10 awesome handheld computers from yesteryear

10 awesome handheld computers from yesteryear

Summary: Mobile tech has advanced so fast in the last few years that it is easy to forget how long companies have been pushing the envelope in preparation of today's powerful gadgetry. Join us in a trip down memory lane as we look at early gadgets that changed the landscape forever.


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  • (Image: Franklin)

    1998 — Franklin REX

    This PDA brought a new meaning to the word handheld as the REX was the size of a credit card. It didn't have many fancy features, Franklin was content to bring simple PIM functions to the REX.

    All models of the REX were designed to sync with personal data on a computer, a good thing as early models had no way to input data on the REX itself. Later models got crude data entry capability, a vast improvement, but still not very convenient. The six month battery life made up for the lack of features on the REX.

    The REX took the hardware to new heights, er, small sizes, but was pushed out of the market largely due to the popularity of the Palm PDAs.

  • (Image: James Kendrick/ ZDNet)

    2004 — Sony U-50 handheld Windows Computer

    Japanese electronics giant Sony introduced a full Windows PC with a 5-inch touchscreen that set the stage for many devices to appear later. The Sony U-50 was first introduced in Japan, but eventually made its way to the US.

    Sony made a device that was actually functional in spite of its small size by including thoughtful controls and the touchscreen that worked well with either touch by fingers or by stylus. An extended battery was available that gave a decent run time of 4 or 5 hours, a first for a full Windows handheld device.

    The U-50 was bundled with a dock that made it a snap (literally) to use the device as a core processing unit that connected to peripherals at the desk. This worked so well, I used the U-50 as my only computer for a year. It was my field system during the day and my desktop computer by night.

    The U-50 has a fond place in my heart as it directly impacted my professional life. I installed Windows XP Tablet Edition on my Sony and blogged about how well a 5-inch tablet PC worked on my personal tech site, jkOnTheRun,  This caught the attention of a lot of people and jkOnTheRun rapidly grew into a popular tech site. It was eventually sold to the GigaOm Media Network, which allowed me to retire from my career as a geophysicist and become a tech writer full-time.

    This also led to my meeting Bill Gates with Microsoft, who admittedly enjoyed reading about a 5-inch tablet.

    It's easy to understand why the Sony U holds a place dear to my heart. It was a fantastic handheld computer that paved the way to mobile technology of today.

Topics: Mobility, Apple, Laptops, Tablets, Japan

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  • Awesomeness!

    I enjoyed this post. Sometimes I think back to the days when I spent hours hunched over my DOS PC, coding in BASIC. Back then the coolest gadget to me was one of those Pocket Diaries. I couldn't imagine how I would react to the stuff I have now :P
    Dreyer Smit
    • Palm Pilot??

      I still have my Palm Pilot (in a drawer somewhere)
      One device I *did* use a lot.
      I suppose that "smart phones" offer the functionality, but I'll never get one.
      Not as long as I *must* subscribe to a data plan.
      By the way, I thought that bundling of services was illegal?
      • Siemens SL45

        firstly, I love nostalgia tech and there should be more articles like this!

        fond memories of my HP 95LX days with a battery powered modem as a road warrior! I still have it somewhere...
        still have a palm pilot and tried to fire it up but battery won't hold charge now, damm. Have the foldout keyboard which it docks into and was a formidable weapon for road warriors. bleh, I was post-pc already :)

        worthy of mention is what's regarded by many as the first true smartphone, and should be on any handheld computer list: Siemens SL45
        first phone to play mp3
        first phone to use MMC/SD cards
        first phone to use Java Applets
        way way ahead of the curve

        the next milestone handhelds would have to be the HP Ipaq PDAs.
        Followed by the awesome O2 xda series and particularly the xda2 mini which was pretty much the start of the touchscreen smartphone explosion.

        the plethora of UMPCs in recent years is quite amazing and my favourite would have to be the Viliv S5 which is still relevant today as it can run windows 8 and fits in a pocket. I KNOW you had one of these James and you loved it!
      • By a Galaxy Nexus from Google, no data plan required...

        then just use the WiFi on it. Later, if you decide you do want to get a Cellular Data plan, you can easily do it with AT&T, TMobile, or other GSM based Cellular provider if you want to.
  • TI-59!

