The Worst Computers of All Time

The humble desktop computer has evolved quite a lot in the last thirty-plus years. Gone are the beige, toilet-coloured boxes with chunky monitor and wrist-thick cables, to be replaced by impressive, almost dominating black boxes with windowed sides and glowing insides. Among the good, though, are the bad…

Finding the worst computers of all time is a difficult task, as a computer many regard as bad may have been absolutely brilliant for you. We could easily state that the Commodore 64 was the worst of the 8-bit legion of computers, and that the ZX Spectrum was marvellous – but since we were Spectrum owners, we’re going to be slight biased toward old Sr Clive’s little dead-flesh computer. And by the way, we were only stating a point, we actually liked the C64.

However, there are some examples of computer that are categorically bad. They could have been badly specified, overpriced, have terrible support, exploding PSUs… the list goes on. We’ve therefore gathered a selection of such computers, the ones that near-everyone agreed were pretty awful.

Apple III

After the success of the previous Apple line of home computers, the company continued its branding with the release of the Apple III in late 1980 at an eye-watering cost of between $4,300 to $7,800. Sadly, due to initial problems with the Apple III it was withdrawn from the shelves and re-issued nearly a year later in November 1981.

The Apple III is regarded as one of the biggest failures in the history of modern computing. Its problems were many, and included warped circuit boards, severe overheating that would pop chips out of their sockets and melt disks. The aluminium case served as a heatsink, and would grow incredibly hot to the touch. And, according to internet rumour, the system was designed by the marketing team and not the engineering team.

Too many components in a small space was the main blame, which caused the massive overheating of the Apple III. Needless to say, by 1984 the Apple III was laid to rest in favour of its successor, the Lisa.

Coleco Adam

Launched in 1983, the Coleco Adam was a cassette and cartridge-based home computer that could also serve as an expansion device for the ColecoVision games console. It’s initial price was around $790, but that also included a printer, couple of Coleco controllers and a keyboard. It was comparable to that of the Commodore 64 at the time, but it did come with a myriad of problems that meant the Adam only ever sold about 100,000 units.

One of the more bizarre issues regarding the Adam was that the power switch was located on the back of the printer, not the computer. So if you didn’t have the printer, or the printer failed for some reason, the entire Adam setup was next to useless. But, the major issue with the Adam was the fact that when powered up it released a huge surge of electromagnetic energy, and any tapes that were already inserted during start up were promptly wiped.

IBM PCjr

The IBM PCjr, PC Junior, was released in 1984 and is one of the biggest flops for the company during the 80s. Introduced at the unbelievable price of $1,300 (without a monitor), this 128KB system was supposed to be designed for home users who didn’t want the fully-blown IBM PC experience. Sadly, it didn’t work out too well.

One of the major issues with the PCjr was that much of the existing IBM PC software couldn’t run on it, due its lack of memory. There was also limited hardware expansion, just a single external slot, and a terrible keyboard. IBM later swapped out the keyboard, and dropped the price of the PCjr, which surprisingly improved the sales of the machine. However, by the following year the PCjr was discontinued.

New Internet Computer

By the year 2000, the internet was in full swing and connecting to it via your PC’s modem was something most folks were accustomed to. Larry Ellison, co-founder and CTO of Oracle, had a great idea: manufacture a system that’s reasonably cheap, allowing more people to get online. Thus, the New Internet Computer was born.

The NIC was an odd system. It cost just £200, minus a monitor, but it came with very little to recommend it. This Linux-based machine utilised a custom distro developed by Wim Coekaerts, and was sold without a hard drive. Yep, no hard drive. It ran the Linux distro off a CD-ROM, backed up with a paltry 4MB of flash memory for swap space. This meant that you weren’t able to add any new software, store anything, or update the distro with any much-needed security patches.

Ellison hoped to sell five million NICs in the first year of its release, but less than 50,000 were eventually sold.

eMchines eTower 366c

eMachines became a well-known household name in the late nineties due to its amazingly cheap PCs flooding the market. In a time when the internet was taking its first fledgling steps, having an eMachine meant that you could get online to that superhighway thingie for as little as a few hundred pounds.

The computer in question, from the many that eMachines dished out, was the eTower 366c. A beige-coloured behemoth that could be bought for around £400, but could also come as part of a deal with certain ISPs on a three-year contract. While that sounds reasonable, the eTower did have its issues. For one, the PSUs were notoriously faulty, the fans were noisy, the built-in modems were next to useless, poor customer support, and many users reported their eTowers randomly turning themselves on in the middle of the night.

Needless to say, they didn’t last long.

Texas Instruments TI-99/4

1979, and the golden era of the home computer was about to kick off in a big way. Before we got there, though, we had the TI-99/4. This monstrous computer, with its own Zenith 13-inch display, and terrible keyboard was, to quote The New York Times, “an embarrassing failure.” Overpriced, non-standard BASIC, and a severe lack of software meant the TI-99/4 didn’t last too long on the shelves.

Among the aforementioned issues, the TI-99/4 also suffered from a lack of expansion, overheating, random power shutdowns, and you could only ever type in capitals. Texas Instruments fared better a couple of years later with the release of its successor, the TI-99/4A.

Future Tech

Many of these systems were filling a need, or a niche in the market at a time when the home computer was still quite a new experience for a lot of people. In some respect you can hardly blame the companies for opting for something new, and little extreme to fit the bill. On the other hand, there were a lot of corners cut in some models.

Who knows, maybe in another forty years someone will write about those terrible PCs we used back in the 2020s, while typing on their quantum-based, mind-connected computers?

Russ Ware

Russ has been testing, reviewing and writing guides for tech since the heady days of Windows 95 and the Sega Saturn. A self-confessed (and proud) geek about all things tech, if it has LED's, a screen, beeps or has source code, Russ will want to master it (and very likely take it apart to see how it works...)

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