1. Sony Walkman TPS-L2 (1979)
Portable music players are so cheap and ubiquitous today that it’s hard to remember when they were luxury items, widely coveted and often stolen. But when the blue and silver Walkman debuted in 1979, no one had ever seen anything quite like it. The $200 player virtually invented the concept of “personal electronics.”
2. Apple iPod (2001)
If the Walkman is the aging king of portable media players, Apple’s iPod is prince regent. It rules the realm of digital music like no other device: According to the NPD Group, more than eight out of ten portable players sold at retail by mid-2005 were iPods. Yet when the $399 iPod first appeared in October 2001, it was nothing special. It featured a 5GB hard drive and a mechanical scroll wheel, but worked only with Macs. A second model released the following July offered a 20GB hard drive, a pressure-sensitive touch wheel, and a Windows-compatible version. But the third-generation player, which appeared in April 2003, proved the charm: A 40GB drive, built-in compatibility with Windows and Mac, support for USB connections, and a host of other small improvements made it wildly popular, despite its relatively high price and poor battery life. Now the fifth-generation iPod threatens to do the same thing for a new breed of portable video players. The iPod is dead; long live the iPod. Read more in Dennis Lloyd’s Brief History of the iPod. PCW photo by Rick Rizner; iPod courtesy of Michael Kubecka.
The appearance of the first ReplayTV and TiVo models–the pioneering Gemini of digital video recording–in the number three spot on our list may be a measure of how much we all hate TV commercials. The concept is simple: Digitize the TV signal and stream it to an internal hard drive, so the user can pause, rewind, fast-forward, or record programs at will. For the first time, users flummoxed by their VCRs (#29) could record an entire season of shows with a few clicks of the remote. And yes, it may be cheating to count these two products as one, but they appeared at virtually the same time, and each brought different yet important strengths to the DVR table. TiVo undoubtedly won the brand-recognition competition: When Janet Jackson suffered her infamous “wardrobe malfunction” at the 2004 Super Bowl, thousands of viewers “TiVo’d it”–over and over and over. ReplayTV, on the other hand, was more aggressive with commercial-skipping and networking features. In any event, the success of these products may be their undoing, as digital video recorders become a standard feature of cable and satellite set-top boxes. Eric W. Lund has more than you’d probably want to know about earlier models of both. PCW photo by Rick Rizner.
The PalmPilot 1000 was everything the Apple Newton MessagePad (#28) wanted to be: a “personal data assistant” small enough to fit in your shirt pocket, with enough RAM (128KB) to hold a then-impressive 500 names and addresses. The handwriting recognition actually worked (once you mastered the arcane Graffiti software), and best of all, you could sync your data with a PC or Mac desktop application. The brilliance of the Palm concept was its recognition that people wanted a supplement to their computers, not a substitute. Subsequent models grew smaller and more powerful, but were basically refinements to the original PalmPilot’s elegant simplicity. PCW photo by Rick Rizner.
5. Sony CDP-101 (1982)
The first commercial compact disc player signaled a technological sea change that ultimately caused millions of music lovers to ditch their turntables. The boxy CDP-101 wasn’t especially sleek, and at $900 it was priced for audiophiles, but it ushered in the age of digital sound–no more hisses, scratches, pops, or skips. Now, with SuperAudio CD and DVD-Audio offering vastly superior sound, and MP3 downloads dominating music sales, CD players may eventually join turntables and 8-track machines (#46) as relics of our audio past. But they will sure have sounded good while they lasted. For more, read a contemporary review of the CDP-101. Photo courtesy of Pavek Museum of Broadcasting.
The StarTAC was the first mobile phone to establish that design matters as much as functionality, leading to today’s profusion of stylish cell phones–most notably the Motorola Razr (#12). No phone of its era was more portable than the StarTAC: You could clip the 3.1-ounce unit to your belt and go anywhere, which made carrying a cell phone a lot more appealing. The StarTAC let you plug in a second battery to extend your talk time, and was the first phone to sport the vibrate option used in Motorola pagers (#13). Another plus: As the first clamshell-style phone, it looked a little like the communicators from Star Trek. Beam us up, Scotty. Photo courtesy of the Integrated Electronics Engineering Center and Prismark Partners.
