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CNET 25: The Firsts

From the first BlackBerry to the first iPad, here's what CNET reviewers thought of the original versions of these innovative tech gadgets.

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Sarah Tew/CNET
This story is part of CNET at 25, celebrating a quarter century of industry tech and our role in telling you its story.

CNET has seen a lot of technology firsts over its 25-year history, and our reviewers have been here to test every notable new piece of hardware from the past quarter century. I've been on the product reviews team for 15 of those 25 years, and I've seen many of these first-gen products up close, from the first iPads and iPhones to the first MacBooks and HD gaming consoles.

While the technology has changed, the principles behind our product reviews have not. From the beginning, CNET reviewers have focused on not only extensive hands-on testing and benchmarking, but also on real-world use. Not just specs and features, but how a product fits into people's lives and budgets, and whether something has the potential to be truly useful and innovative, or if it's just the latest overhyped trend.

Looking back on our initial reviews of many tech "firsts," I'm pleasantly surprised to find that much of that thinking holds up, as viewed in these excerpts of key product reviews from the past 25 years. Note that in some cases, our original reviews have been swallowed by the internet memory hole or overwritten by newer updates, so we've found the closest versions possible or linked to existing copies on our sister sites. 


First flip phone 

Motorola StarTac, 1996

It's fitting that we start with the first mobile phone that really changed how people saw and used these often expensive, impractical, bulky devices. Motorola's StarTac was the first flip phone, a style that dominated for many years, and which is enjoying a comeback of sorts with folding phones

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CNET

It was the era when everyone at a business lunch would pull their phones out and lay them on the restaurant table, in a subtle show of who had the smallest, newest model. Of those, the Motorola StarTac was often the winner.

From our review of an early StarTac phone:

"Operating this phone is quite simple, even if you don't read the manual. You navigate menus via three main buttons, with some assistance from a Smart Button and a couple of scroll buttons located on the upper left side of the phone."

And you can forget about app stores or selfie cams. The features we were excited about back then were more basic.

"For starters, you can assign up to four numbers to each contact in the 99-name phone book. You can also activate various call timers, including an individual timer, which displays your most recent call in hours, minutes, and seconds; and a cumulative timer, which tracks your phone's total airtime (in hours) from the time the unit was activated. This is a convenient way to track your total monthly minutes."

We also praised the StarTac's vibrate mode -- it was one of the first phones to have one -- but there is one area where an older phone like this stands out today. " We got about 4 hours of talk time and seven days of standby time. That's pretty impressive." 


First consumer flat-screen TV

Philips FlatTV, 1998

Today, you can't walk into a big box retail store without tripping over advanced flat-screen TVs that cost just a few hundred dollars. It wasn't always like that -- the first decade of consumer flat-screens were luxury products with luxury prices.

The first truly made-for-living-rooms flat-screen plasma TV was the Philips FlatTV, introduced at CES 1998. When we wrote about it back then, we mentioned that this 42-inch set included some extras, including, "a built-in Dolby ProLogic sound system, with complimentary subwoofer and two rear satellite speakers." And all this for a mere $15,000."

Today, something like a better-than-decent 55-inch TCL TV with built-in Roku is regularly available for under $300, and even the most indulgent consumer TVs cost a fraction of the FlatTV's price. If you're really searching for 1998-level TV prices today, look to something like Samsung's $15K 85-inch 8K TV.

"Well, this is really aimed at enthusiasts," a Philips VP told CNET at the time. "Between you and me, we're thinking maybe some of these sports figures might like one."

Long before we debated over plasma versus LCD or OLED versus MicroLED, it was all about flat versus CRT. In 1998 we asked: "Will flat-panel displays be the wave of the future, replacing even digital, high-definition CRTs? While it waits to find out, Sharp, and most other TV-makers, are offering every kind of high-end device they can."

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET


First iPod

Apple iPod, 2001

Brett Pearce/CNET

The ultimate portable music machine in the 1980s was Sony's cassette tape Walkman. Later, it was the Discman, or an army of similar compact disc players (which were marketed as portable, even though they had a spinning disc inside and required all sorts of wonky "anti-skip" buffers). Early digital music players date back to late '90s (anyone remember the Rio PMP300?), but they suffered from software and compatibility issues, as well as questions over consumers' right to rip and transfer their own music to the devices. 

In 2001, Apple introduced its own digital music player, built around a large capacity and overall ease-of-use, as well as the then-new iTunes software platform. Of that first-gen iPod, CNET wrote:

"The product, the size of a deck of cards, was unveiled during an event at Apple's headquarters here. The stainless-steel unit costs $399, has a 5GB hard drive, connects to a Mac using FireWire, includes a 10-hour lithium polymer battery, offers 20 minutes of anti-skip protection, and works with Mac OS 9 and Mac OS X." 

