The most iconic mobile phones in history
You might not fully realise it, but it’s been more than 45 years since Martin Cooper, a Motorola researcher and executive, made the first call on a handheld mobile phone to his rival, Joel S. Engel of Bell Labs, from a street corner in New York.
“As I walked down the street while talking on the phone, sophisticated New Yorkers gaped at the sight of someone actually moving around while making a phone call,” Cooper is reported to have said. “Remember that in 1973, there weren’t cordless telephones or cellular phones.
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‘I made numerous calls, including one where I crossed the street while talking to a New York radio reporter – probably one of the more dangerous things I have ever done in my life.”
He used the Motorola DynaTAC for that fateful call, a “mobile” phone that weighed more than a kilogram. Today’s phones weigh a tenth of that, and are far more powerful.
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It has been a long and arduous journey to get from the back-breaking, heavy shoulder-strapped behemoths to the paper-thin smartphones of today. Pocket-lint takes a look at some of the more iconic handsets that have marked the path along the way.
Where it all began and made famous in many movies both released and set in the 1980s, such as Wall Street (Gordon Gekko uses it on the beach to talk to Buddy) and American Psycho.
There were several Motorola handsets released over a 10-year period – from a prototype model in 1973 that didn’t have a display, to the pinnacle of the series in 1983 that came with an LED screen so you could at least see the number you were calling.
The battery allowed for a call of up to 60 minutes, after which it was necessary to charge the phone for up to 10 hours in a trickle charger or 1 hour in a fast charger, which was a separate accessory.
The size of a small bag, the 4500x was more suited to the car (starting the “carphone” nomenclature). However, you were also able to take it on the go with you, to use in your meeting.
Gordon Gekko had the DynaTAC, while everyone else who actually needed to do some work had the transportable range from Moto. Yes, you needed strong muscles, but you could also make phone calls virtually anywhere.
Made by Philips – it made phones at one point – the C12 stood out as one of the classic candybar handsets of the late-1990s and was available originally on the BT Cellnet network in the UK.
Its party trick was that it could save ten text messages and had an aerial you could screw on and off. There was also a rumour that the C12 was able to top-up credit itself for free. Urban legend goes that, if you held the 5 button down long enough, an extra £10 would be added to your balance.
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In 2006, O2 told its C12 customers that they could no longer use the phone on its network, causing many to be thrown away. Sad times.
Released in 2000, the crowning glory of Nokia’s incredible user-focused design, the 3310 was the mobile phone that anyone could use. There was a period in the early noughties when it was as ubiquitous as the iPhone is today. To this date Nokia has sold more than 126 million of them, making it one of the most popular mobile phones of all time.
The handset was virtually indestructible, packed a great battery life and decent call quality. It also shipped with Snake 2, which was awesome. But, perhaps its biggest draw was that you could swap the cover of the phone for a custom face and back plate. The accessory market has never been the same since.
The Ericsson T28
Another classic, the T28 did away with the chunky design of its contemporaries and opted for something much thinner. It had a minuscule single-line screen which made reading text fairly problematic.
Its success lay in that it was the smallest and lightest phone available at the time. Weighing in at 81grams, the T28 sparked the trend for pocketability in phones which we see today. Some of the old guard here at Pocket-lint had one.
Launched in 2001, the T68 was Ericsson’s first phone to have a colour screen, sporting a whopping resolution of 101 x 80 and 256 colours.
A year later, under the ownership of Sony (Ericsson became Sony Ericsson), the T68i became one of the first phones to have a camera. We say “a camera”, but what we really mean is an optional accessory that you could connect to the phone so you could snap pictures on the go. Mega.
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Imagine sitting in an airport working because you are able to read your emails on the go. Sounds standard now, but in 2003 you were a demi-god if you had that power at your fingertips.
Up steps the Qwerty keyboard-touting BlackBerry 6230, which promised secure email on the go from a device that you could type on without having to get all T9.
Sony Ericsson V800
Sony’s V800 flip phone was one of the first handsets to hit the UK with 3G in tow and was the Vodafone flagship to promote its new service. The tri-band handset landed in 2004, with a rotatable 1.3-megapixel camera attached so you could make video calls.
Packing 7MB of internal storage, the phone also had the ability to read Memory Stick Duo cards, which meant it was expandable all the way up to 16GB – a lot of storage for the time, especially when you consider there were no apps to download.
Motorola Razr V3
Until the Razr, virtually every phone had been big – having been about getting the job done and not much more. But the Razr V3 was a sleek, slim, clamshell phone that changed all that. From here on, if you wanted to sell a phone it had to look good.