7. Atari Video Computer System (1977)
Later known as the Atari 2600, the VCS brought video games out of the arcade and into America’s living rooms. It was a snap to set up: Just plug the clunky-looking box into your TV set and grab the joystick. The Atari 2600 was the first successful console to use game cartridges, which allowed consumers to play multiple games on the same system and created a huge market for crude-looking but addictive titles such as Space Invaders and Pac Man. The Atari’s games may not have looked much like Grand Theft Auto, but its influence can be felt in today’s Xboxes, PlayStations, and GameCubes. AtariAge has more details. Pong, anyone? PCW photo by Rick Rizner; Atari VCS courtesy of Mike Mika.
The SX-70 was a thing of beauty. Just point, shoot, and watch the image develop before your eyes. When you’re done, fold up the 7-by-4-inch unit and stick it in your bag. It was the first Polaroid to automatically eject the snapshot and produce images, without making you wait 60 seconds and peel off the outer wrapper of the film. The SX-70 combined simplicity with immediacy, making it the direct forebear of today’s low-end digital cameras. More than 30 years later, its design still turns heads, and some fans still use it. PCW photo by Rick Rizner; camera courtesy of Adolph Gasser Photography, San Francisco.
For 20 years people had been predicting the death of the floppy, but it took a gadget the size of your thumb to actually sound the death knell. With 8MB to 32MB of flash memory at its introduction in November 2000, the DiskOnKey was easier to use than a diskette, and was the first device of its type that didn’t need drivers for your PC. You just plugged it into a USB port, copied files to it, and popped it back into your pocket. Suddenly, moving big files from one computer to another was no longer a hassle. PCW photo by Rick Rizner.
The Regency took radio out of the parlor and put it in your pocket. Jointly produced by Texas Instruments and TV accessory manufacturer IDEA, the TR-1 was the first consumer device to employ transistors. The $50 item didn’t sell well–Sony did much better with a similar product a couple of years later–but it inspired a host of imitators, which in turn helped popularize a then-obscure genre of music known as rock and roll. If not for transistor radio, nobody would have been dancin’ in the streets. For more information, see the mini-history of the transistor radio. PCW photo by Rick Rizner.
11. Sony PlayStation 2 (2000)
Sure, the Nintendo 64 and Sega Dreamcast were fun machines, but Sony’s PlayStation 2 bought gaming to whole new level. Thanks to its 128-bit “Emotion Engine” CPU and Graphics Synthesizer, the PS2 introduced a dramatically new form of realism, setting the standard for other systems such as Microsoft’s Xbox and Nintendo’s GameCube. (See PC World’s original review.) The PS2 also had things you wouldn’t expect from a game console, such as the ability to play DVD movies. Despite a $300 price tag (twice that of competing systems), it quickly became the console of choice, and not just for gamers: In 2003 the US National Center for Supercomputing Applications used 70 PS2s to build a supercomputer capable of half a trillion operations per second. That’s one hot gaming system. Photo courtesy of Sony Electronics.
When PC World first wrote about the $500 Razr V3, we called it flat-out fabulous. The impressively slim and ultrasexy clamshell-style V3 sported a brushed aluminum casing, a color screen on the outside, and a strikingly bright 2.2-inch color LCD on the inside. The Razr V3 also included a 640-by-480-resolution camera with a 4X digital zoom, had MPEG-4 video playback capability, and was Bluetooth-enabled. It was so cool, you could almost see people drooling with desire when one came into the office. A great marriage of functionality and design. Photo courtesy of Motorola.
Before anyone could sign on to AOL Instant Messenger on a T-Mobile Sidekick, before the first SMS message was ever sent from a cell phone, and before a BlackBerry was even a twinkle in anyone’s eye, Motorola gave early adopters a taste of the future: the ability to send, as well as receive, text messages on a wireless device. The PageWriter–which looked like a thicker version of Motorola’s then-current one-way text pagers–sported a flip-top design that, when opened, revealed a QWERTY keypad as well as a four-line backlit monochrome LCD screen. Far ahead of its time, it was eventually superceded by less costly mobile messaging options. Photo courtesy of Motorola.
