The 20 Most Influential PCs of the Past 40 Years
In 1982, PC Magazine was born at a crucial time in the history of computing: right as microprocessors were expanding from 8-bit to 16-bit architecture, and as computers were changing from consumer novelties to business essentials. So to commemorate our 40th anniversary, we couldn’t resist looking back at the PCs that had the greatest impact—and to be honest, narrowing the list down to a mere 20 was no small feat.
Yes, we know: The first entry in this list is a cheat, as the IBM PC (released in August 1981) predates our first issue (February/March 1982). We also know the IBM PC was no more the first personal computer than ours was the first computer magazine—the MITS Altair 8800 kit reached hobbyists in 1975, with the Apple II narrowly beating the Radio Shack TRS-80 to market in 1977. PC Magazine didn’t cover 8-bit platforms, which is why you also won’t find the Commodore 64 in this list.
Nonetheless, we owe our existence to that first IBM PC, so it’s only natural for us to start there. Read on to celebrate our shared history and see what else makes the list.
What was the most influential PC in your history? Let us know in the comment section below.
IBM PC 5150
1981: IBM PC Model 5150
IBM doesn’t make low-profit-margin commodity products, which is why it sold its PC business to Lenovo in 2005 after losing nearly a billion dollars on it in the four years preceding. But PCs weren’t commodities in 1981—buyers of the Model 5150 paid $1,565 for a unit with 16K of RAM, no monitor (you connected a TV set), and no disk drives (it used TRS-80-style cassette tape storage). A loaded system with 64K of memory, one floppy drive, and a monochrome monitor cost about $3,000.
The 5150’s design made several compromises—its Intel 8088 CPU had 16-bit registers but an 8-bit external data bus allowing cheaper support and peripheral chips. But it looked forward with five expansion slots for graphics, floppy drive controller, parallel and serial port, sound, modem, networking, and other cards. A second socket accommodated an 8087 coprocessor for better floating-point performance. Its springy, clicky keyboard, taken from the 95-pound System/23 Datamaster all-in-one word and data processing station, remains to this day an industry legend.
Big Blue’s decision to publish specs for the system bus, memory map, and expansion slots created a thriving ecosystem of third-party products. Within months, the PC was an unstoppable force, and so was PC Magazine.
The IBM brand and a port of 1979’s Apple II spreadsheet VisiCalc (killed by Lotus 1-2-3 in 1983) made the 5150 a hit in corporate offices. Big Blue’s decision to publish specs for the system bus, memory map, and expansion slots created a thriving ecosystem of third-party products. Within months, the PC was an unstoppable force, and so was PC Magazine.
(Matt Flynn/Cooper Hewitt/Smithsonian Design Museum/CC0)
1982: GRiD Compass
A clamshell laptop with a black magnesium alloy case? Sounds familiar, but the ThinkPad was still a decade away when British industrial designer Bill Moggridge’s 10-pound GRiD Compass arrived in April 1982. (The Epson HX-20, a 3.5-pound keyboard with a tiny LCD and microcassette recorder and the words “laptop” and “notebook” in its patent, was displayed at the previous year’s Comdex(Opens in a new window) trade show but didn’t ship until July.)
Starting at $8,150, the Compass was mostly bought by the U.S. government and military (it made several trips on the space shuttle). Only its top front half, not the whole lid as with today’s clamshells, was hinged to reveal the keyboard and the 6-inch, 320-by-240-pixel electroluminescent gas plasma display. It teamed an Intel 8086 processor with 256K of RAM and used neither a floppy nor hard drive for storage—instead, it had 340K of nonvolatile magnetic bubble memory. A 1,200bps modem for accessing GRiD Central, a dial-up online service with 50K of cloud storage, was standard.
The GRiD Compass used a proprietary operating system and application suite (MS-DOS compatibility came later) and plugged into AC power instead of running on batteries. But today’s MacBooks, XPSes, and slimlines can only wish they were the status symbols that the first laptop was.
