40 Years of PCMag: An Illustrated Guide

PCMag’s four decades of uninterrupted publication have included many highs and lows—along with the day-to-day work that comes with testing 2,000-plus products and services each year, dispensing endless buying advice, and covering important news as we chronicle the fast-paced world of technology. As the years wear on, even we’ve forgotten about a few major milestones.

Thankfully, the 27 years of PC Magazine in print (archived at Google Books(Opens in a new window)) and the subsequent 13 years of being online-only, plus the many years of paper and pixel overlap, are all still available. For this anniversary, we took a trip down memory lane to pull out some of the biggest events in PCMag history and the major tech milestones we’ve covered. Follow along for a fun 40-year ride.

Dawn of the PC—and PC Magazine

On August 12, 1981, IBM introduces its groundbreaking Personal Computer Model 5150. With 16K of RAM, no disk drives, and no monitor, it cost $1,565. Lots of people start buying it anyway, but no one ever calls it the Model 5150.

Soon after, conception and early work on PC (as it was called then), a magazine catering to enthusiasts of the new IBM machine, starts with founder David Bunnell. The original staff launches its first issue. (Check out our companion story for the full scoop and to read the full issue.)

first issue cover

The cover of our first issue

By November 1982—in time for the massive Comdex show in Vegas—the rights to PCMag are sold out from under founder/editor Bunnell and associate publisher Cheryl Woodard by their lead investor, Tony Gold, to Ziff Davis Publishing. InfoWorld(Opens in a new window) reports that the existing staff all left with Bunnell to create IDG’s PC World.

Ziff Davis is the powerhouse behind specialty magazines such as Popular Aviation, Popular Electronics, and even Amazing Stories and some comic books back in the day. By the 1980s, it’s run by the founder’s son, William B. Ziff, Jr.

The First Laptop Lands on the Scene

The subject of our first major clamshell laptop review(Opens in a new window) in the August 1983 issue(Opens in a new window) is the Grid Compass. It gets an absolute love letter from editor Paul Somerson.

1983 Grid Compass review

Our 1983 review of the Grid Compass

PC Magazine Starts to Grow

Also in 1983, the magazine’s California staff is replaced by new editors in New York City under PC‘s first Editorial Directors, David Ahl (founder of Creative Computing(Opens in a new window) magazine) and Betsy Staples. Another top editor that year was Jonathan Lazarus, who later joined Microsoft to publish Microsoft Systems Journal. 

January 1983 Bill Machrone editorial

Bill Machrone’s January 1983 editorial

Previously the technical editor, Bill Machrone becomes editor-in-chief starting with the January 1984 issue. He stays at the helm until 1991, later serving as the magazine’s publisher. He not only coins Machrone’s Law, but creates the formula of PC = EP2 (PC = Evaluating Products X Enhancing Productivity).

Macs Are PCs Too!

Apple coverage begins the same year as the birth of the Macintosh in our February 21, 1984(Opens in a new window) issue. It’s our first IBM-versus-Apple cover story. More about the Macintosh appears in the lead editorial of the April 17, 1984 issue.

Apple Macintosh

The Apple Macintosh
(Open Culture)

Later that same year, the first use of the term Editors’ Choice appears on page 350 of the November 27, 1984(Opens in a new window) issue. That same issue also featured our first big printer “Torture Test.” This was likely performed in the first PC Lab(Opens in a new window), which was just a back hallway supervised by first labs director John Dickinson. 

PC goes bi-weekly. Issues are, on average, 400 pages.

Bill Ziff Jr., who had been diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1978, sells off almost all of the Ziff magazines to CBS(Opens in a new window)—except for those related to computing. It’s a big bet that pays off—at least until the internet comes along. Ziff’s health was poor, but he lived until the age of 76(Opens in a new window); he passed away in 2006.

Editors’ Choice and Technical Excellence Awards

The now-legendary Editors’ Choice—our top award for the best products and services—becomes official with the September 17, 1985(Opens in a new window) issue, which also contains our second big printer torture test. In the modern era, rather than one big printer roundup each year, for example, we conduct ongoing torture tests—not just for printers, but for reviews across every possible tech product category.

