September 23, 2019 | 90° F

A look back on gadgets before the smartphone

Photo by Dennis Zuraw |

Photo Illustration | AOL Instant Messenger, Nintendo Gameboys and Motorola Razrs have converged in the modern-day smartphone, the digital “Swiss Army Knife.”

Most people would probably agree that the most influential gadget of the last ten or even twenty years is the smartphone. And 2014 was definitely the year of the smartphone: it’s hard to go 30 seconds in public without seeing a person looking down, clutching a glowing screen in their hand.

Smartphones do everything: they make our phone calls, store and play all our music, send emails and text messages, keep our calendars, let us play games, read books and news articles, connect through social media, and so much more.

But what about the devices that we used before we could carry a digital Swiss Army Knife in our pocket? The 1990’s and 2000’s were full of weird gadgets that did all kinds of things for us before more or less converging into the smartphone. Here are a few of the most memorable gadgets of the recent past.

Hit Clips — A short-lived phenomenon but a phenomenon nonetheless, Hit Clips were miniature boomboxes that played short clips of late 90s and early 2000s hits. Clips came from some of the best artists and bands to ever make music, including the Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, *NSYNC, Aaron Carter, Destiny’s Child, and P!nk. Thankfully, nothing was the same after more functional MP3 players like the iPod, released in 2001, came to market and effectively annihilated Hit Clips.

Nintendo GameBoy (Color, Advance, & Advance SP) — One word: Pokémon. The Gameboy defined a generation of video games, spawning hit after hit. The Gameboy Color and Gameboy Advance refined the formula until perfection was reached in the form of the Gameboy Advance SP. Fun fact: the Gameboy is the third-highest selling video game system ever; the second highest is the PS2, and the first-highest is the Gameboy’s successor, the Nintendo DS.

AOL / AOL Instant Messenger — “You’ve got mail!” was one of the catchiest phrases of the 90s. And let’s be honest: AOL was basically the entire Internet until the mid 2000s. Free trial discs were everywhere, everyone’s email ended in, and AOL Instant Messenger was the de facto way to talk to your friends. Nothing has ever come close to replicating that experience again — except maybe Facebook.

TI–83 — The Gameboy of calculators, the TI–83 is single-handedly responsible for half the country’s middle school population passing algebra. Updates would come through the TI–83 Plus and Plus Silver editions, which added core improvements like more memory and a better display without changing the way the calculator actually works (just like the Gameboy Advance and SP). The standard calculator experience.

Motorola Razr — It wasn’t just the first “thin” phone, it was also one of the first mainstream phones that valued design above functionality. Indeed, the Razr made a few design tradeoffs. Most notably was its oddly flat keyboard, which let the phone be as thin as it was. Despite that, though, with enough practice (and the help of T9 Word) anyone’s dad could learn to text like a champion on a Razr. If you haven’t seen one in a while, it’s interesting to note that now, the Razr — once the hottest model on the runway — looks chunky in comparison to even the largest modern smartphones.

iMac G3 — The iMac G3 was an infamous computer that would mark a new era of Apple, following the return of Steve Jobs in the late 1990’s. The G3 was one of the first computers to ditch the floppy disk and adopt the CD, which would eventually become the dominant media format. The transparent plastic design was eye-catching, and OS X was a radical take on how to make a computer operating system — Microsoft Office had just come to the Mac, giving Mac users access to a whole new level of productivity.

BlackBerry — Before the iPhone, before Android, there was the BlackBerry. The Canadian email destroyer is still around (they just released the BlackBerry Classic, which is exactly what you’d expect it to be, a classic BlackBerry design with an added touchscreen), but the days of all your friends being on BBM are long gone. Some people, like rapper Drake, swear by BlackBerry’s physical, real-button keyboards, but most people seem to agree that touchscreen only phones are the way of the future.

Tamagotchi — Before Farmville there was Tamagotchi. The egg-shaped pet-game was fun, sure, but it also taught kids harsh lessons about responsibility, like what happens if you forget to feed your virtual pet for a week. Tamagotchis also had one of the earliest incarnations of social networking, letting you trade items and interact with other players and pets using an IR blaster.

Tyler Gold

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