10 awesome handheld computers from yesteryear

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.
By James Kendrick on
1 of 11 James Kendrick/ZDNet

Cool handheld devices from yesteryear

Mobile tech has gone mainstream due to advances in the last few years, but in reality, it's been years in the making. Looking back at handhelds that appeared over decades, we have selected ten devices that changed the game in some profound way.

These aren't the only gadgets that shook the world by any means, but each one in this roundup made a big contribution to the advancement of mobile technology. This assortment of devices covers a lot of time, with the first one appearing way back in 1977. The youngest in the collection hit the scene in 2004, so the current stage of mobile technology we are enjoying today was literally decades in the making.

My obsession with mobile tech is evident as I owned six of the gadgets in this collection.

Join us in a trip down memory lane as we salute ten handheld devices that shook the world. If you have fond memories of a gadget that didn't make this list, share it in the comments below.

2 of 11 Texas Instruments

1977 — Texas Instruments TI-59 programmable calculator

The year was 1977, and Texas Instruments released a device that was a scientific calculator at its core, but so much more. The TI-59 had a lot of firsts inside: solid-state ROM cartridges, magnetic memory strips for storing programs, and a printer module that produced hardcopies of technical programs.

The TI-59 was primarily used in technical endeavors such as engineering. Many of the cartridges had basic programs used in specific industries to simplify complex calculations of a repetitive nature. User's clubs sprang up worldwide, where programs were traded with glee.

Many of my early days as a geophysicist were spent hunched over the TI-59, running calculations simplified by programs loaded by reading various memory strips. The strip reader was a bit fussy, and it sometimes took several tries to get the little programs to load properly.

Clipping the TI-59 to the thermal PC100C printer module (pictured above) made it possible to save results to paper, an unusual feature for programmable scientific calculators. This feature, coupled with the memory card reader and the ROM cartridge, set the stage for computers with similar I/O capabilities.

TI59.com is a good source to see the full history of the TI-59.

3 of 11 James Kendrick/ZDNet

On display at the Bolo EPFL, Lausanne, France. (Image: Rama & Musee Boloe)

1987 — Apple Newton

Jumping forward a decade, we witnessed the introduction of the Apple Newton. This was produced during Steve Jobs' hiatus from the company, and not finding it worthy of the Apple name, he killed it when he returned to take over the helm at Apple.

The Newton MessagePad was a large PDA that tried to do a variety of tasks with inconsistent results. The stylus was used to write naturally anywhere on the screen. The Newton would transcribe the handwriting to digital text for use in the PDA functions. While this handwriting recognition was advanced for its time, it was not accurate enough to make most users comfortable.

The Newton eventually had a modem option for getting online, a true advancement in mobile technology. 

The Newton, cancelled in 1998, still has an active user community, and can be found online for purchase even today. The team responsible for the handwriting recognition in the Newton went on to form Ritepen, the folks behind Evernote.

4 of 11 Poqet

1989 — Poqet PC

When you think of pocket PC, you normally think of Microsoft's early PDA efforts, but this one from the Poqet Computer Corporation appeared in 1989 and brought power to the handheld category. It did so by running MS-DOS on a tiny clamshell device that could run 10 to 100 hours on two AA batteries. This was accomplished by aggressive power management techniques employed by Poquet.

Fujitsu bought Poqet and released one advanced model, the Poqet PC Plus, with more memory, I/O capability, and PCMCIA card expansion. Unfortunately, this model was bigger and weighed almost two pounds, and it was expensive, so it never went anywhere.


5 of 11 HP

1991 — HP 95LX pocket computer

In 1991, HP introduced a pocket computer aimed squarely at the enterprise worker. The HP 95LX was similar to the Poqet PC in that it also ran MS-DOS, but HP included software in ROM that turned the 95LX into a business tool.

Most significantly, HP included the main spreadsheet program Lotus 1-2-3 (thus the Lotus Expandable LX designation) in ROM, producing a full spreadsheet computer that fit in a pocket. There was also a financial calculator, PIM software, and other goodies embedded in ROM, making the HP 95LX a true busines powerhouse.

Like the Poqet, the HP 95LX was a full DOS PC and could be programmed by the user. HP continued to produce upgraded models for a few years before retiring the product line.

6 of 11 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.

7 of 11 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.

8 of 11 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.

9 of 11 Psion

1997 — Psion Series 5 handheld

Psion introduced the Series 5 PDA to replace its Series 3 model. The new Psion 5 included an innovative sliding keyboard that came forward to provide stability when the clamshell was opened.

The Series 5 used the ARM710 processor that could run 10 to 20 hours on two AA batteries. It had a touchscreen and dual serial connectors (RS-232 and IR) for connectivity to other Series 5 devices.

Most significantly, the Series 5 ran the EPOC operating system, now known as Symbian. Largely through the efforts by Nokia, Symbian came to be one of the most-used OSes in phones of all times.

10 of 11 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.

11 of 11 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.

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