In 1984, 19-year-old college student Michael Dell founded his own IBM PC-compatible computer business called PC's Limited in Austin, Texas. His breakthrough approach involved selling high-quality, custom-configured systems through mail order and telephone at a low price with customer support.
Over the next decade, Michael Dell's company grew dramatically. In 1985, PC's Limited introduced its first self-branded computer model, and sales took off. In 1988, the firm changed its name to Dell Computer Corporation and went public. In 1992, the firm entered the Fortune 500, with 27-year-old Michael Dell honored as the youngest CEO listed at the time.
These days, Michael Dell is one of the "hometown" prides of Austin—and Texas in general. Despite Dell's ups and downs in recent years, remains a prominent example of a very successful self-made businessman. I have a few uncles who live in Austin, and they mention the latest news about Michael Dell every time I talk to them. So it is always fun to revisit this American success story.
Today we're going to take a look at some of Dell's earliest machines—all of which were released during its "golden age," which I am arbitrarily calling its first 10 years of business. These were the years when Dell was finding its footing, and the models were far less numerous and confusing.
If you have any personal history with Dell computers, I would love to hear them in the comments after you stroll back through this historic gallery.
PC's Limited Turbo PC (1985)
If you missed it in the introduction, Dell went under the name PC's Limited until 1988. In 1985, the firm launched its first name brand PC, the Turbo PC. It packed an Intel 8088 CPU, 640K of RAM, and a 360K 5.25-inch floppy drive. At the time, the machine would not have been particularly notable if not for its price—$795 (about $1,845 today, adjusted for inflation)—which dramatically undercut IBM's own Personal Computer, which could retail between $1,500 and $2,500 for a similarly configured system.
PC's Limited AT (1985)
Not long after the launch of the Turbo PC, PC's Limited released its IBM PC AT clone, a machine packing an 8MHz Intel 80286 for an absurdly low price ($1,995) compared to IBM's own PC AT, which launched with a $4,000 base price just the year before. The PC's Limited machine came in a similarly styled case to its IBM cousin, but with a much smaller footprint, saving desk space. It marked another breakthrough for Michael Dell, and it fueled further growth for the young firm.
PC's Limited 286-16 (1986)
Just a year after launching its 8MHz AT machine, PC's Limited upped the ante with a 16MHz 286 AT, which critics considered dramatically fast at the time. A breathless review from PC Magazine said, "If you've ever daydreamed about climbing into the computer equivalent of an F-18 jet, punching the throttle, and blasting straight up into the clouds, sit yourself down in front of one of these." And of course, like every machine sold by Michael Dell's firm, the 286-16's price proved incredibly competitive compared to IBM's offerings.
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PC's Limited 386-16 (1987)
For its last trick before changing over to the Dell name, PC's Limited launched a powerful desktop machine that included a 16MHz Intel 80386 CPU, 1MB RAM, a 1.2MB floppy drive, a 40MB hard drive, and a monochrome video card for $4,799 (about $10,571 today). Sure, it was pricey compared to today's computers, but Compaq's similar offerings at the time cost about $2,000 more. A 1987 magazine review of the machine mentions customers having trouble actually buying PC's Limited systems—intense demand far outstripped the firm's ability to supply PCs to every customer who wanted one.
Dell System 220 (1988)
With a fresh influx of cash after its IPO in 1988, the newly renamed Dell Computer Corporation introduced a wide new variety of machines. One of them was this slimline Dell System 220, which packed a speedy 20MHz 80286 CPU and some nice base features for a reasonable price. Michael Dell's business had entered its second phase of life, and his firm's PC kept selling briskly.
Dell System 316LT (1990)
In 1990, Dell introduced its first laptop computer, the 316LT—a monochrome VGA machine with a 16MHz 80386 CPU, 20MB hard drive, a 1.44 MB 3.5-inch floppy drive, and 1MB of RAM for $3,500 in 1990 (about $6,729 today). Dell listed its weight as 13.5 pounds without a battery—which is smart because rechargable NiCd laptop batteries in those days could easily weigh between 5 to 10 pounds themselves. In a 1990 roundup of laptop machines, InfoWorld remarked of the 316LT: "Fastest speed; lowest price," but complained about short battery life.
Dell System 433TE (1990)
In 1990, Dell released its first systems shipping with server-class Intel 80486 CPUs, which were considered monstrously powerful at the time. Here you can see two of them: the lower-priced 425TE (with a 25MHz 486) and the faster, 33MHz Dell 433 TE. The high-end machine could be yours for a mere $12,199 (about $23,455 today, adjusted). Before you gasp at the price, know this: At the time, Compaq's comparable SystemPro 486/33 server sold for over $30,000. See? It's a bargain!
Dell OptiPlex MXV (1993)
On Aug. 1, 1993, Dell introduced the first members of its soon-to-be-signature OptiPlex desktop computer line, a series of 486-based machines "targeted at corporate customers who require more advanced features and performance." Dell also launched the high-end, consumer-targeted Dimension XPS brand, solidifying a branding scheme that would last for 14 years (for Dimension) and to the present day (for OptiPlex).
The Optiplex line recieved its first 66MHz Pentium CPUs in 1995, closing out a decade of wild growth and business success for Michael Dell's upstart company. Today, Dell remains one of the most successful PC retailers, ranking third overall in market share during 2016. It's amazing how far PC technology has come since a young freshman in Texas decided to create his own computer business way back in 1984.
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