You've come a long way, baby!
My family's main PC died just before Christmas. I was lucky enough to find a floor model with Windows 7 at Best Buy for under $550. Since it was both discontinued and a floor model, that price tag was at a steep discount. It came with a 6-core processor, 10 GB RAM, a 2 GB video card and a 1 TB hard drive. I was talking to my son about it earlier this evening and he asked how it compared to the first computer I ever bought. My mind drifted back to early 1994. I got all misty-eyed thinking back to that towering, tan beauty. I'd purchased a state-of-the-art Brother word processor several months earlier at my dad's urging (he thought it was ridiculous to buy a PC because they didn't hold their value and would never catch on). I'd quickly outgrown the word processor (my stories and papers were spread across several floppies and I wanted something with internal storage to minimize the risk of losing them) so I bit the bullet and ran out to get a PC. It was an Acer running Windows 3.1. It had a top-of-the-line, lightning-fast, single core 66 Mhz processor. It was loaded with a full 4 MB of RAM. It also had an astronomically huge 512 MB hard drive. It came as part of a package with a 13" monitor and a color inkjet printer for only $2300 (before taxes and extended warranty, of course). I quickly upgraded, adding 4 more MB of RAM ($350), a 1 GB had drive ($350, divided into 3 partitions since Windows couldn't handle a full GB at the time) and an Epson scanner ($320, plus it required its own card to be installed in the PC), for a grand total of just under $4000. I quickly signed up for AOL, which was a monumental waste of money those first few months since all I could really do is read headlines and chat (it didn't have web access yet). Before long, though, I was able to get to the World Wide Web, my exploration of which quickly ate up my 20 hours per month (at a cost of $39, IIRC), often leaving me offline for a week or so until the new billing cycle started. This was also something that was mocked and scoffed at for several years, since nobody but a bunch of spectacled, pocket protector-wearing losers hiding out in their parents' basements and popping each others' zits would every use the internet. My 14.4 connection was awesome, though, and I could download one full MB in just over an hour. Not long after that I upgraded to Windows 95 (along with Windows Plus!), which set me back another $150. I also had one of my sticks of RAM die on me. When I went to replace it I was shocked to find that I could get 8 MB for $300--in other words, twice as much memory for less than I originally paid for that initial 4 MB upgrade. Jumping up to 12 MB was worth it, though, if only for the bragging rights.
All in all, after all the upgrades, I had well over $4500 invested in my Acer. It outlived its warranty, and I used that scrawny monitor well into the 00's (I was shocked when I finally upgraded to a 15" monitor). While the Acer outlived the extended warranty, it wasn't by much. My next PC was a Compaq. I didn't buy an extended warranty on it because I'd heard they were a waste of money. I should have known better because, even though we'd only been married just over two years at that time, my wife and I were already on our third washer. Since my monitor was still going strong, I just bought the PC. I forget all the details, but I do remember that it was a speedy 333 Mhz, had 32 Mb of Ram, a 26 K modem, and an absolutely monstrous hard drive, something like 12 full GB of storage. And it only cost me $2300, same as the base price of my Acer. Naturally, I did some upgrades, paying $128 for another 32 Mb of RAM and buying my first ever video card (I forget the specs, but I think it was 16 MB and cost around $300). I also had to buy a new printer as my original (Compaq?) had died. I went with an Epson, which never worked properly, then struck out with an HP and finally went back to Compaq. I believe I bought at just the right time so that it came with Windows 95 and I later had to pay the full upgrade cost for Windows 98. When all was said and done, I likely put about $3200 into that machine. It ran well and served me quite competently for a year or two. Then it died.
For my next PC, I went against the cardinal rule that I told all my friends, which was to never buy a Packard Bell. I was still nowhere near paying off the Compaq, though, and the Packard Hell was on sale. I stuck with my 13" monitor and was able to get the new PC for only $1800 or so, although I did have to buy a new scanner since the old one wasn't compatible, which, at $350, brought me awfully close to the $2300 I'd paid for the previous two. I don't recall the specs, although it was a PB so the specs were a bit irrelevant. I think it was basically about the same as my Compaq. One notable exception was the 56K modem. I was quite excited to use the higher speeds and even found a couple local numbers that connected at 48-50K. I had grown weary of AOL. I forget what the limits were at the time, but their service was awful and I was always going over. I started switching to NetZero, which was still free and unlimited at the time. One thing I noticed was that I never got the speeds I was expecting with NetZero. With AOL, I could hit 48-50K without a problem. With NetZero, I maxed out at just over 20k. Considering half their bandwidth generally went into downloading ads, that left me with very little. After a year or so of frustration, I finally read that AOL was known to infect modems and prevent them from utilizing their full bandwidth when accessing any ISP other than AOL. That was all I needed to finally cut my ties with them for good. I canceled my account and uninstalled the software. Unfortunately, that still left me with a hamstrung modem. I ran out and paid about $200 for a new modem. I came home and quickly realized why I'd been telling people not to buy PB's for so long. In addition to using proprietary hardware, they would seal their towers, making them impossible to open. Actually, I should say "near-impossible." After some trial and error I found you could get the tower open using a hammer and a chisel (or heavy screwdriver). By the time I was done, the external case was in pieces. The internal, metal case was as well, with mangled, twisted pieces of it scattered all over my room. Since the modem wasn't fully compatible I had to break the motherboard partially away from the chassis and leave it fully open. It also blocked the hard drive from fitting back in place, so that was hanging over the side of the chassis, connected only by the power and data cables. I had the PC sitting on the floor on some rubber pads behind a few cardboard boxes to keep my son away from it due to the risk of shock. Before you say anything, yes, I realized this was dangerous and stupid, but the thing wasn't even two years old and I didn't want to have to buy a new one. Common sense prevailed when the dogs kept coming into my room and getting dangerously close to the PC.