(Compaq Computer Corporation)
1983: Compaq Portable PC
The 28-pound suitcase that three Texas Instruments escapees famously sketched on a paper placemat in a Houston pie shop wasn’t the first luggable computer. The Osborne 1, just $1,795 bundled with the CP/M operating system, SuperCalc, and WordStar, was a huge hit in 1981, and the 55-pound IBM 5100 Portable Computer had debuted way back in 1975.
But the first Compaq Portable had more going for it than a 9-inch CRT compared with those bruisers’ 5-inch screens. It not only had the same 4.77MHz Intel 8088 chip as the IBM Model 5150 but a legally reverse-engineered copy of that desktop’s firmware BIOS (basic input/output system). It’s popularly known as the first software-compatible PC clone, though some historians give that honor to 1982’s Columbia Data Products MPC 1600.
The Compaq ROM was a million-dollar exercise in “black boxing,” with engineers feeding every possible input to the BIOS and recording its output.
The Compaq ROM was a million-dollar exercise in “black boxing,” with engineers feeding every possible input to the BIOS and recording its output. Compaq programmers who’d seen IBM’s code were banned from working on the BIOS, though they developed the company’s version of BASIC.
Priced at $3,590 with 128K of memory and two 320K floppy drives, the Compaq was a smashing success—the firm’s $111 million in first-year revenue was a record in American business. Rod Canion, Jim Harris, and Bill Murto’s first idea after leaving TI was to open a chain of Mexican restaurants. Good thing they went with their second.
IBM PC XT
1983: IBM PC/XT
Though IBM identified its second personal computer merely by the initials XT, some publications guessed those letters stood for “extended” or “extended technology.” Apparently, there was no abbreviation for “incremental.”
Compared with the original PC, the PC/XT had more standard memory (128K) and eight expansion slots instead of five—squeezed into the same size case, so two of the new slots wouldn’t accept full-length cards and some extra-wide cards wouldn’t fit. PC-DOS 2.0 also boasted a 9-sector instead of 8-sector floppy disk format, fitting 360K rather than 320K onto a double-sided 5.25-inch disk (called a “diskette” then, aww).
But the big news with the XT was another storage component: a hard drive holding a whopping 10 megabytes was standard equipment. IBM invented the hard drive in 1956 (the Model 350 stored 3.75MB in the space of two refrigerators) and refined it with “Winchester” technology, in which the heads rest on a safe area of the disk surface when powered down, in 1973.
By the early ’80s, hard drives were exotic external peripherals (Macs didn’t get internal hard drives till the Macintosh II and SE in 1987). IBM offered one in the 5161 Expansion Unit, a chassis the same size as the PC with a cable and card that plugged into one of the latter’s expansion slots, but getting 10MB inside the computer itself was a big deal. Today, of course, we tell laptop shoppers to look for at least 25,000 times as much storage. Time marches on.
1984: Apple Macintosh
Yes, Xerox PARC did it first and 1983’s $9,995 Apple Lisa did it second. And yes, the original 128K model was mostly a MacPaint and MacWrite demo, and the 512K “Fat Mac” and 1986 Macintosh Plus were much more capable machines. But the Macintosh’s launch on January 24—two days after the legendary “1984” Super Bowl commercial—was titanic, bringing the mass market a compact all-in-one desktop with a graphical user interface (GUI) and mouse.
Never mind that color graphics and cooperative multitasking were still three years away. Pointing and clicking on icons of files, folders, and a trash can was a fundamental shift from memorizing and typing cryptic commands, just as selecting text by swiping a mouse was from bracketing it with Control-KB and Control-KK.
In their respective first years of production, Apple sold almost three times as many Macintoshes as IBM did PCs despite less than a quarter of the software library. In 1985, the Mac (although the longer name was common till 1988) got its killer app: desktop publishing, with Aldus PageMaker and the Apple LaserWriter printer.