1985 Editors' Choice

Introducing our Editors’ Choice awards in 1985

Another term we’re famous for, Technical Excellence, is first used in our August 6, 1985(Opens in a new window) article about unsung heroes in technology. In the March 25, 1986 issue, we announced that PC Magazine would present its second annual awards for technical excellence at the Spring Comdex show, retroactively making the previous recipients our first TechEx Award winners. TechEx changes over the years to incorporate the tech itself as well as particular products; these days we use TechX branding (with no E) to hand out regular awards to the coolest new technologies we see.

In our January 14, 1986(Opens in a new window) issue—which actually hit newsstands in ’85—we listed our Best of 1985 products, including a modem, a flight simulator, and the first iteration of Microsoft Windows. Version 1.0 is almost app-free as Microsoft beat the bushes for programmers, but we call it an operating system that will “show us the future.” It took until 2022—37 years later—for an explorer to find one last Easter egg in the OS.

PC Becomes PC Magazine

It’s mostly remarkable because we found 57 word processors for buyers to choose from (quick, name more than two today), but the January 28, 1986 issue was also the first to have the word “Magazine” added to the cover logo.

1986 cover with PC Magazine logo

A 1986 issue with our new PC Magazine logo

The first real, physical PC Labs testing area is built this year at Ziff-Davis headquarters at One Park Avenue in New York City. William Wong(Opens in a new window) is by then Labs Director. (PC Labs is still running today; here’s how we test everything we review.)

IBM Self-Owns with the PS/2

In a bid to recapture the market share lost to hundreds of clone vendors, IBM introduces the PS/2 with a proprietary new Micro Channel Architecture. It bombs, although the lineup birthed both VGA graphics and PS/2 keyboard and mouse ports. That should at least count for something.


The IBM PS/2 Model 50
(Peter Häll and Göran Källvik/CC BY 3.0)

PC Goes Online—in 1988!

PC MagNet is announced in the May 31, 1988(Opens in a new window) issue. The glorified bulletin board is part of the dominant online service, CompuServe. The sysops for the service are called “modem animals(Opens in a new window)” for spending far too much time online.

PC MagNet announced

Our May 31, 1988 story announcing PC MagNet

Microsoft Gets Serious With Windows

Microsoft launches Windows 3.0, a wholesale revamp and the first version of the operating system to become popular with home and business users alike.

We went to the polls in 1990 with our first major Readers’ Choice Survey. The results—covering the service and reliability of major PC brands—ran in the September 25, 1990(Opens in a new window) issue. It was based on a questionnaire bound into 700,000 copies of that year’s March 27 issue, which yielded 18,673 responses. They were hand-tabulated, long before the perfection of pivot tables in Excel(Opens in a new window). Who won the top marks among desktop PC vendors? Swan Technologies.

1990 Readers' Choice

Readers’ Choice goes live in 1990

Changing of the Guard

Bill Machrone steps down as editor-in-chief in 1991, but never really leaves—he becomes a vice president of the company and founds ZD Labs in Foster City, California, as well as helping launch Corporate Computing and ExtremeTech.com later and writing a PCMag column called ExtremeTech right up through 2007.

Michael J. Miller takes over as editor-in-chief with the September 10, 1991(Opens in a new window) issue and holds the job until 2005. He later doubles as the editorial director and Chief Content Officer for all of Ziff Davis Publishing. He contributes to PCMag to this day.

ZiffNet launches, replacing PC MagNet on CompuServe.

Ziff-Davis begins a massive expansion of its computer publishing empire by launching PC/Computing, headed up first by PC Magazine columnist Jim Seymour and later run by former PC Magazine staffer Paul Somerson (PC/C runs until 2000). Other magazines ZD acquires or launches in the next decade will include Windows Sources, PC Week, MacUser, Corporate Computing, FamilyPC (launched with Disney Publishing), and Yahoo! Internet Life.

