Throwback Thursday: The Motorola StarTAC

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In the mid to late 1990s, just before the use of mobile phones had become mainstream, the devices of the day were large, cumbersome and ugly.

Some people may argue that this is still the case now but where today’s smartphones offer us more functions and features than most of us would have ever have thought possible ten or twenty years ago, the mobile phones of the early to mid 90s not only looked ugly, they could barely do much more than make and receive calls.

The early mobile phones were all about functionality rather than looks. The fact that you could could make calls on the move was a novelty in itself, the way it looked didn’t really matter.

However, all that changed in 1996 following the launch of the Motorola StarTAC, the first clamshell phone, which would go onto become the must have gadget of the decade.

Upon its release the Motorola StarTAC 85 was the smallest and lightest mobile phone the world had ever seen and heralded the start of smaller handset design and the idea a mobile phone could also be a fashion accessory or ‘must have’ item, as well as a way of communicating on the go.

Not only did it look good, the Motorola StarTAC also introduced a number of features which became a mainstay of future mobile phones, some of which are still used in the smartphones of today.

Motorola StarTAC

Most notably, the StarTAC was one of the first mobile phones to use vibration alert and be capable of sending SMS text messages. It also introduced the clamshell design and would later be available with a lithium-ion battery when many of the phones of the day used only NiMH batteries which had much lower capacity.

When it first launched in the UK, the Motorola StarTAC cost a whopping £1,400 making it the most expensive mobile phone of the day. Aimed at the very top end of the mobile phone market, the StarTAC was regularly featured in advertisements alongside other premium goods and luxury items.

However, as mobile phone sales were starting to rise and reacting to demand from ever increasing numbers of buyers, Motorola released a cheaper version of the phone called the StarTAC 70, which had a sales price of £200.

By the end of 1997, Motorola had released an even more affordable version of the phone, the StarTAC MR501, which was available in the UK on Orange for £129.99. By this time the phone already had somewhat of an iconic status having featured prominently in a number of Hollywood movies but its more affordable sales price meant that it was the first choice for many first time mobile phone buyers.

The Motorola StarTAC would go on to sell an estimated 60 million phones around the world and in addition to Motorola’s groundbreaking design was one of the first phone that became genuinely accessible to the average person, rather than just being gadget for the elite. It was also included in TIME’s list of 100 greatest and most influential gadgets of all time.

Motorola StarTAC 70 specifications

Network: GSM
Launch: 1996
Dimensions: 98 x 57 x 23 mm (3.86 x 2.24 x 0.91 in)
Weight: 112 g (3.95 oz)
Display: LCD, Alphanumeric
Battery: NiMH 500 mAh, 40 hours standby time, 120 min talk time

Related: Motorola StarTAC commercial from 1996

Do you remember or did you own a Motorola StarTAC?

If so, what are your memories of the device?

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3 Comments

  1. Phil Miller on

    I still have one of these, however it was not the first clam shell phone. Motorola had another larger one that was quite successful (#1 in market share). Before this one, Circa 1994-1995 through 2000ish.