I think I went back to Compaq for the next one. This was in 2001, I believe. It was my first non-tan PC (it was gray), and cost me in the neighborhood of $1500. I went with a package deal this time, since everyone was making fun of my little 13 inch monitor and my printer had run out of ink (already, buying ink was about as expensive as buying a new printer). I don't recall all the specs, but I think I had 64 Mb RAM and a 40 GB hard drive (the hard drive's sitting in a pile next to me so I'm at least sure on that). I eventually added another hard drive and 256 Mb of memory (something like $150). I had a bad habit of buying components from computer super sales so I had no recourse when they'd die shortly after. My PC ran great on 320 Mb of RAM, but not quite as fast when one of the two 128 Mb sticks died a week or two after I bought it. Still, 192 Mb of RAM was more than any of my friends had, and very impressive at the time. That was a nice PC, and the less-than-$2000 I had tied up in it was something of a watershed for me. It was also the PC I had when I first got DSL. It lasted me a few years, until shortly before my father-in-law died.
My father-in-law had been through several bouts of cancer. My Compaq was also fading fast, possibly due to whatever caused the one stick of memory to fail. It died early in 2004. I quickly replaced it with an HP. I can't recall the specs, but it was nowhere near as much computer as $1200 should have bought at that point. However, as had happened a few other times, I found myself in desperate need of a new PC a week or two before the new models came out and just before prices on the old ones dropped. I was happy to have a new PC, even if it wasn't much better than my old one. A few months later, my father-in-law passed away. He'd just bought a brand new HP which blew mine out of the water. My mother-in-law had no need for it. She wanted to give it to our son, but since I actually needed it for something other than writing elementary school papers, we decided that I'd get my father-in-law's PC and my son would get mine. He'd screwed it up completely, but after some TLC and a new hard drive, it worked like a charm. He'd somehow shelled out big money for a Lexmark all-in-one printer/scanner/fax/copier/toaster, and had just bought new ink for it before he died. Although the Lexmark left a bit to be desired, I've bought all-in-ones ever since. I'd stick with Lexmark for the next few years, buying a new printer anytime I ran out of ink since it was much cheaper than actually buying the ink (I went through at least three of them). It also came with a 17 inch monitor. Looking at that made me wonder how I ever lived with the smaller ones. It finally died three years later.
Buying my next PC was a thrill. Not only did it cost less than $700, but the jump in computing power was greater than I'd seen until that point. It was an HP Pavilion with 4 GB RAM, a dual-core, 2.2 GHz processor and a 250 GB hard drive. It was blindingly fast compared to what I was used to, and even out-performed my work computers. As much as I liked it, I didn't think it was going to have to last me over 4 years.
Shortly before this, we'd decided to take my old PC out of my son's room. We ended up getting him another before too long, but in the meantime we moved my old PC into the living room and hooked it up to the TV. We didn't use it too often since we didn't have a wireless mouse or keyboard, but we enjoyed being able to get online when we needed without going down to my PC. My wife got to the point where she really enjoyed having easy access to the internet, her own email and iTunes, and she started asking about getting something better. Timing was on our side this time around and I found a great deal on an HP Slimline right before Christmas. It had a quad-core processor, 4 GB of RAM, a 500 GB hard drive and came in at just under $600. It was running Vista, but it had enough under the hood that that didn't matter. It quickly became our media/entertainment center and we gradually started watching less and less broadcast TV as we switched to Netflix, Hulu, Youtube and the internet almost exclusively. Instead of a bit of a luxury for my wife, it was soon an essential appliance. It was a great PC as well.
Last year, shortly before I started working on my Christmas cards and CDs, my old 17 inch monitor died. While I'd held onto them for quite some time, I no longer had my 13 & 15 inch monitors. I tried using my son's monitor but the video settings on my PC weren't compatible and I couldn't get the two to work together. I also couldn't get it to work with our TV. I could boot up and get to my files from other PC's on our home network, but otherwise it was useless. We discussed it and decided that four years without a new PC for me was long enough. While it had been a good PC, it certainly wasn't top-of-the-line when I bought it and it was showing its age. A reboot was taking nearly 30 minutes and simple tasks were taking longer and longer to complete. After talking it over we decided to put a little extra into my new PC and get something that would last. I got an awesome HP Pavlillion: 8-core, 12 GB RAM, 1 TB hard drive, 2 GB video card. It was more of a machine than I expected, and it increased my productivity greatly.
That all brings us back to the PC we had to buy just after Christmas, and the train of thought I had just after pondering my first PC. As much as I loved that thing, and I certainly never considered it a bad deal for the time, I now have an Amazon Kindle. These currently go for $150. They're about the size of a paperback, around 1/4" thick and are vastly more powerful than my old Acer. At the same time, a friend of mine just paid somewhere in the neighborhood of $30 for an Android PC the size of a flash drive. It has some bugs, but from what he's told me it's at least as versatile as my old Acer was. It amazes me to see the changes that have taken place in home computing in the last 18-20 years and makes me wonder whether I'll actually be buying another desktop once these two breathe their last.