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Windows ConfidentialThe Two Worst PCs Ever

Raymond Chen

In March 2007 , when PC World developed its list of the 10 worst PCs of all time, the top two slots caught my eye because we actually used both of them at work. Well, "used" is a strong term. Perhaps I should say that I witnessed these machines, as they spent the majority of their productive lives in a Microsoft employee's office.

The Mattel-branded Barbie PC ranked as second-worst in PC World's list. This computer was a vast improvement over those cheap computers in a boring color. Instead, it was a cheap computer in a boring color that you could dress up with pink stickers applied to the case, the monitor, the speakers—you get the idea. It also came with Barbie-themed software pre-installed.

We acquired one of as a test machine, and the poor tester who was stuck with this computer at least had the sense of humor to dive in with mock enthusiasm, applying all the enclosed stickers and decorations to ensure that the computer was installed "as designed." It was set on a table in clear view from the hallway and anybody who walked past and spotted the bright pink computing disaster was welcome to come on in and play with it.

The Barbie PC served as an ongoing source of amusement. Whenever the machine encountered problems and developers needed to visit the office to debug the machine, you could always count on a double-take or a shout of "cool!" once they realized what kind of computer they had to work on. I'm told that one summer the college interns installed a copy of the Datacenter Edition of Windows Server® on the Barbie PC, just to be twisted.

Top honors—or perhaps more accurately bottom honors—went to the Packard Bell PC. Ah, the memories. Just one example of how well this computer was designed: the out-of-the-box configuration had every single expansion slot filled. Perhaps they thought, "Our computer is so perfect, you'll never need to upgrade it!"

Back in the days of the Windows® 95 project, a senior executive bought one as his home machine and regularly installed the latest build of Windows 95 on it as part of the dogfooding effort. As you might expect, it ran into all sorts of problems and had to be brought in frequently to be debugged.

The development manager of the Windows 95 project was a clever man who took a daringly direct approach to solving problems. For example, to make sure that Windows 95 shipped with broad application compatibility coverage, he drove his pick-up truck to the local computer store and bought one copy of every single PC program in the store. He then unloaded the software onto tables in the cafeteria and invited the Windows 95 product team members to come in and take two pieces of software—with the proviso that they had to install and run any software they took, as well as file bugs against everything that didn't work right, no matter how minor. In exchange, they got to keep the software. The scene in the cafeteria was like a flea market, with people browsing the tables for a good deal and excitedly asking their colleagues, "What'd you get?"

Embarrassed by how often the senior executive had to bring in his home computer to be debugged, the development manager of the Windows 95 project once again took the direct approach. He went to the local computer store and bought a Packard Bell PC identical to the senior executive's.

The fact that two of these computers even existed was bad enough; what made it worse is that the second computer was given to me with the task of installing every new build of Windows 95 on it and debugging any issues that arose. This way, when the senior executive installed the latest build on his home computer, the build would be trouble-free.

If you've been following along and connecting the dots, you may have noticed an obstacle to this plan. Since there were no open expansion slots on the Packard Bell PC, there was nowhere to install a network adapter card. I had to resort to other devious means of obtaining network connectivity. I really hated that computer.

Raymond Chen's Web site, The Old New Thing, and identically titled book deal with Windows history and Win32 programming. The objects in his mirror are closer than they appear.

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