The 25 greatest PCs of all time

IBM’s first PC, announced on August 12, 1981, was far from the first personal computer – but, when it arrived, there was near-universal agreement that it was likely to be a landmark machine. It was. And 25 years later, it still ranks among the most significant computers ever.

Like the IBM Personal Computer, Model 5150, the greatest systems have always had ambitions to boldly go where no computer has gone before. Without these innovative machines, the PC revolution would have been a lot less…well, revolutionary. So we decided to celebrate the IBM PC’s 25th birthday by identifying the 25 PCs that have mattered most–from any manufacturer, and from any era.

No single characteristic makes a computer great. But we managed to boil down an array of winning qualities into four factors, all of which happen to begin with the letter I.

Innovation: Did the PC do anything that was genuinely new? Did it incorporate the latest technology?

Impact: Was it widely imitated? Did it become part of the cultural zeitgeist?

Industrial design: Was it a looker? Did it have clever features that made using it a pleasure?

Intangibles: Was there anything else about it that set it apart from the same ol’ same ol’?

Armed with this scale, we considered dozens of PCs–which meant that we also had to consider the question “What exactly is a PC?”. Ultimately, we decided that a PC is anything that’s recognizably a desktop or portable computer in design–or, alternatively, anything that runs an operating system originally created for desktops and laptops.

After a lot of nostalgic debate, we selected our winners. Which systems we picked–and didn’t pick–for our Top 25 may be controversial.

Just to drum up a little suspense, we’ll reveal the Top 25 starting with number 25, and then work our way backward to the single greatest PC of all time. (Spoilsports can skip ahead to number 1; we won’t be any the wiser. You can also jump to the complete list of our Top 25 picks).

25. Non-Linear Systems Kaypro II (1982) Non-Linear Systems’ Kaypro II didn’t break new ground when it appeared toward the end of 1982, but it was a classic case of the right product at the right time. Even more than the Osborne (which had pioneered the concept of the luggable microcomputer), it appealed to a growing group of non-geeks who were awakening to the productivity benefits of personal computers, but couldn’t afford (or didn’t want to spend) several thousand dollars for an Apple or IBM PC along with the necessary software and peripherals (such as a printer).

Named for NLS founder (and digital voltmeter inventor) Andrew Kay, the Kaypro II –and its series of successors over the ensuing years, including the 4 and the 2x–was a moderately priced alternative. When first released, the Kaypro II cost $1795 and, like the Osborne, came with all the productivity software (word processor, spreadsheet) most people would need. Encased in grey and blue metal, the Kaypro was rugged and utilitarian in design: you could latch the keyboard over the 9-inch monochrome display (far roomier than the Osborne’s stingy 5-incher) and carry it like a suitcase. But, at 26 pounds, it was a heavy piece of luggage. The Kaypro line also represented the last gasp of the CP/M operating system: by the mid-1980s, MS-DOS was already becoming the lingua franca of non-Apple personal computing.

“The Kaypro’s affordability and out-of-the-box usability was very popular with journalists, including myself: in 1984 I took out a $1,600 loan to buy a Kaypro 2x — my first computer– and, by then, the purchase price also got me a daisy-wheel printer. A year or so later, I became a TV critic for a newspaper, which bought me a Hayes Smartmodem that let me electronically transmit my reviews from home (the modem also enabled my introduction to online computing). I used that Kaypro and Hayes modem until 1992, when I took out another loan to buy my first IBM clone. I’ve never again used the same PC for eight years.”Yardena Arar

24. Toshiba Qosmio G35-AV650 (2006) Increasingly, PCs have evolved into sophisticated entertainment devices. And the first truly entertainment-centric notebook to catch our attention was Toshiba’s Qosmio, which continues to innovate as a portable entertainment PC two years after its introduction. (Oh, that name? Toshiba says it derived Qosmio, pronounced “kozmio”, from cosmos, as in universe, and the Italian word mio, meaning “my”). The latest iteration not only improves on the thoughtful design of its predecessors, but is also the first notebook to integrate a blue-laser-based optical drive — in this case, HD DVD — for playback of high-definition entertainment content.

The current, third-generation Qosmio G35-AV650 packs a slew of features that will make it as at home in your living room as in your home office. A stylish 10.1-pound notebook, this model’s HDMI port supports HDCP and 1080i output, so you can connect it to an HDTV. It also runs Windows XP Media Center and comes with a TV tuner and remote control, so it can serve as a DVR. The 17-inch wide-screen LCD gets its power from two lamps instead of one, which we found generated greater brightness than competing models. The system features an integrated 1-bit digital amplifier, Harman/Kardon speakers, and Dolby Home Theater enhancements, as well.

“When I first reviewed the Qosmio, I liked its winning combination of looks and design. I have big hands, and I found the notebook easy to navigate. I also appreciated its bright, high-resolution display. The roomy LCD provides plenty of on-screen real estate for when I’m working on spreadsheets and its audio-visual prowess provides welcome relief after hours.”Danny Allen

23. Apple eMate 300 (1997) Over the past three decades, Apple Computer has released a bunch of great PCs that had a huge impact on the marketplace. Here’s one that had almost no impact during its short life — aside from its cameo in the film Batman and Robin as Batgirl’s (Alicia Silverstone’s) PC — but we love it anyway.

The affordable eMate was idiosyncratic in virtually every way a computer can be idiosyncratic, starting with its target audience: schoolkids. It ran an operating system designed for PDAs (Apple’s Newton OS). It didn’t have a hard drive, but it did have pen input. It looked vaguely like a notebook, but its industrial design–with a green, curvy case that looked like it had sprung from the mind of science-fiction illustrator H.R. Giger — was utterly unique.

The eMate attracted a cult audience among business users. But Steve Jobs, who returned to Apple soon after its launch, wasn’t a believer: less than a year after the eMate shipped, he killed it, along with the rest of the Newton line. The cult continues though — you can even find hacks to overclock the eMate at Stephanie’s Newton website.

Almost a decade later, the eMate feels like an early pass at the kind of innovative, affordable educational PC that the world is still trying to create. Too bad it turned out to be a dead end.

22. Hewlett-Packard 100LX (1993) HP’s 100LX wasn’t the first would-be pocket PC, but it was the