The 50 greatest gadgets of the past 50 years

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 (As of September, 2006, it holds more than 70% of the market). Yet, when the 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.

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 (many of which we are nowadays enjoying in Canada, even if the products are not available). 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.

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.

5. Sony CDP-101 (1982)

The first commercial compact disc player signalled 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.

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.

7. Atari Video Computer System (1977)

Later known as the Atari 2600, the VCS brought video games out of the arcade and into the 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?

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.

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.

10. Regency TR-1 (1954)

The Regency took radio out of the parlour 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.

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