Here’s what gaming PCs were like in the 90s:
The 90s represented a lot of radical change for computers, so gaming PCs at the beginning of the decade were nothing like PCs at the end.
Even budget computers ran about $1,500 in 1990, and they offered no 3D graphics.
On average, gaming PCs had at least 8 MB of RAM and processors around 50 MHz.
So if you want to learn all about the gaming PCs available during the 90s, then this article is for you.
Let’s jump right in!
What’s in a Computer? (4 Parts)
Hang on for a moment.
In order to compare computers across the 90s, we’re going to have to get into a lot of technical terms and ideas.
To make all of this simpler, I’m going to take you through a quick crash course in computer hardware.
I’ll discuss the major components of a computer and how they compare, using modern examples.
Then, when I explain computers from the 90s, you’ll have a strong context.
The central processing unit (CPU) is the brain of the computer.
This is the device that actually makes calculations and carries out tasks when your computer runs.
CPUs come in many designs and for many purposes, but without a CPU, you don’t have a computer.
There are a few ways to measure the power of a CPU.
The first is the clock speed.
This is basically a measure of how many calculations a CPU can make in a single second, and it’s measured in Hertz (Hz).
So, 1 Hz would amount to 1 calculation each second.
Yet, computers are known for calculating things very quickly.
That’s why you’re going to see typical numbers in the range of Megahertz (MHz) and Gigahertz (GHz).
Thankfully, this uses a standardized metric system where Mega means 1 million and Giga means 1 billion.
So, 1 GHz is one billion calculations per second.
As for context, a modern, modestly priced CPU runs at about 3.7 GHz.
Such a CPU costs around $160.
High-end processors can easily exceed $500 and break 5 GHz.
Now, it’s worth noting that there are other things that matter for a processor.
Modern processors have multiple cores and threads, essentially allowing one device to do many things simultaneously.
That means that a 1 GHz processor today would be several times more powerful than a single-core, single-thread 1 GHz processor from the past.
But because 90s processors were simpler devices, we’re mostly going to be comparing clock speeds.
Next up is RAM.
This is also called computer memory, and it’s the short-term memory for your computer.
To keep this short, most of the information in your computer is stored in a specialized storage drive (such as a hard drive).
These storage drives are usually slow in terms of information transfers, and pulling information from the storage drive over and over again can seriously slow down a computer.
That’s where RAM comes in.
It holds a lot less information than the storage drive, but it’s very fast.
So, the CPU will pull information from the storage drive, but then it will leave that information in the RAM for a while in case it needs to revisit the information.
Done correctly, this allows the RAM to save a ton of time on accessing raw data for computer systems.
There are two things that dictate how good RAM is:
- clock speed
RAM clock speed works the same way as CPU clock speed.
Faster is better.
Modern RAM speeds mostly range from 1333 MHz to 2133 MHz, making them slower than processors, but not by a lot.
As for capacity, that is measured in bytes.
A byte is a unit of storage for a computer.
A single byte holds very little information, but enough bytes can store pretty much anything.
For context, an average photo taken with a smartphone will be between 1 and 2 megabytes (MB).
A high-definition movie will be between 1 and 5 gigabytes (GB).
Keep in mind that mega and giga mean 1 million and 1 billion, respectively, in this context too.
As for modern computers, they usually have anywhere from 8 to 64 GB of memory with the average gaming computer probably settling on 16 GB of RAM.
#3 Graphics Card
The graphics processing unit (GPU) is a special device in a computer that is responsible for drawing the images you see on your screen.
If your computer has a working screen, then it has a GPU.
A graphics card is a discrete device that includes a GPU.
Basically, a graphics card takes the GPU and specializes it so that you get better graphical performance.
Like RAM, graphics cards are measured in speed and capacity.
A modern, high-end graphics card will have around 8 GB of its own, dedicated memory (which works like RAM but for the GPU) and run at speeds in the ballpark of 1800 MHz.
Such a card would cost around $650 today. More expensive cards are available, but they are not dramatically superior in stats.
The last thing we’ll be comparing today is storage devices.
There are other components on a computer, but for a 90s machine, these were the big four.
