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Marques Brownlee talks Retro Tech

The YouTube star takes a deep dive into the origins of smartphones, computers, game consoles and more in his new series.

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It's easy to forget that Marques Brownlee is all of 26 years old, until he says that he'd never played a game on a Nintendo Game Boy until recently, or that he was in high school when the first iPhone was released. The New Jersey native, also known as MKBHD, recently crossed the 10-million-subscriber mark on YouTube and has become one of the leading voices in hands-on technology review videos, covering everything new and shiny, from smartphones to electric cars. But he's now turned his lens towards the influential ancestors of today's tech, seeking out video cameras, game consoles, computers, phones and other gear that was simply before his time. 

This deep dive into the origins of modern gadgets has turned into Retro Tech, an original YouTube series that just posted a six-episode first season on his channel. Unlike the direct-to-camera approach of most MKBHD videos, this is a fully produced affair, with multiple talking-head interviews, special guests, far-flung locations, curated historical footage and an eBay seller's dream collection of authentic, working retro hardware. 

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Before season 1 of Retro Tech dropped, Brownlee shot a pilot episode about the original 1989 Nintendo Game Boy. I was one of the expert talking heads on that episode (because I wrote a book covering the unique historical relationship between the Game Boy and its perfect pack-in software partner, Tetris), and I returned for the full season to talk about one of the most important computers of all time, Apple's original 1984 Macintosh. 

"My whole channel now is new tech, new tech, what just came out? Should you spend your money on this thing?"  says Brownlee during a visit to the CNET offices in New York. "At a certain point, I started looking back." He sought out tech that was, he says, "right before my time." Or, in my case, right during my time. 

Not having grown up with some of these classic gadgets, he was able to approach them with fresh eyes, seeing what really stood out. "Almost every single one of these pieces of retro tech, without fail, has these really satisfying buttons," he says. "The keyboard on the Macintosh and the buttons on the Walkman and all these things, they just feel different." 

They were also built to last, from an era before the annual upgrade cycle of phones, laptops and other semidisposable gear. That's why each of the gadgets featured on Retro Tech were original working models, and sometimes several versions of the same device. "When we blowtorched a Walkman, we wanted to have a couple extras in case it didn't work." 

But the hardest device to find and get running was the 1983 Motorola Dynatac, considered to be the first cell phone. "We literally had a team for that," Brownlee says, scouring eBay and flea markets, eventually using two of the phones to create a mini 1G network between them for demo purposes. 

Iconic tech of the '70s and '80s is easy to call out in hindsight, but what modern devices will future generations highlight in their own retro video series? Brownlee names the Tesla Model S, saying, "Electric cars didn't really have a place before Tesla came along. And now they're really carving out their place," with the Model S being the first big success. 

"Let me give one more," he says, adding,"This is gonna sound so stupid, but I'm going to stick with it: Google Glass." An interesting choice, to say the least, but he runs with it. "There was an argument that it was ahead of its time. Maybe it's a little bit on your face, maybe the cameras were too much for people, and it died. But if VR and AR ever take off, like they might, we might look back at Google Glass as being one of those formative tests for humans and AR." 

Retro Tech Season One is available on YouTube now