How far back in time could you take a modern PC and not look out of place?

This old thread speaks of taking a modern computer back to the 1980’s and wowing people with it.

Say you have a garden variety modern PC purchased this month. You also have a ChronoCo ChronoMatic Time Machine model XL 2012 that will be released later this year. How far back in time could you travel with your modern computer before it becomes obvious to people in those times that you are in possession of something, well, special? For the purpose of this thought experiment, you may remove or falsify serial numbers or manufacturing dates that have been printed or stamped on the device and any peripherals (e.g. change “Manufactured July 2012” to “Manufactured December 2004” or obliterate the statement), but you may not functionally alter the device such as swapping in an older screen or network card. You are allowed to install an older operating system as long as you could actually get that older OS to run on the box in real life, for example installing Windows XP. Same thing with old software. You may also alter files on the computer e.g. to change datestamps to any value you want to obscure the fact that there are files with “futuristic” datestamps. If you keep a recent OS or any recent applications, you may hack copyright dates so e.g. the latest copy of Microsoft Office shows a copyright date of 1990 if you want.

You may have a desktop or a laptop. Would the question be different with a laptop v. desktop? What about brands? Macs are distinctive, but what about a generic, blah looking Toshiba?

  1. How far would you have to go before you couldn’t fool a reasonable computer expert into thinking it was a current box? The expert is an expert but doesn’t have every released model memorized. Remember you are allowed to falsify markings.
  2. How far back would you have to go before an average person in the past would be able to tell the computer is futuristic by casual usage, e.g. if you lent your computer to someone riding a train in 2003?
  3. How far back would you have to go before an average person could tell you had something special just by looking at it? E.g. if they saw you using it on a train in 2003.

Don’t nitpick my conditions. You know what I’m asking about. Make appropriate assumptions and tweak what I have said to get the gist of my question.


Assuming you wouldn’t have high speed internet available (depending on how far back you went) it’s interesting that my desktop computer looks almost exactly like the first computer I bought back in 1993. Except for the monitor. A flat screen monitor would wow people.

The display would be a dead give-away not too long ago. The size, color and resolution would be obviously out of place sometime in the 90s. Something like an Airbook would look out of place more recently, but it would take more examination to find out what’s packed into that machine. For most laptops, the next give-away will be the amount of memory and disk available, but that would take more time to discover. After that you’d have to take weight and battery life into consideration. Requiring more time would be the processor speed. Even if something seemed to run really fast, the expert wouldn’t know what it was actually doing without examining the code, or creating a performance test.

Modern display size, resolution, and color range would only take seconds to extract a “WOW!” sometime in the early 90s, for an expert.

Casual users and people only getting a glance would go back to the early 80s. Thin flat panel portables like the GRiD Compass were available then. But the average person would have no idea what kind of capabilities they would have. In 1982, the average person wouldn’t be able to distinquish the significant difference between the GRiD, your current laptop, or a Star Trek Tricorder. At best, they might know “someone who has one of those Apple computers, or that new IBM thing. I heard you can play Asteroids on it”.

I donno. I have a 24 inch 1920x1200 resolution flatscreen, and my desktop features a 3d rotating cube with open windows on each face. I could have a video playing on one face, a game on another. The windows wobble like jello when I move them.

I figure that would wow the hell out of someone in 1993. They would be proud of their 386 with 2 megs of ram.

They would look at my system resources and say “oh! you have 8… GB? whats a GB?”

math scribbling follows

“…You have 4,000 times as much ram as I do. How is that even possible?”

they think for a second

“You have more ram than everyone in my whole apartment building/city block/small town!”

they look at my hard drive(s)

“64 GB drive. Holy shit! Wait! there is a second one! Its 2 TB… whats TB… 1000 GB! And you have 2 of them!”

“You bug eyed alien son of a bitch! I’m calling Scully and Mulder! They’ll fix your intergalactic wagon.”

“Just as soon as I finish Crysis 2.”

Hell, a 3-d rotating cube face monitor would wow me right the hell now!! Please share!

I mean the visual desktop, you understand. I have a typical if slightly larger LCD.

Lots of videos on youtube, so I wont bother uploading.

She seems to be the only one that doesnt play annoying music. She does some technical fiddling, but shes easy to listen to. The video is a couple years old, but that goes along with the OPs request that it be something that the average off the shelf computer can do today.

Skipping 30 seconds, past some talk.
Caveats: This is NOT windows, and it is NOT Apple.


I thought you might be talking about Compiz. It’s a fun thing to fiddle with.

How far back? Well, if it’s a product made by Apple, I’d say about a month.