Storage devices are what hold all of the information for a computer.
They’re like a digital filing cabinet.
Storage devices come in different designs, capacities, and speeds, but most of that is irrelevant for comparing 90s hardware.
For the devices below, you really only need to worry about capacity.
This is measured the same way as RAM, in MB and GB.
As a rule, more capacity is better.
For context, a modern storage device (usually not called hard drives anymore because the technology has changed so much) can hold multiple thousands of GB (known as TB).
They also run roughly a thousand times faster than the hard drives of the 90s.
What Hardware Was Common in 90s Computers? (4 Things)
Here’s the thing.
We’re talking about PCs in the 90s.
That’s a 10-year span, and it’s the specific 10 years when adoption rates of PCs hit an all-time high.
The industry was surging, money was pouring in, and innovations seemed to happen on a weekly basis.
All of this is to say that computers changed a lot over the decade of the 90s.
Microsoft wasn’t really a household name in 1990.
Computers were using Windows 3.0 where you had to type in raw DOS commands to make the computer work.
It was a different time.
Apple was in a similar boat.
They tried to push for personal computer adoption in the 80s, but they made slow gains.
For the first half of the 90s, Apple was circling the drain and nearing bankruptcy.
They weren’t viable in the gaming market until the late 90s, and even then, they were far less popular than PCs.
You’ll see some mention of Apple throughout, but they were definitely a minor player—especially in terms of playing computer games.
By the end of the 90s, virtually every household had a computer, and Windows had become the fairly intuitive operating system that everyone knew.
And, you can trust that hardware changed just as much.
In 1990, floppy disks were still the primary way to store information.
By 1999, the internet was really up and running, and floppy drives were no longer standard on computers.
So, condensing the entirety of the 90s into a few different specifications is a tall order.
I’ll mention some of the flagship products of the decade and when they were popular, but to keep this from turning into an entire encyclopedia, I’m going to have to skip some things too.
There’s just too much to cover.
With that in mind, we can go through some of the most notable bits of hardware across the 90s.
After that, I’ll show you some specific gaming computer builds from the beginning and end of the decade—including exact specifications and price points.
#1 Video Cards
PCs in the 90s weren’t really designed for gaming.
The video game market was dominated by consoles like Nintendo and Sega.
In fact, the first major computer game wasn’t released until 1993.
That is when Doom launched, and before that, there weren’t a lot of people really exploring the idea of PC gaming.
After Doom, things started to change.
The point here is that computers in the early 90s didn’t need the kind of graphical processing power that you would expect from a modern gaming PC.
Most computer owners weren’t playing games at all.
Instead, they used computers for work purposes, like using design software or word processing.
Because of that, video cards were largely integrated into computers across the decade.
Consumers weren’t usually choosing specific video cards.
Instead, there would be a graphics processing unit attached to the motherboard somewhere, and it handled video.
At the consumer end, not a lot of thought went into this component.
Still, a couple of video cards did make a name for themselves, starting with the Nvidia NV1.
Nvidia might be a household name today, but in 1995, that wasn’t the case.
The NV1 really launched the whole company as a PC graphics card producer.
This card set the stage for 3D rendering.
That same year, the ATI Rage 1 was released.
Most people associate ATI cards with AMD (the company that owns ATI these days).
Since about 1995, the top two competitors in graphics card production have been ATI and NVidia, and the Rage 1 was the flagship for ATI.
It was comparable to the NV1 in performance, with the NV1 doing better in 3D rendering and the Rage 1 proving superior for 2D graphics.
One of the reasons that most people didn’t worry about graphics cards in the 90s is because CPUs did most of the heavy lifting.
The 90s saw an outright war in the production and improvement of CPUs, and this component was usually the most important when choosing a PC.
In 1990, 14 MHz was a fast processor, but by 1999, processors were hitting 800 MHz.
That’s a lot of progress in 10 years.
We’ve already talked about how to compare RAM, so I’m just going to hit you with some numbers.
In 1990, 8MB of RAM was a lot and only in high-end computers.
By the end of the decade, high-end computers had as much as 64MB of RAM, marking an 8-fold increase in memory across the decade.
