The 80s was a unique decade, with fashion, technology, and music having some ground-breaking turning points. It’s no surprise that many people are all too eager to capture the same spirit that defined that decade, at least the way it’s usually remembered in the United States.
To this end, folks may throw 80s-themed parties, buy decor that reminds them of that time, or rewatch their favorite shows made in the 80s. The tech gadgets of the 80s are an especially important aspect, as they paved the way for many devices that we use in our everyday lives today.
It seems like people nowadays can’t get enough of the 80s. When it comes to technology, it was an amazing time. The nature of what we think of as modern technology stems from the digital technology put in place during this era. From personal computers to cable television, from portable music players and cellphones – the most important inventions came into existence during the tech boom in the 80s. Whether you want to delve into some 80s nostalgia or are interested in retro tech gadgets, the best gadgets of the 80s will probably pique your interest. Here are some of them:
1. Apple Macintosh 128K (1983)
The Apple Macintosh personal computer was an iconic offering. It sold for the high price of $2,495, which evens out to around $6,100 now. While the fast-paced Apple technology of today was still not even imaginable to most people, this gadget was still popular enough to sell more than 70,000 units in only four months.
There was a great amount of fanfare when this computer was released in 1984. Ridley Scott, the director of the 1979 horror flick ‘Alien’, created the advertisement for it. The ad was broadcasted during the 1984 Super Bowl, and is still an iconic yet somewhat infamous part of advertising history to date.
The Macintosh model we’re talking about here is the 128K, so named because it used 128K RAM. The CRT monitor measured 9 inches, while the floppy disk drive was single sided. There was a handle on top of the computer which made it easy to carry from one place to another.
Apple faced many competitors back in the day. The best home computers of the 80s included several other models, each with varying levels of speed and popularity.
2. IBM Personal Computer (1981)
Technically, personal computers came into existence during the late ‘70s. Apple also released its first two personal computers in 1976 and 1977, but the computer boom didn’t start until IBM released its game-changing computer in 1982.
The IBM Personal Computer boasted 64 KB of RAM, a 5.25-inch floppy drive, and a monochrome monitor. It signaled the start of the software boom, with many computers quickly creating their business programs, video games, and word-processing software. This computer cost $2,000 apiece.
Since IBM became successful, competitors soon flooded the hardware market, creating IBM-compatible machines that ran at the same speed using the same software. Soon, it would be controlled by a weird computer accessory called a mouse.
3. VHS Players (1980s)
A list of the best 80s gadgets would be incomplete without the humble VHS player. If you grew up in the 80s, you probably remember the Video Home System (VHS). Though it was released in 1977 in the United States, it was found in almost all households by the 80s.
The videocassette recorder (VCR) revolutionized home entertainment, allowing users to capture their favorite shows on tape and watch them whenever they wanted. Recording films and TV shows straight off the TV – what a breakthrough in technology it was at the time! VHS was a technology developed by JVC, which competed with Sony’s Betamax – both of which needed a VCR for playing and recording. But since JVC made VHS an open-patent product, it became more widely used to the point that VCRs became synonymous with VHS players. Meanwhile, Betamax was only compatible with Sony VCRs.
Before VCRs and VHS tapes, the only way to see movies or TV shows was when they were released or aired. If you missed an episode or the movie you wanted to see, you would either hope for a rerun or for theaters to show it again. VCRs changed that forever and introduced the concept of home entertainment to the 80s and beyond.
4. Sharp Pocket Computer (1981)
The microprocessor was introduced in the 80s, allowing pocket computers to exist. Then comes Sharp with its range of pocket computers. These gadgets looked like calculators but worked in the same way we use keyboards on modern-day laptops and PCs.
Sharp Pocket Computer comes with a 24-digit dot matrix LCD display with a full QWERTY-style keyboard that you could use to program BASIC code. The battery of the computer was said to last 200 hours.
5. Motorola cellphones (1980s)
In the 80s and in the years before that, you could only call people through home phones (or payphones). People did not experience the convenience of getting updates from people, like where exactly they are right now. In the 80s, Motorola released the first commercially available cellphone to the public: the DynaTAC. It looked like a chunky brick, weighed 2.5 pounds, and could work for only 30 minutes of chatting after a 10-hour charge – but hey, at least they are portable, and you can bring and use them anywhere.
In the 2000s, Motorola became king of cellphones again with their iconic Razr flip phones that cool kids owned. But did you know that the original Motorola flip phone was first introduced in the 80s? Released in 1989, Motorola’s MicroTAC was the first truly compact analog flip phone. It was sold at a staggering $3,000, featuring a 12-button keypad, an 8-character dot matrix display, and two volume buttons on the side.
6. CD Players (1982)
The compact disc (CD) and CD players were born in 1982, with Sony releasing the first CD player. Originally, the CD player cost $1,000. At first, sales of CDs were slow, but they started to grow rapidly by 1985. By 1988-1989, CD sales surpassed vinyl and pre-recorded music cassette tapes. CDs continued to be popular until the 2000s, and they peaked in 2002. It was still used in the subsequent decades, less in music but more as a storage system.
