Some 90s computer brands are the same as today, but a lot more companies played in the field than now. Profit margins were higher then, so industry consolidation wasn’t the matter of survival that it is now.
Here’s a look back at some of the brands of old, including some famous PC brands, some not-so-famous, and some notorious. The 1990s were certainly a make or break time for many of them.
Acer computers of the 1990s were decidedly average. There was nothing glamorous about them, providing average reliability at a below-average price turned out to be a winning formula. They are one of the few surviving 90s computer brands still around today.
ALR sold high-end PCs and was a pioneer of dual-CPU systems. Primarily business-oriented, they aren’t a famous brand today but they were important because they pushed the envelope. They were one of a few companies selling workstation-class PCs at modest prices. ALR eventually sold out to Gateway 2000. They’re one of the more obscure 90s computer brands, but the people who remember them will remember them fondly.
In 1992, IBM decided to try out direct sales. After considering purchasing Gateway 2000, Northgate, or Zeos outright and even entering into some formal discussions, IBM opted to source PCs from Acer, bundle them with Model M keyboards, back them with IBM support and service, and launch a subsidiary claiming to be a new kind of computer company. When Ambra didn’t meet IBM’s goal of capturing 10% of the direct market, IBM pulled the plug in 1994.
Apple is the only surviving member of the class of 1977. The 90s were a struggle until Steve Jobs returned to the company in 1998, but they were a presence in the 90s.
AST was a major peripheral maker in the 80s and branched into entire PCs in the 90s. They offered good reliability at a middling price. As competitors started cutting prices, AST resisted, and brands like Compaq priced them out of the market. AST changed hands several times in the late 90s, fading fast after 1998 and disappearing from the market entirely by 2001. But for a time, especially early in the decade, they were one of the more sought after 90s computer brands.
Yes, AT&T tried its hand at computers a few times. Primarily a business maker, its PCs never really caught on.
A high flying brand in the 80s, Commodore limped into the 90s and went out of business in early 1994.
Compaq was an independent company in the 90s. Initially a premium brand, it got aggressive on price early in the 1990s and grew rapidly. It acquired DEC in 1998. It merged with HP in 2002 following a few brutal quarters, and HP phased out the brand in 2010.
CompuAdd had 200 of its own retail stores, selling its computers exclusively. Financial troubles let to it declaring bankruptcy and going out of business in 1993, so it wasn’t the most venerable of 90s computer brands.
Compudyne was CompUSA’s house brand of computers, made by Acer. They were more open architecture than many retail computers of the day, although that was about the only thing distinctive about them.
One of the few 90s survivors, Dell started in a college dorm room in the 1980s selling cheap PC clones. By the 90s it was a powerhouse, specializing in direct-order, but for part of the decade it sold computers at retail too. Dell had some struggles in recent years that led to it taking itself private to avoid investor pressure and scrutiny. But it remains one of the largest brands of computers for both home and business. Their longevity makes them one of the more sought after 90s computer brands.
DEC was an old-line computer company, producing several very successful lines of minicomputers, and its own CPU architectures, including the Alpha, which could run Windows NT. DEC was into PCs in the 1990s because it had to. This put it in the unique position of having to compete with Intel while buying chips from Intel. Competing with Intel cytook its toll, and DEC sold out to Compaq in 1998.
Emachines was a budget brand that came onto the scene in the fall of 1998, specializing in Korean-made computers at price points of $399, $499, and $599. Its aggressive pricing drove other companies to either lower prices as well, or leave the market. Emachines sometimes used AMD or Cyrix CPUs to hit the price point it wanted, and this led to other brands using them as well. Previously, it had been fairly rare for brand-name PCs to use AMD and especially Cyrix CPUs. Emachines came along too late to help Cyrix much, but it did help mainstream AMD.
Gateway purchased Emachines in 2004, mostly to get its management team. Both Gateway and its successor, Acer, continued to use the name.
Fujitsu wasn’t a huge player in the 1990s but they did sell some machines, primarily laptops.
Gateway 2000 was another direct order brand that offered good prices, good reliability and outstanding customer service. For a time, it was Dell’s biggest competitor in the direct-order model. It cut quality to save costs and got away with it due to its outstanding customer service. It faded late in the decade and especially in the 2000s as it cut customer service to save costs. For a few years in the 1990s it operated a retail chain called Gateway Country. It merged with Emachines in 2004 to get its leadership but the turnaround it hoped for never happened. Acer acquired it in 2007. Gateway is one of the more prominent 90s computer brands, but you either love them or hate them.
Better known as a printer manufacturer, HP nevertheless had two very successful PC lines in the 90s, the Vectra (for business) and Pavilion (for home). HP is another one of those rare 90s computer brands still around today. Like many others, HP had problems in recent years and that eventually led to splitting into two companies, one focusing on consumers and one focusing on business.