#4 Other Drives
Hard drives got bigger and faster across the decade.
A high-end hard drive in 1990 could store 40 MB of data.
By 1999, hard drives were exceeding 10 GB.
That’s more than a 20-fold improvement across the decade.
But, the bigger story can be found in auxiliary drives.
As I mentioned before, floppy drives were standard in 1990.
That’s how you ran programs on a PC.
Actually, by 1990, the 3.5-inch floppy was overtaking the traditional floppy, but you could find plenty of computers that used either (or even both).
It was really in the early 90s that things started to change rapidly.
The Zip drive provided huge improvements to floppy technology, and they rapidly rose in popularity, but they disappeared just as quickly.
That’s because the CD-rom really took over.
With CDs, storage devices could hold much more information with less physical space and hardware.
CDs were a primary source of storage by the mid to late 90s, and even as CDs were taking over, DVDs were developed as a massive improvement to the technology.
On top of that, USB flash drives were available to consumers in the late 90s, proving that this was a decade of fast, radical change.
What Software Was Common in 90s Computers? (3 Programs)
As I mentioned, software changed just as much in the 90s as the hardware did, and the software changes were just as important.
Gaming on a Windows 3.0 machine looked a lot like gaming on the original Atari.
Meanwhile, games on a Windows 98 machine included 3D graphics, and some of the most prolific titles of all time were launched in the latter half of the decade.
To really break down 90s software, we have to look at the three most notable versions of Microsoft Windows from the decade.
As we do, I want to remind you of something.
By and large, Windows was included with the purchase of a computer.
Because of that, the price point of Windows wasn’t really relevant to consumers.
But, if you’re curious, Windows has ranged from $99 to $150 (for the consumer versions) for its entire existence.
The 3.0 version launched at $149.95.
Today, you can get Windows 11 for $139.
Effectively, the price hasn’t changed (unless you want to account for inflation, in which case Windows 3.0 cost $340 in modern money).
#1 Windows 3.0
In 1990, PCs ran on Windows 3.0.
An upgrade, Windows 3.1, launched in 1992.
This was the start of the PC revolution.
Windows 3.1 was the first to emphasize mouse controls over keyboard controls, and it made radical new software designs possible.
With Windows 3.1, software engineers really started to focus on intuitive control and design over raw power.
This is really why computers became so popular.
Anyone could sit down at an intuitive device and learn how to use it—no instructions required.
#2 Windows 95
In 1995, things changed again.
Windows launched the famous Windows 95 version of the software.
This was basically the culmination of the idea of intuitive software.
With Windows 95, computers really did become accessible for everyone.
Windows 95 was also a powerful enough platform that computer gaming really took off.
Software designers had an easier time making software for the platform, and the first renaissance of computer gaming really took off.
We’ll talk about some of the most popular games a little later, but titles like Starcraft and Half-Life were only even possible because of how Windows 95 changed computers.
#3 Windows 98
As the name suggests, Windows 98 launched in 98 and pretty much finished out the decade for operating systems.
Because Windows 95 was so popular and had only been around a few years, many families held onto their Windows 95 machines and didn’t upgrade.
Despite that, 98 offered software developers a newer, improved platform for development, and games continued to advance as a result.
What Games Were Being Played On 90s Gaming PCs? (3 Titles)
Perhaps another way to think about gaming PCs in the 90s is to look at some of the most popular games of the decade and their system requirements.
Doom is often considered the grandfather of PC gaming.
There were definitely games before Doom, but it became popular in a way that no previous game accomplished.
As a result, Doom introduced much of the world to the very idea of playing games on a PC.
It broke the mold for 3D rendering, and it introduced the first-person genre to most gamers of the era.
In other words, Doom was a really big deal in the history of gaming.
It was released in 1993, which means you could run Doom on computers before Windows 95.
That’s part of what makes it so special.
DirectX wasn’t even a thing yet, and for those who don’t know, DirectX is the specialized software that basically makes 3D graphics rendering work—even to this day.
Even though Doom came out before Windows 95, if you look up the specs today, it will say that you need Windows 95 or newer.
That’s because, before 95, software compatibility was a little less universal.
