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: HP)

    1993 — HP Omnibook

    While it seems HP has lost its way recently, it was producing a constant stream of innovative products in years past. The HP Omnibook was as innovative as anything HP produced during its advanced mobile phase.

    The Omnibook was a sub-notebook that brought Microsoft Windows to a small laptop form. It had lots of memory compared to other offerings at the time, and even had two PCMCIA slots for both memory and peripheral expansion. There was an internal dial-up modem in the Omnibook, turning it into a full work system. Microsoft Word and Excel were both preloaded in ROM on the system.

    Perhaps most uniquely, the Omnibook had a small plastic mouse that popped out of the side of the laptop (pictured above) that was tethered to the device by a plastic bar. The mouse was pulled out for use and then pushed back in the notebook's side for transport.

  • (Image: Toshiba)

    1996 — Toshiba Libretto

    Japanese tech giants were often the first to produce highly miniaturized mobile devices, and Toshiba pushed the limits with the Libretto. First introduced in Japan, the Libretto was roughly the size of a VHS cassette (if you remember those), yet packed a full Windows PC in the tiny package.

    It used thumb controls on the side of the small screen in place of a mouse and buttons. The tiny keyboard was not conducive to touch-typing, but owners didn't seem to mind as the Libretto sold like hotcakes in Japan.

    Toshiba continued to make Libretto models for years, and eventually brought them to sell in the US. The last model was a strange beast introduced in 2010, with two touchscreens arranged in a book format instead of a keyboard.

  • (Image: Palm)

    1996 — Palm (Pilot) PDA

    Palm started as a division of US Robotics, and with the introduction of the Palm Pilot, was able to gain its independence. The PDAs from Palm became wildly popular and soon became a household name.

    That got Palm in trouble with the Pilot pen company, as the latter sued Palm for using "Pilot". Palm dropped the Pilot name, and products were simply Palm PDAs going forward.

    Palm had many features that endured the PDAs to the buying public, not the least of which was the hotsync cradle. Users simply dropped the PDA into the cradle, which was connected to a computer, and all personal data would be synced to both devices.

    The PDAs of Palm soon morphed into the Palm Treo, the most successful smartphone of the time. The marriage of PDA functions with the phone turned out to be a marvelous marriage, and the Palm Treo introduced millions to the concept.

Topics: Mobility, Apple, Laptops, Tablets, Japan

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59 comments
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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?
      radu.m
      • 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!
        warboat
      • 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.
        jkohut
  • 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!).
    ldo17
  • had a lot of them

    still have four of them that still work.
    sarai1313@...
  • Axim X50

    I still have an Axim X50.
    Don't use it but it still works.
    MoeFugger
  • 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!
    ikissfutebol
    • 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.
      JamesKendrick
      • 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.
        ikissfutebol
        • 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.
          pmcm
          • 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?
            Quendoline
  • 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.
    dksmidtx
  • 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.
    dsf3g
  • 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
    GoForTheBest
  • 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!!
    challengeit
    • 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!
      boomchuck1
  • IBM's PC110 - 486 - modem, phone, sound blaster, 800x600 color, dock etc

    All in a tiny miniaturized laptop.
    Reality Bites