For kids born into the world of streaming, it will be hard to understand how ubiquitous these little discs were during the ‘80s. If you grew up listening to CDs and watching DVDs, your parents probably told you only to touch them at the edges – one little smudge or scratch seems to be fatal. But these discs were surprisingly resilient; it’s hard to find even first-generation CDs to have major issues playing after three decades.
7. Casio Calculator Watch (1983)
Long before there were smartwatches from Apple and its competitors, this was the smartest watch on the 80s market. This offering from Casio dutifully told the time, but the real charm was an inbuilt calculator which let the wearer do basic arithmetic no matter where they were. It also boasted a calendar, a stopwatch, and an alarm function to help us stay organized and productive.
8. The Clapper (1984)
The Clapper had a fun and useful function, but it did have its limitations. Today, if we get a smart home system like Amazon Echo or Alexa, it’s possible to get the lights turned on and off with just a voice command. The same goes for turning on music, the televisions, or controlling many other devices.
In the 80s, the precursor to such technology was found in The Clapper. Basically, you plugged this gadget into an outlet, and then plugged in any device that you need to control. Most people would use this to turn the lights on and off as needed. This might have been convenient when they were already in bed, about to fall asleep, and not wanting to get up to turn off the lights.
The reasoning behind this gadget was logical enough, but unfortunately the thinking might not have gone far enough. The Clapper turned out to be prone to issues, activating itself whenever there were any loud noises like the barking of a dog or even loud sounds from a television. Obviously, having the lights turn on and off due to external sounds would have been quite irritating. While The Clapper might have been a nifty gadget that even got showcased in movies and TV shows, it eventually fell out of popular use.
9. Audio-Technica Sound Burger (1983)
The Sony Walkman made it possible for 80s teens to listen to their music on the go. The Sound burger has a similar function for those who want to listen to vinyl records. This was a portable type of turntable, which allowed people to listen to their favorite records even when they were on the go.
While the idea of such turntables was nice, there wasn’t much protection for the LPs with this gadget. It was powered by batteries, with a manual arm, stereo L/R RCA audio outputs, and even a headphone jack so you didn’t disturb other people. We can still see and use this technology in the more modern turntables available now.
10. Simon (1980)
This was a kind of ‘Simon Says’ game, where you get a tune that’s matched with a color panel. There will be new additions at each level, and players had to touch the panels in the same pattern as shown.
Players in the 80s could try this game by themselves as well as in groups. Some would say that it was a good exercise for building up memory skills. If someone is on the search for 80s toys that are still available today, this game might be one of them. However, it might be easier to find an app that presents similar challenges.
While the gameplay of Simon was fairly simple, it was still a major engineering feat when it was released. Technically, it became available in 1978, but its pop culture icon status was established in the 1980s.
11. Nintendo Entertainment System (1985)
The 80s decade was huge for the video game industry, and an iconic Japanese import was the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). When it was released in the US in 1985, few would have thought about its potential impact on the videogame society. A remodeled version of the Japanese Family Computer (Famicom), the 8-bit NES, was originally designed to be a joint venture between Nintendo and Atari, but a dispute over licensing meant the deal was off, making Nintendo do it alone.
NES managed to save the home console industry, which was almost collapsing back then, by offering standardized graphics, easy-to-use controllers, and a wider variety of game genres. NES will always be remembered for games like Super Mario, The Legend of Zelda, Donkey Kong, Excitebike, and Duck Hunt. Even decades later, many gaming enthusiasts still enjoy these games and play them both for the nostrils and pure fun. Just a few examples of the most iconic accessories include the NES Zapper, the ROB (Robotic Operating Buddy), and the Power Glove.
12. Nintendo Game Boy (1989)
Fresh from the success of the Nintendo Entertainment System, Nintendo launched a handheld version of its 8-bit console, known as the Nintendo Game Boy, in 1989. When it was released, it shook up the video games market. It wasn’t the first handheld game console, but it was very popular. The original Game Boy was not technically a marvelous invention – it had a chunky physical design and a monochrome display. But it offered 30 hours of battery life and ran on four AA batteries.
What worked in favor of Nintendo was Game Boy became an NES in your pocket. It had a similar layout to the NES controller, making it easier to play games. Through a special cable, a Game Boy allowed for up to 16 local multiplayer to play with one another. Though it faced competition from Sega, Game Boy sold more than 1 million units alone during the holiday season.
13. Sony Walkman (1979)
We probably can’t talk about the best gadgets of the 80s without mentioning the Sony Walkman in some detail. The iPod might have conquered the portable music market now, but the Sony Walkman in the 80s was the must-have cool gadget for every teenager.
