News Tom’s Hardware at 25: 1996’s Best Tech vs 2021

jelyon

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It has been an amazing journey so far. Of all of the tech sites, though, Tom's Hardware has stayed closest to its original mission.

Sadly, software has not always kept up with hardware's journey. Encarta used to be the best encyclopedia and now students have to comb the Internet trying to build their own. While there were only a few viruses and worms back in the day, today new ones are being introduced every week. Worst of all, back in 1996 it was easy to feel and be safe online, but today most pieces of software can be corrupted to steal information and create backdoors.

Hardware will continue to improve, but companies like Microsoft have held software back over the years more than they have pushed it forward to match the success of hardware.

Maybe, just maybe, Arm's architecture and the transition to it will force major positive changes where software is concerned.
 

velocityg4

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Interesting list. Although a bit eclectic with actual high end items in some categories and more consumer level in others.

For example a performance enthusiast probably would have used a Fast and Wide SCSI drive. I know I had a 2GB Fast and Wide SCSI drive that year. It was insanely fast and loud. Those SCSI drives went up to 9GB that year. At least looking at a MacWorld from September that year. Maybe by December there was a larger one available as 18GB drives came soon after.

Not sure about the Pentium 200Mhz being the best of 96. You also had the 200Mhz 604e. As I recall the PowerPC was still the fastest until It got left behind in the Pentium II/III era. Not that they ever sold very well. Although the Power Macintosh 9500 from that year could go to 768MB RAM officially, 1536MB unofficially. It could handle an insane amount of RAM for the period. Although the single 200Mhz and dual 180Mhz Power Macintosh 9500 were smoked by the quad 200Mhz Daystar Genesis MP 800 of that year. But these computers were well beyond enthusiast prices.

The Zip drive won the popularity contest. But there were far more capable removable drives like the Jaz drives. I had a SCSI Syquest EZ135 myself. Still have the cartridges but can't figure out what I did with the drive.

Can't think of a better monitor. Best I could buy then was an 832x624 17" Sony Trinitron for my Power Macintosh 7100/66AV.

That Rage Pro 8MB was great. Had the Mac version in 97 or 98 I think. Had lot's of hours in on Duke Nukem 3D and Age of Empires.
 

caseym54

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I think ISDN was available in 1996, so internet speeds of 100Kb+ were possible, although most people were still on services like AOL or CompuServe.

I think I paid $800 for that Pentium 200MHZ, replacing my IBM 486-133MHz.
 
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The mechanical keyboard craze hadn’t started yet and most people were suffering with the horrible membrane keyboards their PCs came with.
Say what?! My first keyboard was from 1995, and I only replaced it in 2020. It has no problems whatsoever despite some heavy Mortal Kombat gaming in the early years and heavy use overall. It was one of the first membrane keyboards, as most keyboards before that were... mechanical! And I don't see how a keyboard that served 25 years of heavy daily use can be called horrible...

It had no Win key, by the way, but it was one of the last ones that hadn't.
 
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spongiemaster

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If money is no object in 2021, the Alienware AW5520QF is top-of-the-line, at least for gaming. This 55-inch display uses an eye-popping OLED panel at 3840 x 2160 resolution with speeds up to 120 Hz. At 59 pounds, it weighs less than the Sony Multiscan, and it’s just 3.1 inches thick. At $3,000, it’s pretty expensive but not for what you get.
That's still horrific value for money. For less than $100 more you can get a 77" 120hz Gsync compatible LG OLED. Or going in the other direction, you can get a 55" LG OLED for $1400. No one in their right mind should pay $3000 for a 55" screen in 2021.

Though they have gotten a lot more powerful over the years, top-of-the-line graphics cards are also much more expensive than they were in 1996. The ATI Rage 3D carried a $219 launch price ($371 in today’s dollars) while the RTX 3090 has an MSRP of $1,499.
Rage3d was not top of the line. As mentioned in the article, Voodoo Graphics launched in 1996 and was on a completely different level. 3D graphics cards were widely called 3d decelerators pre-3dfx because of how terribly they performed. ATi didn't make anything worthwhile until the Radeon 8500 released in 2001. The go to setup for gamers in 1996 was a Voodoo 1 paired with a Matrox Millennium. That would have cost in the neighborhood of about $900 adjusted for inflation. A year and a half later, the top end gamer's setup was two Voodoo 2's in SLI paired with a Matrox Millennium II. That would run you over $1300 adjusted for inflation. So things really haven't gotten that much more expensive.
 

jaybutnotz

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In honor of our 25th anniversary, we look back at the best components and devices of 1996 and compare them to their counterparts from today.

Tom’s Hardware at 25: 1996’s Best Tech vs 2021 : Read more
I've using the site since 1997 but only joined reluctantly because of a sweepstakes a few years ago, lol. I usually don't post but I have to wish you guys a Happy 25th anniversary. I was there for most of it and I can say definitely, Tom set the standard. Whenever I need advice on components or seek news about developments in the computing space, no other site has the diverse knowledge or even the depth of trusted contacts that this site does. I think we can go for 50.
 
