It’s fairly common knowledge that Compaq made the first 386-based computer, but what about the 486? What was the first 486 computer? When did the first 486 computer come out? And why have you never heard of it?
The first 486 computer was the Apricot VX FT, a line of servers announced in June 1989, with general availability later that year. They were expensive and they were only marketed as servers, so that’s why they aren’t as well known as the Compaq Deskpro 386.
The 486’s introduction
Intel announced the 80486 processor in April 1989 and released it in June of that year. It was Intel’s high-end chip at the time, theoretically twice as powerful as a 386 in most cases. But in some cases it was even faster, thanks to its integrated L1 cache and math coprocessor for faster access.
When did the first 486 computer come out?
Several companies had 486 systems on the market by the end of 1989. The UK-made Apricot VX FT was the first 486 computer to make it.
These systems did not sell in huge quantities at first. They were expensive, and they lacked the killer app to make them a must-have. It’s easy to forget now, but in 1989, PCs had not displaced 8-bit computers in homes yet. The market was shifting in that direction but the venerable 8-bits still sold reasonably well until 1992.
PCs were selling very well by 1989, but some of these machines were still XT-class boxes. Power users were buying 286 and 386-based systems, but they weren’t cheap. The cover story on the February 1989 issue of Compute was a project, boasting you could build a 286-based system yourself for $1,000. That was a surprisingly low figure for the time, but in today’s dollars, that’s over two grand.
The 486 wasn’t an immediate success, but Intel didn’t need it to be. It’s much better to be a year or two early to market than a year or two late. Intel repeated that strategy with the Pentium.
The Apricot VX FT
The Apricot VX FT graced the cover of the September 1989 issue of Byte, which proclaimed the first 486 PCs had arrived. It came in several models, which varied depending on how much storage and memory you wanted, but the asking price was steep, at $17,995 for a system with 4 megs of RAM, a 150 MB hard drive, and a 25 MHz 486DX CPU. That’s over $37,000 in 2018 dollars.
Apricot marketed the VX FT as a server, not as a PC sitting under someone’s desk, as it was the size of a dorm fridge. To that end, it had networking and SCSI built in. Windows NT was still a few years off, so most of the use cases I could find for this server involved Unix. The spacious case accommodated plenty of upgrades. Apricot envisioned them growing to 16 MB of RAM and 5 GB of storage, potentially.
Why you may not have heard of the Apricot VX FT
Compaq’s 386 was noteworthy because it changed the industry. IBM failed to respond with its own 386 system within six months, and that gave Compaq the opening it needed to become a market leader.
The situation with the 486 was a little different. Only three years had passed. Compaq wasn’t going to repeat IBM’s mistake. IBM wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice. IBM’s PS/2 line was a mistake, but it wasn’t selling badly in 1989. It just wasn’t selling as well as it would have if IBM had taken a gentler, more open-market approach with it.
Apricot was the first to market, but companies like Compaq and HP weren’t far behind. By the end of the year, all of the major players had 486 machines on the market or very close to being ready.
And while the Apricot VX FT appears to have done reasonably well for itself, it wasn’t a ground-setting machine except for using the latest and greatest Intel CPU. It was one of the few machines that licensed IBM’s Microchannel architecture, rather than going with EISA like Compaq and most other competitors did. This decision could have gone either way, and Apricot chose the standard that lost. Byte had another article in that same issue discussing the pros and cons of each standard.
The VX FT didn’t get tons of press. It just didn’t have the market to itself long enough.
The 486’s killer app
More people talked about 486s in 1989 than bought them. But once Windows 3.0 hit the market, demand for faster computers heated up. The 386 rose to the occasion at that point, but Intel’s price cuts made the 486 reasonably affordable by 1992. The 486 remained a viable processor for several years, surviving into the Windows 95 era.
Of course I think there was one other app that probably drove 486 sales at least as much as Windows, at least when it came to home use. That was Doom. Doom ran OK if you had a fast enough 386 but it took advantage of your 486 and whatever speed your video card could muster. On a typical 386, the video sat on the ISA bus, which ran at 8 MHz. So your 33 MHz 386 was running at 8 MHz when it was talking to the video card, in effect. Most good 486s had their video running on a VESA local bus, which ran at the same speed as your CPU bus. That meant the 486 could talk to the video card at 25, 33 or 40 MHz.