Computing Costs in the Day
Tech is cheap today!
Believe it or not, the cost of computing has dropped dramatically since the early days. It’s fun to look back at early computing to see how things were done back then, but one thing that is often overlooked is what things actually cost.
You’ll see people complain today about how expensive a Mac Pro ($6,000) or some software is today but let’s take a look back, shall we?
In 1979, the Atari 800 first became available at a price of $999. This computer originally came with 8K of RAM and nothing else. That price did not include a monitor (you were expected to hook it up to your TV), nor did it include any sort of storage. A cassette drive would add $79, and the Atari 810 disk drive was a whopping $449 (both of these are 1982 prices).
But as high as those price look, don’t forget about inflation. That means that in 2022 dollars, the Atari 800 from 1979 was about $3,600! The disk drive in 2022 dollars would be $1,380. At a combined price of about $5,000 you are now getting pretty close to what a Mac Pro costs today. And keep in mind, this computer literally could not do anything until you added some software. Most games were about $30 to $50 back then ($90 to $158). Programming and productivity software could be $80 and up.
In 1982, the Apple IIe (with 64K or RAM) was introduced at $1,395 ($4,156). When introduced, this was considered the “low cost” Apple. By then you could get an Atari 800 for about $600 with 48K of RAM ($1,787).
No matter how you look at it, computing was expensive back then!
OK, let’s move ahead a few years to 1984-1986 or so. At this point, Apple had introduced the Macintosh at a price of $2,495 ($7,433), which included the display, disk drive and 128K of RAM. It dropped a bit in 1985 when the Mac 512K and Mac Plus were introduced in 1985/1986.
In 1986 you could get the Atari 1040ST for $999 ($2,976), which included a monochrome display, disk drive and 1024K of RAM. This was heralded as a price breakthrough back then, the first computer with 1MB of RAM for under $1,000. But that equivalent cost is much more than the Mac mini I’m using to write this post, even with it upgraded to 64GB of RAM!
By the way, keep in mind when I say “disk drive”, I mean a floppy disk drive. Hard drives were not common yet because they were insanely expensive. I bought my first hard drive in 1991, a 105MB model for about $400 ($870 in 2022).
Pricing continued to drop into the 1990s. I bought my first PC (and AT&T model) for about $2,000 in 1995 ($3,800 in 2022). It had a Pentium 60, a built-in 500MB hard disk and 8MB of RAM.
In 2001 I bought my first Mac, a PowerMac G4 for $1,699 ($2,849 in 2022). I almost went with the PowerMac G4 cube, but it was not as good a value. For my $1,699, I got a G4 CPU running at 466Mhz, 128MB of RAM and an 30GB hard disk.
Comparatively, prices now are cheap! Today you can get a Mac Studio with 32GB of RAM and an insanely fast ARM processor for $2,000, much less than just about any computer I listed above cost.
So when I see an Atari 800XL on eBay selling for $150, I don’t freak out about it being a “rip-off”. I look at it as a steal, because $150 today was about $60 in 1985 and that would have been dirt cheap back then.
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Yeah, I guess the right thing to measure for computing efficiency is something like Mflops (or Gflops, or Tflops) per $? And that's for the initial purchase, so after buying I guess there would be a running cost in flops/Joule of energy consumed or something like that, which has also been coming down.