Home / Internet News / This early flip phone cost an astonishing $1,000 and proves just how far we've come – CNET

This early flip phone cost an astonishing $1,000 and proves just how far we've come – CNET

001-motorola-startac-first-flip-phone

This special-edition Motorola StarTAC “Rainbow” version is about as vintage as you can get.

Sarah Tew/CNET

This story is part of CNET at 25, celebrating a quarter century of industry tech and our role in telling you its story.

Unabashedly plastic, flaunting its roughly 1.75-inch screen like some kind of cellular royalty, the Motorola StarTAC from 1996 was easily as iconic in its heyday as the iPhone is now. Looking back from 2020, it’s hard to believe that it was.

Consider the rare StarTAC 70 “Rainbow” edition that I snagged on eBay, sitting in front of me like a child’s plastic plaything, a rainbow of terraced ridges that starts with a bump the color of earwax before cascading down to blue, green, that camel yellow again and finally to brick red on the back and sides. It has a SIM card the size of your Visa, a pull-out antenna wobbling on a slender stalk and a hinge that lets you fold it in half to slide the handset into your pocket. 

Palming it, I release a huff of affection for this adorable, ridiculous  — irresistible — device.

Motorola StarTAC first flip phone

You had to pull out the StarTAC’s antenna to make a call.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Rainbow StarTAC version is from 1998, but Motorola — already legendary for placing the first-ever cell phone call in 1973 — had applied for the StarTAC trademark three years before. In fact, that was 25 years ago, in 1995. A quarter of a century.

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The original Motorola StarTAC was the sleek, bleeding edge of cell phone communication when it debuted in 1996 for $1,000.

Motorola Archives

It wasn’t until Jan. 6, 1996 that the black plastic phone officially debuted, but when it did, the result was momentous.

The original StarTAC was so small by the standards of the day — most phones were 5 to 7 inches tall — that Motorola called it a “wearable cellular telephone.” Just add a hip holster. (Scroll to the end for the full specs compared to the $1,000 iPhone 11 Pro and Galaxy S20 Plus.)

StarTAC almost immediately achieved the pinnacle of celebrity, pressed up to the faces of movie stars on the silver screen before snapping shut into an ultraportable device. It represented a mobile future now easily taken for granted. 

And it cost a small fortune. $1,000 in 1996 dollars, the equivalent of $1,682 in today’s money

That’s at a time when your typical portable handset from Nokia or AT&T cost $100 or less with a two-year contract.

Back then, few would have predicted that this toy of a cell phone resting on my knee would almost single-handedly change the world. 

But in 1996, the StarTAC was like nothing anyone had seen before.

Cell phones in 1995: From shoulder bags to the ‘cusp of change’

Cellular devices in 1995 were mostly symbols of the rich and powerful, the movers and shakers. The US had 33.8 million wireless subscribers by the end of 1995, about 12.4% of the population, according to the CTIA, the dominant US wireless trade association. 

That figure included cell phones, and also pagers, a clip-on pocket device with cellular connectivity and a ticker-type screen just spacious enough for a string of numbers. Compare this figure to the wireless subscriber count at the end of 2019, where 96% of American adults owned cell phones and 81% used smartphones, according to the Pew Research Center.

at-t-3045-bag-cell-phone-1994

Twenty-five years ago, this “transportable phone” — yes it was a cell phone — would have plugged into your car through the power socket.

Courtesy AT&T Archives and History Center

“We were on the cusp of change,” said Sheldon Hochheiser, AT&T’s corporate historian, as his Jersey-inflected voice echoed faintly through my speakerphone. “In 1995, the predominant, most likely way we would have been having this conversation was over landline phones.”

A 21-year veteran of AT&T, Hochheiser has a Ph.D. in History of Science and Technology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The 69-year-old is a wealth of knowledge about wireless networks’ earliest days, hailing all the way back to 1876, Alexander Graham Bell’s original patent on the telephone.

at-t-3730-cell-phone-1994

Yes, this AT&T 3730 from 1994 was a cellular telephone you might have owned before the StarTAC became more affordable.

