted the development, enjoyment, and raw power of the personal computer. Our staff-generated list looks at not just critical machines to come down the pike (#55), but also essential CPUs (#51), operating systems (#15), components (#18), and peripherals (#94), as well as the occasional piece of software (#74) and videogame (#9) that pushed PCs into new territory.
The result is an exhaustive look at the PC from its birth (#7)—and even its conception (#73)—to today (#71), piece by piece. Naturally, the list is skewed toward performance and gaming-oriented technologies. We respect WordStar as much as any high-tech historian, but you try typing a corporate memo when you’ve got a freakin’ Shub-Niggurath (#6) bearing down on your ass.
So join us on a stroll through PC history and tip your hat to the technologies large and small that have either endured for decades or changed the game completely. As always, we anxiously await your complaints over what we forgot.
Edit (12/03): We inadvertantly left the "PC" out of this story's headline when we first posted it.
Laugh, but Microsoft’s own website has more than 1,400 pages devoted to the ubiquitous Windows game (introduced in Windows 3.0). You know you play it.
That beeping? It’s the sound of you happily continuing your game of Wizardry while your neighbor reads by candlelight.
Would people really shell out more than $200 for a box that merely stores their PC’s innards? Cooler Master proved that cases need not be boring and started the trend in fashionable enclosures with this aluminum beaut.
We resort to the three-finger salute so often that the print is wearing off of these three keys on our keyboard. Serenity now!
VoIP existed long before this app came around, but Skype made Internet telephony easy enough for the average user. Free phone calls to Indonesia—yeah!
A big attaboy to the guy who thought of putting USB and headphone jacks on the front of the PC instead of only on the back. Flashlight use is down 30 percent since their introduction.
Many users found the split MS Natural keyboard awkward for typing, but a generation of carpal tunnel sufferers discovered that the ergonomic design was just what the doctor ordered.
While the webcam has been used for some dubious purposes (Editor in Chief Will Smith uses one to watch his dog), the idea behind it—to stream pictures and video to the Internet with cheap hardware—is a decent one. We think.
It’s the open-source browser you know and love. Firefox regularly implements new features ahead of Internet Explorer, while also eating away at the latter’s market share.
Pac-Man? Mario? Newbs. Versions of this classic simulator date back to 1977 (Microsoft got it in ’82), making it arguably the longest continuously developed game series of all time.
In the sketchy early ’00s, security exploits were rampant, and Microsoft offered no help. A good firewall was usually all that stood between you and the bad guys. ZoneAlarm was the best of the lot—and it was free!
The first widely successful thumb drive worked without an onerous driver installation, plus it had a great nickname, the Donkey!
Cable modems (see #23) seem to have beaten DSL in the broadband wars, but DSL was first on the scene, teaching us there was life beyond 56k.
A surround sound experience with only two speakers? Aureal’s A3D tricks the human ear into hearing more than is really there, and for that, we’re duly impressed
Go ahead and laugh. AOL may be a joke today (did you hear the one about the guy who tried to cancel his account?), but it got millions of people turned on to interconnectivity in the early Internet days.
Finally, a successor to the fat-boy ATA/IDE cable (see #80). SATA allows for better cable management, better air flow, and, of course, far faster transfer speeds. It’s even available in external form.
A stopgap between the floppy drive and ubiquitous CD-R availability, the 100MB Zip disk was heavily used in the graphics industry to cart multi-megabyte files from one computer to another.
Despite some shortcomings, the PowerBook 100 revolutionized laptop design by moving the keyboard to the back of the unit, making it much easier to type on.
While best known for its use as camera memory in products such as SD cards, flash is now making its way into solid-state hard drives and other performance-boosting applications in PCs.
BitTorrent’s ultimate impact is probably yet to be seen: Some estimates say the extremely popular P2P protocol now consumes up to 75 percent of all net traffic.
Western Digital pioneered this ribbon-cable standard for hard drive connections more than 20 years ago, despite early cables that were prone to shorting and breaking down altogether.
This workhorse printer became a mainstay in office environments, where you can still find them cranking out pages today. In 1991, the LaserJet IIISi introduced network printing to the world while simultaneously ensuring continued work for IT guys.
A pioneer in commercial Linux software, Red Hat legitimized the open-source space and helped other projects, such as Ubuntu (see #50), get their footing.
Cambridge SoundWorks invented the satellite/subwoofer concept, and its introduction of the divine 2.1-channel MicroWorks blew the PC market wide open. Eleven years later, our Lab set is still thumpin’.
This chunky, supercheap proto-PC at least looked like a computer, introducing many to BASIC and LOGO programming, as well as the joys of the tape drive.
