16. Tandy TRS-80 Model I (1977)
Tandy’s TRS-80 Model I lacked the pizzazz of the Apple II, but it was the first computer to be truly marketed to the masses: over 200,000 of the monochromatic little machines were sold by Radio Shack, an electronics retailer with thousands of locations in an age when almost nobody had ever heard of a computer store.
For the price of a modern well-priced value system, the first iteration of the TRS-80 gave you a measly 4KB of RAM and a rudimentary version of the BASIC language, and it stored programs on sluggish, flaky audiocassette tapes. As with other early PCs, the best way to get it to do something was to write a program from scratch. “There was an almost indescribable joy to be had the first time a program that you wrote yourself actually worked,” remembers early owner Craig Landrum.
Over time, the Model I gained more memory, disk drives, networking and other enhancements. It also acquired a library of thousands of programs, and saw the debut of progeny such as the TRS-80 Model 100 portable (number 8 on our list). TRS-80 computers were the first to be the subject of magazines devoted entirely to one company’s PCs; today, they’re impressively documented at Ira Goldklang’s TRS-80.com.
15. Shuttle SV24 Barebone System (2001)
For years, the PC was all about the big beige box. But, in 2001, Shuttle came up with a toaster-size design for do-it-yourselfers that would push the limits of how much you could pack into a tight space. And it was tight: the case measured just 10.6 by 7.5 by 6.7 inches, and its components were so crammed in that airflow seemed to be an afterthought. To get an idea of just how small it was compared with a standard mid-size tower, turn to Anandtech’s review of this system.
The extremely thrifty SV24 Barebone System offered the basics, namely a compact Flex ATX motherboard with integrated audio and graphics and a 150-watt power supply, housed in Shuttle’s small, aluminium case. You supplied the processor, memory and storage. Appropriate for home or office use, this tiny system sparked a slew of imitators, all trying to match and improve upon its combination of size, functionality and style.
Today, Shuttle not only sells bare-bones systems, but also offers fully hatched PCs. The company’s compact models have upped the ante considerably with regard to performance and construction.
14. Atari 800 (1979)
Two years after Atari unleashed its first video game console, later dubbed the Atari 2600, the company shipped its first home computers. In many ways, the Atari 800–the more advanced of the two models Atari introduced in late 1979–redefined the expectations of what a home computer could do, especially in graphics and sound.
Part game machine, part productivity enhancer, the Atari 800 was the first home computer to feature a custom video coprocessor in addition to its CPU, which was the same 8-bit 6502 used in the Apple II. This design enabled the Atari 800 to generate 128 colours (256 in later versions) on screen. The system could also display four programmable animated screen objects at once–a boon for action games such as Star Raiders, the system’s “killer app”–and it had another custom chip that helped it produce superior sound (four voices, across 3.5 octaves). Two cartridge slots under the hood were available for games and other applications, and four joystick ports were included too.
While Atari eventually replaced its 8-bit computers with the 16-bit ST line, designer Jay Miner, who led the team behind the Atari 800’s video chips, went on to lead the group that developed the Commodore Amiga 1000’s graphics system.
Like all kids my age, I wanted an Atari 2600 to play games. But, my mom thought it would be a good idea to get something that could be educational, so my family decided on an Atari 800. Many a night of head-to-head Star Raiders, Missile Command and Pac-Man tournaments ensued with my dad (all very educational, of course). But the Atari 800 wasn’t entirely about the games; I also used mine to learn BASIC programming and compose my school papers. For years my memory retained AtariWriter’s string of control codes–conceptually similar to HTML coding–for such common tasks as making text italic or bold. Little did my mom know then where all of that would lead.
— Melissa J. Perenson