If you want to make a retro gaming machine, install Windows 95.
You’ll be better off.
In addition to that, Doom needed at least 8MB of RAM and 40MB of hard drive space.
As for processing, it required a processor that could achieve at least 66 MHz clock speeds.
It was designed for the 486 processor, but anything newer than that can run Doom just fine.
Diablo came out a bit later, in 1997, and it really highlights how quickly things changed.
This game also required Windows 95 or newer, but despite that, the hardware demands were considerably more stringent, particularly in the processor.
While 8MB of RAM was enough for single-player mode, multiplayer gaming required 16MB of RAM, double that of Doom (which came out only 4 years prior).
Diablo also required a Pentium-60 or better.
This processor could hit clock speeds of 300 MHz, roughly 5 times faster than what was required for Doom.
Those are rapid and dramatic performance differences, and if you compare Diablo graphics to those of Doom, you can see why.
Another massive franchise of the era, StarCraft came out in 1998.
This game shows that system requirements were a little all over the place.
While Diablo had some of the highest graphics demand of the era, StarCraft was a little more in the middle of the road.
Because of that, it only required a Pentium processor that could achieve 90 MHz speeds.
But, all modes of StarCraft required 16MB of RAM.
It could be played on Windows 95 or newer operating systems, and because it was an online game, it needed a 14.4Kbps modem or better.
Just for a little context, a standard Gigabit internet connection is roughly 100,000 times faster than a 14.4Kbps modem.
Clearly, things continued to change rapidly after the 90s.
So, What Did Gaming PCs Look Like in the 90s? (2 Scenarios)
Now that we’ve seen some of the minimum requirements to play some of the most popular games of the decade, we have some strong context to really think about gaming PCs in the 90s.
The first thing to remember is that, for the most part, gaming PCs weren’t a thing.
People had PCs, and sometimes they played games on them.
By the end of the decade, you did have internet cafes and such, but at the consumer level, getting a computer just to play games was not the norm.
Despite that, we can compare a couple of examples of computers in the 90s to really drive this whole thing home.
#1 High-End Example
Let’s look at two high-end examples. We’ll compare a computer from early in the decade to one much later.
In 1990, Gateway 2000 (later renamed to just Gateway) had a series of home computers.
While none of them were cheap (especially by modern standards), the high-end system sold for over $4,000 ($9,083 in today’s money).
It had a 5.25 and 3.5-inch floppy drive, came with Windows 3.0, and features a 25 MHz 486 processor.
It also had 8 MB of RAM.
In total, this computer could not have played Doom, which only came out three years later.
At the end of the decade, a high-end gaming machine might include an NVidia Geforce 256 graphics card, Pentium III processor (up to 800 MHz), and up to 512 MB of RAM.
Such a computer could literally outperform a hundred of the high-end Gateways from 1990.
Such a machine would cost nearly $2500 ($4453 today).
Let’s add Apple to the mix.
In 1990, they sold the Macintosh IIfx.
It was priced at $8,969 (which is $18.603 in 2021) .
It came with 4 MB of memory, a 40 MHz processor, and 128 MB of storage.
In 1999, Apple sold the Power Mac G4.
This computer had a 350 MHz processor (that eventually got up to 2 GHz before it was discontinued), 2 GB of RAM, and 100 GB of storage.
Its original price was $2499 ($4452 today).
#2 Budget Example
On the budget end, we can look at a few more examples.
First, a budget computer in 1990 still wasn’t cheap.
The “budget” Gateway 2000 computer from 1990 was still around $1,500 ($3406 today).
For that price, you could get a 12 MHz processor with 1 MB of RAM.
It’s hard to put this in context, but it wouldn’t be able to play any type of 3D game at all.
Despite that, a budget computer could still play some of the old classics like Snake and Pong.
At the end of the decade, budget computers cost a lot less, and they could play a fair number of games from the era.
Just look at this list of budget PCs from CNN in 1999.
Computer prices were getting down to the $1,000 (1781 today) range, and for that price, you could get your hands on a Celeron-366 processor (366 MHz), ATI 3 MB graphics card, and 385 MB of RAM.
That’s more than enough to play any of the titles listed above.