Canadian firm Research in Motion didn’t invent e-mail, wireless data networks, the handheld, or the QWERTY keyboard. But with the little BlackBerry, along with server software that made e-mail appear on it without any effort from the recipient, RIM put it all together in a way that even nontechie executives could appreciate–and thereby opened the eyes of corporate America to the potential of wireless communications. So addictive that some call them CrackBerries, RIM’s ubiquitous e-mail communicators–especially their high-res displays and small yet serviceable thumb keyboards–have forever changed the design aesthetic for personal digital assistants, while their approach to e-mail has become the standard by which all connected handhelds are measured. To learn more about BlackBerry on the Web, visit the International BlackBerry User Group. Photo courtesy of Research In Motion.
In 1971, PhoneMate introduced one of the first commercially viable answering machines, the Model 400. The $300 unit had a wooden case, weighed more than 8 pounds, and was larger than a major-city phone book, according to Steve Knuth, a retired company executive. You could record about 20 short messages on an internal reel-to-reel tape. Users also could listen to messages in private, via an earphone akin to those supplied with transistor radios. Since people hated to talk into machines in the 1970s, Phonemate used to joke that only those who stood to make money from the phone call would buy the Model 400, mostly businesses. For more information, see the history of answering machines. (The Phonemate 400 is shown in the photo; the gadget that allowed remote message access came later.) Photo by Brad Bargman.
A whole generation of kids learned to spell on this cheery orange device with alphabet keys and a hardy handle. Speak & Spell contained a single-chip speech synthesizer–novel for the time–and a robotic voice that encouraged children to spell more than 200 common words. The $50 Speak & Spell effectively cut the cord on that era’s pull-string and tape-recorder speaking toys. The game of Hangman was a boon for kids during long car trips–and the bane of at least some parents forced to listen to it. It’s more lovingly described on this dedicated page. Photo courtesy of Texas Instruments.
Math classes were never the same after the introduction of TI’s handheld calculators in the early 1970s. The $150 SR-10 debuted in 1973 and was the first affordable handheld to calculate reciprocals, square roots, and other slide-rule functions. The $170 SR-50 followed in 1974, adding trigonometric functions and a very cool 14-character LED display. The devices became so ubiquitous that math whizzes at the time were identified by the simple sobriquet “TIs.” This TI site can tell you more about Texas Instruments calculators. Photo courtesy of the Vintage Calculators Web Museum.
The Nano it ain’t, but Diamond’s Multimedia Rio PMP 300 started the revolution that produced portable music players such as Apple’s iPod (#2). This first portable MP3 player ran on a single AA battery and packed a whopping 32MB of storage–enough for about a half hour of music encoded in the MP3 compression format. Read PC World’s original review. Photo courtesy of The Adrenaline Vault.
19. Sony Handycam DCR-VX1000 (1995)
Thank Sony for introducing digital video editing to the desktop. Before it released the Handycam DCR-VX1000, if you wanted to edit video on a PC you had to invest thousands of dollars in an expansion card to digitize analog footage. The DCR-VX1000 was the first camcorder to capture in the mini-DV format, and the first with a FireWire port for transferring digital video to a PC. The DCR-VX1000 cost nearly $4000, but it offered dramatically better video quality, and less-expensive models soon followed. For more, see Sony’s history of the Handycam. Photo courtesy of Sony Electronics.
The quest for the perfect palmtop/phone hybrid hit a new milestone with the Treo 600, released by upstart Palm competitor Handspring (the company founded by Palm founders Jeff Hawkins and Donna Dubinsky) before that company was itself swallowed by Palm. Slim enough to fit in a pocket, yet wide enough to hold a BlackBerry-esque QWERTY keyboard, the Treo quickly became the It gadget of 2003-2004, eclipsed only by its own successor, the Treo 650. Several fan sites exist, including Treonauts and TreoCentral. And be sure to see PC World’s original review. Photo courtesy of Palm.
21. Zenith Space Command (1956)
A wristwatch with no springs, gears, or hands? In 1970, when venerable U.S. timepiece maker Hamilton announced the Pulsar, the first solid-state watch, the concept was so revolutionary that nobody seemed to care that its LED screen actually displayed the time only when you pressed a button. The first Pulsars were $2100, solid-gold jobs, but a steel model was eventually available for a thriftier $275; everyone from Gerald Ford to Roger Moore was a fan. Check out this dedicated site for more information on Hamilton’s breakthrough and its gaggle of imitators. Photo courtesy of Hamilton Watches International.
