By Dan Tynan, PC World
Remember these clunkers? Many of them were so bad they are hard to forget.
Misery, heartbreak, sorrow, and despair. No, I’m not talking about adolescence; I’m referring to what happens when you’re stuck with a PC from Hell. Systems that were overpriced and underpowered, parts that failed two days after the warranty expired, marathon phone calls with brain-dead tech support staff–over the years we’ve suffered more than our share of ills, and so have millions of other innocent PC users.
But picking these 10 Worst PCs of All Time wasn’t as easy as it sounds. First we had to set a few ground rules. Number one, we focused strictly on desktops. (We’ll leave the flaming/exploding laptops for another occasion.) Two, these machines had to have shipped to consumers–no vaporware or concept computers allowed. Tres, we decided to ignore systems we’ve kicked around elsewhere (like the IBM PCjr, the Gateway 10th Anniversary PC, and the FreePC, all part of our 25 Worst Tech Products of All Time story), and home in on a different batch of turkeys.
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After that, it was a matter of polling PC World editors, past and present, and debating the demerits of all the systems that caused us migraines over the years. We had to resort to Indian leg wrestling matches to settle on the final ten.
Of course, maybe you had a good experience with one of these machines. Or perhaps you had a system that isn’t on this list but was so nightmarish Freddy Krueger would be scared to turn it on. If so, we want to hear about it. Look for a Comment link or go to our Forums.
#10. Dell Dimension 4600 (2003)
Consumers who purchased this machine entered a new dimension all right, the altered dimension of Dell Hell. The Dimension 4600 was only a middling machine when new, but after about a year–or shortly after the standard warranty expired–power supplies in some machines began to fail. Worse, Dell’s customer support misdiagnosed some of these problems as motherboard failures.
Dell’s support forums filled up with complaints from similarly powerless users, but the company refused to admit to defects with the power supply. (Dell politely declined to comment for this article.) The Dimension 4600′s problems were yet one more reason why the “Dude, You’ve Got a Dell” tagline became a joke–though not a particularly amusing one for some customers.
#9. New Internet Computer (2000)
At $199 sans monitor, Larry Ellison’s New Internet Computer was cheap, but not all that useful. Released in August 2000 when broadband access was still just a twinkle in most users’ eyes, the NIC relied on painfully slow dial-up connections. With no hard drive and a CD-ROM-based Linux operating system, it gave you no way to install software so you could work offline–and back then we didn’t have Web-based Google apps to take the place of desktop software.
Though hyped to the gills as a PC replacement, the NIC sold fewer than 50,000 units–just a tad short of the 5 million Ellison set as a goal for its first year. In June 2003, the New Internet Computer Company shuttered its doors, more a victim of bad timing than bad engineering.
Today, a $200 Linux-based Net client sounds mighty tempting–one reason why a dedicated band of NIC fans are attempting to revive the machine.
#8. eMachines eTower 366c (1999)
In 1999 eMachines zoomed from nowhere to become one of the top five PC vendors in the country, thanks in large part to its knack for selling full-fledged systems for peanuts ($399 sans monitor). Better yet, you could get the eTower 366c for “free” if you signed a three-year contract with a dial-up ISP (cost of the contract: $720 to $790). But consumers who thought they had snagged a great deal often got less than they bargained for–noisy fans, faulty power supplies, bad modems, and tech support that was missing in action.
Among other problems, some users reported their eTowers would simply turn themselves on in the middle of the night. Quality rebounded after the company changed ownership in 2001, and the company continued to improve after merging with Gateway in 2004. But when they first appeared, eMachines were simply eGregious.
#7. Commodore VIC 20 (1981)
Computers of a certain age tend to be beloved even when they may not deserve it. Case in point: The Commodore VIC 20. Yes, we know–it was the first personal computer to sell more than a million units, and the first PC that Linux originator Linus Torvalds ever used. And, of course, all PCs back then were comically underpowered and horsey-looking compared with today’s machines.
But the VIC 20 was a special case. It offered only 3.5KB of usable memory; most machines back then offered at least 16KB. It displayed only 22 characters of text per line (or less than half the length of the line you’re reading right now), and its graphics were chunky and cheesy-looking even by 1981 standards. Worse, its TV commercials featured William Shatner as a spokesman way before Shatner became cool in an ironic sort of way.
Shortly thereafter, the VIC 20 boldly went off the shelves, succeeded by the more powerful (and more deserving of being beloved) Commodore 64.