Another IBM Own Goal: OS/2

It’s the year of Windows 3.1. Sure, IBM’s OS/2 is around as well, but the handwriting is on the wall as Windows enters its prime. We put the two operating systems head-to-head in our April 28, 1992(Opens in a new window) issue and actually praise them both, but end the feature by stating, “GUIs do not mean the end of DOS.” Well …

Windows 3.1 cover

The cover of our April 28, 1992 issue

After a few years of co-publishing, Ziff Davis buys out the rights to own Computer Shopper(Opens in a new window) entirely.

Start Us Up

Microsoft unveils Windows 95, the first OS that combines DOS and Windows into one (almost) seamless desktop experience.

Meanwhile, Ziff Davis tiptoes onto the World Wide Web. By June, ZiffNet turns into ZD Net (later ZDNet), with membership across multiple online services like CompuServe, Prodigy, AT&T Interchange, Apple’s eWorld, and more. It’s a one-stop home page(Opens in a new window) that links to all Ziff Davis publications, including PCMag.com.

PCMag.com in 1996

PCMag.com in 1996
(Internet Archive/Wayback Machine)

The name Amazon.com is first seen in our pages in the February 6, 1996(Opens in a new window) issue, one of many listings in a massive guide to the top 100 websites. This was back when a list that size seemed comprehensive. Writer Cade Metz praises Amazon for having “a greater selection of books than any other store in existence—virtual or tangible.” Yes, a quarter-century ago, Amazon only sold books, not everything.

1996 Amazon.com review

Our 1996 Amazon.com review

Outside of a letter to the editor in 1994, Linux didn’t get much coverage from us in its early days despite debuting in 1991. The first article about it appears in our First Looks Section in the October 8, 1996(Opens in a new window) issue, explaining that it’s pronounced “lin-nucks” and is basically a free copy of Unix and listing a bunch of books about it.

Apple Reinvents Itself

With Steve Jobs back at the helm, Apple introduces the iMac with a brand-new, translucent, all-in-one design and a standard CD-ROM drive replacing the floppy. We take our first look in the October 20, 1998(Opens in a new window) issue. The new machine sells like crazy, although some complain about the missing floppy drive and all complain about the terrible puck-shaped mouse.

Apple iMac

The original Apple iMac
(Rama and Musee Bolo/Wikimedia Commons)

The 1999 Technical Excellence Awards in our December 14, 1999(Opens in a new window) issue feature a lot of items you don’t remember such as Desktop.com, the 3Com Palm V PDA, and HomePNA phoneline networking. One award goes to a search engine that “query after query turns up the most relevant pages while displaying the results in a way that’s easy to scan or read.” That barely-one-year-old site is called Google. (We also give a TechEx award to Linus Torvalds for having already put in close to a decade of work on Linux.)

1999 Technical Excellence Awards

1999 Technical Excellence Awards

In April 2000, PC Magazine, along with the rest of Ziff Davis, moves from its original One Park Avenue offices to 28 East 28th Street in Manhattan. Instead of being scattered across various floors, the whole company of 800 employees is concentrated in 400,000 square feet on floors 8 through 15. Much of that space is used for the 11th-floor build-out of the newly customized PC Labs.

In April 2001, Ziff Davis Media buys back the rights(Opens in a new window) to the domain name PCMag.com (and 11 other brands) that had been sold along with ZDNet in 2000(Opens in a new window) to CNET Networks. The companies share the rights for a year, so PCMag content can be seen on the rival CNET site until March 2002.

In June, ExtremeTech.com(Opens in a new window) launches, targeting hardcore enthusiasts. That October, Apple unveils the iPod, an expensive portable music player that holds 1,000 songs on a 5GB hard drive. And Microsoft launches Windows XP, which goes on to become the most popular desktop OS ever.

ExtremeTech.com in August 2001

ExtremeTech.com in August 2001
(Internet Archive/Wayback Machine)

Blogs Are the Future, Until They Aren’t

The PCMag blogs era(Opens in a new window) launches in August 2005. It includes sites such as AppScout(Opens in a new window), Gearlog(Opens in a new window), GoodCleanTech, and TechnoRide. Most are discontinued around 2014. Today, only the SecurityWatch brand remains.