Specs that impressed us at the time included: "A screen for displaying artist name, song title and album name. The liquid-crystal display has a resolution of 160 pixels by 128 pixels and offers an LED backlight. With the FireWire port, people can download an entire CD onto the iPod in under 10 seconds and 1,000 songs in less than 10 minutes, according to the company."

The classic iPod is long gone, eventually cannibalized by the iPhone, but the line lives on in the iPod Touch hardware and iTunes software. But let's also pour one out for FireWire. 

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James Martin/CNET


First HD Game Console 

Microsoft Xbox, 2001 

One of the few key examples of modern technology that predates even CNET is the original Sony PlayStation, first released in late 1994 in Japan and the following year in the US and elsewhere). Instead, we jump to the first Microsoft Xbox, from late 2001. At the time, we already saw how game consoles, computers and set-top entertainment boxes were coming together, helping far-sighted tech companies invade your living room. 

When reviewing that first-ever Xbox, former CNET editor Darren Gladstone wrote:

"Microsoft's Xbox is a Trojan horse. The company has conquered the desktop and now seems intent on sneaking a PC into your living room. Yes, this black behemoth of a system looks and acts just like a video game machine--and a state-of-the-art one at that. But with built-in support for high-speed networking, an 8GB hard drive, DVD playback capabilities, and display support for HDTVs, the Xbox does more than just play games."

This was also arguably the first game console to take HDTV seriously (although at least one game developer demoed high-resolution gaming back in the '90s). At the time, we said: "Video enthusiasts will appreciate that the Xbox works not only with standard 4:3 TVs but with HDTVs as well. If you have an HD-ready set, you can set the Xbox to output 480p, 720p, and 1,080i signals in either normal or wide-screen (16:9) aspect ratios for your games."

But yes, you'd have to buy the sold-separately HD cable pack in order to output in HD. And if you're easily confused by product naming, keep in mind that the Playstation has gone through it's original version, followed by the PS2, PS3, PS4 and soon PS5; while the Xbox was followed by the Xbox 360, Xbox One (and Xbox One X variant), and the coming-soon Xbox Series X


First Blackberry 

RIM BlackBerry 5810, 2002

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Research In Motion

Wait, the Xbox predated the BlackBerry phone? Hardly feels that way, but it's true. There was an OG BlackBerry two-way pager as far back as 1999, and the classic RIM 957 even had some basic web browsing features in 1999, but neither one was an actual smartphone. 

That combination of phone service, QWERTY keyboard and BlackBerry Messenger first came in the 2002 RIM BlackBerry 5810. It was such an odd duck that we called it a "New PDA [with] a full functional cell phone built in." That said, it wasn't exactly easy to use -- you still had to connect a physical headset to use the phone features. The 6210 model, from 2003, got rid of that odd requirement. 

One thing the 5810 got right was recognizing that these devices are data and messaging platforms first and phones second -- something most of us would still say about modern iOS and Android phones. 

Testing out the then-new 5810, we said: "It was clear -- even in our brief encounter with a demo unit -- that this is primarily a data device. For instance, to place a call you have to navigate through two screens of information before you can dial."

And forget about iOS versus Android, the 5810 ran on Java 2 Micro Edition (J2ME), which allowed for some then-unheard-of features. We said, "For example, you can select a phone number in an email, and the phone application will launch and place the call. You'll also be able to talk on the phone while using the device's other features."

But we can't mock the ancient Blackberry 5810 too much. After all, it had a long-lost feature most of us would love to get back -- a headphone jack. 


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Sarah Tew/CNET

First MacBook

Apple MacBook, 2006

Yes, Apple made laptops before the MacBook. The Macintosh Portable dates back to 1989 and the Powerbook to 1991. The 1999 iBook is still a genuine design classic, with its candy colored plastic shell and the handle for easy carrying. But the first modern Apple laptop was the MacBook, a brand name still in use today.

When the 10th anniversary of the MacBook Air came around in 2018, I looked back in the CNET archives to see who wrote that first-gen Air review, and was genuinely surprised to find that I had. Going back further to the first Intel-powered Apple laptop, the original 2006 MacBook, turns out I wrote that review as well. (And, as with the 2008 MacBook Air, I don't remember doing it at all.) 

But I do remember that the MacBook was a killer laptop. Even today, the matte black polycarbonate look (it was also available in white) holds up, and I'd bet many people would buy a throwback-looking machine. Back in 2006, I wrote:

"The matte black surface is nice to run your hands over and is largely fingerprint resistant. ... Opening the lid, you'll find a minimalist setup, including a power button, a full-size keyboard, a sizable touch pad with a single mouse button, and a built-in iSight camera that sits above the display. If you miss the scroll bar present on many Windows laptops, you'll find that the two-finger scroll option works well (run two fingers down the touch pad, and it scrolls like a mouse wheel)."

