Charting the evolution of the console and personal computer

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Published on 16 June 2022 by Andrew Owen (4 minutes)

The history of the evolution of consoles and computers is a tangled web. I’ve tried to untangle it a bit. This is a revision of an article I originally wrote for an older version of my website. The original had a cutoff of 2010. This version goes to January 2022.

If I had to list the ten most significant computers in the development of the modern personal computer, in no particular order, it would be:

  • Acorn Archimedes – the first ARM-based computer.
  • Amstrad PCW – affordable all-in-one system (foreshadowing the iMac).
  • Apple II – the most successful PC before the IBM PC.
  • Apple Macintosh – popularized the GUI.
  • Atari ST – brought computing to musicians.
  • Commodore 64 – best-selling home computer of all time.
  • Commodore Amiga – brought computing to artists.
  • IBM PC – created an industry standard.
  • Osborne 1 – the first portable computer.
  • Sinclair ZX Spectrum – best-selling budget computer of all time.

And for consoles the list would be:

  • Atari 2600 – synonymous with console until the advent of the NES.
  • Microsoft Xbox – disrupted the industry.
  • Magnavox Odyssey – the first console.
  • Nintendo Entertainment System – synonymous with console during its lifetime.
  • Nintendo Game Boy – best-selling portable console after the DS.
  • Nintendo Switch – disrupted the industry.
  • Nintendo Wii – disrupted the industry.
  • Sega Mega Drive – gave the world Sonic.
  • Sony PlayStation – disrupted the industry.
  • Sony PlayStation 2 – best-selling console of all time.

“At our computer club, we talked about it being a revolution. Computers were going to belong to everyone, and give us power, and free us from the people who owned computers and all that stuff.”—Steve Wozniak

gantt title Personal Computer and Console Evolution dateFormat YYYY-MM-DD section Acorn (6502-ARM) Acorn Atom:1980-01-01,700d BBC Micro:1981-12-01,4414d Archimedes:1987-01-01,3287d Apple iPad:2010-03-01,4352d M1:2020-11-10,417d section Apple (6502-680x0-PowerPC) Apple I:1976-03-11,569d Apple II:1977-06-01,4902d Macintosh:1984-01-01,4422d PowerMac:1994-03-14,4530d Xbox 360:2005-11-22,3803d PlayStation 3:2006-11-01,3863d Nintendo Wii:2006-11-19,4013d section Atari (6502-680x0) 2600:1977-09-01,5236d 800:1979-11-01,4445d Amiga:1985-07-23,3815d section Commodore (6502-680x0) PET:1977-01-01,1493d VIC-20:1981-01-01,1462d Commodore 64:1982-08-01,4231d Atari ST:1985-06-01,2772d section IBM (80x86) IBM PC:1981-08-12,2060d PC/AT:1984-08-14,962d Compaq Deskpro 386:1986-09-01,1829d Xbox:2001-11-15,1509d MacBook Pro:2006-01-10,5419d section Tandy (Z80-6809) TRS-80:1977-08-03,1248d TRS-80 Color Computer:1980-01-01,4019d section Texas Instruments (TMS9918A) TI994:1979-06-01,1005d ColecoVision:1982-07-01,946d MSX:1983-10-21,3361d Master System:1985-10-20,13222d Mega Drive:1988-10-29,12117d section Timex (Z80) ZX81:1981-03-05,1032d Sinclair ZX Spectrum:1982-04-23,3540d TS2068:1983-11-01,1888d

Personal computers and consoles are very closely related, so it’s not surprising that this led to many ‘genetic’ dead-ends. The chart shows the significant ‘genetic’ code that’s still around today.

Your mobile phone, tablet computer and possibly even your computer use ARM chips that can trace their roots back to the Acorn Atom whose BASIC was written by Sophie Wilson.

Together with Tandy and Commodore, Apple created one of the first ‘personal computers’, and co-developed the PowerPC CPU that powered gaming consoles into the early 2010s. It was also an early investor in ARM.

After creating the Atari video consoles and computers, Jay Miner went on to make the Amiga, home of Lightwave 3D (which eventually migrated to macOS and Windows).

After leaving Commodore, the company he founded, Jack Tramiel bought Atari and launched the ST designed by Shiraz Shivji (one of the former designers of the Commodore 64). As the original platform for Notator Logic (later Logic Pro), C-Lab (later eMagic) bought the rights to continue the production of the ST platform, but was later acquired by Apple.

IBM’s decision to use an Intel CPU means that until recently, all ‘personal computers’ used 80x86-compatible CPUs.

The TRS-80 was the first of a long line of Z80 based computers. Production of the non-Z80 based CoCo ended in 1991, but Z80s are still being made.

Although not a huge success, the TI99/4 was a 16-bit machine with dedicated sound and video chips. Successors to the original video chip were used in a variety of computers and consoles from Japan.

The Timex Sinclair machines are part of the inspiration for the Chloe 280SE project, which uses the firmware from the ZX81 and the legacy video modes from the TS2068.