The 50 greatest gadgets of the past 50 years

11. Sony PlayStation 2 (2000)

Sure, the Nintendo 64 and Sega Dreamcast were fun machines, but Sony’s PlayStation 2 brought 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. 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.

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 ultra sexy clamshell-style V3 sported a brushed aluminium casing, a colour screen on the outside and a strikingly bright 2.2-inch colour 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.

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 back lit monochrome LCD screen. Far ahead of its time, it was eventually overtaken by less costly mobile messaging options.

14. BlackBerry 850 Wireless Handheld (1998)

Canadian firm Research in Motion didn’t invent email, wireless data networks, the handheld or the QWERTY keyboard. But, with the little BlackBerry, along with server software that made email 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 email 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 email 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.

15. Phonemate Model 400 (1971)

In 1971, PhoneMate introduced one of the first commercially viable answering machines, the Model 400. The $300 unit had a wooden case, weighed more than 8 pounds, and was larger than a major-city phone book, according to Steve Knuth, a retired company executive. You could record about 20 short messages on an internal reel-to-reel tape. Users also could listen to messages in private, via an earphone akin to those supplied with transistor radios. Since people hated to talk into machines in the 1970s, Phonemate used to joke that only those who stood to make money from the phone call would buy the Model 400, mostly businesses. For more information, see the history of answering machines. (The Phonemate 400 is shown in the photo; the gadget that allowed remote message access came later).

16. Texas Instruments Speak & Spell (1978)

A whole generation of kids learned to spell on this cheery orange device with alphabet keys and a hardy handle. Speak & Spell contained a single-chip speech synthesizer–novel for the time–and a robotic voice that encouraged children to spell more than 200 common words. The $50 Speak & Spell effectively cut the cord on that era’s pull-string and tape-recorder speaking toys. The game of Hangman was a boon for kids during long car trips–and the bane of at least some parents forced to listen to it. It’s more lovingly described on this dedicated page.

17. Texas Instruments SR-10 (1973)

Math classes were never the same after the introduction of TI’s handheld calculators in the early 1970s. The $150 SR-10 debuted in 1973 and was the first affordable handheld to calculate reciprocals, square roots and other slide-rule functions. The $170 SR-50 followed in 1974, adding trigonometric functions and a very cool 14-character LED display. The devices became so ubiquitous that math whizzes at the time were identified by the simple sobriquet “TIs”. This TI site can tell you more about Texas Instruments calculators.

18. Diamond Multimedia Rio PMP300 (1998)

The Nano it ain’t, but Diamond’s Multimedia Rio PMP 300 started the revolution that produced portable music players such as Apple’s iPod (#2). This first portable MP3 player ran on a single AA battery and packed a whopping 32MB of storage–enough for about a half hour of music encoded in the MP3 compression format. Read PC World’s original review.

19. Sony Handycam DCR-VX1000 (1995)

Thank Sony for introducing digital video editing to the desktop. Before it released the Handycam DCR-VX1000, if you wanted to edit video on a PC you had to invest thousands of dollars in an expansion card to digitize analog footage. The DCR-VX1000 was the first camcorder to capture in the mini-DV format, and the first with a FireWire port for transferring digital video to a PC. The DCR-VX1000 cost nearly $4000, but it offered dramatically better video quality, and less-expensive models soon followed. For more, see Sony’s history of the Handycam.

20. Handspring Treo 600 (2003)

The quest for the perfect palmtop/phone hybrid hit a new milestone with the Treo 600, released by upstart Palm competitor Handspring (the company founded by Palm founders Jeff Hawkins and Donna Dubinsky) before that company was itself swallowed by Palm. Slim enough to fit in a pocket, yet wide enough to hold a BlackBerry-esque QWERTY keyboard, the Treo quickly became the It gadget of 2003-2004, eclipsed only by its own successor, the Treo 650. Several fan sites exist, including Treonauts and TreoCentral

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