Modern Tech, Retro Style: 10 Products That Take You Back to the Future

Taking tech back in time for fun and (sometimes) functionality.

blackberry passport
REUTERS/Aaron Harris

Let's go retro

When BlackBerry released its Passport phone last fall, it married a modern smartphone operating system -- BlackBerry's new QNX-based OS -- with a physical keyboard, which less than a decade ago had been a ubiquitous smartphone feature but now seemed like a relic from another age. Still, the company hoped that enough people pined for the older technology to drive sales.

But marrying an operating system from 2015 with an input device from 2007 is the least of the year-spanning tech hybrid action available out there. With a lot of decades to choose from, we have a lot of opportunities to get seriously retro with our tech.

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double retro

Classic handsets on mobile phones

If you're of a certain age, the archetypical phone is a Western Electric 500. Introduced in 1949, it and its successors in the landline era defined what a phone handset looked and felt like for a generation of users, a model that shifted slightly in the '80s and '90s as wireless handsets came into use only to be completely exploded by modern-day cell phones, which tend to be smaller, flatter, and generally scaled for the pocket, not the for the head. Despite evidence that classic handsets are not particularly ergonomically sound, there's been a revival of bakelite-style handsets that plug into your cell phone for old-school neck-shoulder action.


Mobile phones from days of yore

While landline nostalgia might have some practical basis, we refuse to acknowledge that there might be any merit to another retro-tech trend: love for the huge brick mobile phones of the sort used by Michael Douglas in Wall Street. If you must indulge, we urge you to use a $10 cell phone case designed to make your cell phone look like an older, bigger, uglier cell phone, because you won't feel so bad when you throw it away; if you just like the aesthetic, maybe get a normal case with an attractive depiction of this ancient tech object on it. Do not under any circumstances buy The Brick, an actual functioning brick-sized phone that you can put a modern-day SIM card into for some reason.

flip phones
IDG News Service/Tim Hornyak

Land of the rising flip-phone

You might imagine Japan as a nation of high-tech wonderment, but many Japanese still happily use technology that Americans associate with the '90s or before. Take the humble flip-phone, for example: in the U.S., it's become a punchline, but in 2014 flip-phone sales in Japan actually increased while smartphone sales dipped. Part of this trend can be attributed to Japan's aging population, but modern-day Japanese flip-phones offer Internet connectivity, apps, and a host of other features that keep them in the running against touchscreen upstarts.

slow photog

The more impractical it is, the hipper

There are of course a wide array of filters available from Instagram, Hipstamatic, and others that are designed to make your digital photographs look like they were taken on an analog camera by your parents 30 years ago. Scottish designer and video producer David McCourt took the idea one step further into insanity -- or maybe genius? -- and designed the Slow Camera, an actual physical box that you pop your iPhone into. Looking very much like a clunky film camera from the '70s, the Slow Camera and its array of lenses alters the light arriving at your cell phone's camera to mimic analog predecessors, rather than tweaking the image after the fact.

impossible instant

Or you could just buy a color printer

Maybe you care less about the aesthetic aspects of pre-digital photography and more about one very practical matter: back in the day, you used to get an actual physical photograph at the end of the process. Well, there's a successfully Kickstarted product just for you: the Impossible Instant Lab, which uses Polaroid film (the manufacture of which was recently restarted in Poland) to print images off your phone pretty much instantly. Sure, it's a little too big to carry around easily, but you can go home at the end of the day and print out the best of the day's snaps.

polaroid fotobar

Again: color printer. We're just saying.

If you want to go beyond the old-fashioned camera and straight to the old-fashioned film development store, the actual Polaroid Corporation has you covered, if by "actual" you mean the private equity company that bought the Polaroid brand from the original corporate entity. Anyway, one of new-style Polaroid's endeavors is the Fotobar, a mall-based store that will make decorative physical prints out of your ephemeral digital images -- either taking them from your phone or from your social media accounts.

iphone horn

Get your dog to listen adorably

Though they're very tiny, the speakers built in to modern computers and smartphones are electroacoustic devices that use basically the same technology as the huge coffins that blared out Jimi Hendrix to the delight of everyone in the '60s. To get truly acoustically retro, you'd need to hook your fancy modern-day equipment to passive speakers that amplify the built-in sound using physical engineering alone -- think of the giant horns that adorned early phonographs. Wired assessed a slew of these devices, ranging from origami-folded card stock that fits snugly onto the base of your phone to gorgeous and extremely expensive models, and had a hard time deeming them anything but a novelty item.

old time computer

Wood, beautiful wood

Steampunk aesthetics are nothing if not an attempt to imagine the modern as the retro, which is why steampunk tends to have such a following amongst nostalgic technologists. Some people go beyond just posting their drawings of Victorian-era computers on DeviantArt and instead build modern-day devices into old-timey looking cases. The ones available at Old Time Computer are particularly beautiful, and include iPad docks, computer-ready mechanical typewriter keyboards, and wooden easels for touch-sensitive screens.

aerodyne pc

A wooden laptop would be impractically heavy, we suppose

It's possible to get your high-tech even more integrated into your retro if you're willing to go down to the component level: Jeffrey Stephenson used a Mini-ITX motherboard as a foundation for the Aerodyne PC, a wood and steel art deco beauty that we suppose counts more as dieselpunk than steampunk. It doesn't seem to be available for sale, but Twitter user Abner Cadaver sent us this link longingly. Stephens has a number of beautiful retro PC cases to show off.

russian typerwrter

Mechanical gears don't tell tales

In the end, though, keep in mind that not everybody is retreating to outdated technology on aesthetic whims. For instance, in the wake of revelations that the U.S.'s NSA spied on the German government's electronic communication, one German politician suggested a practical countermeasure: typewriters. While this resulted in a backlash from other political parties, it's a move that the Russian secret services made as far back as 2013.