The marvel of this $15.95 camera was its easy loading system. Kodak wanted to eliminate amateur errors and make photography foolproof. To do this, the company put the film for this camera–and its successors–into a plastic cartridge. The user could pop the cartridge in and out, and not worry about exposing the film to light or misaligning it so that it wouldn’t advance. To illuminate the subject, you placed a flashbulb in a little compartment on the camera’s top that popped open. The camera was hugely popular: It is estimated that tens of millions of Instamatic-type cameras were sold. Photo courtesy of The George Eastman House.
In the early 1980s, when people talked about “portable computers” they meant luggable monstrosities like the 24-pound Osborne I. Then Radio Shack introduced the Model 100, the first popular notebook. Starting at $799, this 4.25-pound featherweight boasted built-in word processing and other apps, and its internal modem let road warriors get online at a zippy 300 bits per second. More than 20 years later, the full-travel keyboard on the TRS-80 is still pretty impressive. Like all other TRS-80s, the Model 100 is lovingly documented at Ira Goldklang’s TRS-80 Revived, and at this fan site. Photo by Ira Goldklang.
In the old days, kids couldn’t wait till they were old enough to get their first two-wheeler. Now they yearn for their first Game Boy. The original handheld, as shown at CyberiaPC.com, featured a black-and-green LCD and a slot for matchbook-size game cartridges. Later versions became smaller and more powerful but maintained backward compatibility with the original, so you could take your favorite games with you as you grew. The Game Boy’s lock on the handheld game market remained virtually unchallenged–at least until the Sony PlayStation Portable arrived this year. Photo courtesy of Nintendo.
The best selling computer of all time still appears to be the Commodore 64: Estimates of this PC’s sales range from 15 million to 22 million units. The first C64 cost $595 and came with 64KB of RAM, a 6510 processor, 20KB of ROM with Microsoft BASIC, 16-color graphics, and a 40-column screen. (How times have changed!) It also was the first PC with an integrated sound synthesizer chip, according to Ian Matthews of Commodore.ca. Photo courtesy of the Computer History Museum.
Few gadgets have had a bigger impact than the first stand-alone video cassette recorder. Shortly after the Betamax appeared, Sony was sued by the movie studios; in 1984 the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Sony’s favor, finding that beneficial uses of the new technology (time-shifting TV programs) outweighed potential harms (video piracy). (The version pictured here is the SL-6300 from 1975, in a high-end wooden case.) The Betamax changed our lives and helped spawn the $20 billion video rental industry, but it couldn’t compete with JVC’s cheaper VHS devices and eventually disappeared. Those who love and honor all things Beta, however, have a place to gather. Photo courtesy of Sony Electronics.
Sanyo was the first to bring a camera phone stateside, although it wasn’t the first to introduce such a device to the world–that credit goes to Sharp, which released the J-SH04 in Japan in 2000. Sanyo’s SCP-5300 took 640-by-480-resolution snapshots, and according to PC World’s first look, the clamshell phone was easy to use. But the quality of the photos was mediocre, and the only ways to get images off the phone were to send it to another person’s cell phone or e-mail address or to upload them to Sprint PCS’s Web site (the handset was available exclusively to Sprint customers). But, hey, it’s almost impossible to find a cell phone without a camera these days. That’s saying something. Photo by Marc Simon.
31. iRobot Roomba Intelligent Floorvac (2002)
A robot that does housework? Sign me up! With more than 2 million users, the Roomba is considered by many to be the first commercially successful domestic robot. The 14-inch-wide vacuum cleaner may look like an oversize hockey puck, but its brilliant design lets it avoid obstacles while sucking up every speck of dirt–including those dust bunnies cowering under the couch. Photo courtesy of iRobot.