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danlw

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The first computer I built in High School had a 200MHZ MMX processor... Had some good times playing Wing Commander 3.

I've had many of the items In this list. Still have and use the Microsoft Natural keyboard. Had a Zip drive. EDO RAM. And yup, I'm pretty sure I became a toms reader back then.
 

Math Geek

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pretty sure i been around this site since the beginning. maybe 97 or 8 at the latest. always been my go to for help when i needed it. built my first pc with help from this community. :)

glad it's still around and a place for me to call my tech home.
 
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JRHERITA

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In 1996, the Escom (formerly Commodore) Amiga 1200s and 4000s were still for sale, and although basically a dead platform still had a few good games released for it in 1996 and even 1997.

I've been following Tom's hardware since at least 1997 as I remember the Pentium MMX overclocking articles here.

Fun retrospective article - thanks OP!
 

Eximo

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First computer I built with ordered parts rather than buying in person at a computer show was a Tom's reviewed configuration. 2007 I believe. Prior to that it was spending time at booths reading motherboard manuals and talking to vendors. Fun part of being in the Midwest was generally being about 5 years behind the internet. As I recall, the only ISP in town was actually just a guy running things out of his basement until AOL started up.
 
So what kind of changes to hardware can we expect in the next 25 years?...
...We can certainly expect huge leaps in memory, storage, bandwidth and processing power as we saw in the last 25 years.
It's probably a bit optimistic to expect a similar level of performance gains. In the 90s and early 2000s, the generational improvements of computer hardware were advancing at a rapid pace, but that has since slowed considerably over the last decade or so. I would expect the advancements to slow even more, unless there is some huge breakthrough that really opens things up. Clock rates are barely improving, IPC isn't exactly advancing by leaps and bounds, and adding more cores is bound to become impractical past a certain point. Each new process shrink is becoming more expensive than the last, and eventually the gains from making things smaller are likely to dry up almost entirely. There will likely be big advancements in some areas, but others may see relatively little improvement.

Sadly, software has not always kept up with hardware's journey. Encarta used to be the best encyclopedia and now students have to comb the Internet trying to build their own.
I would disagree. Encarta might have been amazing back in the 90s, but even then, the amount of content available in it often tended to be limited compared to a set of physical encyclopedias, and both were arguably made obsolete by online resources like Wikipedia. Today, Wikipedia offers over 6.3 million English-language articles at no cost to users, whereas the online version of Encarta only ever got up to just under 1% of that article-count at the time it was shut down in 2009, and most articles contained less information and were locked behind a pay-wall. And while Wikipedia might be more prone to things like vandalism, most of those issues were largely addressed back in it's earlier years, and for the most part it seems to be pretty good at providing reliable information these days. And even traditional encyclopedias and software like Encarta were not immune from containing incorrect information and editor bias at times, and information about many topics tended to get obsolete rather quick. While Encarta might have been revolutionary for what it offered back then, Wikipedia took that premise to another level, and is arguably one of the most useful things to come out of the Internet over the last couple decades.

While there were only a few viruses and worms back in the day, today new ones are being introduced every week. Worst of all, back in 1996 it was easy to feel and be safe online, but today most pieces of software can be corrupted to steal information and create backdoors.
Malware from that era also tended to not be as destructive or profit-driven as a lot of the stuff out there today, even if computer systems were technically less secure. Most of it was just people experimenting and showing off what they could do, rather than holding systems for ransom and stealing financial details. Of course, back then, there wasn't really as much to steal, as consumers were generally not performing online transactions or holding large stores of data on their PCs, and those who were online tended to be more tech-savvy than the majority of the populace.

Hardware will continue to improve, but companies like Microsoft have held software back over the years more than they have pushed it forward to match the success of hardware.
People don't want their operating system and software interfaces to change drastically from one version to the next though, so I wouldn't necessarily say they have been "holding it back". If anything, big changes to software often tend to make it worse, as a lot of applications were refined to get the most out of them many years ago, and changes can potentially detract from what they already do well.

Maybe, just maybe, Arm's architecture and the transition to it will force major positive changes where software is concerned.
I doubt a wider adoption of ARM would improve much of anything on the software side of things. And if anything, most devices using ARM today have stripped down software that is in many ways worse than what's been available on PCs for decades. These devices also tend to greatly restrict what a user can do with them, often to allow a company to more heavily monetize a software, content and user-data ecosystem. The backward-compatibility of Windows and X86 has left it less affected by these trends.

Say what?! My first keyboard was from 1995, and I only replaced it in 2020. It has no problems whatsoever despite some heavy Mortal Kombat gaming in the early years and heavy use overall. It was one of the first membrane keyboards, as most keyboards before that were... mechanical! And I don't see how a keyboard that served 25 years of heavy daily use can be called horrible...
He's likely referring to the quality of the typing experience, which is generally considered to be "better" on mechanical keyboards. The move to membrane keyboards was mostly done to cut costs as computers became more mainstream and pricing became more competitive, as sheets of rubber and thin plastic with printed traces tend to be a lot less expensive to manufacture than a hundred or so individual switches. And of course, not all keyboards are created equal, and yours may have been better than the average membrane keyboard. I still often use a 15+ year old membrane keyboard, though it was one of the more premium models from Logitech at the time.
 

