Over the past few decades, innovative gadgets have made their way into our lives. Some are necessary and others aren’t so essential. But it’s hard to imagine a world without our gadgets letting us know when our next meeting is or whether our road trip is being rerouted after that wrong turn a few blocks earlier.
What has changed since the 1990s—when a lot of our gadgets began to truly pervade our every day— is how utility meets aesthetics. The form factors for a lot of our favorite gadgets and devices has changed over the past couple of decades. We thought it would be interesting to take a look at 7 devices we can't live without out today and how different they look now when compared to their '90s iterations. Are they getting bigger or smaller?
Apple introduced the Powerbook 100 in 1991 to great fanfare. It had a 9-inch display, weighed a little over 5 pounds, and would cost you upwards of $2,000. Its biggest claim-to-fame is Apple’s decision to place a trackball in front of the keyboard; it set the stage for today’s laptop trackpads. By today’s standards, the Powerbook 100 looks more like a brick than a computing device, though.
Since then? We’ve seen heavy-duty landmark PCs like Apple’s iBook and Dell’s first generation Inspiron XPS push the envelope with laptops that pack power in more aesthetically-pleasing packages. But with microprocessors and laptop components getting smaller over the last decade, we've seen laptops go from behemoth devices to razor thin juggernauts.
Apple is still front-and-center in the laptop aesthetics race today. Consider their 11-inch MacBook Air. It weighs a shade under 2.5 pounds and is almost a 1/3 of the price of the Powerbook 100. It's got brawn and beauty in a smaller package than what could be dreamed of a decade ago.
Verdict: Laptops are definitely getting thinner—not necessarily smaller. And they’re starting to look cooler, too.
In the ‘90s, it was all about getting the latest editions of The Oregon Trail installed on our laptops so we could be the first ones in our social circles to beat the game without succumbing to dysentery. The floppy disk was the industry standard medium at the time, the 3.5-inch disk being ubiquitous at the start of the decade. Storage capacities varied during its run as the leader of the storage wars, ranging from 1.44MB at launch to over 200MB for its final few iterations.
Since then? CDs made way for DVDs—both of which seem glaringly inefficient by today's standards. Storage is still a major player in the tech world, but the form factor has changed tremendously. Current portable flash drives can be around 1.5-inches long, they can fit in your pocket, and can store upwards of 32GB. For those that are counting, that’s over 20,000 times as much storage capacity as the original 3.5-inch floppy disks could handle.
Verdict: Storage media are getting smaller. And they handle much, much more than ever.
In 1999, Research In Motion unveiled their Blackberry 850. While it didn’t have phone capabilities at the time, it was considered a groundbreaking device. A two-way pager that gave you access to email and internet? This was a big deal. Nokia dominated the ‘90s with their phones, but Blackberry opened the door to enterprise-ready devices we see now.
Over the past decade, there seemed to be a focus on making phones smaller as Nokia’s 7650—the first in the Nokia line with a built-in camera— and Motorola’s RAZR ruled the market.
But then, in 2007, onto the scene came the iPhone. And then came apps.
Today? Phones are vying for screen real estate as each new iteration of popular devices gets bigger each year. As apps become more and more a part of our everyday, expect phones to show off bigger screens.
Verdict: Screens are getting bigger. And the technology inside our phones is getting better.
Car Navigation Systems
In the 1990s, Oldsmobile understood the plight of American drivers who were traveling across the country with 30 maps stuffed in the glove compartment of their cars. So, in 1995, they were the first to unveil a car navigation system for their Eighty Eight line of cars. Guidestar would make a $2,000 dent in your wallet, though, and wasn’t particularly accurate at the time. But it was built into the car’s dashboard and was ahead of its time.
Since then? Portable GPS systems have made major waves in the industry, with devices like the TomTom GO 920 challenging on-board navigation systems with their advanced built-in technologies. The question to ask now is, “Who needs in-car navigation anymore?” Portable GPS systems and cell phone apps are becoming the go-to methods of getting where you need to go. The form factor on these portable devices is smaller and the technology is more efficient than their '90s brethren.
Verdict: This is a two-fold answer. In-car navigation systems are definitely larger now than their 1990s counterparts. But portable GPS systems and apps are changing the way we use them.
Video Game Cartridges
At the start of the 1990s, video games—like those for the Sega Genesis console—were housed in plastic cartridges that had to be inserted into the game system. And if that didn’t work, we’d have to take the cartridge out and blow on it a few times to make sure there was no loose dust interfering with our gaming experience. Oh, the memories.
Since then? Cartridges have become obsolete now. Sony Playstation and Microsoft Xbox 360 tried their hand with compact discs and Blu-Ray discs respectively, but even those forms of gaming media have failed to stand the test of time. Now, with Steam and online gaming becoming more prevalent and more cost-effective, the transition to the cloud is here.
Verdict: Cartridges got smaller and smaller… and now they’ve been replaced by online gaming portals.
Cathode ray tube (CRT) television sets were the standard in the 1990s. But they were bulky and heavy. You had to not only worry about the width of the screen but the depth of the television before placing it anywhere in the house.
Today? CRT TVs are largely being phased out in favor of LCD flat panel models. So, as technology advances, TV sets are doing more with less.
Verdict: Television sets are getting smaller… in terms of depth. Not sure if any of us will miss all that extra girth anyway.
Portable Music Players
No, we’re not talking about boomboxes—although they sure were portable and ignited the mythological breakdance battles of the decade. We’re talking instead about the Sony Walkman. The cassette and disc iterations became staples of the portable technology revolution of the 1990s. Their form factor reflected the size of the medium, however; they were only as “small” as the cassettes and discs allowed them to be.
Today? Cassettes and discs—and their respective music devices—have been usurped by the digital media revolution of the past decade, which has, in turn, changed the form factor of portable music devices.
Verdict: Portable music players are smaller than ever now because physical media has been replaced by digital media.
Our favorite gadgets have gone through various evolutions over the past few decades. Some—like cell phones—are getting bigger in terms of available screen real estate. Others—like laptops and television sets—are getting thinner. While there are aesthetic revisions that have changed the device form factors, our devices are definitely adapting to the changes in technology underneath their hoods. And with technology constantly advancing, our gadgets are only going to look better for it.