PC vendors were left scrambling. Microsoft Windows 1.0, a skimpy shell for MS-DOS with tiled windows for Calculator, Notepad, and Reversi, arrived in November 1985 but didn’t amount to much until Windows 3.0 brought a more three-dimensional-looking GUI and dynamic data exchange between applications in 1990. Apple sued in 1988, claiming that Windows and HP NewWave were ripoffs; the lawsuit went on for years, interrupted by Xerox suing Apple for ripping off the Alto before Apple lost. But the Big Brother telescreen that the running woman threw the sledgehammer through would never be put back together.
Pointing and clicking on icons of files, folders, and a trash can was a fundamental shift from memorizing and typing cryptic commands, just as selecting text by swiping a mouse was from bracketing it with Control-KB and Control-KK.
Editor-in-chief Bill Machrone wrote(Opens in a new window), “It’s difficult to imagine a microcomputer less like a PC…The looming face-off between IBM and Apple is nothing less than a battle for the hearts and minds of men…The Mac is a conscious effort to improve the breed, to make the lot of computer users better. Some may question the results, but the sincerity of the Macintosh’s design is indisputable.” (He also said, “Can you put a Mac-like user interface on a PC? Sure. It’s called Visi On.”)
(Smithsonian National Museum of American History/CC0)
1985: PC’s Limited Turbo PC
As Burger King will tell you, “have it your way” is a powerful marketing slogan. So is “half price.” University of Texas freshman Michael Dell embraced both when he started building and selling generic PCs from his dorm room, letting customers order the mix of components and options they wanted while undercutting IBM’s and Compaq’s prices.
By 1985, Dell had left college to concentrate on the company he named PC’s Limited (and renamed after himself when going public in 1988). The Turbo PC desktop, named for its Intel 8088-2 chip that could run at either 4.77MHz or 6.66MHz, came with 640K of memory, a 360K floppy drive, and a keyboard for $795—which was, indeed, roughly half what you’d pay for a comparable IBM PC. It was swiftly followed by an 80286-powered PC AT clone, then another 286 clocked at 16MHz instead of 8MHz about which PC Magazine raved, “the computer equivalent of an F-18 jet…Screens popped like flashbulbs…Even Microsoft products ran with uncharacteristic zip.”
The clone market exploded after Phoenix Technologies introduced an IBM-compatible ROM BIOS that any manufacturer could buy in the fall of 1984. Michael Dell was by no means the only configurable PC seller—Ted Waitt and Mike Hammond founded Gateway in a Sioux City, Iowa, farmhouse in 1985—but he pioneered the direct-channel mail-order model. By the ’90s, PCMag’s cousin Computer Shopper was rivaled only by Brides as America’s fattest magazine, printing some 500 pages of ads each month.
Compaq Deskpro 386
(Compaq Computer Corporation)
1986: Compaq Deskpro 386
After starting with 8-bit and moving to 16-bit chips, it was inevitable that the PC would adopt a 32-bit processor, but IBM was seven months late to the party: Compaq shipped a desktop with a 16MHz Intel 80386 in September 1986, while Big Blue was still pitching the 286-based PC AT. The Deskpro 386 was expensive—$6,499 with 1MB of RAM, a 40MB hard drive, and no monitor or graphics card—but twice as fast as leading 286 systems of the day.
Intel started sampling the 80386 in October 1985, with volume shipments eight months later. Compared with the 80286, which Intel designed for multiuser systems rather than PCs and which Bill Gates called “brain-dead,” the 386 boasted an improved protected mode (the 286’s wouldn’t run most DOS programs) and a virtual 8086 mode with a flat memory model that could run multiple real-mode apps in a protected environment. It was the biggest advance in x86 architecture until AMD invented x86-64 in 2000 (and first shipped it with 2003’s Opteron), while Intel was following a 64-bit dead end with IA-64 and Itanium.