A pre-Compaq “luggable,” the Osborne 1 was a CP/M machine that came preloaded with business applications like WordStar. Osborne’s meteoric rise and almost immediate fall are one of computing’s great and tragic yarns.
Originally the programming project of a University of Illinois student, Eudora made the world of email available to millions of consumers—those who didn’t use AOL, anyway.
This “lowercase” pc featured an Intel 8080 CPU and was primarily a kit computer for hobbyists, sold via an ad in Popular Electronics. This early bird turned people on to the primitive possibilities of ’puters.
Today, scanners are so cheap and easy to produce they are practically given away, but they were once expensive monstrosities that were nonetheless necessary in the pre-digital-photo age.
One 3.5-inch drive. One terabyte of storage. It took 13 years for the hard drive industry to surmount its second “big” barrier (see #18). Will we see petabyte drives by 2020?
A bit clunky, sure, but the thermal benefits of liquid cooling are critical for overclockers pushing their PCs to the absolute limit.
Intel’s third-gen Pentium II and Pentium III chipset represented the pinnacle of motherboard technology for years: 440BX boards regularly outperformed later models from Intel.
Do we enjoy being able to cram 8.5 gigs on a disc? Yes. But we LOVE that our lives are free of nasty VHS tapes. Bonus: As a movie technology, DVD was released without a serious standards war surrounding it—refreshing!
You might not have spent your formative computing years futzing with spreadsheets, but legions of suits certainly did, turning 1-2-3 into the PC’s first “killer app.”
AMD’s second-generation Athlon 64 socket offered a handy performance boost thanks to its dual-channel 128-bit memory interface. All at a reasonable price, too.
WordPerfect is for sissies. Microsoft Word may be bloated, but there’s a reason it’s the industry standard: It can do anything you want it to, as well as thousands of things you need not know about.
Finally supplanting the old 5.25-inch formfactor, the 3.5-inch hard drive became an enduring standard that shows few signs of slowing down.
The laws of computing shouldn’t really let you shove two graphics boards into a PC and boost your performance, but somehow they do. Nvidia’s unlikely technology (which various vendors had tried to develop for years) has helped the company decimate the competition in high-end graphics.
Desktop or mobile, it’s the chip to beat in today’s computing environment, offering the best performance on the market by a wide margin.
No, not the disposable DVD format. DivX is the world’s best hope for a universal compressed video-encoding format. Many set-top DVD players even support the format.
You just didn’t run Windows in the ’90s without antivirus software. You still don’t, come to think of it.
Intel pioneered the AGP slot to provide better bandwidth for graphics cards, without having to share the clogged PCI bus (see #34). The standard was an instant hit, surviving until the PCI Express era.
Originally developed in the 1970s, Seagate finally implemented this hard-drive technology in 2006. It’s perhaps the most important single innovation to hit magnetic storage in decades.
After decades of seeing manufacturers cram desktop chips into laptops, Intel wised up and developed a low-power chip with surprisingly good performance, finally bridging the performance gap with desktop Pentiums.
This 10,000rpm, 36GB hard drive introduced high-speed SATA storage. Despite its now-smallish size, it remains a top choice for high-performance users.
Apple changed the computing game with this humble (yet spendy) beige box, launching the mouse-driven GUI as we know it today.
Would you ever have thought that the de facto industry-standard IM client would be a product from America Online? We sure didn’t.
At last, PC users got true multitasking and a less heinously ugly UI with the launch of Win95. Long file names! A TCP/IP stack! The Rolling Stones’s “Start Me Up”! What’s not to love?
This giant LCD offers numerous video inputs and unimpeachable quality, and it made large-scale, widescreen graphics affordable to the masses.
Intel finally dropped its long-held numerical naming scheme (due to trademark issues) with the launch of the Pentium. This was also the first Intel chip to feature a dual pipeline and, with its 64-bit data path, took baby steps toward
At long last, a Linux for the masses became a reality in the form of the easy-to-install and (relatively) easy-to-use Ubuntu. Dell’s even preinstalling it on PCs as a Windows alternative.
Instant messaging got its start with ICQ. Believe it or not, the now-cumbersome app is still being actively developed.
The most powerful graphics board of its time, ATI’s top seller was also the first card to support DirectX 9’s fully programmable shaders.
The best-selling computer game of ’98 is one of the most enduring strategy titles of all time. Nine years on, it’s still being used in professional gaming tournaments, especially in Korea, where StarCraft matches are regularly televised.
Socket 7 (see #35) wouldn’t work without a motherboard for it to sit on. Intel’s original Triton chipset also stabilized a frustrating PC industry, then marred by buggy third-party chipsets and incompatible technologies.
