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)