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Classic handsets: the Motorola StarTAC

Motorola StarTAC Featured Image

In the latest of our series looking back at some of the classic mobile phones throughout the last few decades, we examine the phenomenon that was the Motorola StarTAC.

Motorola StarTAC was the sexiest phone of its time

In the mid 1990’s, before mobile phones had really become mainstream, the most popular devices back then were large, cumbersome and decidedly ugly devices that were more functional than attractive.

Some people may still believe that today’s smartphones aren’t much improvement in terms of looks (flat slab, anyone!?) but where today’s devices offer more features then we would have ever thought possible, the mobiles in those days couldn’t do much more than make and receive calls. Even the fact that you could make a call on the go was considered a novelty in itself.

However, everything changed in 1996 when Motorola launched the StarTAC, the first clamshell phone, which would soon become the must have gadget of the decade.

On its release, the StarTAC 85 was the smallest and lightest handset we’d ever seen, and signalled the start of an era of smaller and slimmer handset design, even turning the phone into a fashion accessory.

Not only did it look fantastic, the StarTAC introduced various features that are still in use today. Notably, it was one of the first mobiles to use a vibration alert and be able to send SMS test messages. The clamshell design itself was also novel, and would later be available with a lithium-ion battery when most phones at the time used the much lower capacity NiMH kind.

Motorola StarTAC Flip Closed

The most expensive phone in the UK

When the StarTAC launched in the UK, it cost an unbelievable £1,400, making it by far the most expensive phone of its time. Aimed at the premium end of the market, the StarTAC was often features in adverts alongside other luxury items.

However, as sales of mobile phones grew and more consumers demanded affordable devices, Motorola released a cheaper version called the StarTAC 70, available for a much more reasonable £200.

And by the end of 1997, Motorola saw an opportunity and released an even more affordable version, the StarTAC MR501, available in the UK on Orange for just £129.99. By then, the phone had already gained its iconic status having featured in a number of Hollywood movies, but the lower price meant it was also the first choice for many first-time mobile buyers.

In the end, the Motorola StarTAC would go on to sell around 60 million units around the world. Besides the groundbreaking design, it really was one of the first phones that became accessible to the average person rather than just being a gadget used by the elite.

The StarTAC was later included in TIME’s list of the 100 greatest and most influential gadgets of all time, and it’s not hard to see why.

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

If you want to view the original Motorola StarTAC advert, watch on YouTube here.

Motorola StarTAC Promo Video

Did you own a StarTAC? Let us know your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below.

By Roland Banks

Roland Banks has been passionate about mobile technology for the past 20 years. He started his career at British Telecom's research division working on collaborative virtual reality environments, before becoming a video streaming specialist at 3 UK where he helped launch some of the world's first mobile video services. More recently he enjoys writing about his obsession, and developing software that helps mobile operators analyse their subscriber data.

Roland has lived in Asia for the past 5 years, and tries to indulge his other passion for riding motorcycles whenever possible.

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