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

1996 Tech vs 2021 Tech
(Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

Spring 2021 marks the 25th anniversary of Tom’s Hardware. Started in 1996 by Dr. Thomas Pabst, our site has been there to provide coverage and context for all the major developments in tech from the last quarter century. We went in-depth on processors, from discovering a major Pentium III bug in 2000 to benchmarking the AMD Athlon 64 X2 to reviewing the latest Intel Rocket Lake chips today. We were there for the evolution of graphics cards, trying everything from the 3Dfx Voodoo chip to the RTX 3090

As tech has evolved, so have we. While we’ve always been known for PC hardware, Tom’s Hardware is now a home for tech enthusiasts of all kinds, including Raspberry Pi fans, Linux aficionados, makers, gamers and anyone who wants to live technology, not just use it. So we thought that, in honor of our own 25 years of growth and change, we’d look back at how technology changed right before our eyes.

CPU

The advances in processor technology since 1996 have been nothing short of miraculous. The best consumer processor that year was Intel’s Pentium P54CS, which had a version that ran at a speedy 200 MHz on its single core while being built with a 350 nanometer process. It had a total of 3.3 million transistors.

Multi-core processors came to the PC in 2005 and today’s best CPU for consumers, the Ryzen 9 5950X, has 16 cores and 32 threads, and is built on a 7nm process node. If you are going for a high-end desktop chip, AMD’s Ryzen Threadripper 3990X has a whopping 64 cores and 128 threads!

Graphics Card

Back in 1996, the very concept of 3D graphics was new. Most graphics cards were designed for 2D only. Top-end models included the ATI 3D Rage, which launched in April 1996, and combined a 44 MHz Mach64 GT GPU with 2MB of EDO memory. It operated at a maximum resolution of 1600 x 1200 (with 65K colors) or 1280 x 1024 with 16.7 million colors and a pixel fill rate of 44 megapixels per second. The 3DFx Voodoo card was also released that year and offered better 3D performance but had to be paired with a separate 2D card.

In 2021, the best graphics card you can buy, if money is no object and you don’t mind paying a scalper on eBay, is Nvidia’s RTX 3090. The RTX 3090 handles both 2D and 3D graphics with aplomb and even throws in real-time Ray-tracing. It features a boost clock speed of 1,695 MHz, a pixel fill rate of 189 gigapixels per second and a maximum resolution of 7680x4320.

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. However, according to our GPU price index, you’ll pay a lot more than that if you can find one.

Storage

In 1996, new mainstream PCs came with EIDE (Enhanced Integrated Drive Electronics) hard drives that were usually between 1.6 and 2.5GB and offered transfer rates up to 16.6 MBps. Today, you’d be hard-pressed to find a USB flash drive or microSD card with so little storage.

You can still get mechanical hard drives today, which now use a SATA interface, but SSDs have become the boot drives of choice, even for many budget PCs. The best SSD for performance is the Samsung 980 Pro, which uses the PCIe 4.0 bus and promises speeds of up to 7,000 MBps for reads and 5,000 MBps for writes, more than 300 times faster than a 1996 hard drive.

RAM

When we look back at computer ads from 25 years ago, it’s interesting to see that the amounts of RAM most PCs came with were similar to what we see today, if you replace GB with MB, a 1000-fold difference. A top-of-the-line, workstation-class PC in 1996 had 64MB of EDO RAM. Budget systems had 8MB and mainstream systems had 16MB.

Extended Data Out (EDO) RAM operated at a 40 MHz clock speed with up to 320 MBps transfer rates, which was a huge improvement over the FPM DRAM it had replaced a couple of years earlier. Today, most PCs use DDR4 RAM with DDR5 finally coming to consumer desktops this year. The best DDR4 RAM can operate at a peak transfer rate of 35,200 MBps, along with 4,400 million data transfers per second.

Phones

In 1996, smartphones didn’t exist. Though IBM had released the Simon Personal Communicator in 1994, it was hardly mainstream and the top handset of the time was Motorola’s StarTAC flip phone. The StarTAC was super compact, easy to hold up to your ear and could receive -- but not on the earliest models send -- SMS messages. I remember having one of these and using the included belt holster to carry it around like a six shooter in the old west. It must have popped out and fallen on the floor a dozen times, but thankfully it was quite durable.

In 2021, mobile devices have so many features aside from calling that they shouldn’t even be called “phones” at all. Today’s Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G features a 6.9-inch OLED display, dual cameras that let you shoot up to 8K video, a 5,000 mAH battery that gives you over 11 hours of active use and connectivity at 5G. Needless to say, the StarTAC had no camera, utilized a tiny LCD screen to show your phone numbers and gave you as little as 60 minutes of talk time on the original model. But it sure did look cool.

One thing that hasn’t changed: high prices for flagship phones. The StarTAC listed for $1,000 and the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G is $1,249. You can, however, buy really good smartphones for less than $500 in 2021.

