In many ways, the 1980s seemed like a simpler time. There was no social media; no smartphones – in fact, there were few mobile phones at all. We didn’t live our lives online and your boss couldn’t get hold of you at all hours of the day.
Yet that’s not to say it was an analogue era of slow progress, far from it. The gadgets, games consoles, watches, and electronic toys of almost forty years ago paved the way for the advanced technology we enjoy today.
We have a lot to thank those 80s engineers for and to celebrate their achievements, we’ve handpicked the best 80s gadgets to make you feel all nostalgic.
1. ZX Spectrum
Modern-day PC gamers owe a lot to the ZX Spectrum. As Nintendo’s Entertainment System and Sega’s Master System entered homes, the 16KB (or 48KB) Spectrum offered something a little different. At odds with the joysticks and buttons from arcade machines and consoles, each keyboard key had multiple functions and was used to play games as well as introducing programming to the masses. You could even get archaeology software as early as 1982. The computer’s success earned its inventor Clive Sinclair a knighthood.
2. Speak and Spell
One of the world’s first handheld PCs and gaming consoles, the educational Speak and Spell from Texas Instruments was unveiled during the 1978 Consumer Electronic Shows. Its visual display was among the first of its kind and it used interchangeable cartridges to let children play different games, aimed at helping to improve their spelling and vocabulary. It became one of the iconic toys of the 1980s until its final model was released in 1992, and its use of the first single-chip microcontroller and speech synthesiser paved the way for many of the gadgets we use today.
3. Sony Walkman
Before the iPod effectively killed off an entire industry, the Sony Walkman was the original, must-have portable cassette player. Unlike portable radio players, the Japan-made Walkman allowed people to choose what to listen to via portable headphones, and make playlists on tape, alongside FM and AM radio frequencies. Like with Texas Instrument’s Speak and Spell, the first model hit shelves in the late 1970s but it rose to prominence during the two decades that followed. So ubiquitous it became that the word Walkman even entered the English dictionary in 1986. The model pictured is the WM-F77.
4. Nintendo Entertainment System
Another iconic Japanese import of the 1980s was the Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES. A remodelled version of the company’s Family Computer, or Famicom, the 8-bit NES was originally designed to be a joint venture between Nintendo and Atari until a dispute over licensing meant Nintendo decided to go it alone. It helped lift the gaming industry out of the slump of 1983 by offering easier-to-use controllers, standardised graphics and a wider variety of game genres. It brought hugely popular arcade games, including Donkey Kong, to home TVs.
5. Nintendo Game Boy
Fresh off the success of its Nintendo Entertainment System, the Japanese giant launched a handheld version of is 8-bit console called the Nintendo Game Boy in 1989. It effectively used the same A and B controls and D pad seen on the NES, positioned below a 4.7cm x 4.3xm “pea soup” green LCD display. Using ROM cartridges also similar in design to those used on the NES, these games could be inserted and removed on the back of the device.
The Game Boy ran on four AA batteries and was an incredibly robust console, making it a popular choice among kids. The Game Boy and its successor the Game Boy Color have sold in excess of 118 million units and spawned a number of later models, namely the Game Boy Lite and Game Boy Advance.
6. Motorola MicroTAC
A break away from the chunky “brick” designs that preceded it, Motorola’s MicroTAC was the first truly compact, analogue flip phone. Released in 1989 and retailing for a staggering $3,000, or around £1,750, TAC stood for Total Area Coverage given its reliance on far-reaching analog signals. Above the 12-button keypad was an 8-character dot matrix display. There were two volume buttons on the side and, along with a built-in mouthpiece and ringer, this design would form the basis for many of the handsets that followed.
7. Polaroid Sun AF 660
Polaroid cameras have seen a resurgence of late, thanks in part to the release of a classic-looking digital model called One Step Plus. Yet the original designs, such as the Polaroid Autofocus Lightmixer 660 pictured, can still be found on auction sites selling for decent sums. Part of the Polaroid 600 series, the Autofocus 660 (also known as the AF 660) had an 116mm lens and was the first in the range to use Polaroid's patented Sonar Autofocus technology. This system used sensors to establish how far away a subject was, using sonar pulses, to achieve an accurate autofocus shot.
8. Sharp pocket computer
The 1980s was the decade of the microprocessor, led by the likes of Sharp and its range of pocket computers. These gadgets resembled calculators but worked in a similar way to how we use keyboards on modern-day PCs and laptops. Below a 24-digit dot matrix LCD display sat a full QWERTY-style keyboard you could use to program BASIC code. The computer’s battery was said to last 200 hours and it even came with a connector that let you attach a printer or tape drive.
9. Apple Macintosh 128K
Long before Steve Jobs debuted the iPhone on stage in Cupertino in 2007, his company specialised in personal computers. The first of which was known as the Apple Macintosh. It was later renamed the Macintosh 128K to differentiate it from its successor, the Macintosh 512K. Released to great fanfare in 1984, Alien director Ridley Scott created the now-infamous advert for the computer, broadcast during that year’s Superbowl. The Macintosh 128K got its name by the fact it ran on 128K of RAM. It had a 9in CRT monitor, single-sided floppy disk drive and featured a handle on the top that meant it could be moved from place to place.
10. Casio Databank
It’s a testament to just how cool and iconic the Casio Databank watches became - they’re still sold in various models and designs today. One of the original models of this calculator watch, the gold version of the DBC 610 (pictured), was first released in 1985 and later re-released due to popular demand. The designs of these modern versions have barely deviated from the original and still feature a membrane keyboard, with Mode and Adjust physical buttons on the side.
11. Epson ET-10
Pocket computers. Pocket gaming consoles. The 1980s was the decade of pocket technology. Epson’s take on this trend was the ET-10, or Epson Elf – the world's first TV with a liquid crystal colour display you could carry around with you. Released in August 1984, the 2in display on the ET-10 was truly groundbreaking and sat alongside a speaker. The whole unit resembled a portable radio, complete with aerial on the top.
12. Simon game
Another classic from the 1980s that is still sold today is the Simon game. Named after the Simon Says game, the toy’s premise is simple – the coloured panels light up and you have to repeat the pattern and tones it creates. Yet despite this simple gameplay, it was a great feat of engineering at the time of release in 1978 and became a pop culture icon during the 1980s.