The first mainstream optical mouse earned its place on our list by eliminating one of computer technology’s most pervasive annoyances: the accumulation of gunk inside a mechanical mouse. Optical mice actually existed long before Microsoft’s groundbreaking product, but they were expensive and required special pads. The Intellimouse Explorer (and its simultaneously introduced siblings, the Intellimouse Optical and the Wheel Mouse Optical) brought gunk-free pointing devices to the great unwashed masses and their great unwashed desks (and laps, and armchairs, and many other places you’d never dream of using a mechanical mouse). Read our original review. Photo courtesy of Microsoft.
The REX redefined the notion of portable. This credit-card-size device was powered by two watch batteries, measured just a quarter of an inch thick, and was designed to fit into a notebook’s PC Card slot. Its design was simple–just a black-and-white, 160-by-98-resolution screen, and five navigational buttons to access such functions as calendar, contacts, and even memos. Although you couldn’t enter data into the first version (about $179 with cradle), the REX proved a convenient portable companion. It was PC World’s World Class Gadget for 1998. Photo by Kevin Candland.
A do-it-yourself robotics system for the masses, Lego Mindstorms made building machines more fun than should be allowed. An interactive community helped promote different designs and creativity, so you were never at a loss as to what to do with all of those Lego pieces and parts. And one of the early expansion kits included a robotic R2-D2. (Sure, it was just a wireframe, not a solid replica, but it could still carry your Coca-Cola can.) Photo courtesy of the Lego Group.
This early “portable” phone measured more than a foot long, weighed close to 2 pounds, and cost a whopping $3995. But with Motorola’s DynaTAC 8000X–aka The Brick–you could for the first time walk and talk without that dratted cord. Generally considered the first mobile phone, the DynaTAC 8000X had enough juice for an hour of talk time and enough memory to hold 30 numbers. And the device’s Formica-style enclosure was the envy of anything that Ma Bell had to offer. Photo courtesy of Motorola.
This little blue external storage drive, roughly the size of a paperback book, was an instant sensation, giving average computer users their first taste of easy backup and relatively rugged 100MB storage media. The only storage technology ever mentioned by name on HBO’s Sex and the City, the Zip Drive was available for both Macs and PCs; the Mac version connected to the SCSI port and the PC version hooked up via the parallel port. You could see the disk through a clear window built into the top of the drive, and it was always a pleasure to see the yellow LED light, which meant everything was working well. However, if the drive clicked too much (a phenomenon also known as the Click of Death), you were in trouble. You still have one somewhere, don’t you? Photo courtesy of Iomega.
39. Play, Inc. Snappy Video Snapshot (1996)
How techie were you in the mid-1990s? Found at your desk–typically astride a huge 17-inch CRT monitor–this fist-size grey globe signified connectedness. You were part of the QuickCam generation, embracing Internet video in its infancy, sending short, choppy, and highly pixelated greyscale moving images over (most likely) the office or college LAN. The QuickCam’s image quality left much to be desired, but its low price and unique design–a spheroid “eye” set in a pyramid-shaped base (which, despite appearances, worked surprisingly well as a tripod substitute)–made it a popular starter Webcam for video-crazy, pioneer digerati. Much more advanced QuickCams are still available from the line’s current owner, Logitech.
41. BellSouth/IBM Simon Personal Communicator (1993)
Not to be confused with the Milton Bradley game Simon (#38), the Personal Communicator was the first mobile phone to include a built-in PDA. Jointly marketed by IBM and BellSouth, the $900 Simon was a combination phone, pager, calculator, address book, calendar, fax machine, and wireless e-mail device–all wrapped up in a 20-ounce package that looked and felt like a brick.
42. Motorola Handie Talkie HT-220 Slimline (1969)
The first portable two-way radios introduced during World War II weighed up to 35 pounds apiece, but the HT-220 weighed just 22 ounces–in part because it was the first portable radio to use integrated circuits instead of discrete transistors. Back then it was a favorite of the Secret Service; today it enjoys a small but fiercely dedicated following of radio geeks. Photo courtesy of Motorola.
43. Polaroid Swinger (1965)
In the mid-1960s, no gift for teens and preteens was cooler than the $20 Polaroid Swinger instant camera. (Okay, it actually cost “nineteen dollars and ninety-five,” as immortalized in one of the catchiest ad jingles of the decade.) The Swinger‘s big innovation was its pinchable photometer button: When the shot’s light was just right, the word “YES” lit up in the viewfinder. Of course, the newbie photographers for whom the camera was intended were likely to focus more on the “YES” than on the actual composition of the shot. Photo courtesy of Polaroid.
