1. Apple II (1977)
The Apple II wasn’t the first personal computer, or the most advanced one, or even the best-selling model of its age. But, in many ways, it was The Machine That Changed Everything. On all four of our criteria–innovation, impact, industrial design and intangibles–it was such a huge winner that it ended up as our Greatest PC of All Time.
The 8-bit system came with 4KB of memory, expandable to 48KB. It used a cassette rather than a disk for storage. It cost about twice the base price of its two biggest competitors, the Tandy TRS-80 Model I and the Commodore PET 2001. It couldn’t even display lowercase letters (in the first several years of its existence, anyway). Yet, it packed more pure innovation than any other early computer, and was the first PC that deserved to be called a consumer electronics device.
Born out of the Home Brew Computer Club by Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs’s tiny Apple Computer in 1977, the Apple II was the company’s second PC, but it boasted more than its share of firsts: it was the first colour PC (you could even use it with a television), the first to be easily expandable by users and the first to run the VisiCalc spreadsheet–proving that these new boxes had a place in business.
But, perhaps its greatest innovation was its design. Jobs wanted the machine to look at home on people’s desktops, so he insisted that the Apple II have a sleek look, as opposed to the sheet-metal-and-exposed-wire appearance of most other early PCs. The machine’s coolness factor–an Apple trademark to this day–was as important to its long-term success as Wozniak’s inventive engineering was.
And, we do mean long-term: from the original Apple II model that debuted at the first West Coast Computer Faire in April 1977 to the discontinuation of the final iteration of the IIe in December 1993 (outlasting the 16-bit IIGS model that was introduced years after it), more than 2 million Apple II-family PCs had been produced. The Apple II line, well documented at Steven Weyhrich’s Apple II History site, kept the company going through the Apple Lisa debacle and other turbulent events of the 1980s. By the middle of that decade though, Apple had turned its attention to that other world-beater, the Macintosh Plus (number 4 on our list).
But, it was the Apple II that put the personal in the nascent personal computer industry. The rest is history.
I didn’t own the Apple II, I waited for one of its successors, the Apple IIe, a big, big step up from the very first Apple II. My Apple IIe came with a colour screen, a floppy drive and an 80-column display instead of the original’s 40-column display. I have fond memories of using the Apple IIe to index and abstract tech articles, although I could fit only four records on each 5.25-inch floppy, which meant I had to carry stacks and stacks of floppies between home and office. I also remember having a love-hate relationship with the integrated keyboard: its stiff keys made it a pain to use, sometimes literally.
— Dennis O’Reilly