The 50 greatest gadgets

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 honour 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. Photograph 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 (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.Photograph 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 –i n 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. Photograph 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. Photograph by Rick Rizner.

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. Photograph 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

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