It took software more than four years to catch up—full multitasking of DOS applications came with Windows/386 2.0 and 2.1 on either side of New Year’s 1988—but the Deskpro 386 let Compaq seize the momentum that IBM never got back, especially after the latter wandered afield with the PS/2 and OS/2. Speaking of which…
IBM PS/2 Model 50
(Peter Häll and Göran Källvik/CC BY 3.0)
1987: IBM PS/2 Model 50
Wait, one of our top 20 picks is the PS/2? Isn’t that like cheering New Coke? Well, yes, but we’re talking most significant, not most successful, and the 286-based Model 50 desktop that debuted in April 1987 was a landmark for both bad and good reasons.
Introduced with an advertising blitz starring the cast of M*A*S*H in contemporary business attire (which flopped), the PS/2 represented IBM’s attempt to take back the PC market from clones and competitors by breaking compatibility in favor of new proprietary standards.
Introduced with an advertising blitz starring the cast of M*A*S*H in contemporary business attire (which flopped), the PS/2 represented IBM’s attempt to take back the PC market from clones and competitors by breaking compatibility in favor of new proprietary standards. The biggest was Micro Channel Architecture (MCA), which replaced the Industry Standard Architecture (ISA) bus of PC expansion slots with a much faster design adapted from the System/360 mainframe.
MCA tried for easier hardware upgrades with a Jurassic form of plug-and-play that involved a unique setup floppy disk for each computer and card—a nightmare for enterprises with thousands of PS/2s, just as MCA’s licensing fees or royalties were for would-be third-party manufacturers. PS/2 systems also featured two BIOSes, one for backward compatibility and one for OS/2 (which wasn’t ready at initial shipment).
But not everything about the PS/2 blew. Its 1.44MB, 3.5-inch floppies, and eponymous keyboard and mouse ports, became standards, at least until the latter yielded to USB. Its convenient internal access and tool-free upgrades are part of desktop design to this day. And the Video Graphics Array (VGA) replacement for CGA and EGA was huge, boosting resolution to 640 by 480 and then 1,024 by 768 pixels and the display palette from 64 to 262,144 colors. The 15-pin VGA connector ruled the 1990s and 2000s and still lingers today. So IBM’s last desktop hurrah deserves, if not three cheers, one thumb up.
(DigitalIceAge/CC BY 4.0)
1988: NEC UltraLite
By 1988, there were numerous laptop PCs to choose from, but many of them weighed 10 or even 15 pounds and required a power outlet. Consumers—and computer magazine writers, who did word processing on the road for a living—clamored for something thin and light enough to call a notebook instead of a laptop. The Toshiba T1000 was a popular choice at only 6.5 pounds with MS-DOS 2.11 in ROM, but it had a dim, low-contrast display.
That’s why our November 15 cover heralded “NEC’s Incredible 4-Pound DOS Laptop.” Starting at $2,999, the NEC UltraLite weighed just 4.4 pounds, with a battery that lasted a whole two hours despite a backlit 9.5-inch monochrome screen. It had not only MS-DOS 3.3 but Traveling Software’s LapLink in ROM, so you could use a serial cable to transfer files from another PC (or plug in the optional external floppy drive, which also had the printer port).
The UltraLite combined an 8086-compatible, 9.8MHz NEC V30 processor with 640K of memory and a 1MB or 2MB “silicon hard disk” (RAM backed by its own battery, which lasted about a week). A 2,400bps modem was built in and Lotus 1-2-3, WordPerfect, and Microsoft Works were available on ROM cards.
Screens, batteries, and solid-state storage have come a long way, and folks no longer fall down in amazement if you pull a laptop out of an interoffice envelope as Steve Jobs did when introducing the MacBook Air in January 2008. But the NEC UltraLite was a stunner in its day.
