I can't imagine what genealogy research was like before computers and the internet. Thank goodness I'll never have to find out.
For my most important piece of hardware, I'd have to choose the large format scanner I purchased a few years ago. It has more bells and whistles than I'll ever use and cost $1100 but I made my money back fast. This scanner has a scan bed that could handle my 12"x12" photo album pages. I have 3 family photo albums with pages this size. I wanted to make digital copies of the albums to put online and to burn to CDs so everyone in the family could have copies. Kinko's charges $1 per sq ft to scan them...that's $1 a page! I was able to scan these albums myself and the money I didn't have to pay Kinko's almost covered the full cost of the scanner. Scanning the albums was also important so I could have backups in case something happened to the original albums.
The most important software I use cost a lot less than the scanner. I believe I only paid about $20 for Family Trees Quick and Easy. The name describes the software perfectly. I didn't need the more expensive programs with links to websites and other fancy features. I needed a program that would let me enter the information for my family tree and run reports. That's exactly what it does. Some of the input fields have some different options. For example, a field that defaulted to "christening" date doesn't apply to my family. For some ancestors, I chose "naturalization" date instead. I like that it shows me the relationship to the person I'm working with. If I want to, I can import documents to link to events. My only complaint is that I can't seem to generate a gedcom file for only part of the database (I wanted to upload portions of the family tree to FamilyTreeDNA). I highly recommend this program to everyone who needs a quick and easy organizer. I did buy it 7-8 years ago so I don't know if it's still out there.
There are several websites that have played a major role in my research but the one that has had the most impact has got to be JewishGen at http://www.jewishgen.org/ because this is my link to the old country. I have one great-grandfather who came to the US in 1896 and some more distantly "removed" relatives who came in the 1870s but most of my family immigrants arrived between 1904 and 1931. That means most of my family's history is in present day Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, and Belarus. Thinking back to when I first started on this quest for knowledge about my family, I can't remember how much I actually expected to find out about my family. Thinking about it now, I feel that I've found out more than I ever expected. In addition to the records I've been able to locate, there's a wonderful community of expert and amateur researchers around the world who are happy to lend a hand with a translation or share an experience they had. There's also a wonderful feature called JewishGen Family Finder or JGFF. Members can enter information about who they are looking for (e.g. JABLON from Lozdzieje (Lazdijai), Lithuania) and can see if anyone else is researching the same surnames or towns. Thanks to the JGFF, I'm now in touch with branches of the BELINSKY family tree in the US and Israel that I never knew existed (my dad and his siblings didn't know about them either). One JewishGen member in Israel was good enough to make phone calls for me (after helping with a tranlsation from Russian to English) and put me in touch with my cousins there. I didn't even have to ask him to do it. Next year I might be able to make the trip to Israel to meet them.
Without hardware and software, we wouldn't be able to connect the internet. Without the hardware and software, we wouldn't be able to save what we find on the internet. Who knows what future technological advances will bring.