So your MacBook cost $1500—boo hoo. Thirty years ago, when the average salary was under $18,000, you'd have paid $2638 for an Apple II with 48K of RAM ($7770 in today's dollars). And a cellphone? Waaaay more.
Cellular technology had been in development since the early '50s, but cellphones didn't become commercially available until Motorola's DynaTAC 8000X gained FCC acceptance in 1983. The DynaTAC had 30 minutes of talk time, 8 hours of standby and memory for 30 numbers. It was also big enough to club that punk kid with the Flock of Seagulls haircut without getting blood on your favorite tweed jacket (you know, the one with the elbow pads). And the worst part is that you would have paid $4,000 for the privilege, $8,589 when you calculate for inflation. Needless to say, spending $200, or even $400, for the latest smartphone doesn't seem like a bad deal comparatively.
The point is this: We all like to complain about the price of our gadgets, but the truth is that factors like increased competition and better manufacturing technologies have made the gadgets we buy today seem like extreme bargains when put in a historical context. Let's take a look at some more examples:
VCRs vs Blu-ray Players
In the late '70s, JVC's 30-pound HR-3300 VHS player rolled out onto load-bearing retail shelves with a price tag of about $1400 ($4,124 in 2009 dollars). The rival Sony SL-5400 Betamax player with its new fangled fast forward and rewind capability wasn't much better at $1250 ($3682 in 2009 dollars).
In contrast, the Samsung BD-P1000 was one of the first Blu-ray players to hit the US in 2006—and it debuted for around $1000. That same year you could buy a Blu-ray player in a PS3 for under $500. Today, basic Blu-ray players can be had for less than $100. That's a 90% drop in just three years.
Computers Then and Now
If the Apple II was too rich for your blood, you could have gone out and purchased the base model Atari 800 with up to 48K RAM and a 1.8MHz MOS 6502 processor for $1000 ($2,946). Want a floppy drive with that? No problem, that will be $600 ($1,767) extra. I'll even throw in a black-on-white dot-matrix printer for $450 ($1,326). If you are looking for something in the budget range, the original Radio Shack Tandy TRS-80 with 4-16K RAM and a 1.77 MHz Zilog Z-80A processor starts at $600 ($1,767).
If you have a little more money to burn I could hook you up with the TRS-80 Model II with 64K RAM, 12" monochrome monitor (40x24 or 80x24 text), and a built-in 500K 8-inch floppy drive for $3899 ($11,485). To put things into perspective, $11,000 is about what some silly gamer would pay for a top-of-the-line Alienware ALX X58 desktop with all the bells and whistles—including an overclocked Core i7-975 Extreme processor, dual 1.792MB NVIDIA GeForce GTX 295 GPUs, 24GB of RAM, and 2 x 256GB SSDs (with 2TB of additional storage), not to mention a 30-inch high-def LCD monitor.
As you'll see later on, in the late 1970s, many computers cost the same as new cars.
Gaming Consoles Then and Now
If you were gaming at home in the late '70s, chances are you had the Atari 2600. It was the first console to feature plug-in cartridges and it cost $200 ($589) at launch. All in all, that figure is comparable to some configurations of the Xbox 360 and PS3 at launch, but it is important to consider that the latter consoles do more than just play games, acting as movie players, music decks, telecommunications hubs, all of which would have meant buying separate, expensive, primitive components back then.
Cassette Walkman vs MP3 Players
The cassette tape reigned supreme 30 years ago; for most music lovers today, it's all about the download. Difference is, you can get an iPod shuffle that holds about 1000 songs for $79 (and many other MP3 players cost far less). In 1979, a cassette Walkman that could only play one Supertramp album at a time cost $200 ($589).
Televisions Then and Now
Television price records from the period around the late '70s are spotty at best, because then, as now, pricing was ultracompetitive. But it is clear that most people would have to be content with a 25-inch set (and it was probably encased in a 2-ton ornate wooden shell). According to tvhistory.tv, color console models like a 25-inch Sylvania cost $530 to $850 ($1,561 to $2,503), and a 19-inch JVC "tabletop" model at $560 ($1,650). On the other hand, black-and-white models like a 22-inch Motorola console ran about $260 ($766).
Today, you can randomly walk into just about any electronics store and get a 40- to 50-inch 1080p HDTV for around $1000. If you settle for 720p you could be talking $500 or less depending on the size, and those would all be in full color, too. Old fashioned tube TVs, (the B&W sets of 2009) cost $100 to $300 new—if you can even find one.
Other Popular Gadgets
How much did other gadgets cost in the late '70s?
• Clothes Washer/Dryer: From $199 and $219 respectively ($586 to $645)—that's fairly comparable to today's lower-end models. Although, if you are on a budget you can easily find models that are significantly cheaper.
• Microwave: From $169 ($498)—today many standard microwaves can be had for $60 or less.
• Dishwasher: From $259 ($763)—today you can easily find basic dishwashers for $300 or less.
• Stereo System: $299 ($884)—options vary of course, but that's what a typical AM/FM/8-Track/record stereo system cost. Today there are a ridiculous number of devices available to play and stream music in the house—many with their own included speakers and amplifier, not to mention wireless connectivity and vast internal music and video storage—that cost less than half that.
• Calculator: $25 ($73)—Calculators come attached to everything these days but in the late '70s, if you wanted to score an original TI-30, it would have set you back a few bucks. Today's TI-30 models cost $20 or less. [The People History]
Cars Then and Now
Cars exist on a different plane than consumer electronics. Due to a different system of manufacturing, R&D and labor, prices have not steadily trended downward—in fact, quite the contrary. For example, The People History gives us a good idea about the price of specific cars 30 years ago—including models that are still in production today. One of those cars, the Toyota Corolla, is listed at $3,698 ($10,893). Today, a Toyota Corolla starts at around $15,350. On the higher end, the Chevy Corvette ran about $12,313 ($36,270) in 1979. Today, a base model Corvette sells for around $45,515.
Still, if you have been thinking about getting a new vehicle, this might be the best time in 30 years to do so. According to Comerica's annual Auto Affordability Index, cars are actually more affordable now than they were in 1979. Plus, the economy is forcing automakers and the government to offer all kinds of incentives which are pushing prices even lower.
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By now you are probably getting the idea—being a tech nerd is cheaper than ever. Sure, new technology is going to be expensive, but that is a consequence that most early adopters are willing to accept. The good news is that, for the most part, manufacturers are charging much lower early adopter premiums when compared to 30 years ago (and charging them for a shorter period of time). With fierce competition and advanced manufacturing driving down the price of new technology at a blistering rate, it takes less patience than ever to reap greater and greater rewards. So quit yer bitchin'! [Top Image via RetroWow] Click to view
Gizmodo '79 is a week-long celebration of gadgets and geekdom 30 years ago, as the analog age gave way to the digital, and most of our favorite toys were just being born.