Sadly, the same couldn’t be said for the clumsy interface. However, its Tron-inspired looks meant this is one of the all time greats. Oh, and the hot pink version sold like hot cakes.
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Another handset to capitalise on the emerging clamour for pink gadgets was the LG Chocolate (or KG800, to give it its true UK designation). While it wasn’t the first in the range, with the original colour scheme coming in a box that smelt like, well, chocolate, the pink version pretty much changed the landscape for gadgets, not just mobile phones.
After its success, you couldn’t move for pink gadgets in the mid to late-noughties. Whether women really wanted their games consoles, PDAs, watches or calculators in pink was another matter, they were being hoiked on every corner. LG didn’t mind, it sold bucketloads of each of the variations of the phone – something it hasn’t really repeated to this day (apart from the Nexus 4, but that could be attributed more to Google).
Motorola Rokr E1
Motorola was on a roll after the Razr (how times have changed), and teamed up with Apple to create the first iPhone, of sorts – then dubbed the Rokr E1. The idea was that you could sync your phone with iTunes and take a massive 100 tracks on the road with you.
As you can imagine, it failed, and failed badly, with a clunky interface and a lack of excitement over a device that could hold only 100 songs compared to the iPod’s (now classic) mammoth storage options. It would take Apple a further two years to come up with the iPhone we know today.
iPhone, what iPhone? Nokia’s N95 was way ahead of its time. Launching at the peak of Nokia’s fame, it was one of the first proper flagship smartphones that became a must-have product. The phone was released in 2007 with a 5-megapixel camera, GPS, web browser and a stack of other neat tricks.
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It also included Symbian OS 9.2, which offered plenty of proper smartphone functionality, like web browsing and basic apps. The inclusion of expandable microSD storage marked the start of a trend in smartphones we still see today.
There is no denying that the iPhone is an iconic mobile phone. It shifted the entire focus from making calls to doing something much more. But, for all its exciting feature set, it was a very different phone from what we have now. No cut and paste, no third-party apps, and it was painfully slow.
The original iPhone combined Apple’s iPod, already a huge seller, with a mobile phone, resulting in one joyous union that continues to this day. It ensured Apple rose to the top of the tech market. Let’s not forget the world of apps either, which has changed almost every consumer electronics device, not just the humble phone.
Iconic simply because of its absolutely outlandish design, the Motorola Aura put even Nokia’s craziest offerings to shame. At nearly £1,400 when it first went on sale in the US, the Aura was the most elite of mobile phones.
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It was produced from stainless steel and boasted a complex front plate with moving cogs which took manufacturers two weeks to produce. The phone also rotated, with the circular screen in the centre protected by a Swiss-made lens.
It might not be literally true, but it certainly feels as though the iPhone 4 ushered in a new era of smartphone design. Using the foundation of the first three generations of iPhone, it radically redesigned the phone’s look and feel, bringing in sharper edges, more glass, and a grown-up premium vibe.
It was a huge and instant success, and laid the pathway for Apple’s designs going forward, becoming a style icon and a must-have accessory whether for fashion or the boardroom.
Samsung Galaxy Note
There was a time, meaning at its launch, when the Samsung Galaxy Note looked almost insanely massive – surely people would never want such a huge device on them at all times?
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Turns out Samsung was reading the room better than many people realised, with phablets, as they became known, spreading far and wide – the Galaxy Note was hugely influential in opening that market up.
Samsung Galaxy S3
The Galaxy S2 was a huge smartphone for Samsung, showing that it could make great phones to challenge Apple’s dominance, using Android – but the S3 feels more important to us, looking at its design in particular. It brought in a new, curved look to the phone’s body which Samsung has been iterating on ever since.
That makes it a really interesting landmark for Samsung, and it also sold like absolute gangbusters, eventually overtaking the iPhone 4’s tally, even.
Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge
Of course, not all iconic designs stand the test of time. Samsung’s Galaxy S phones have been real lookers year after year, and the S6 Edge is no exception, but its addition of that waterfall curved edge, which promised so much useability and functionality, didn’t exactly catch the world on fire.
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While some users liked it, the fact is that Samsung slowly backed away from the idea and now has returned to flat displays. Still, it’s a phone that represents the spirit of innovation, if not the guarantee of actual success.
There’s no denying that the iPhone X was divisive when it first debuted, bringing notched screens into the real mainstream, but it’s also fair to say that that design went on to become a roaring success. We’ve picked its cheaper sibling, though, the iPhone XR, because of how many people opted for its slightly cheaper but equally premium chops.
With a range of poppy colours to pick from, the XR has become one those phones that you see absolutely everywhere, like the iPhone 11 after it, and is emblematic of the new wave of smartphones that are so popular right now.