44. Sony Aibo ERS-110 (1999)
Sony’s $1500 robotic pet, the ERS-110, was cuter than your average mutt and a whole lot smarter. Advanced artificial intelligence allowed it to learn from its environment, as well as sit, stand, roll over, and act puppyish. Later “breeds” recognized your voice commands and featured a built-in Webcam, so you could hire Aibo to babysit the kids. Photo courtesy of Sony Electronics.
45. Sony Mavica MVC-FD5 (1997)
Yes, it wasn’t the first digital camera, but it was the first that saved photos on a platform that every PC user knew and loved: the ubiquitous 3.5-inch floppy. The FD5 provided a very easy–and familiar–way to get images out of the camera and onto a PC. Storing photos on floppies also meant that people could keep taking pictures as long as they fed the camera more disks. Photographers could easily share digital snapshots with family and friends because everybody used floppies. Like many first-generation digital cameras, the $599 Mavica was bulky and ugly, but its specs were up to snuff (for the time): Image resolution topped out at 640 by 480 pixels (which translates to 0.3 megapixel), and the camera had a sizable 2.5-inch LCD.
46. Learjet Stereo-8 (1965)
They’re the butt of jokes these days, but 8-track tapes and decks changed car audio forever. The Stereo 8, which first appeared as an option on Fords, had minimal controls and was often mounted under the dashboard with ugly U-brackets, but aesthetics weren’t the point. With an 8-track in your car, you were no longer at the mercy of local radio station playlists. That was a very big deal at a time when only the largest cities had stations that played what was then known as “album rock.” And the sound! In those days 8-tracks blew the doors off anything coming from a radio station, despite their infamous fadeouts when the tracks switched. The 8-track didn’t last all that long, falling out of favor in the early 1970s as smaller, more convenient cassette tapes (and later CDs) came along. Photo courtesy of 8-Track Heaven.
47. Timex/Sinclair 1000 (1982)
Invented by British gadget king Clive Sinclair and marketed in the United States by Timex (which knew a thing or two about affordable gizmos), this everyman’s computer sold for a rock-bottom $100. The slab-shaped T/S 1000 was cheap in every sense of the word–it packed a minuscule 1KB of RAM and had a barely usable flat keyboard. Even so, it was a blockbuster, briefly: Timex shipped 600,000 of them, many more were sold in other countries, and clones even appeared. For an exhaustive look at the whole phenomenon, consult the Timex Sinclair Showcase.
48. Sharp Wizard OZ-7000 (1989)
It didn’t quite fit into a shirt pocket, and its non-QWERTY keyboard wasn’t the most intuitive of input devices. But long before the PalmPilot 1000 (#4) or even the Newton MessagePad (#28), the first Sharp Wizard helped popularize the concept of a small, lightweight electronic address book and calendar, thereby becoming the granddaddy of the modern personal digital assistant. Want to read more? The Open Directory Project has a page full of Wizard links. Photo courtesy of Sharp.
49. Jakks Pacific TV Games (2002)
For decades, the Atari 2600’s black joystick has symbolized the raw spirit of early console video gaming. How fitting, then, that the joystick itself evolved into an entire videogame console in 2004, when a small toy company called Jakks Pacific launched the phenomenally successful TV Games line. The TV Games controller/game console hooks directly to standard inputs on a television and runs off batteries. Atari TV Games was the first version, bundling ten of the most popular classic Atari games from the 1980s–Pong, Asteroids, Breakout, and more–in a controller that looked just like the original Atari VCS (#7) joystick.
50. Poqet PC Model PQ-0164 (1990)
Years before the Pocket PC, there was the Poqet PC. About the size of a videotape, the Poqet was pricey ($2000), but it ran off-the-shelf applications and could go for weeks on two AA batteries. Highly praised during its brief life, the Poqet vanished from the market after its manufacturer was acquired by Fujitsu. As with seemingly every interesting computer of yore, it still has its devotees, including Bryan Mason, proprietor of the informative Poqet PC Web Site.