Geek chic from the '90s doesn't look so cool today

Geek chic from the '90s doesn't look so cool today

What a difference a decade makes: Can you believe you used this technology just 10 years ago, then unwound with a game of Doom? Join our look back at your first PDA love, not-so-portable music and the day long before Mac could ridicule PC.

Whether you're 23 or 53, you might remember that life was a bit different in 1998. Every man, woman and child had yet to be outfitted with a cell phone and a high-bandwidth Internet connection, and bulky tech was the norm. VC-backed startups were flush with cash and dotcom workers dreamed of big-time dollar signs at the end of their long work days. Newspapers hadn't yet been overthrown by online news sites, and their headlines shouted about a different Clinton (and his trysts with an intern). And yes, we checked: Gas really cost less than US$1.25 a gallon.

A decade later, you can't imagine life without your BlackBerry. And some tech toys of the '90s seem almost primitive.

Your PDA first love

In 1998, e-mail in your pocket was reserved for a precious few tech elite. All-in-one smart phones and the CrackBerry epidemic were yet to come. But the Palm Pilot, the coolest electronic address book and calendar we'd ever seen, was in the pocket or purse of every self-respecting geek. In 1996, 3Com's 5.7-ounce Palm Pilot 1000 boasted 128KB of storage and could hold 500 names and addresses. Later editions added e-mail and Internet connections. Today, RIM's popular BlackBerry Curve model packs 64MB and holds more than 2,000 contacts.

In living color

Apple recently wowed fans with the debut of the MacBook Air, the world's thinnest notebook. But in 1998, Apple fans ate up the first iMac, the Bondi Blue. Marketed as a computer for the Internet age--hence the "i" of iMac--the candy-colored Bondi Blue delivered plenty of style (not boring beige) and newfangled USB ports. What it lacked: storage (just 4GB) and a floppy drive. To complaints on the latter, CEO Steve Jobs simply said: Floppy drives are so last year. Shortly thereafter, broadband Internet access, cheap Ethernet and USB flash drives became the norm--and proved him right.

Tech-enabled TMI

1998's cell phones didn't enjoy the ubiquity of today's versions, but their increasing popularity created new issues. A major one: Cell phone etiquette. By 1998, some 55 million people in the United States had subscribed and plenty were oversharing: Restaurant diners, moviegoers and train commuters all suffered through strangers shouting intimate details in public places. Today, most of the U.S.'s 243 million wireless subscribers don't answer their phone in the movie theaters, but ignoring your lunch date to text or e-mail? That's so this year.

R.I.P., pay phones

In 1998, the sci-fi film The Matrix was in production for its release the following year. The movie boasted groundbreaking visual effects and a software engineer/hacker/savior/action hero consumed by a metaphysical quest. The movie, which would inspire countless imitations and philosophical discussions, gave the pay phone a central role in the future. Not so much in the real world: The year before The Matrix's release, 2.6 million pay phones existed in the United States. Now: Only about 1 million. And with AT&T quitting the pay phone game by the end of this year, pay phones may soon be featured only in the history books.

MP3 in the age of Napster 1.0

A decade ago, hipster technophiles had found a new toy to love: the MP3 player. One such offering, the Nomad Jukebox (released in 1999), promised 100 hours' worth of listening pleasure. Of course, its rechargeable batteries conked out long before such pleasure could be realized. The Nomad Jukebox was no exercise companion either: Its internal hard drive didn't take kindly to running or bouncing, it was prone to skipping and stalling, and it was heavy and bulky. And no worries of ear damage here; at full volume it was a tinny whisper to an iPod's scream. Still, in a pre-iPod time, many considered it the best MP3 player around.

When digital camera met floppy

Sexy and sleek it was not: But the Sony Mavica MVC-FD5, released in 1997, broke ground in its time. In this day before memory cards, it was the first digital camera that enabled users to store and share photos on a then-ubiquitous platform--the 3.5-inch floppy disk. The camera set buyers back $599 for an image resolution of 0.3 megapixels (or 640 pixels by 480 pixels). You could pack a whopping eight pictures at that resolution on a floppy. Today, $599 will get you a swanky Leica D-LUX 3, with a 10-megapixel image resolution.

Shooting up the pre-millennial world

Long before hyper-realistic video games were the norm and monster lines to purchase Wii consoles topped the headlines, id Software unleashed Doom and inspired a cult following. Still popular in 1998 (it was released in 1993), the game launched the burgeoning first-person shooter genre into the stratosphere with its immersive 3-D graphics, colorful levels and deadly enemies. Considered one of the most important video game series of all time, Doom also popularized the ability to play against friends over a modem.

Zipping up backup

Described by Forbes as a "floppy disk on steroids," the Iomega Zip Drive became an instant sensation upon its release in 1995. It was "inexpensive" (at just $150) and easy to use with Macs and PCs. Best of all: Its 100MB provided 70 times the storage capacity of a standard floppy disk. Today, for $19, you can get a 1GB USB flash drive like the Dell Cruzer Micro U3. USB drives give you a fresh set of security worries, but at least they'll never make you hear the "click of death," the now infamous sound that indicated a defective Zip drive.

Not too rich, or too thin

In 1998, IBM's ThinkPad I series 1450 was substantially less pricey ($2,088) than the company's previous notebook computer offering, the ThinkPad 560Z ($3,799). Weighing in at a not-so-svelte 8.6 pounds (with the AC adapter attached), this clunker could double as a killer bicep workout tool for city strolls. You certainly wouldn't have dreamed of popping it in a mailing envelope, as Steve Jobs did famously last week with the ultra-thin Apple MacBook Air, which checks in at three pounds and less than $2,000.

Windows 98: Glory days

Yes, operating systems were once named for years, not views or spotted animals. Windows 98, the OS that first made Internet Explorer 4.0 part of the operating system, helped Microsoft pump up its attack against strengthening rival Netscape. Those "PC vs. Mac" TV commercials from Apple? Unthinkable in 1998. And oh the memories: For Windows 98, Microsoft advised that your PC needed 16MB to 32MB of RAM. For Vista, Microsoft recommends 512MB to 1GB of RAM.

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