Then & Now: A Look Back at Early Tablets, Smartphones, and Televisions

Then & Now: A Look Back at Early Tablets, Smartphones, and Televisions

Jason Yang
Jul 15, 2013

From smartphones to tablets to flat screen TVs and MP3 players, many currently ubiquitous devices started from very humble beginnings, with their original incarnations very different from their 2013 recognizable designs. Remember the Apple Newton PDA or the barely portable brick-sized cell phone? Did you once carry around a boombox? Did your living room furniture once have to be rearranged to fit a projection big screen TV. Times have changed, as so has our home and personal technology...


Before the era of pocket-friendly flip phones and later smart phones, there was the Motorola DynaTAC 8000x (aka the Zack Morris phone). Big and blocky, the phone was anything but pocket or even purse compatible. Unbelievably, cellphones used to be even larger than these brick sized models, but in time sizes shrunk, alongside their (subsidized) prices. Wikipedia has a fun history of mobile phones tracing their evolution, all the way back to 1918.

Did you know:


The huge hype surrounding the release of the original Apple iPad painted over Apple's more humble foray into tablet computing - the Newton MessagePad. Like the iPad, the Newton came equipped with a selection of useful "apps" (and still have modern day iOS counterparts): Notes, Names, Dates, Calculator, and Currency Converter. Handwriting recognition was one of the Newton's shining innovations, although the rest of the 90's technology wasn't quite as intuitively satisfying as Apple's eventual iPhone-era experience.

Did you know:

  • The Apple Newton created the "personal digital assistant" segment. The term was coined by then Apple CEO, John Sculley
  • Jonathan Ive, Apple's senior vice president of Design, also designed the Newton.
  • The largest 4MB PCMCIA expansion card option for the Newton maxed out at just 250 personal contacts, 200 notes, 500 calendar appointments, and 35 screens of text and drawings. 
  • The Newton came with a non-backlit 336 x 240 pixel LCD display vs. today's 1136×640 Retina Display on the iPhone 5.


Remember these 1980's television sets?

It's quite unbelievable 70" flat screen TVs are now readily available for under $2,000 - thin, (relatively) light weight, and wall-mountable, the television has come a long way. But back in the day, TVs were huge, almost like a piece of furniture on its own. Their bulky cathode ray tubes required a lot of space and weighed a ton. CRT rear-projection TVs were the first to get past 40" and with the switch to flat panel technologies, television displays have become much larger while reducing their physical footprint significantly.

Did you know:

  • Television sizes have gone up as prices have gone down. According to The Awl, in 1939, "the first RCA model debuted at $600 in 1939. Adjusted for inflation [2011] that would be $9,773." That 70" Vizio for $1,700 is looking pretty friendly right now.
  • CRT beams had to be "steered" towards the screen and focused into a sharp picture. Today's plasma and LCD televisions can't really go out of "focus" because the pixels are fixed to the screen, although we can get the dreaded dead pixel.


The future looked so bright...and feathered...for those carrying boomboxes.

Remember the days of always having to keep anywhere between 4-12 D batteries to power portable boomboxes? Or later, the frustrating buffer of anti-skip portable CD players? In this era of digital music, the memory of CDs and tapes seems almost quaint, considering many of us now carry our entire music library virtually inside our phones or music players. Even while bemoaning the death of hi-fidelity, there's a lot to appreciate about the evolution of the music player. Besides, those boomboxes never really sounded so great, though some of them looked pretty amazing.

Did you know:

Everyone who lived through the era of boomboxes remembers how heavy they weighed. C and D sized batteries were often required, sometimes up to 12 to power the larger models. At $10 to $20 for a dozen, typical D batteries weigh around 135 grams each, coming to 3 pounds or so in just battery weight alone. Add the huge amounts of plastic and metal components and the large (and often detachable) speakers and you had a walking workout. 

(Images: Motorola, Apple, TVHistory, Sharp Electronics Japan)

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