#6. Texas Instruments TI-99/4 (1979)
Texas Instruments’ foray into the home computer market didn’t last long, and the TI-99/4 offers a few clues as to why. At a time when all other home machines connected to your television, the 99/4 worked only with its own display–which was in fact a bulky 13-inch Zenith TV. Its keyboard came with Chiclet-sized keys more appropriate to one of TI’s hand calculators, and like your computer-illiterate mother-in-law, the machine could type only in SCREAMING CAPITAL LETTERS.
Two years later the company released the TI-99/4A, which featured more powerful processors, a better keyboard, the ability to plug in your own monitor, uppercase and lowercase letters, and a price tag less than half the TI-99/4′s $1150. But it wasn’t enough. TI exited the home PC biz a few years later, focusing exclusively on laptops.
#5. IBM PS/1 (1990-1994)
The PS/1 was IBM’s second stab at creating a consumer PC for the masses, following the disastrous PCjr (#13 on our list of the all-time worst products), but it wasn’t much of an improvement.
Among other brilliant moves, the original PS/1 featured a power supply inside the monitor, which made swapping out displays impossible, and it couldn’t accept standard ISA cards, preventing upgrades. (Later models were more compatible.)
In 1994 IBM abandoned the PS/1 and tried again to capture the consumer market by introducing the Aptiva line, but this too was largely a disaster. IBM gave up the whole Aptiva idea in 2000.
#4. Apple III (1980-1984)
Many iPod fans probably aren’t old enough to remember a time when Steve Jobs did not walk on water. But the Apple III was a fiasco, thanks largely to Jobs’ design demands.
According to most accounts, Jobs insisted that the machine be built without a cooling fan; instead, the system’s aluminum case served as a heat sink. (A mistake Apple repeated with the Mac G4 Cube in 2000.) Worse, the Apple III crammed too many components into too small a case. As the system overheated, circuit boards warped and chips popped out of their sockets; users were supposed to pick up the machine and drop it to re-seat the chips. List prices between $4300 and $7400, depending on configuration, only added to the misery.
Apple was forced to replace the first 14,000 Apple IIIs it shipped, and it redesigned the system twice, but the machine never lost its reputation as a stinker.
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#3. Coleco Adam (1983)
In 1983, toymaker Coleco introduced two revolutionary products: The Adam, a $600 home computer, and the Cabbage Patch Kids, a line of $40 dolls. It’s a tossup as to which proved more obnoxious.
The Adam was marketed as the first home computer to come with everything you needed, including a tape drive and a letter-quality printer. The problem? Any media left in the drive would get zapped by a surge of electromagnetic energy when you turned the thing on, erasing all the data on it. And the Adam’s power supply was inside the printer, so if the printer was defective (and many were), the computer wouldn’t work.
The Cabbage Patch Kids eventually made it into orbit, hitching a ride on the space shuttle in 1985. The Adam never really made it off the ground.
#2. Mattel Barbie PC (1999-2000)
Back in the late 1990s, the “concept PC” was all the rage. Goodbye to boring beige boxes, hello to creative, colorful computers. But instead of being sleek and stylish, the Mattel Barbie PC was merely pink and putrid. (And her blue and yellow brother, the Hot Wheels PC, wasn’t any better.)
Trying to sucker parents by gluing toy parts to a crappy low-end system is bad enough; what’s worse is that Patriot Computer, which manufactured these boxes for Mattel, went belly up in December 2000. More than 3000 customers who dropped $599 on these suckers got burned.
The good news? Unlike the dolls, the Barbie PC did not feature a string that caused it to say “Math is hard” when you pulled it.
#1. Packard Bell PCs (1986-1996)
When PC World decided to name the ten worst PCs of all time, it was a virtual lock that a Packard Bell machine would grace the list at number one. The only question was, which model? It was an impossible choice.
Part of the problem was Packard Bell’s strategy of selling nearly identical systems under different names, depending on where they were sold. So the Packard Bell Legend 406CD hawked at Circuit City was more or less the same as the Axcel 467 on the shelves at Staples or the Force 480CD sold at CompUSA, making apples-to-apples (or in this case, lemons-to-lemons) comparisons impossible.
But in other ways Packard Bell was maddeningly consistent. Between 1994 and 1996 the company was a perennial bottom dweller in PC World’s reliability and service ratings. One out of six Packard Bell machines sold at retail was returned by dissatisfied customers–more than twice the industry average.
And odds are good that if you bought a new Packard Bell system in 1994 or 1995, at least some of its components had been previously owned. The company was sued several times for selling used parts as new, ultimately paying out millions of dollars in settlements.
After Packard Bell merged with NEC in 1996, things got a little better. But when Packard Bell exited the US market in 2000 to focus on selling machines to European consumers, few users on this side of the pond shed any tears.