Jim Louderback takes over as editor-in-chief with the January 2006(Opens in a new window) issue, until leaving to head the company Revision3 in July 2007. He starts the What’s New Now newsletter we still publish today. 

2005 Jim Louderback announcement

Jim Louderback announcement

Putting ISPs to the Test

Everyone is interested in how fast their Internet service provider is, so we decide to measure the Fastest ISPs. PCMag’s first real-world speed survey appears in the August 22, 2006(Opens in a new window) issue; the results were entirely based on readers using the SurfSpeed app we built in-house and offered as a free download. 

2006 Fastest ISPs

2006 Fastest ISPs

2006 also sees the first mention of Facebook in our pages (in the July 2006(Opens in a new window) issue), in an article by a former intern (and eventual staffer) who’d been using the social network since its launch while he was in college. It was actually a small section of a feature called “MySpace Nation”; the Facebook part was entitled “Diary of a Madman?”

Streaming Before It Was Cool

In 2006, PCMag launches the streaming web shows (a.k.a. video podcasts) DL.TV(Opens in a new window) (originally DigitalLife TV), with hosts Patrick Norton and Robert Heron, and CrankyGeeks(Opens in a new window), hosted by long-time columnist and popular pundit John C. Dvorak.

2006 web show announcement

2006 web show announcement

The First iPhone Is Released

Our first iPhone review runs in the August 21, 2007(Opens in a new window) issue. Editorials about the phone ran long before that. Jobs had rolled out the new Apple phone at MacWorld San Francisco(Opens in a new window) and it dominated the news even at Comdex, where Apple didn’t appear. As early as the March 6, 2007(Opens in a new window) issue we were wondering if its impact would be closer to that of the Mac or the iPod; in the August 7, 2007(Opens in a new window) issue we predict it will soar (but hedge our bets that it might not).

Recommended by Our Editors

2007 iPhone review

2007 iPhone review

The June 2007(Opens in a new window) issue also features our first mention of Twitter in editor-in-chief Jim Louderback’s forward about Web 2.0. He says, “This new micro-blogging platform lets you annoy your friends with all the mundane things you do every day … spew stuff moment to moment … and with room for only 140 characters, the shallower the better!” Those were the good old days.

Lance Ulanoff becomes editor-in-chief. He leads the troops for four years, until July 2011.

This era sees the moniker “PC Magazine Network” used to encompass the magazine, the website, ExtremeTech, the blogs and podcasts, and the streaming web shows.

Our Last Print Issue Hits the Presses

After 27 years on newsstands, the decision is made to take PCMag entirely digital. By this time, 80% of our revenue is from the online side anyway. The last print issue (Volume 28, Issue 1(Opens in a new window)) has a January 2009 cover date.

Final print issue

Our final print issue

Pivoting to All-Digital

The print edition makes way for the PC Magazine Digital Edition, an electronic magazine for tablets and other digital devices that we still curate every month(Opens in a new window).

PC Magazine Digital Edition

PC Magazine Digital Edition

Android Arrives

Our first Android phone review was the T-Mobile G1 in the January 2009(Opens in a new window) issue. (This was the US marketing brand name for the HTC Dream, the first phone based on Google’s mobile OS.) It’s only a coincidence that the issue ended our print run—don’t blame Android.

Android phone review

Our first Android phone review

A Voice for Radio

PCMag was into podcasting long before Serial made it cool. With weekly shows such as PCMag Radio(Opens in a new window) (the serious one), PCMag After Hours(Opens in a new window) (the drunken one), and PCMag Broadband(Opens in a new window) (the one starring the female editors), there was a whole lot of talking going on. The PCMag.com home page also gets a sleek (for the time!) redesign.

