Stranger Things tech: Computers in 1983/84

The hair… the outfits… the music — as a child of the 1980s, the popular Netflix series Stranger Things does a remarkable job of placing me back in that youthful and fascinating time. And as a tech geek, of course, I’ve been paying close attention to the techno-gadget-y things in the show, partly whether to see if I had anything like it as a kid, and partly to check whether the show remains true to its time.

While I haven’t noticed any major blunders, I have been a little disappointed so far with the lack of personal computers — Mac, PCs, or otherwise — in the show. Of course, there are plenty of mainframes and other computational equipment in the Hawkins research lab, but I would have thought the boys — being a bit geeky themselves — would have at least one home computer. All this got me thinking about which computer models and brands would have been readily available at the time, and how you would actually go about buying a computer in the mid-1980s. My family bought our first computer, a TI-99/4A, in 1980, but I was too young to remember how it was purchased or what the other options might have been.

So let’s go back to 1983/1984 together and see what computers would have been available to Mike and the gang, how much they would have cost in today’s dollars, and where they would have purchased them.

The IBM 5170 — powerful for the time, but super dang expensive.

On the PC side, the boys would probably have drooled over the IBM PC/AT 5170. The 1984 successor to the original IBM 5150 (often considered the first true PC) introduced in 1981, the PC/AT was powered by a 80286 processor running at 6 MHz. It came with 256 kb or 512 kb of RAM (expandable to a mind-blowing 16mb), a 20 mb hard drive, 5.25″ floppy disk drive, and ran MS-DOS 3.0. At $6,000 ($14,100 in 2017 dollars), however, it probably would have been slightly out of the boys’ budget range.

The IBM 5150, the original PC. It was also pricey but more affordable by the mid-80s.

A more reasonable pick would have been the older 5150 running at 4.77 MHz, sporting 16 kb of RAM, and two  5.25″ floppy disk drives. These two IBM machines, though, were built mainly for business use, and probably would not have been the first choice for home use at the mid-1980s. They were simply too expensive.

The IBM PC Jr.

The PC Jr. came along in 1984, with a more reasonable $1,269 ($3,000 today) price tag. Despite running at the same speed as the 5150 at a reduced price, the IBM PCJr. was not the major success that they expected it to be. One of the computers biggest criticism was its lame chiclet keyboard. No doubt the Stranger Things crew would have scoffed at this one. So let’s see what else was out there.

The Apple Macintosh.

Apple, of course, had the Apple II as well as two newer models on the market by the mid-1980s: The Apple Lisa and the original Macintosh. The Lisa was released in January 1983 and sported a 5 MHz Motorola 68000 CPU. Although the Lisa was one of the first computers with a graphical user interface (GUI), the whopping $9,995 ($24.5k) price tag and unreliable floppy disk drives kept people from buying. The Macintosh was released just a year later. It was more powerful at 7.83 MHz and cheaper at $2495 ($5,900). It came with 128kb-512kb of RAM and a 9-inch monochrome display. The Macintosh outsold the PCJr., but was no where near as successful as the Commodore 64 released in 1982.

The Commodore 64.

Unlike the Apple computers and the IBMs, the Commodore 64 was cheap: just $595 ($1,500) at introduction. I think this probably would have been the boys’ computer of choice, even in 1983/84. Having easily sold more units than either Apple or IBM, Commodore dominated the computer market at the time, with thousands of software titles including hundreds of games. It only had 64kb of RAM, but had superior sound and graphics compared to the competitors.

Computerland ad sometime in the early 1980s.

So where would have Mike, Dustin, and Lucas gone shopping for a computer back then? Well other than mail-order, there were a couple  computer retail stores dominating the market: RadioShack and ComputerLand. RadioShack’s parent company Tandy sold their own line of computers, basically IBM PC clones. The Tandy 1000, released in November 1984, was particularly successful. It offered a few enhancements over the PCJr and cost less. At one point in the early 80s, RadioShack really dominated the retail market, selling computers in hundreds of stores nationwide. ComputerLand was also a big player in the retail computer market in the 1980s, having some 800 stores by 1985.

I don’t remember going to either of these stores in the 80’s, but I certainly remember CompUSA from the 90’s. Shopping for computers and computer components online just isn’t the same. Anyway, there you have it… what did I miss? There definitely would have been other offerings from Atari, etc., so let me know below.


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