Portable radio players were also around back them, but the Walkman was unique in allowing people to select their listening experience. This was the era of making mixed tapes, creating customized playlists on cassette tapes, and buying cassette albums of your favorite artists. All you had to do was pop in the desired music, plus in your headphones and start playing. There was also the option to listen without headphones, or tune in to FM or AM radio channels.
The Walkman originally came from Japan was technically became available late in the 1970s decade. However, it became really prominent in the 80s and 90s. In fact, the term ‘Walkman’ became used for any compact portable cassette player even if it wasn’t released by Sony. In 1986, the word was officially listed in the English dictionary, with a picture of the WM-77 model.
14. The Polaroid Sun 660 Camera (1981)
Released early in the 1980s, this instant camera was one of the precursors of modern camera technology. It was among the first options that majorly cut down the time we had to spend in waiting for all our photos to get developed. Not only this, but this gadget was a lot of fun as well. You pointed and clicked; the photograph will come out of the camera and develop before your eyes.
This Sun 660 model featured an inbuilt flash and a sonar-powered autofocus feature to boot. It would also detect when subjects were in low-light areas and tried to boost lighting accordingly. As a result, it was more likely to turn out a bright and clear picture almost every time.
The most endearing features of this camera, however, were its relatively small size and ability to enhance images. The technology might seem very basic now, but was probably an important step on the way to the high-resolution cameras most phones have now.
Today, we can see that Polaroid cameras have gone through resurgence. This is partly due to the One Stop Plus digital model, which has a classic design much like the Sun 660.
15. Boombox (1970s-1980s)
With the popularity of hip-hop culture in the 80s, the boom box became a craze for youngsters and teenagers. Bach then, music players were larger, bolder, and in-your-face devices. These battery-powered music players were great for entertaining the masses or annoying the public as you walk with one blasting from your shoulders. It was noted for being essential in the rise of hip-hop.
Initially introduced during the mid-70s in the American market, the boombox’s popularity surged in the 80s – almost becoming a status symbol. Every hip-hop fan and music lover everywhere seemed like they wanted to take their music with them wherever they went. But its popularity waned when Walkman became popular.
16. ZX Spectrum (1982)
Modern-day PC gamers owe a lot to this gadget. As Nintendo’s Entertainment System and Sega’s Master System were popular as home gaming systems, the Spectrum offered something a little different. It had keyboard keys that had multiple functions instead of joysticks and buttons. It was used to play games and introduce programming to the masses.
For many gamers, the ZX Spectrum was the first stepping stone that led to Mega Drive, Amiga, PlayStation, and more. Plus, it was very cheap compared to its other rivals at the time, the Commodore 64 and the BBC Micro Model B.
17. Casio Databank (1985)
The iconic Casio Databank predates the modern-day hype for the smartwatch. The 80s was the heyday of the calculator watch, but Casio Databank offers a lot more – it also stores names and phone numbers, making it function as a little black book on your wrist.
But unlike many other 80s gadgets, the Casio Databank isn’t discontinued yet. These watches are still sold in various models and designs today! The designs of modern versions have barely deviated from the original. It still featured a membrane keyboard, with Mode and Adjust physical buttons on the side.
18. Speak and Spell (1978)
One of the world’s first handheld gaming consoles, Speak and Spell is a line of child-friendly computers from Texas Instruments. Introduced in 1978, it’s a computer that’s among the first of its kind that uses interchangeable cartridges and lets children play different games. It focused on helping children improve their spelling and vocabulary.
This game is one of the most iconic toys of the 1980s until its final model was released in 1992. Its use of speech synthesizer and single-chip microcontroller paved the way for most gadgets we use today.
19. Atari Video Computer System 2600 (1977)
This list is incomplete without a product from Atari, a company where Steve Jobs started his career as a technician after dropping out of college. The story of Atari’s rise and fall is fascinating, and its role in the video game industry was huge – it helped shape the home console market in the 70s and 80s.
While Atari was popular due to its arcade hits like Pong, it truly shined with the home video game console Atari 2600 and its subsequent consoles. Though invented in the 70s, Atari had its time in the sun competing with the Nintendo Entertainment System in the 80s. It popularized microprocessor-based hardware and games stored on swappable ROM cartridges. It was bundled with two joystick controllers, a conjoined pair of paddle controllers, and a game cartridge.
20. Epson Elf (1984)
The 80s was the decade of pocket technology, and Epson also dipped into this trend by releasing the Epson ET-10, or Epson Elf – the world’s first commercial TV with a liquid crystal color display that you can carry around with you.
The whole unit looked like a portable radio, but only with a screen. The 2-inch display on the ET-10 was groundbreaking at the time. It sat along a speaker and weighed just 450 grams, including batteries, with a battery life of up to five hours.
The tech gadgets of the 80s might have led to a lot of fascinating devices in the 21st century. Some of these options might even be available today, though some others were discontinued with good reason. If the examples above sound intriguing, check out these top science discoveries and inventions from the 90s.