Courtesy AT&T Archives and History Center

Three kinds of “true” cell phones existed in 1995, Hochheiser remembers:

  • Portable phone: Looked like a brick and weighed not much less than a pound. The Nokia 909 from Nov. 1995 is one example of many.
  • Bag phone: Came in a carrying case, like a shoulder bag, with a battery pack. Weighed about three pounds. You know, the kind of thing you’d carry on your horse if you needed a full-power, long range cell phone in rural America (see photo below).
  • Transportable phone: Temporarily plugged into your car through the power socket (like this, and also above). Used by traveling salespeople who spent most of their time on the road.

There was also the Zonephone, “a novel personal communications system” for the UK, which was featured in the June 1996 issue of Popular Communications. Operating through an 800MHz local transceiver network as a cheaper alternative to cellular, the Zonephone had 40 hours of standby time and took four hours to recharge. It could be remotely disabled if lost or stolen.

But change was in the air for phone designs, and as cellular telephones slimmed down, more people began to covet them. After the StarTAC’s debut, cell phone use shot up. By the end of 1996, 44 million wireless US subscribers used phones and pagers, equal to 16% of the total population.

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The “bag phone,” an earlier style of portable cell phone, came in a zippered pouch for “easy” conveyance. This Cellular One customer is using his horseside in 1995.

Courtesy AT&T Archives and History Center

A $1,000 cell phone in 1996 didn’t mean what you think it means

Have you ever considered a flip phone to be a sleek, wearable device? In 1996, Motorola did.

Brett Pearce/CNET

“The StarTAC phone creates for the first time an exciting new wearable category we believe consumers will embrace,” said Robert N. Weisshappel, Motorola’s executive vice president and general manager of the Cellular Subscriber Group, in the 1996 StarTAC’s press release (emphasis ours). “It can be worn fashionably as an accessory,” the release went on to say. 

(Motorola provided photos and details for this story, but was unable to grant an interview.)

So what do you get in a $1,000 phone in 1995? According to a glowing synopsis (PDF) in the June 1996 issue of Popular Communications, plenty. 

The StarTAC was a “bad boy” that “gadget freaks” would love for its wearable holster, two removable batteries, four hours of talk time, vibration mode to announce incoming calls and “an incredible 47 hours of standby service.” Its killer feature? A “smart” button to help use the phone one-handed.

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Early Motorola advertising for StarTAC’s “flappable”http://www.techtotry.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/this-early-flip-phone-cost-an-astonishing-1000-and-proves-just-how-far-weve-come-cnet.com”wings.” For the world’s first flip phone, its benefits were an open and closed case.

Motorola Archives

Its black-and-white screen measured under 2 inches, and when closed the StarTAC stood about 4 inches tall including the retracted antenna, which then extended another 3.3 inches out of the base when you wanted to place or receive a call. Weighing in at 3.1 ounces, this was the lightest and most compact phone the world had ever seen.

“What you got was a device you could use to make audio phone calls,” Hochheister said. “It did not have any data capabilities. It could not send text messages. If you wanted to send text messages, you owned… a pager.” 

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StarTAC, the bold flip phone inspired by Star Trek

Lore has it that the Star Trek TV show inspired the portable cell phone. After Motorola engineer Martin Cooper — the one who made that infamous first cell phone call, watched an episode — he had to make it happen. (The StarTrek TV rights are owned by CNET’s parent company, ViacomCBS.)

“He said that watching Captain Kirk using his communicator on the television show Star Trek inspired him with a stunning idea — to develop a handheld mobile phone,” wrote Paul Sloane about Cooper’s inspiration in Think like an Innovator (2016).

The Tricorder communication device seen throughout the entire Star Trek franchise most closely resembles a cell phone plus PDA, or personal digital assistant, a somewhat bulky do-it-all device that mashed up a handheld computer with an always-on network — flip panel and all (at least on later versions).