1988: NeXT Computer
It was a 1-foot black magnesium cube priced at $6,500 with a 17-inch monochrome monitor and 256MB magneto-optical drive. It was a Motorola 68030 workstation aimed at the higher education market. Its NeXTSTEP operating system combined Unix with a Display PostScript-based GUI and object-oriented programming model. It was a failure despite being later refreshed as the NeXTcube and more affordable NeXTstation.
Two guys at CERN named Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau used a NeXT to develop a hypertext system for access to online documentation. You know it as the World Wide Web; the first web server and browser were NeXT platforms.
But before its acquisition by Apple in 1996, NeXT played a role that’s hard to overstate. Two guys at CERN named Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau used a NeXT to develop a hypertext system for access to online documentation. You know it as the World Wide Web; the first web server and browser were NeXT platforms. You may also know the id Software games Doom, Doom II, and Quake, all created on NeXT.
Finally, NeXTSTEP formed the core of the Unix-based Mac OS X that replaced Classic Mac OS in 2001 and led to the macOS of today. All that’s rather more significant than the magneto-optical drive.
1989: Poqet PC
You’ve probably heard that your cell phone has more computing power than the mainframes that put a man on the moon. Actually, you can say that about your toaster—a modern phone is thousands of times smarter than a Cray-2 supercomputer from the ’80s. But even today’s jaundiced eyes widen when reading about the Poqet PC, a 1.2-pound IBM compatible that ran for several weeks on two AA batteries.
Measuring 1 by 8.8 by 4.3 inches (people no longer understand when you say “the size of a VHS tape”), the $2,000 subnotebook had an 80C88 processor, a 7.25-inch monochrome LCD, two PCMCIA memory card slots (with WordPerfect, Lotus 1-2-3 and Agenda, XyWrite III Plus, and Act! available on cards), and MS-DOS 3.3 plus calendar, calculator, address book, and communications utilities in ROM. Its radically innovative power management not only put the Poqet to sleep when you closed the lid but between keystrokes as you typed.
Coming a full seven years before Windows CE handhelds, the Poqet paved the way for the classic HP 100LX Palmtop PC as well as the PalmPilot and smartphones and won PCMag’s Award for Technical Excellence (today known as TechX). The short-lived PC left the market after Fujitsu bought the company, but its impact was enormous.
Apple PowerBook 150
(Dana Sibera/Wikimedia Commons)
1991: Apple PowerBook 100 / 140 / 170
The 1989 Macintosh Portable was the first laptop with a sharper, clearer, and more responsive active-matrix display (though it wasn’t backlit until later). But it was a painful $7,300 and prohibitive 16 pounds. In October 1991, Apple debuted three PowerBooks starting at $2,500, the 5.1-pound model 100 and larger-screened, 6.8-pound models 140 and 170. The last had an active-matrix LCD and fast 25MHz 68030 processor. But it wasn’t their screens—monochrome until the PowerBook 165c in 1993—that made them sensations. It was their palm rests.
The new Apples pushed the keyboard back and centered a pointing device—a trackball with two buttons—below the space bar, in the design followed by virtually every laptop today.
Before the PowerBooks, laptop keyboards were located at the front edges of the system, with blank space between the top of the keyboard and the display (suitable for cheat sheets of function-key commands). The new Apples pushed the keyboard back and centered a pointing device—a trackball with two buttons—below the space bar, in the design followed by virtually every laptop today.
Sure, different notebooks use different cursor controllers; IBM’s TrackPoint, a mini-joystick embedded in the keyboard, is still a ThinkPad staple and 1993’s HP OmniBook 300 had a tiny mouse that popped out of its right side. The touchpad, first seen (above the keyboard) in the Gavilan SC in 1983, replaced the trackball in the PowerBook 500 series in 1994 and gradually became standard everywhere. But Apple gets the credit for the way laptops look now.