IBM didn’t dominate the 90s the way they did the 1980s, but they still had a presence, both in the business and retail space. Business offerings included the PS/2, PS/Valuepoint, and IBM PC series (not to be confused with 1980s IBM PCs). Home offerings included the IBM PS/1 and Aptiva. Post-PS/2 IBMs of the 1990s followed industry standards for the most part.
IBM survived the 90s but withdrew from the PC marketplace in 2005, for complex reasons. IBM still exists today but has very little to do with the market it helped create.
Laser was a brand name of V-Tech, the maker of cordless phones and children’s electronics. V-Tech sold XT-class PC clones and Apple II clones under this brand name. The Laser brand name was more active in the 1980s but stayed around into the early 90s.
Leading Edge is another brand more famous for what they did in the 80s, but they did survive into the 90s as a subsidiary of Daewoo, selling 386-based machines. However, this pioneering PC value brand wasn’t able to keep up with its larger competitors once they adopted the practice of manufacturing overseas and it never recovered from a 1992 price war with Compaq. A Swiss company bought the brand in 1995 but it quickly went out of business.
In the 386/486 era, V-Tech sold computers under the Leading Technology brand at mass market resellers like Best Buy. The brand wasn’t very long lived and seems to have disappeared from the market by about 1992. When I worked at Best Buy in 1994 and 1995, this brand was gone, but I do remember customers coming in looking for upgrades for them.
In the early 1990s, consumer electronics giant Philips built 286, 386, and 486 computers as part of a joint venture with Vendex, selling them under the Magnavox and/or Headstart brands in mass-market retail stores. Philips was much more successful selling monitors and peripherals than PCs, so the Magnavox Headstart computers were quietly withdrawn from the market sometime in 1992.
Memory maker Micron made PCs for most of the 1990s, generally pairing up Intel motherboards and CPUs with Micron memory and other top-tier components. They were good machines, but eventually Micron found the profits weren’t to their liking so they spun off the division. Micron sold the line in 2001, and the separate company, MPC computers, went out of business in 2008.
NCR, the cash register company, sold business PCs for much of the 1990s. For part of the decade, AT&T owned them.
More famous for premium quality monitors and CD-ROM drives, NEC made PCs for much of the 90s. Its PCs weren’t as good as its monitors and outside of its laptops, it never captured tremendous market share in the United States. It phased out its PC operations in the early 2000s.
Better known for its hugely popular mechanical keyboards, Northgate also sold PCs until it went bankrupt in 1994.
Packard Bell was a popular budget brand in the 1990s before quality issues and accusations of passing off used parts as new caught up with them. Mass market retailers like Best Buy and Circuit City sold millions of these machines. If you bought one, I hope you got the extended warranty. Acer owns the Packard Bell brand name now, but never reintroduced it in the United States.
Quantex was a smaller direct build-to-order outfit that never came close to the kind of volumes Dell and Gateway enjoyed. But they built high-quality machines using brand-name components and won awards in large numbers from the big computer magazines of the time because of their build quality and impressive performance. If you wanted an enthusiast-caliber PC without spending hours reading Tom’s Hardware Guide, buying a Quantex was probably your best bet. Quantex filed bankruptcy in the summer of 2000.
Samsung made PCs in the 90s but never had the kind of success selling PCs as it had other consumer goods. It had more success making PCs for other companies that they resold under their own brands than it had selling them itself.
Like Samsung, Sharp made a bigger name for itself selling TVs and other consumer electronics than PCs. But it quietly survived the decade, buying Toshiba’s computer line in 2020.
Sony was a rare consumer electronics company to have success selling PCs. It entered the market in 1996 and spun off its computers in 2014 after an 18-year run.
Tandy is another 1980s brand that barely made it into the 90s. Tandy was the parent company of Radio Shack, and they dominated the 1980s but the line was losing money by 1989. Their turnaround efforts were lackluster until 1992, when they came up with a formula that would be competitive, but years of selling Tandy 1000 derivatives had taken their toll. In 1993, Tandy sold its computer production to AST and started selling AST computers at Radio Shack before switching to IBM.
TI sold a successful line of laptops in the 1990s after struggling in the retail market with its own home computer in the early 1980s. But heightening competition in the late 90s led to TI selling its laptop line to Acer in January 1997.
Toshiba laptops were popular in the 1990s and remained so into the 21st century, making it one of the rare 1990s survivors. The Toshiba Satellite series was reasonably well built and Toshiba also made hard drives, giving them a vertical integration advantage not all of their competitors had. Problems with the parent company led to it selling the computer business to Sharp in 2020, however.
Winbook was one of the first PC laptop manufacturers to sell in volume. The name changed hands a few times and it still exists as a budget brand. Technically this means you can call it a 90s survivor, I guess.
The TV maker sold business-oriented PCs in the 90s, though it’s not what people remember them for today.
Zeos was another company better known for its mechanical keyboards that it included with its computers than the computers themselves. It merged into Micron in 1996. I was always bitter that Micron didn’t keep the keyboards.