    I had a TI-58C (less memory and no magnetic cards, but it didn't lose its memory when you turned it off) as an undergrad. It finally died a couple of decades ago. But I brought it back to (virtual) life in the form of an Android app called "ti5x" on the Google Play Store. I did it mainly as an exercise in learning Android programming. There are lots of other calculator emulators for Android, but I think mine is for the oldest calculator (1978!).
  • had a lot of them

    still have four of them that still work.
  • Axim X50

    I still have an Axim X50.
    Don't use it but it still works.
  • Had the Palm Pilot first

    and eventualy moved up to an iPaq.

    Ah, the days of disposable income!
    William Farrel
  • Good job, James

    Why can't you continue this kind of writing ALL the time!? It didn't point any fingers, show much of any bias, and yet was quite informative. Keep it up!
    • I do

      You may not believe this but I always write exactly how I feel. I don't have a favorite platform/OEM whether you believe it or not. I write about what I use and how that works for me. It really is that simple with me, I assure you.

      I honestly don't care what gadget/platform anyone uses. I happen to use them all.

      And thanks for the kind words.
      • Blogging the news

        It's an oxymoron. While I'm not suggesting that you write with no personality in your articles, I think a legitimate writer should stick to the facts and rely less on what they feel. Perhaps focusing on the news related to what interests you, which you seem to do already, is the best way to achieve this balance. That's why I think an article like this, that is highly factual, but still clearly your writing style, is getting my praise. Judging on the other comments here, while perhaps not as numerous as other of your writings, they are actually commenting on your articles points and less on its facts/speculation/opinions. I realize ZDnet might not view things in the same way as their customers (ie readers), but the quality of the comments should matter more to you than the number. If people are actually commenting on how your article made them feel, memories it brought back, etc. that's awesome. If they are questioning or correcting your statements, etc., that's not good. Ultimately, I came back to ZDNet full time for my tech news from another website because the writing was for clicks and had zero integrity.

        As a former geophysicist, I would think you perhaps more so than others would appreciate this point. You wouldn't want to read a scientific paper that's racked full of the author's opinions, questionable science, etc. would you? I know in my college years reading/research for physics/astrophysics classes it was extremely rare to find opinions. Sure, if you want to pick your favorite device or a "baseline" of a comparable for an article to use as a standard for specs, benchmarking performance, etc. I think that's great. However, usability and such varies so much from person to person that it starts getting into that "no no" area of quality writing.
        • No one cares...

          No one cares what you think. You want to analyze how people write go join a book club. The only 'oxymoron' around here is you.
          • kiss what?

            I agree with you pmcm. I mean who is this playfully named i-kiss-fute-bol who writes down such ponderous thoughts with such carefully placed commas?
  • Ouch!

    It hurt thinking how many of those I used, as well as their untold number of classmates! Brilliant little series James - maybe you should consider spotlighting one item of "old tech" on a more regular basis so the newbies among us can see how it was done in the "old days." In fact, start with one of the most beautiful PDA's ever invented - the Palm V, which was the Mercedes/BMW of its time.
  • Oh, man...

    This is basically a gallery of all the gadgets I most coveted over the years, and some I actually owned. The Libretto I owned, as well as the Pilot and the Newton. Actually, I still have the Libretto in a closet. Haven't fired it up in years, though.
  • My first handheld was HP L320

    Then I jumped to PocketPC HP Jornada540 series when it was launched for the first time. After than I had Compaq 3975 and then moved to Siemens sX66 (HTC BlueAngel) and so on. I still own those devices. Good memories.
    Ram U
  • Toshiba Libretto

    Having used most if the devices listed here, the best in terms of hardware and software is the Toshiba Libretto. Toshiba used their own components back then to produce quality laptops, now they use DVD drives , HDDs, display panels and RAM from other vendors. A Toshiba is no longer a Toshiba, it is more of a Dell or HP
  • The Good Old Days

    Yes and One that stands out as Wellll beyound its day, Supporting tech was just not ready, Was the Sony CLIE.
    I think I would still use it IF IT Worked!!
    • Still have one of those

      I used the Clie for years and really enjoyed it, but it has been sitting in a bag by my desktop for a couple years or so now. Hate to throw it away or give it to Goodwill. Maybe I'll post it on eBay!
  • IBM's PC110 - 486 - modem, phone, sound blaster, 800x600 color, dock etc

    All in a tiny miniaturized laptop.
    Reality Bites