Apple iMac G3
(Rama and Musee Bolo/Wikimedia Commons)
1998: Apple iMac
With its display sharing a case with its CPU, memory, and storage, the original Macintosh qualified as an all-in-one (AIO) computer. So did the abovementioned IBM Datamaster, with a CRT, two 8-inch floppy drives, and a keyboard in one huge console. But if you ask someone to name an all-in-one PC—an integrated design rather than a separate tower, monitor, and speakers—chances are it’ll be the Apple iMac.
The model that inspired today’s AIOs, with a flat-screen LCD, was the second or G4 iMac introduced in January 2002. The iMac G3 of 1998—which debuted in Bondi Blue but was ultimately available in 13 colors—had a 15-inch CRT with 1,024-by-768-pixel resolution in a translucent gumdrop design with a carrying handle on top.
It was the first PC to abandon the 3.5-inch floppy drive, which Apple declared was becoming obsolete in a world of recordable CDs (though the iMac had a tray-loading CD-ROM drive, not a CD burner) and the internet. It was also the first to adopt USB ports for its keyboard and mouse, the latter a round hockey puck that nobody liked.
Later Apple moved the computing components from the base to the back of the monitor, as in most all-in-ones today, and pioneered big, high-resolution flat panels with the 27-inch iMac with Retina 5K Display in 2014. There have been other epic AIOs—HP’s 2016 Envy flaunted a colossal 34-inch curved screen, and 2017’s Dell XPS 27 combined a spectacular 4K display with 10 discrete speakers that this reviewer called “louder than God”—but the iMac started it all.
Recommended by Our Editors
2003: Alienware Area-51 Predator 1
Nelson Gonzalez and Alex Aguila started building PCs in Miami in 1996, specializing in desktops optimized for Doom or Quake. For some years, Alienware PCs (the founders were big The X-Files fans) were conventional rectangular towers despite the triple graphics cards and other exotic hardware inside. But in 2003, the Predator 1 premiered a swoopy curved chassis with prominent side fins and the spooky alien-head logo that still decorates the firm’s desktops and laptops.
The age of the extreme gaming rig had begun, and it continued after Dell acquired Alienware in 2006.
Available in a rainbow of neon colors, the $3,599 tower was a hit, backing its spacey looks with a potent Pentium 4 processor and Nvidia’s 256MB GeForce FX 5900 Ultra GPU. The age of the extreme gaming rig had begun, and it continued after Dell acquired the company in 2006.
We still have awestruck memories of Alienware’s 2014 Area-51 Triad chassis, a gigantic pyramid that bristled with LED lights and weighed up to 60 pounds. The triangular design was optimized for airflow—it literally couldn’t be pushed within a few inches of a wall as a vertical tower can. Today’s rounded Alienware Aurora is pretty tame by comparison.
Asus Eee PC
(Ashley Pomeroy/Wikimedia Commons)
2007: Asus Eee PC
We’ve mentioned that the Poqet PC and subnotebooks like the Toshiba Libretto sold pretty well in Japan, but truly tiny laptops didn’t catch on in the US until Asus introduced the first netbook, the Eee PC 701. If its weight of only 2 pounds didn’t thrill you, its price of just $400 would.
Named vaguely after the words “easy to learn, easy to work, easy to play,” the Eee was a diminutive 1.4 by 8.9 by 6.5 inches but quite handsome in white plastic. Its 800-by-480-pixel color screen was surprisingly legible despite measuring only 7 inches diagonally, and its 900MHz Intel Celeron M and 4GB solid-state drive gave it fairly snappy performance because it didn’t run Windows—it put a friendly menu (with tabs labeled Internet, Work, Learn, Play, Settings, and Favorites) over Linux apps, like the OpenOffice.org productivity suite, Firefox browser, an email client, and a PDF reader. Power users and tinkerers could easily switch to the KDE desktop.
Truly tiny laptops didn’t catch on in the US until Asus introduced the first netbook, the Eee PC 701. If its weight of only 2 pounds didn’t thrill you, its price of just $400 would.