Sure, they were slow and prone to failure, but consider the alternative: 5.25-inch floppies. This hard-shelled storage standard at least got us through a decade and a half of portable storage.
Shawn Fanning made history in more ways than one with this P2P app/service. Everything from iTunes to BitTorrent owes its existence to Napster, and for that, Mr. Fanning, we thank you.
Microsoft itself refers to the IME 3.0’s comfort and control as “legendary,” and we won’t argue with that. This mouse finally made optical sensors the standard for PC mice. It was so popular Microsoft recently reissued it.
The beginning of multitasking! 386 Enhanced Mode let you use your newfangled 80386-based PC plus Windows 3.1 to run DOS apps in multiple resizable windows.
While Win98 was an evolutionary improvement over Win95, Win98 SE was a must-have upgrade because of one key feature: It let you use USB with far fewer headaches.
Those of you who were too broke to buy an Apple got one of these $595 jobbies instead. Boulder Dash FTW!
Is there any sound so gratifying as the deafening whirr/grind of a dot-matrix printer? Epson’s MX-80 made cheap printing available to the masses, who didn’t seem to mind its low-grade quality or the noise as long as they could keep churning out rad Print Shop banners.
Portable computing was a decidedly unpleasant affair for a decade, with obese, underpowered laptops ruling a small market. That changed with IBM’s entry into the business: the groundbreaking ThinkPad, which finally proved that powerful computers need not be the size of a server room.
Steve Jobs’s real breakthrough was the watershed Apple II, which got enthusiasts into home computing with an affordable, expandable machine.
We could read optical discs (see #26), why not write to them as well? CD-R rapidly made optical the medium of choice for backups, sneakernet file swapping, and every other storage need.
Once upon a time, all CPUs worked with the same motherboard: That time was 1994, when Socket 7 allowed you to plug in not just Intel CPUs, but also AMD’s, Cyrix’s, and other vendors’ chips.
The PC had been saddled with the pokey ISA bus for more than a decade before a successor arose in the form of PCI. This 32-bit slot proved perfectly capable of handling all manner of peripherals and was the standard for graphics connectors for most of the ’90s.
Early LCDs looked pretty on your desk but were too slow for gaming. This 20-inch LCD from Dell was the first to approach CRTs in response time.
These mods for Quake (see #6) showed how far graphics could be taken, even in this era of early 3D. GL Quake’s tweaks changed the game in unpredictable ways, while QuakeWorld launched serious, lag-free multiplayer twitch gaming.
Two of anything is better than one, particularly when it comes to displays: The G400 handily launched the multihead craze with its dual VGA outputs.
It’s critical for two reasons: In one machine, Compaq invented the PC clone market and the portable computer. Not bad for a company with no track record at all.
This is the reason everyone looks better in photographs than they do in real life. It’s also reportedly the most pirated application ever.
Finally evolving the long-standard AT motherboard formfactor, ATX solved some key problems with the AT mobo and case, like its soldered power-supply connectors and archaic connector selection. Want to see how enduring ATX has been ever since? Look inside your PC.
Intel’s hegemony of the processor world came to an abrupt, albeit temporary, end in 2003, with this first consumer 64-bit CPU. While Intel retook the performance throne with the Core 2 Duo’s release, A64 features such as an on-die memory controller are still groundbreaking.
It was a short hop from digital audio to computer data, with software manufacturers finally shipping titles (initially heavy on reference books) on CD instead of floppy. The optical disc format would eventually lead to the floppy’s demise and remains popular today.
The best-selling PC shooter of all time, and for good reason. Half-Life combines groundbreaking graphics with an intriguing storyline, unique among FPSes, and spawned a new generation of immersive first-person games.
The popular Hercules Graphics Card gave you every color you could want, as long as it was green. IBM’s CGA standard upgraded you to 16 glorious colors—profoundly changing our Castle Wolfenstein experience.
Consumers initially fretted that cable broadband’s “shared” connection would cause prime-time traffic jams, but that never really happened. Cable’s superior throughput and better stability have made it the broadband connection of choice for the digerati, at least for now.
For a while in 2000, it looked like we might be forced to shell out for pricey RDRAM to prevent memory bottlenecks in our PCs. DDR SDRAM saved the day by doubling memory bandwidth at a reasonable price.
The IBM 5150 (see #8) isn’t notable for just its innards, it also had one of the most reliable and usable keyboards ever—a loud, mechanical beast that was rated for over 100 million keystrokes... per key.
With no real onboard audio system in most PC clones, gamers needed an add-in card to make sweet, sweet sound come from their machines. Creative’s Sound Blaster was an instant hit.
