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The Intel 80386 was released in 1985, but was initially expensive, and took a long time to fully displace the earlier 80286 from the market; subjectively, I remember significant numbers of 286 machines around into the early nineties. Of course, the 286 remained cheaper for a long time. And it wasn't until the release of Windows 3.0 in 1990, that a typical desktop user would really gain much benefit from a 386.

In what year did the 386 first sell more units than the 286?

I would also be interested in crossover years for dollar sales, and units and dollars of installed base, but unit sales seems likely to be the easiest to establish unambiguously, so that's my primary question.

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    Reading from a graph of uncertain provenance (thus not linked here), 286/386 unit sales crossover appears to have occurred in 1991. I checked Intel's annual reports from around that time but haven't found any useful information regarding this question.
    – njuffa
    Feb 18 at 13:41
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    Why are people downvoting this question? I see nothing wrong with it.
    – DrSheldon
    Feb 18 at 22:34
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    Having been a computer user at the time, as soon as the 386 was announced, we all wanted one, regardless of Windows 3.0. At the time, no one played games using Windows - either you booted directly to the game or you had a DOS boot disk with config.sys and autoexec.bat optimized for gaming, and 386 systems were of course better for games, even as primitive as they were by today's standards. Also spreadsheet users would certainly benefit from moving to a 386, especially with a math coprocessor. So Windows was definitely not the only motivator for the 386. Feb 20 at 19:15
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    @ToddWilcox, spot on. I had a 386 at work in 1987. We moved from DOS to Windows in 1991. The 386 was just much faster and had the memory stuff.
    – TonyM
    Feb 20 at 20:30
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    Well before Windows 3, both I and nearly all computer users I knew used QEMM or 386^MAX (or similar) to take advantage of 386 memory management to get more free memory under MS-DOS, as well as emulating EMS and XMS without EMS cards that were generally more expensive and quite a lot slower. Feb 28 at 19:54

2 Answers 2

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According to Dataquest’s 1992 “Microcomponents Worldwide” report, shipments of 386 CPUs overtook shipments of 286 CPUs in 1991; in thousands of units shipped:

Processor 1990 1991
88/86 Subtotal 21,590 23,250
286 13,030 10,250
386 Subtotal 8,300 16,110
486 Subtotal 400 2,200

(“88/86 Subtotal” includes 8018x CPUs, and dominates thanks to embedded applications.)

In terms of revenue, 386 shipments generated more than 286 shipments in 1990 if not earlier; in thousands of US dollars:

Processor 1990 1991
88/86 Subtotal 186,930 220,030
286 201,965 168,100
386 Subtotal 1,008,300 1,672,000
486 Subtotal 240,000 844,000

By 1990 286s were “commodity” CPUs, with an average sale price of $16; 386s were still expensive, with an average sale price of $121 in 1990 and $104 in 1991. (486s even more so: $600 in 1990, $384 in 1991.)

These figures cover all manufacturers of licensed and cloned CPUs; “386 Subtotal” includes the Intel and AMD 386SX, DX, SL, the embedded 376, and NEC’s 32-bit V-series CPUs (V60 etc. — even though they only support the 186 instruction set in V20/V30 emulation mode, and aren’t 386-compatible). Clones using the 486 instruction set, including Cyrix’s 386-socket-based 486SLC and DLC, are counted in the 486 data.

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    AMD entered the 386 market around this time.
    – Yuhong Bao
    Feb 20 at 9:14
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"that a typical desktop user would really gain much benefit from a 386."

There were enough plain DOS programs that ran slow on 80286 machines, and less slow on 80386 machines, IIRC often by a factor of 2 or 3.

Especially because 386 DX machines came in higher clock speeds (25 and 33 Mhz, while older 80286 machines were 6 to 16 MHz typically (I am aware there were 20+ MHz versions) and weren't cycle for cycle slower than 80286. 486DX/25 was available in 1989 also, IIRC outperforming 386DX/33.

If it made the difference between 3 or 1 second response or redraw time, or 1 vs 3 hours or minutes even for a calculation, an 80386 was well worth it even with real mode operating systems like DOS.

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    “older 80286 machines were 6 to 16 MHz … and weren't cycle for cycle slower than 80286” ? Feb 19 at 1:08
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    This is good information, but do you have an answer to the OP’s specific question?
    – Davislor
    Feb 19 at 4:30
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    @JacobKrall What I meant to say: "More clock speed got you moar faster computez" in that situation, there wasn't a clock speed inflation like you had with the P3/P4 or Athlon XP later. Feb 19 at 11:56
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    In fact, most common x86 instructions take fewer clock cycles on the 386, so not only do you get clock frequency gains, but also IPC gains. Feb 21 at 16:07

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