Eximo

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Semi-mechanical keyboards were still a thing back then. I have a few laying around. Physical switches over a membrane for actuation. Basically spring loaded key caps over a membrane. I believe the later model IBM Model M and clones were like this.
 

Eximo

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Couple of different paths compute power can go down that isn't just more node shrinks and switching to EUV and GAA.

High speed optical computing, which I believe IBM did some prototyping on
3D water cooled/powered CPUs, again IBM prototype (probably not compatible with current process nodes)
Diamond substrates in place of silicon
Carbon nanotube and graphene-like technologies (Already nano-tube DRAM you can get) But there have been great strides in phenomenon discovery when it comes to 2D materials. Some as simple as taking two 2D materials and rotating them so they don't line up, doping graphene with individual atoms or sulphur and other elements.
Nano scale lasers, which could be used for certain things, possibly quantum computing elements
Quantum computing itself, way too many different paths there, and would likely not be implemented for standard tasks anyway.

The biggie would be something like room temperature superconducting which might drop compute power to ludicrously low levels if it can be applied to logic circuits.
 

apiltch

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Say what?! My first keyboard was from 1995, and I only replaced it in 2020. It has no problems whatsoever despite some heavy Mortal Kombat gaming in the early years and heavy use overall. It was one of the first membrane keyboards, as most keyboards before that were... mechanical! And I don't see how a keyboard that served 25 years of heavy daily use can be called horrible...

It had no Win key, by the way, but it was one of the last ones that hadn't.
Was this keyboard an IBM Model M? I had one also and was using it until like 2010 so I understand. However, I don't think the mechanical keyboard "movement" with people building their own and obsessing over switch types was a thing back then. Yes, the Model M was real and it was / still is fantastic. Only in the last 3 years or so have I moved away from the buckling spring switch and now find Kailh Box White to be my favorite.
 

apiltch

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Semi-mechanical keyboards were still a thing back then. I have a few laying around. Physical switches over a membrane for actuation. Basically spring loaded key caps over a membrane. I believe the later model IBM Model M and clones were like this.
I totally understand as I'm old enough to have been one of the people using the model M back then (and actually I used a model M and a clone model M from Unicomp up until very recently). What I said very carefully was "The mechanical keyboard craze hadn’t started yet and most people were suffering with the horrible membrane keyboards their PCs came with." So I think that, while some of us had mechanical keyboards, the movement toward all kinds of switches and people comparing say Cherry to Kailh, etc, was unheardof at the time. And most (but not all) people sadly used membrane keyboards and didn't know any better.
 

autobahn

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Thanks for the trip down memory lane, the streets of nostalgia are always great trip, especially to this time for me. In 1996 I was a senior at university studying for an IT degree that was mostly programming (Y2K care loomed back then but Microsoft was where everyone wanted to work back then). Email was on a VAX that I had to access at the school library and Internet was at the Libraray, computer labs, or dial up. Only a couple of the dorms on campus were wired for 10Mbps Ethernet and mine was not one of them. I got into networking because I didn't have the interest or focus for programming on my own. I purchased 4 ISA coaxial ethernet ISA cards because it was cheaper than buying a dedicated ethernet hub and gave me a working network just using pre-fab segments of cable I was fortunate to have a weekend job paying decent wages at a call center working eveings and into the late night to fund my hobbies like computers and some school expenses. The protocal was IPX/SPX only because it was easier to configure in DOS back then than TCP/IP and I had not yet learned the basics of IP networking so having IPX/SPX just used the NICs MAC to create the PCs network address was easier than learning IP networking at the time. The entire PC network was driven solely by a motivation to play Duke Nukem 3D with 3 others friends on a LAN and we strung the co-ax cable between our dorm rooms and told the RA it was a senior project called 'Duke Net' so it was OK to have the wire taped to the wall. Once we got the 4 PCs talking I think we played Duke Nukem 20 hours a day for months, probaly up until graduation in May 1997! That self taught networking experience and very little that I did to earn my diploma helped get me a job out of college as a network admin at a small company, then at a larger company, etc. Fast forward to today and I have a great job working for one of the largest networking companies on the planet for the last decade and I credit it to Duke Net, curiousity, and hard work with that initial network that I built 25 years ago. So Thank You Tom's for the article and trip down memory lane to recall some of the best times of my life.
 
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Eximo

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I should ask my brothers who had the idea for getting a home network. My dad spent a fortune on an 8-port 10Mbps hub and a hundreds of feet of CAT5 cable in like 1994. First thing we did was fire up Doom for IPX shenanigans. Too bad synching errors were so common in early versions of Doom, happened to us all the time. Eventually got five computers on that network, I credit that for why all of my brothers and I work in technology. Early adopters of WiFi as well, before we had internet access.
 

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