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A Look Back at Cost-Effective Computing

There's a basic principle about consumer electronics: it gets more powerful all the time and it gets cheaper all the time." --Trip Hawkins

Five dollars can buy you a shiny new computer. This is possible thanks to our technologically advanced world. However, this wasn’t always the case. Go back a decade or two and what may seem economically standard today is bound to be a lot more expensive. But were any computers back in the day cheap? In this article, we will be traveling back a few decades in an attempt to see which computers were the cheapest of their time.

The year is 1971. The world’s first personal computer, the Kenbak-1, is available to buyers for $750 (or $4388 adjusted for inflation). Manufactured by Kenbak Corporation, it contains 256 bytes of memory and uses light as an output. Unfortunately, only 40 will ever sold before Kenbak Corporation closes its doors in 1973. That same year, the HP-35 handheld calculator is released. Named an IEEE Milestone (“Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers”), the HP-35's success will allow Hewlett Packard to dominate the handheld calculator market. The problem is it costs $395 or $2,311 per unit modern day equivalent. Needless to say, computers aren’t a very mainstream product at this time due to their extremely prohibitive cost. Throughout the 70's, most computers sold from $440/2245 to as much as $8,975/41,970. Two notable exceptions are the 1973 TV Typewriter which could be built for 120$/696 from self sourced components (TV not included) and the massively popular 1980 Commodore VIC-20 for $299/913, which was actually one of the first computer to sell more than a million units.

The Commodore 64 and VIC-20 respectively

The four most “economic” options of the 1980's are (including the previously mentioned VIC-20) the best seller 1982 Commodore 64 for $595/1,551, The Commodore Amiga 500 for $700/1,550 (which is powerful enough for animation and graphic design work), and the surprisingly cheap 1980 Sinclair ZX80 which sells for as little as 79 pounds as a kit (equivalent to $254 today). The Sinclair ZX80 can be considered the famous Raspberry Pi’s predecessor in two regards: price (one of the lowest of its time) and origin (UK). A notable mention is the Laser 128, dubbed an “Apple clone,” from Hong Kong that sells for the much lower price of $479/1021.

Moving into the 90's, the most important brand of low-end PCs is the eMachine, costing either $399/610 or $499/762 without a monitor. EMachines are the go-to solution for low-end computers. The brand would release further models throughout their lifespan such as the eOne selling for $799/1208 or as little as $400/605 with rebates.

First Raspberry Pi (Model B)

Returning to the 21st century, there is an outstanding and ongoing amount of new computers coming out. So much so that it would be almost impossible to list all options by year. Instead, only the most industry-changing models will be listed.

In 2005, the first Arduino kit is released. While it is only a microcontroller it still deserves an honorable mention as it fits into the scope of economic computing.

Less than a decade later in 2011, there are 2 major releases into the computing scene: the Raspberry Pi and the Intel NUC. (Although the NUC isn’t priced as affordably as the Raspberry Pi, it offers much better specs than the latter.) The Pi costed around $35 on launch, and newer, cheaper models are available today for as little as $5. Another radical change in computing is the introduction of Chromebooks. These are laptops that are able to cut immense costs by having an operating system that offloads a lot of storage and program processing to web applications, allowing for less expensive hardware. Consequently, these are one of the cheapest flagship laptops on the market today.

Whether for everyday computing, accessing the internet, using applications, or just plain prototyping, there is a huge array of affordable computers, all perfect for work and play without having to spend hundreds of dollars. The technologies and economics behind these computers benefit us all, regardless of our background. From making it more accessible to learn computing to providing manufacturers with a way to create better computers at a fraction of a cost. Not to mention that these computers allow business and education establishments to upgrade their systems at a much lower price. Computing has improved drastically these past few decades and has opened many new doors for everyone. Now, all that’s left to see is where it will go next.


Computer History Museum website:

All prices have been taken either from the Computer History Museum website or the computers respective Wikipedia page/official website linked. Prices are written in the format Price/price adjusted for inflation using

Sameer Harbi is the manager of a one-man indie game studio. He and his studio can be reached at

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