We're living in the golden age of the gadget. Don't believe it? Check your pockets. Odds are you're carrying a portable music player, an electronic organizer, a keychain-size storage device, a digital camera, or a cell phone that combines some or all of these functions. And you'd probably be hard-pressed to live without them.
At PC World, we'd be lost without these things. We don't merely test and write about digital gear, we live and breathe the stuff. In honor of this raging gizmo infatuation, we polled our editors and asked them to name the top 50 gadgets of the last 50 years. The rules? The devices had to be relatively small (no cars or big-screen TVs, for example), and we considered only those items whose digital descendants are covered in PC World (cameras, yes; blenders, no). We rated each gadget on its usefulness, design, degree of innovation, and influence on subsequent gadgets, as well as the ineffable quality we called the "cool factor." Then we tallied the results.
After a lot of Web surfing, spreadsheet wrangling, and some near fistfights, we emerged with the following list. Some items in our Top 50 are innovative devices that appeared briefly and then were quickly consigned to museums and future appearances on eBay, but whose influence spread widely. Others are products we use every day--or wish we could.
So join us as we visit with the ghosts of gadgets past and present.
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."
The first Walkman (also branded as the Stowaway, the Soundabout, and the Freestyle before the current name stuck) featured a cassette player and the world's first lightweight headphones. Apparently fearful that consumers would consider the Walkman too antisocial, Sony built the first units with two headphone jacks so you could share music with a friend. The company later dropped this feature. Now, more than 25 years and some 330 million units later, nobody wonders why you're walking down the street with headphones on. Learn more in Sony's history of the Walkman. PCW photo by Rick Rizner; Walkman courtesy of Melissa Perenson.
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.
3. (Tie) ReplayTV RTV2001 and TiVo HDR110 (1999)
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.
4. PalmPilot 1000 (1996)
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.
6. Motorola StarTAC (1996)
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.
8. Polaroid SX-70 Land Camera (1972)
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.
9. M-Systems DiskOnKey (2000)
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.
10. Regency TR-1 (1954)
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.
12. Motorola Razr V3 (2004)
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.
13. Motorola PageWriter (1996)
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.
14. BlackBerry 850 Wireless Handheld (1998)
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.
This story, "The 50 Greatest Gadgets of the Past 50 Years" was originally published by PCWorld .