The Eee PC had Wi-Fi, three USB 2.0 ports, VGA and Ethernet ports, and an SD card slot. Its keyboard was cramped but usable, and its battery lasted a tolerable three hours or so. Much more capable than the ballyhooed One Laptop Per Child design of the same period, it was the best thing to happen to fans of cheap little laptops until the candy-colored, $200 HP Stream 11 came out a decade later.
Samsung Series 5 Chromebook
2011: Samsung Series 5 / Acer AC700
Of course, you can’t talk about cheap little laptops without talking about Chromebooks. Google announced Chrome OS in 2009 and showed a prototype dubbed CR-48 a year later, with retail systems—the 12.1-inch Samsung Series 5 and 11.6-inch Acer AC700—finally arriving in mid-2011 at $429 and $349 respectively.
Chrome OS has steadily matured, with frequent updates and much-improved offline capabilities, but hasn’t fundamentally changed since then. It’s built around the Chrome browser and best for users who spend most of their time online, whether surfing the web, writing emails, watching YouTube videos, or creating documents, spreadsheets, and presentations in Google Workspace (nee Google Docs) or for that matter Microsoft Office Online.
Chromebooks boot quickly and once booted are usually left on indefinitely, waking from sleep in the time it takes to open the lid. Chrome OS runs fine on more modest hardware than Windows or macOS; the Samsung and Acer had Intel Atom processors, 2GB of RAM, and 16GB of eMMC flash storage, and modern Chromebooks with Intel Core or AMD Ryzen chips, 4GB or 8GB of memory, and solid-state drives really fly.
Frankly, the AC700 and Series 5 weren’t very impressive on their own—we still remember the early agonies of grappling with Google Cloud Print to get hard copies—but Chromebooks evolved fast. Prices falling below $200 made them the dominant choice of school districts for K-12 classrooms, while more capable models with easy manageability have made significant inroads in business. If you need powerful programs like Adobe Photoshop or Premiere or CAD or 3D rendering, they’re no good, but if you need no more than what an arguable majority of consumers and students do, they’re here to stay.
Dell XPS 13
2012: Dell XPS 13
Today, its promotional campaign for thin, light, and responsive (and non-AMD-powered) laptops goes by the name Intel Evo. But in 2011 Intel announced a $300 million marketing fund for what it called Ultrabooks—portables no more than 0.8 inches thick with low-voltage processors, Wi-Fi, at least five hours of battery life, and swift wakeup from hibernation. The specs changed several times over the years and the term’s been largely replaced by ultraportable today, but Ultrabooks were a success—none more so than Dell’s XPS 13.
Unveiled at the 2012 CES show and starting at $999, the XPS 13 was a 13.3-inch laptop that matched the 3-pound weight of the MacBook Air but outclassed it with a more compact, elegant design with an aluminum lid and carbon fiber bottom. Later versions were half a pound lighter and even more handsome, thanks to a white woven-glass-fiber palm rest, though the webcam spent several unhappy years below instead of above the display, where it focused straight up your nose.
The Dell XPS 13 is our most acclaimed and awarded notebook, scoring rave reviews and Editors’ Choice honors year after year. It belongs in the history books and on every laptop shopper’s short list.
The XPS 13 doesn’t have plenty of ports—just Thunderbolt 4 and an audio jack, so you’ll need a USB-C dongle to connect a monitor—but it has a snappy keyboard and a first-class screen (recently upgraded to a 16:10 aspect ratio and 3.5K OLED quality). Along with its archrival the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon, it’s our most acclaimed and awarded notebook, scoring rave reviews and Editors’ Choice honors year after year. It belongs in the history books and on every laptop shopper’s short list.
Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13
2012: Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13
Through the first decade of the 2000s, Microsoft flogged manufacturers to make unwieldy, unwanted Tablet PCs—heavy touch-screen systems designed for pen input and handwriting recognition, originally running a special version of Windows XP before pen support was built into Windows Vista, 7, and 8. Most were slates with detachable keyboards. A few were convertibles that opened like laptops but whose screens had a center pivot so they could be rotated to face away from you, then folded backward to cover the keyboard. None were particularly useful, and the 2010 smash hit that was Apple’s iPad turned them into landfill.