2009 home page redesign

2009’s home page redesign

iPads and Chromebooks Galore

2010 sees the debut of the Chromebook—a (usually) inexpensive laptop running Google’s Chrome OS. The first one we unpack is the Chrome CR-48, a minimalist prototype direct from Google that wasn’t released to the general public. The Samsung Series 5, reviewed in June 2011, starts the Chromebook era in earnest.

Samsung Series 5 Chromebook

The Samsung Series 5 Chromebook

Apple unveils the iPad, a tablet that finally nails the formula for handheld computing after nearly a decade of Windows-powered, pen-based computing failures.

Which Carrier Has the Fastest Network?

Our Fastest Mobile Networks survey also launches in 2010. It has become a marquee testing story for PCMag each year, as we send editors out into the field, driving from city to city throughout the US and Canada for real-world speed testing of the data plans offered by the major mobile carriers. 

Fastest Mobile Networks

Fastest Mobile Networks

New Owner, New EIC

After facing turbulent financial times since the late 1990s, including surviving a bankruptcy filing in 2008, PCMag parent company Ziff Davis is purchased by Vivek Shah in June 2010.

Without a way to really monetize podcasts back then, and with plenty of other work to do, the podcasts fall silent. So does CrankyGeeks (DL.TV closed in 2009).

2011 marks the first year we work with Ookla Speedtest to measure online throughput for Fastest ISPs. It works out so well that Ziff Davis buys Ookla(Opens in a new window) three years later.

Dan Costa takes over as editor-in-chief in August. He stays in the job for over a decade.

PC Labs circa 2018

PC Labs circa 2018
(Sascha Segan)

A New Tablet Surfaces

The next year, Microsoft unveils the Surface, an iPad competitor that also competes with every last PC vendor selling Windows computers. It goes on to develop a cult following, although it arguably never breaks into the mainstream as the iPad has.

Microsoft Surface

The Microsoft Surface

Best Gaming ISPs starts in December 2014, offering our first look at the quality of the connection from ISPs, rather than only the speed.

Mashable Joins Ziff Davis

Ziff Davis and parent company J2 Media buy Mashable in 2017(Opens in a new window). That paves the way for a new move, with our offices and PC Labs relocating to the new corporate HQ at 114 Fifth Avenue, shared with our Mashable pals, in late 2018.

Testing a PC in PC Labs

Lab Director John Burek testing at the current home of PC Labs at 114 Fifth Avenue in lower Manhattan.
(Molly Flores)

The editorial teams at PCMag, Mashable, and AskMen look to unionize; Ziff Davis management voluntarily recognizes(Opens in a new window) the union after 90% of eligible staffers say yes. The Ziff Davis Creators Guild(Opens in a new window), part of The Newsguild of New York, gets a ratified contract in January 2022.

The Remote-Work Revolution

In mid-March 2020, PCMag’s staff—along with most of the world—starts working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Our testing lab and photo-and-video studio, which was housed in a tall office building on lower Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, is now dispersed across various apartment living rooms and home offices in the five New York City boroughs and beyond. Laptops, CPUs, and graphics cards are benchmark-tested on coffee tables in Staten Island and Brooklyn, and phones and tablets are photographed against city skylines on the roofs of Queens apartment buildings. Quarantine lasts almost the next two full years. We’re now back to doing some testing in the NY lab, but PCMag editors and analysts are now found in the UK, California, Florida, Georgia, Maine, Oregon, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, upstate New York, and various locations in the New York/New Jersey/Connecticut tri-state area.

Remote work

The Remote-Work Revolution
(Ian Moore)

A New Era for PCMag

After 10 years, Costa steps down as the top editor, and on January 1, 2022, Wendy Sheehan Donnell is promoted from deputy editor to editor-in-chief. Donnell is the first woman at the helm in the publication’s four-decade-long history. Here’s to the next 40 years.

Bonus: Who’s Holding the Mag?

Ziff Davis logos

Ziff Davis logos
(Eric Griffith)

Throughout its history, PCMag has mostly been associated with Ziff Davis (sometimes hyphenated, sometimes not), but who and what ZD is has changed a lot over the past four decades. PCMag is the single constant. Here’s a breakdown.

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