I did have to laugh when I saw the results of our benchmarking. We said: "In our battery tests, we got an impressive 3 hours, 30 minutes out of the MacBook." Some things, however, never change. Even back then, it was all about the upsell: "Telephone support is limited to a mere 90 days -- well short of what you'd typically find on the PC side -- unless you purchase the $249 AppleCare Protection Plan." 


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Sarah Tew/CNET

First iPhone

Apple iPhone, 2007

Has there been a more consequential piece of handheld tech in our lifetimes? I'll wait. The term smartphone has been thrown around as far back as the 1990s (hello, IBM Simon!), but this was the first consumer-level smartphone to really sell the public on dispensing with a physical keyboard and focus more on being a handheld computer than a telephone.

But did it all come together at first? Back in 2007, Kent German asked: "Does it live up to the stratospheric hype?" And also answered: "Not so much."

"Don't get us wrong, the iPhone is a lovely device with a sleek interface, top-notch music and video features, and innovative design touches. The touchscreen is easier to use than we expected, and the multimedia performs well. But a host of missing features, a dependency on a sluggish EDGE network, and variable call quality -- it is a phone after all -- left us wanting more. For those reasons, the iPhone is noteworthy not for what it does, but how it does it"

People will always complain about data speed and call quality on their phones, but critical missing features, including MMS messaging and Bluetooth eventually arrived. Also highly relatable, our initial complaints about headphone support: "The headset jack on the top end is deeply recessed, which means you will need an adapter for any headphones with a chubby plug. Is this customer-friendly? No." If we only knew what the future held for the headphone jack back then...

We also revisited the original iPhone review in 2017 on its 10th anniversary.


remembering the first Google Android Phone: HTC T Mobile G1
Sarah Tew/CNET

First Android phone

T-Mobile G1, 2008

The first Android OS phone -- also known as the HTC Dream/T-Mobile G1 -- came just a year after the iPhone. At that time, the battle between physical and on-screen keyboards still raged, and this first-ever Android phone stuck with a slide-out QWERTY keyboard -- a decision history has not looked back kindly on. 

"After a few days of use, we started to notice a creaking sound whenever we nudged the screen -- not good," said original reviewers Bonnie Cha and Nicole Lee, likening it to the short-lived Sidekick, which also had a landscape-style slide-out keyboard. 

Even back in 2008, the iOS-versus-Android writing was on the wall. "We like that you can customize the Home screen with your favorite apps very easily," they wrote. But compared to the iPhone, "the [G1] phone's overall interface isn't as intuitive." We also praised its SD card slot, something the iPhone would never get,

There's one thing the G1 was well ahead of the curve on: "On the bottom of the unit is a mini USB port where you connect the power charger. Sadly, this is also your only option for connecting a headset, as there's no dedicated headphone jack, 3.5mm or otherwise." Who knew how forward-looking that would be? 

We looked back at the Dream/G1 review 10 years later, and recalled the original device "a delightful mess." 


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Netflix on the iPad.

Sarah Tew/CNET


First mainstream tablet

Apple iPad, 2010

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the iPad, a hugely important device that bridged the gap between computers and phones, and between creators of content and consumers of content. Previous tablets, more often referred to as slates, were usually Windows-powered monsters intended for construction sites or other industrial uses.

This was the tablet for the rest of us.

Back in 2010, the argument racing through the CNET ranks was whether the iPad should be reviewed as a computer or as a glorified MP3 player. I, representing the computer side, lost that argument back in 2010, but history has proven me right. You can control today's iPads with a mouse and keyboard. Writers, photographers, visual artists and many others use an iPad as their main computer.

In 2010, I wrote about that inevitable mashup of styles: "One can envision a not-too-distant future where an iPhone-style interface becomes more prevalent on small Netbook and smartbook systems, rather than a full PC OS trickling down to ever-smaller devices."

Reviewer Donald Bell took the OG iPad to task, saying, "The absence of an integrated video camera puts the kibosh on any hope of using the iPad for video chats, and without Flash video support, many Web pages look like Swiss cheese." He concludes that "As a jack-of-all-trades and a master of few, the iPad can't entirely mimic many of the specialized products it seeks to replace."

Cameras would come in with Pad 2 and today's iPad Pro cameras even have built-in Lidar support for room-scanning and augmented reality. It does seem, however, that Apple was ahead of the curve on kicking Flash to the curb, so points there. Eventually everyone dropped the annoying web animation and interface tool. 

Where has the iPad ended up a decade later? I'll give the final word to my colleague Scott Stein, who reviewed the 2020 iPad Pro in April: "I'm at my desk. I'm typing on a keyboard, using a trackpad. Looking at a nice-sized 12.9-inch screen. And yes, this is like working on a computer. I'm hesitant to say Apple's iPad problems have been completely solved. But damn, using a real trackpad on an iPad is a magic moment that's been three quarters of a decade overdue."

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