1988 vs. 2008: A tech retrospective

Think the iPhone is pricey? The cool cell phone of 1988 cost $4382 in today's dollars. A 150MB hard drive? $8755. Take a trip with us down memory lane, and you'll never whine about the price of a gadget again.

Ever wax nostalgic about your first PC or cell phone? It's easy to forgive your Tandy desktop or your Motorola portable for their limitations — after all, they were technological infants.

What we often forget, though, is how $%#@! expensive that crude neolithic junk was! So join us on a trip two decades back in technology's history — and we bet that the next time you're charged $895 for a small square of plastic and transistors, you'll smile and say, "Wow, what a bargain!"

Home Desktop PCs

1988: Tandy 1000 TL

Price: $US1400 ($2454 adjusted for inflation)

CPU: Intel 80286

RAM: 640KB

Storage: 3.5-inch floppy

Monitor: 14-inch, 640-by-200 RGB CRT, 16 colors

2008: HP Pavilion Elite m9100z series

Price: about $1000

CPU: 2.8-GHz AMD Athlon 64 X2 5600+ dual-core

RAM: 2GB

Storage: 750GB HD, CD/DVD recorder

Monitor: 17-inch, 1440-by-900 LCD, 16.7 million colors

By 1988, personal computers had found their way into about 15 percent of U.S. households. PCs dominated, but other home systems were popular as well — among them the Apple II, Macintosh, Commodore 64, Atari ST, and Amiga 2000.

PCs came with DOS; Windows 2.0 was a $99 option, and one of many competing graphical interfaces. Radio Shack was home PC central, offering the Tandy 1000 TL for $1400 in a configuration that included a 14-inch, 16-color monitor; 640KB of RAM; and a single 3.5-inch floppy drive.

Tandy's DeskMate graphical interface provided an office suite, drawing and sound-editing apps, and PC-Link online software, a precursor to AOL. The 16-color monitor, graphical OS, and multimedia support were cutting-edge in an era still dominated by monochrome monitors and DOS. But the $1400 price didn't cover a mouse, a modem, a network card, or a hard drive, each of which was an expensive add-on. And CD-ROM drives were extremely rare. Microsoft had just released the first version of Bookshelf, a collection of reference materials on CD-ROM in September 1987, and it would be another couple years before the CD-ROM format really took off.

The situation in 2008 almost defies comparison with 1988. Instead of conserving RAM and disk space like gold, we store our entire lives on our hard drives and expect our PCs to double as home entertainment centers. For a total price of $1000, the HP Pavilion Elite m9100z is available with Vista Home Premium, a 750GB hard drive, an HDMI graphics card, Wi-Fi, a CD/DVD recorder, an HDTV tuner, surround sound, and a 17-inch flat-panel monitor.

Where do we go from here? Expect connected everything — from lights to washers to talking mirrors to fridges that make your grocery lists. Instead of a home computer, we'll have a computerized home. For a further look into the future, see "The Next 25 Years in Tech."

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Becky Waring

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