At January 2012’s CES, however, Lenovo unveiled what the Tablet PC should have been: the IdeaPad Yoga 13. When it reached Best Buy in October for $1,099, it instantly redefined the 2-in-1 convertible with a brilliantly simple design: Instead of pivoting, the laptop’s screen just kept opening, folding back 360 degrees to put it and the keyboard back to back.
Feeling the keys beneath your fingers as you held the unit in tablet mode took a little getting used to (Lenovo made a few variations with keys that retracted to fit flush, but soon stopped bothering). But the Yoga also worked in two in-between modes, an easel or kiosk mode for PowerPoint presentations and an inverted-V tent mode for poking at touch-screen apps while the system rested on an airline tray table.
Reviewer Brian Westover called the Yoga 13 “the best hybrid design we’ve seen so far…After using hybrids [with] sliding hinges and rotating screens, the stability and simplicity of Lenovo’s [layout] is a revelation,” though the IdeaPad’s size and 3.4-pound weight made it only “a passable tablet.”
The flip-and-fold convertible made so much sense that Acer, HP, Dell, Asus, and basically everyone except Apple quickly copied it. Today it’s a versatile alternative to conventional clamshells available in every size and price range for both Windows and Chromebooks.
Microsoft Surface Pro
2013: Microsoft Surface Pro
There are two kinds of 2-in-1s: convertibles and detachables. The latter, true tablets with removable keyboards, owe a lot to the iPad but also to the definitive Windows tablet—Microsoft’s Surface Pro, announced in June 2012 and shipped in February 2013.
The 10.6-inch, Intel Core i5-based Surface Pro was actually Redmond’s second tablet, following the short-lived Surface with Nvidia’s Tegra 3 ARM processor and the app-free Windows RT. Weighing in at 2 pounds, the $899 tablet followed a tragic Apple precedent—you had to pay extra for the Type Cover keyboard—though it came with a stylus pen. (Today’s Surface Pro 8, alas, makes you shell out for both keyboard and stylus.) But it had the handy kickstand the iPad forgot, and it ran all Windows programs, making it a genuine alternative to a laptop.
The Surface Pro’s screen has grown to 13 inches and a spiffy-sharp 2,880-by-1,920 resolution, and it now scales up to a Core i7 CPU, 32GB of RAM, and a 1TB SSD. The Surface Pro 8 for Business bolsters its Wi-Fi connectivity with 4G LTE (no 5G yet). Its $859.99 base price will be a distant memory by the time you configure it with accessories, but for those who can afford it, it offers the best Windows tablet experience.
Apple MacBook Air (M1)
2020: M1 Apple MacBook Air
IBM has left the arena, but one personal computer maker is even more allergic to low-cost commodity products. As laptops have become more and more affordable, Apple has steadily refused to sell one for less than $1,000. But in November 2020, the paradigm flipped: Apple’s least expensive laptop suddenly became its best laptop.
The reason was the MacBook Air’s (and the 13-inch MacBook Pro and Mac mini’s) switch from Intel CPUs to Apple’s own ARM-architecture M1 processor, which the company claimed made the 2.8-pound ultraportable a staggering three and a half times faster. Benchmark results in our review weren’t quite that impressive because a translation layer called Rosetta was necessary for non-M1-native (i.e., most) software, but we saw “a huge leap in this laptop’s capability for media tasks. “The MacBook Air is now the real deal in terms of speed, no longer second banana to its Pro stablemate,” we said.
The M1 chip, our reviewers claimed, “infused the MacBook Air with new life” while maintaining its silent, fanless design, making it “the best value among Apple laptops, especially when combined with its nearly 30-hour battery life and premium super-slim build” plus “arguably the best touchpad on any laptop.”