Monitor

The move toward flat panels has been one of the best tech improvements of the last 25 years. Back in 1996, everyone was still using large, heavy CRT monitors which took up a ton of desk space. In fact, I had a really deep desk just so I could squeeze a 19-inch monitor onto it. The top monitor of 1996 was Sony’s Multiscan 20se II, which supported a super-sharp 1600 x 1200 resolution at 75 Hz. The only downside was that this $1,999 screen weighed a hefty 66 pounds and was 19-inches deep.

The best 4K gaming monitor within reason, the LG 27GN950-B, has a 27-inch screen, a sharp 3840 x 2160 resolution and the ability to refresh at up to 144 Hz with G-Sync and FreeSync support (see FreeSync vs G-Sync). It costs around $1,100, weighs a modest 16.9 pounds and is just 2.1 inches thick.

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.

Mouse

Sure people use touchpads or, if they want to be more productive, pointing sticks when they’re on the go with a laptop. But 64 years after Douglas Engelbart invented it, the mouse is still the pointing device of choice today. In 1996, the leading mouse was Microsoft’s Intellimouse, which wasn’t the first-ever mouse with a scroll wheel, but was the product that popularized it.

The changes to mice in the last 25 years have been more evolutionary than revolutionary. Instead of physical balls, we now have optical sensors. Instead of connecting via a serial port, we have either USB (wired or wireless) or Bluetooth. Mice tend to have more than two buttons in addition to the wheel and many have interchangeable weights and switches, along with RGB lighting.

Among the best gaming mice, Logitech’s G502 Lightspeed exemplifies most of these advances, as it offers a choice of wired or low-latency wireless connectivity, with a massive CPI of 16,000, 11 programmable buttons, optional weights and custom RGB lighting. The G502 also supports wireless charging, which was a distant dream 25 years ago. It goes for around $100, which is $15 more than the Intellimouse’s $85 launch price in 1996, but if you want to save money, you can find one of the best gaming mice for less than $50 and one of the best wireless mice for productivity for less than $20.

Keyboard

The world of keyboards has had its ups and downs in the last 25 years, but as with mice, much has remained the same. By 1996, the 104-key layout was standard, along with the Windows key we still use today. The mechanical keyboard craze hadn’t started yet and most people were suffering with the horrible membrane keyboards their PCs came with.

Released in 1994 but still popular in 1996, the $99 Microsoft Natural Keyboard was perhaps the most noteworthy input device of the time, thanks to its ergonomic split design, and that Windows key, which it pioneered. If you really wanted an excellent typing experience at the time, an IBM Model M keyboard with its amazing buckling-spring switches was the way to go. Even though IBM stopped making these in 1999, many enthusiasts still love them and I used one of these until just a few years ago. A company called Unicomp got the license to make new buckling-spring keyboards and I still have one of those.

The biggest changes in keyboards over Tom’s Hardware’s history involve the rise of mechanical switches and the emergence of gaming keyboards, which are designed to look and feel like entertainment peripherals, thanks to RGB lighting and other extras such as built-in macro keys and media controls. Where keyboard connoisseurs had few choices in 1996, today they have scores of different switches and hundreds if not thousands of speciality keyboard models. Smaller layouts, as exemplified by tenkeyless and 65-percent keyboards, are also popular, as is building your own custom keyboard.

One of the best gaming keyboards in 2021 is the Razer BlackWidow V3 Pro. Available at a fairly pricey $229, the V3 Pro offers three ways to connect: 2.4-GHz wireless, Bluetooth and wired USB. It has your choice of clicky Razer Green switches or linear Razer Yellows, along with per-key RGB lighting, doubleshot ABS keycaps and all the macro and customization options that come with Razer’s Synapse software.

Case and Power Supply

In 1996, the first generation of ATX power supplies and cases built to match was just coming to market. The ATX standard replaced the earlier AT standard, offering among other things, the ability for the OS to turn off the power (aka soft off). Before that time, most PCs required you to hit a physical button to kill the power, even after you had shut down. In 1996, a typical power supply was between 230 and 250 watts and cost between $60 and $90, So the wattage has gone up, but budget power supplies still cost about the same.

In 2021, amazingly, we still use ATX power supplies, though the ATX standard has been revised several times to go from a 20 to a 24-pin motherboard connector and to provide added connectors for video cards. There are also SFX PSUs for compact PCs. On a mainstream desktop today, a 400-watt PSU will keep you in the safe zone and, if you want to run a high-end graphics card, grab one of the best PSUs that outputs at least 750 or 800 watts.

ATX-style cases and the motherboards that are designed to fit them are still the standard today. However, they’ve been joined by other form factors, including the smaller mini-ITX and larger EATX. For much more on PSU and motherboard size considerations, see our Guide to Motherboard, Case and Power Supply Form Factors.

