If you wanted to get in on the ground floor of the IBM PC revolution, you needed deep pockets. Way back at the start of PCMag’s existence, in 1982, an IBM PC 5150 with an add-on 10MB hard drive and a copy of Multi-Tool Word—the first version of Microsoft Word—would have run you more than $15,000 in inflation-adjusted dollars. That worked for businesses, which made the money back in increased efficiency. But home computer enthusiasts stuck with less expensive models like the $1,666 (inflation-adjusted) Commodore 64.
All that has changed over the past 40 years. Computer and printer prices plummeted throughout the ’80s and ’90s, and PC storage continues to be cheaper and faster every year. But some of the tech we’ve tracked isn’t getting any less expensive, and for some, prices have been rising for years. Here’s a peek at what you’re paying a lot less for now, what costs more, and where prices have flatlined.
Less Expensive: Hard Drives
Hard drives are probably the most amazing transformation. In our first year, a 10MB spinning hard drive cost $2,495, or $7,210.55 inflation-adjusted. You can now get a 4TB spinning hard drive for $70. That’s 40,000 times the storage for one-hundredth of the price. And storage just keeps getting faster and cheaper!
This ad above, from our November 1982 issue, shows one of those initial $7,210 (inflation-adjusted) hard drives. Corona was a major early hard-disk maker.
Retired CS professor John McCallum collected many prices(Opens in a new window) from PCMag years ago to show drive prices plummeting over time. What’s crazy about his chart(Opens in a new window) is that it’s logarithmic. Storage is now literally thousands of times less expensive than it was in the 1980s.
Less Expensive: PCs
PCs became steadily less expensive over two decades before reaching an equilibrium in the mid-’00s. IBM’s original PC 5150 debuted at $2,880 for a 64K system with one floppy drive—that’s $8,352 in today’s dollars—and the blockbusting follow-up, 1987’s PC AT, cost $2,295, or $5,622.75.
Our then-editor-in-chief, Bill Machrone, coined Machrone’s Law, saying “the computer you want always costs $5,000.” You can certainly get a PC for $5,000 now, but most people pay a lot less.
Desktop PC prices continued to fall throughout the 1990s, finally settling at around $450 by 2004, and staying there. Since then, $400 to $500 has been the cost of a decent entry-level desktop.
Less Expensive: Microsoft Word
Microsoft Word shows how application software has plummeted in price over the years. Word was originally a standalone product selling for more than $1,100 (inflation-adjusted) when it was introduced in 1983. At the time, there was a wild variation in the cost of word-processing packages. Word, for the IBM PC, cost $395, while Paperclip—the word processor I did my school reports on—cost a mere $60.
All through the 1980s, word-processor comparison stories were a staple of PCMag. The word-processing software market had dozens of options at its height, ranging from $50 products for the home to more expensive office suites. The 1990 issue above focused on eight powerful, high-end packages; now, there’s mostly just Word.
Word stayed an expensive, standalone program until the introduction of Office 95, which bundled Word together with Excel and Powerpoint for $499. The real Word revolution came with the introduction of Office 2003 Student and Teacher, available to anyone for noncommercial use, which dropped the price for the core three Office apps to $149. That’s where it’s stayed for the past 19 years.
Less Expensive: Laser Printers
Laser printers are another great example of a luxury that has become nearly free. The original Hewlett-Packard LaserJet, in 1984, cost $3,495—that’s $9,366 in today’s dollars. Entry-level lasers got steadily cheaper through the 1980s. We reviewed a $1,245 model in 1991 and then—pow!—a $599 model in 1993. By 2002, monochrome lasers in PCMag cost $200, and now you can pick one up for $99 or less.
The above shows our review of the first Hewlett-Packard LaserJet, an absolute revolution in desktop printing.
About the Same: Games
Prices don’t always go down. For example, games have only gotten cheaper at the rate of inflation. Our first issue had a really bad take(Opens in a new window) on how “games—particularly the arcade type—will be the least desired programs for the machine.”
DOS gaming was at its height in 1993. The old 8-bit platforms were dead or dying, and SVGA graphics made PC games look terrific. We typically had back-of-the-book features like this one above, rounding up some games we wanted to spotlight.
Throughout the history of PCMag, a good game has cost $40-$60, depending on the game. That used to be worth a lot more, of course; the $39.95 price for seminal adventure game Zork I in 1982(Opens in a new window) would be $116.39 today Our 1993 strategy games roundup (above) had games costing $40 to $70. The current version of Assassin’s Creed? $60.
While PC production has gotten more automated and commoditized with time, you can’t say that about AAA games. While standardized engines and development environments mean coders don’t have to re-invent the wheel every time as they did in the ’80s and ’90s, high-end games now have the huge staffs and budgets of blockbuster movies.
More Expensive: Streaming Services
The modern era of streaming services started with Netflix sending out DVDs in the mail for $19.99 per month in 2001. That price only declined slowly until the company split its streaming and DVD operations in 2011, offering its first streaming-only package for $7.99/month. Since then, prices have been rising, though.
Netflix started making its own series with House of Cards in 2013 and is now known more for its original content than for its library of old movies. Netflix’s “premium plan” is back up to $19.99 per month, and more saliently, most people feel they have to subscribe to a bunch of streaming services, assembling a monthly fee that may start looking like your old cable bill.
The above column from 2001 includes one of our first mentions of Netflix, or NetFlix, “which rents you three DVDs at a time.”
More Expensive: Flagship Smartphones
The real wallet-killer, though, has been the smartphone. Flagship phones have become more expensive over time, even considering inflation. That may be because they’ve swallowed so many other product categories, including your camera, your MP3 player, your calculator, and various other devices.
PCMag’s coverage started with the groundbreaking AT&T EO in 1993, which cost a staggering $1,999—$3,858 with inflation. Prices then came down for a while, with 2000’s Qualcomm PdQ clocking in at $799, 2003’s Treo 300 at $400, and 2005’s Motorola Q at $420. Then things changed. After the iPhone hit the market, flagship smartphone prices were flat for a while in the $600 to $700 realm, inflation-adjusted.
The AT&T EO 440 proto-smartphone, covered here in 1993, was ridiculously expensive. Smartphones became much more affordable from about 2000-2007 before rising in price again.
The real price inflation started in 2014, when Apple and Samsung began to introduce “Max” or “Note” phablet versions of their phones. Now we have the $1,099 Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max and the $1,199 Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra—you can get smartphones for less, to be sure, but the state-of-the-art mobile phone costs as much as a solid laptop.