Finally replacing low-power, environmentally hazardous nickel-based battery packs, lithium-ion made portable computing a possibility for more than an hour at a time, with the added excitement of an occasional “exploder.”
While IBM invented the first true gigabyte hard drive years earlier, it weighed 550 pounds and cost $40,000. WD broke the 1GB barrier for home users in June 1994.
Bumping old twisted-pair Ethernet from 10Mb/s to 100Mb/s, Fast Ethernet became the industry standard for wired networking, finally killing off competitors like Token Ring and 10Base2.
Though architecturally a mess, the GeForce 2 was the first pixel-shading GPU, bringing 3D graphics into the mainstream with its advanced lighting techniques and filtering features.
So simplistic it was originally called QDOS (Quick and Dirty Operating System), MS-DOS was critical for introducing computing to the mainstream without the vast complexity of UNIX and mainframe OSes.
The addition of an on-chip cache, FPU, and, most importantly, instruction pipelining ushered in a chip architecture that would endure until the multicore era. This chip was produced all the way until September 2007.
The industry had toyed with wireless technologies during the late ’90s, but the advent of 802.11b finally provided a cable-free networking system with enough bandwidth and range to begin the inexorable shift away from Ethernet.
Stanford’s Douglas Engelbart developed the original mouse during the 1960s, finally patenting it in 1970. Xerox added a ball in 1972, then Apple stole it and the rest is history.
This lossy compressed audio format got the digital media revolution started. Despite numerous competitors, it’s still the only universally supported music format.
Microsoft’s graphics API has evolved from a tricky method to fool Windows into playing games into a sophisticated, industry-standard PC graphics platform. Yes, that Microsoft.
Never mind Wolfenstein 3D, it was Doom that put 3D PC gaming on the map—so to speak. The game is so insanely popular it’s been ported to just about every platform imaginable, from cell phones to workstations.
With 16KB of RAM and up to two internal 5.25-inch floppy drives, the 5150 was the first modern PC. While it was priced out of reach of most consumers, the technology (obviously) endured. Many 5150s are still running today.
Hayes pioneered consumer modems, which let patient PC users speak to other PCs in the pre-broadband days. Though few people use them anymore, they’re still integrated into virtually every desktop and laptop.
Earlier titles like Doom (see #9) and Duke Nukem 3D hinted at what the future of gaming would look like, but Quake finally fulfilled the promise, replacing 2D sprites and maps with real 3D models and environments.
Is XP the best Windows of all time? Windows 95 (#53) and 98 (#41) were both influential, even groundbreaking, but the stability and speed of XP have already made it endure far longer than either of those OSes. XP’s additional features, like Remote Desktop, device driver rollback, ClearType, and better multi-user support make it a must-have upgrade, but the general reaction to XP’s successor, Windows Vista, really pushes XP into classic territory. The widespread rejection of Microsoft’s latest bloated OS will give XP even more life than it might otherwise have had.
If one application had a more profound impact on modern-day computing than any other, it is Mosaic, the first web browser, which was developed by the National Center for Supercomputing Applications. Before Mosaic, the closest you could get to a graphical Internet was the occasional spot of ASCII art during your Telnet session. In conjunction with the HTTP protocol, the interconnected, fully graphical World Wide Web was born. Bits of Mosaic code are still found in most major browsers.
With the Pentium II, Intel tried something different, packing the CPU along with a daughterboard and a heatsink inside a slot-based package instead of an exposed-pin socket. The trick let Intel separate the L2 cache from the CPU, which increased cache size, while keeping prices down. The Pentium II significantly outperformed earlier CPUs, particularly when running then-hot “multimedia” functions. The chip cemented Intel’s lead in the CPU market until the rise of the Athlon 64 (see #27).
The PC graphics market used to be even messier than it is today. When it got its start in earnest in 1996, with 3dfx’s Voodoo 1 chipset, getting 3D graphics on your PC meant having an add-in card in addition to your standard VGA board and daisy-chaining them together. But gamers will put up with a lot, and the Voodoo 1 became an instant hit, powering must-have titles like Quake (see #6), which turned gaming from the pseudo-3D Doom era into a new realm of complexity and realism. Without the Voodoo 1, you’d probably still be playing Castlevania.
No connector has proven more useful and reliable than USB, the first step away from the dog-slow legacy of serial and parallel ports. USB offered some unheard-of features for its time: the ability to connect peripherals without turning off the PC first (we call it hotswapping now), daisy-chain up to 127 devices together, and draw power without a separate AC connection. Though USB later upgraded throughput to 480Mb/s, it shrewdly kept the same formfactor, which effectively relegated competitor FireWire exclusively to DV apps and Macintoshes.