Removable Storage

Many people don’t even use external storage on a day-to-day basis these days. If you want to backup your data or share it with another computer, uploading files to the cloud is usually more convenient. But, back in 1996, external storage was a big deal and there were many different, competing formats.

Twenty-five years ago, 1.44 MB floppy disks were still very popular and most people, if not everyone, had stacks of them. Zip disks had just launched in 1995 and they were all the rage because they held a whopping 100MB of storage and, depending on the interface you used to connect them to your computer (SCSI and parallel port were the original choices), you could get pretty decent transfer rates.

Most computers came with CD-ROM drives, and if you were willing to spend $500 or more, which I did back then, you could buy a CD-R and burn your own discs. Finally, if you wanted inexpensive storage for backup only, you could buy an internal or external tape drive for reasonable prices.

Today, when people do need external storage, they use either a Flash drive or an external SSD / hard drive, both of which connect via USB with no storage required. Prices are pretty low, as you can get a 32GB Flash drive for only $8 or a 2TB hard drive for $49. If you’re sharing data with a mobile device, a camera or a Raspberry Pi, you may also want to write to microSD cards, which have similar prices to Flash drives of the same capacities.

Data Ports

If you needed to connect your computer to a peripheral in 1996, your two main choices were RS-232 serial ports or Parallel ports. Commonly used for mice, serial ports had a maximum speed of 115,200 baud, though in practice, the fastest devices most connected to were dial-up modems, which could transfer at a maximum rate of 56.6 kbps.

Originally designed for printers, parallel ports were also used for backup drives such as Zip drives and external tape backups. They had a maximum speed of 150 Kbps for standard parallel ports and up to 2.5 MBps for enhanced ones. Many PCs also had PS/2 ports for keyboards and mice.

For video out, the main choice in 1996 was a 15-pin VGA connector. There was no digital DVI, HDMI or DisplayPorts yet.

In 2021, wired connectivity is all about USB. Today, most computers have USB 3.x 5 Gbps ports while some newer models have ports that support 10 Gbps or 20 Gbps. The top-of-the-line in 2021 is represented by USB 4, which can provide speeds up to 40 Gbps, or Thunderbolt 3 / Thunderbolt 4, which have similar functionality and the same 40 Gbps top speed.

For video, the main ports in 2021 are HDMI and DisplayPort, both of which can output at 4K or even 8K resolutions, depending on the version and video card. However, you can also output video over USB Type-C, using alternative mode.

Connectivity / Networking

The speed and convenience of connectivity, both to the Internet and within local networks is one of the most significant changes in the last quarter century. Back in 1996, Wi-Fi didn’t exist yet so, if you wanted to have a home or office network, you needed to use wired Ethernet, which topped out at 100Base-T or 100 Mbps. Dial-up was the primary way to get online and the 56K modem wasn’t even out yet, so the top speed you could get was 33.6 Kbps.

In 2021, most recent laptops, phones or tablets and many desktops have Wi-Fi 5, which runs at 3.5 Gbps. However, we’re starting to see Wi-Fi 6 / 6E devices, which have a theoretical maximum of 9.6 Gbps. The slowest common speed of Ethernet at this point is 1 Gbps, but some devices now have 10 Gbps wired connections. And, if you need connectivity outside your home or office, your phone or cellular modem can connect at 5G speeds that go up to 10 Gbps.

What will the next 25 years bring?

In some ways, the hardware changes we saw in the past 25 years are huge. In 1996, it was difficult to imagine a world with ubiquitous wireless connectivity, processors with multiple cores and flat panel screens everywhere. However, the more things change, the more they stay the same. The fact that we’re all still using PCs, most of which have x86 processors and use updated versions of the same operating systems -- for most people Windows -- shows the enduring power of these platforms.

So what kind of changes to hardware can we expect in the next 25 years? If we knew for sure, we’d quit our day-jobs and invest in stocks, rather than writing stories like this. We can certainly expect huge leaps in memory, storage, bandwidth and processing power as we saw in the last 25 years.

We also expect an even greater emphasis on GPU-based computing and machine-learning, along with the strong possibility that Arm-based processors steal significant market share from Intel and AMD. Those are all obvious predictions and even they could be wrong. But whatever happens in hardware, you can be sure we’ll be there to help you make the most of it.

  • Metal Messiah.
    A Blast from the PAST, more like ! 😎
    Reply
  • jelyon
    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.
    Reply
  • velocityg4
    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.
    Reply
  • caseym54
    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.
    Reply
  • jelyon
    caseym54 said:
    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.

    ISDN. Ah, a very rare bird back in the day.
    Reply
  • Sergei Tachenov
    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.
    Reply
  • ezst036
    Where are the benchmarks? 🙃
    Reply
  • spongiemaster
    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.
    Reply
  • jaybutnotz
    Admin said:
    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.
    Reply
  • Chung Leong
    I had Ricochet back in 1996. Wireless and always-on. Totally beats dial-up Internet.
    Reply