And why not? The Star Trek series has long been heralded as the predictor of watershed technologies, including universal translation. In the case of the modern flip phone, the story is entirely possible. The Star Trek original series debuted in 1966, 30 years before the StarTAC.

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“When the Motorola StarTac is opened, it turns into a really great looking communicator straight from the deck of the Starship Enterprise.” (Popular Communications, June 1996)

Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

As the world’s first flip phone, the StarTAC inspired generations of phones, including today’s Motorola Razr and Galaxy Z Flip foldables. It’s Motorola we have to thank for the first cell phone, for the satisfying snap of flipping a clamshell phone closed, and for popularizing vibration mode. 

The StarTAC is undoubtedly a device with an unforgettable legacy, but it wouldn’t have existed without the phones that came before — the Motorola MicroTAC and the legendary DynaTAC before that, the prototype of which made the world’s first cellular telephone call.

“I think [that’s] when it penetrated people’s minds,” Hochheister said of cell phone use catching on. 

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“Hey, it’s not just neat, but it’s useful,” Hochheiser added. “My mother got one a few years before I did because she thought, ‘Wow, if she ever breaks down somewhere, this could be a wonderful thing to ensure her safety.”http://www.techtotry.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/this-early-flip-phone-cost-an-astonishing-1000-and-proves-just-how-far-weve-come-cnet.com”

Star Trek inspiration or not, the $1,000 Motorola StarTAC that flipped its way into history boldly went where no phone had gone before. I may have been too young in 1995 and 1996 to appreciate the sheer force of its innovation, but looking at the garish, er, vintage Rainbow flip phone in front of me now, I can absolutely confirm: it’s bold.

No matter where the idea came from, one thing is certain. The StarTAC’s portable size, features and ease of use (snap!) sparked people’s imagination to the possibilities of what a cell phone could do — not just for the rich and famous, but for ordinary folks like you and me.

Read more: “Motorola’s StarTac ST7867W is small, light, and loaded with features. Operating this phone is quite simple, even if you don’t read the manual.”

A $1,000 phone in 1996 versus 2020

Motorola StarTAC (1996) iPhone 11 Pro (2019) Samsung Galaxy S20 (2020)
Display size, resolution 1.75 inches 5.8-inch OLED Super Retina XDR; 2,436×1,125 pixels 6.2-inch Dynamic AMOLED 2X; (3,200×1,440)
Color screen No 458ppi Millions of colors
Dimensions (inches) Closed: Roughly 4 inches tall from base to antenna mount; 2.2 inches across the back, 0.7-inch wide at its thickest part. Open: Approximately 6.25 inches tall 5.67 x 2.81 x 0.32 in. 2.72 x 5.97 x 0.311 in.
Weight (Ounces, grams) 3.1 oz.; 88g 6.63 oz.; 188g 5.75 oz.; 163g
Mobile software None iOS 13 Android 10
Camera None 12-megapixel (wide), 12-megapixel (ultra-wide), 12-megapixel (telephoto) 12-megapixel (wide-angle), 64-megapixel (telephoto), 12-megapixel (ultra-wide)
Front-facing camera None 12-megapixel with Face ID 10-megapixel
Video capture None 4K 8K
Processor N/A Apple A13 Bionic 64-bit octa-core processor (Max 2.7GHz + 2.5 GHz + 2.0 GHz)
Storage 100 phone numbers 64GB, 256GB, 512GB 128GB
RAM N/A Not disclosed 12GB
Expandable storage None None Up to 1TB
Battery Two lithium-ion batteries Not disclosed, but Apple claims it will last 4 hours longer than iPhone XS 4,000 mAh
Fingerprint sensor No None (Face ID) In-screen
Connector Motorola charger port Lightning USB-C
Headphone jack Yes No No
Special features Flips closed, vibration alert for incoming calls, green light to indicate cellular connection Water resistant (IP68); dual-SIM capabilities (nano-SIM and e-SIM); wireless charging 5G enabled; 120Hz refresh rate; water resistant (IP68)
Price $1,000 $999 (64GB) $999

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