15 years ago, at the home of the blue shirts

Consumerist had some fun today at the expense of a Best Buy ad from September 15, 1996.

Here’s the kind of price deflation we’ve seen in 15 years.

A lot of people forget that sub-$1,000 PCs were rare in 1996. You could get one, but you’d have to go to a custom clone shop to get it and take a lot of compromises. Compromises as bad, or worse, than what you find in a sub-$250 machine today. I don’t know that much of anybody pays $2,000 for a PC today, but in 1996 it was pretty common. A lot of people financed PCs back then, and I remember losing some sales because of people being unable to get that financing.

Back then, 16 MB of RAM would set you back $130, and at the time that seemed like a good deal. Just two years before, a mere 4 MB of RAM would set you back about that much. Today, you could get 24 GB of RAM for $130, if you’re fortunate enough to have a motherboard with 6 DIMM slots. I’m not sure what you’d do with that much RAM if you had it, besides create insanely large RAM disks and run tons of VMs, but you could do it.

A 3.1 GB HDD cost $400. Today it’s not hard to find a 3 TB HDD for $120. But the question remained the same: What are you going to store on all that space? In 1996, MP3 files existed but weren’t commonplace. And ripping a CD at 8x and encoding it on a computer running at 100-166 MHz took considerable time. So did downloading them at 28.8 kbps. It wasn’t easy to download enough stuff to fill a 3.1 GB hard drive in 1996.

I had one. I was triple-booting Windows 95, OS/2 4.0, and Slackware Linux on it. Being able to dedicate 1 GB per operating system was nice. Considering how long it took me to make 400 bucks then, it better have been nice.

An 8x CD-ROM drive cost $150. Today a Blu-Ray burner costs less than that. If you’re willing to settle for an old-fashioned DVD burner, you can get one of those for 20 bucks.

One other thing remains true. In 1996, Best Buy wasn’t necessarily the cheapest place to buy computer gear. It wasn’t necessarily the most expensive either, but if you could find a decent clone shop, you could usually get components like CD-ROM drives, hard drives, and memory cheaper. Sometimes there was a trade-off in quality and sometimes there wasn’t. I think I bought my hard drive from Dirt Cheap Drives, a big advertiser in Computer Shopper. Remember that?

Page 8 of the ad also showed why Packard Bell sold so many computers in spite of their poor reputation. By 1996, Packard Bell was nearing the end of the line, but for $1,899 you could buy an HP with a Pentium 133 in it. For $1,999 you could get a Packard Bell with a Pentium 166 in it, along with a bigger hard drive. A lot of people would opt for the Packard Bell in hopes of getting another year or two of useful life out of the computer for the $100.

And I think some people would buy a Packard Bell, buy the extended warranty, and roll the dice on the no-lemon guarantee. If it failed four times (not three times like the salespeople were trained to tell you–four times, like the customer service people were trained to tell you. Sneaky, those boys in blue are) they’d replace the computer. So you’d get the original purchase price back in allowance later on. In 1999, 2 grand bought a lot more computer. You’d be in Pentium II, 400-450 MHz territory then.

So, since a decent computer cost $1,500 in 1996, and 15 years later a decent computer costs around $500, I wonder if that means a decent computer in 2026 will cost $150?

It sounds ridiculous, but in 1996, the idea of a decent computer costing $500 seemed ridiculous.

And dig the laptops. 100 MHz Pentiums with 10-inch screens for $1,800. Want a spacious 11.3-inch screen? That’ll be $2,500. That $229 Labor Day special doesn’t seem so underpowered now, does it?

Wanna talk TVs? OK. 32-inch tube TVs from RCA: $700. From Panasonic: $900. Standard definition, of course. I paid around $300 for a 32-inch Panasonic LCD HDTV last year; today you can get a Samsung 32-inch LED-backlit LCD for that. Last year we gave away our 32-inch RCA tube TV, and it took a while to get a taker on it.

A 35-inch tube TV was an astounding $1,100. You can get a 42-inch LCD TV for $450 these days. Less if you shop around. A 13-inch TV with a built-in VCR was $300. You can get a 19-incher with a built-in DVD player for around $230. No-name VCRs were $140. You can get a Blu-Ray player for around $90 now. And it’ll connect to the Internet and play streaming content from it too.

3 thoughts on “15 years ago, at the home of the blue shirts

  • September 21, 2011 at 6:22 am

    For some reason I expected a story about the Royals… ;-D

  • September 21, 2011 at 10:36 am

    Heh, I sold IBM PC XT clones back in 1985. $2500 for a box with 604kB and another $2000 for an optional 20MB HD. Most people refused the HD because it would take them decades to fill up that much space. Heady times!

  • September 23, 2011 at 11:02 pm

    When I cleaned out my stack of PC Magazines, I kept the first issue of every year. It gives me a baseline for how much things have changed over time. And change they have.

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