All too often the latest gadget is a solution looking for a problem that doesn’t exist. You won’t believe (we still can’t believe) the piece of utter rubbish at number one in our list of the most useless gadgets of all time.
We’ve listed the products in only a rough order (although our #1 most useless product is an absolute belter), and we’ve given each a uselessnes score out of 5 in which 1 could be conceivably of some use, and 5 is a chocolate tea pot. And, yes, we are more than happy to say that the Apple Watch makes the list – you are of course entitled to disagree.
Enjoy the list and let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
Most useless products of all time #17: Gear 2
Face facts, Samsung fans. Samsung has a unique way of reacting when a new product category appears (or when Apple hints that it might make a new category device). It floods the market with products of various flavours, sees what works and then concentrates only on the winners. And so it is with
The Gear 2 is a sound piece of engineering, well designed and built. It offers a decent feature set. But it is close to utterly useless. For one thing it runs the Tizen OS. Nothing intrinsically wrong with that, but now that Samsung has committed to making only Android Wear smartwatches, Tizen is unlikely to gain much in the way of apps or new features.
And then there is the fact that the Gear 2 is fully compatible with only a couple of Samsung
tablets. So not only will you be shelling out £200 for the watch, you’ll need a £600 phone to go with it, and the likelihood is that when you upgrade your phone you’ll need to find a new smartwatch.
It’s not that it is bad, just expensive and extremely limited in terms of compatibility and software support. And that’s useless. (See also:
Uselessness rating: 1/5
Most useless products of all time #16: Amstrad E-mailer
Next time you marvel at Sir Alan Sugar’s business acumen as he fires another hapless apprentice, consider the fact that the company with which he made his name was responsible for some utter turkeys. The E-mailer (or ‘E-M@iler’ as Amstrad would have it), was chief Turkey.
As with many useless gadgets, the principle was good. Execution and pricing, terrible.
The E-M@iler was a wired telephone with an LCD. As the name suggested it acted as an email messaging machine, as well as a dialup web browser. The idea of accessing email through a mobile phone was wildly exciting in 2000, so the concept of being able to browse electronic mail from the telephone table made some sense – even though it tied to a fixed point global internet messaging.
The real problem was in the ‘pay as you use’ business model. It didn’t cost much to buy the E-M@iler, but it was hugely expensive to use. Internet and email access were made via a premium-line phone number that went through Amstrad’s own email servers. Checking email was not only tied to one spot in the house, but the E-M@iler made a free thing expensive. Oh, and just to top it off, you had to watch adverts on the LCD between your emails.
It wasn’t a great service, and the tech itself was horrible. We had one that caught fire in our test lab (insert your own ‘You’re fired’ joke here). It looked cheap and nasty, and very far from the cutting edge tech it was meant to be. Indeed, so bad was the E-M@iler that rumour suggested Amstrad CEO Bob Watkins fired himself rather than continue to labour to meet Sir Alan’s vision.
Too expensive to use. That’s useless in our book.
Uselessness rating: 4/5
Most useless products of all time #15: Xybernaut Poma
Where do we start. The Poma, from troubled wearables maker Xbernaut, was a wearable PC. The equivalent of a low-spec 2002 PC distributed about your person – and it looked like it.
When Xybernaut introduced the Poma wearable computer at the 2002 CES, it got an inexplicably good reaction. Running on the useless Windows CE, this utterly useless PC cost $1,500. It made you look like an idiot, did almost nothing of any use, and couldn’t be worn outside in the rain. And remember, this is a long time before wireless internet was widely available.
In fact, all it was good for was attending fancy dress parties where you weren’t sure how much effort people were going to make.
Expensive, rubbish, bad looking. Useless.
Uselessness rating: 5/5
Most useless products of all time #14: Withings Hair Coach
Designed in collaboration with cosmetics brands Kérastase and L’Oréal, the Withings Hair Coach is one of the ultimate examples of a solution to a non-existent problem.
Coming out in autumn 2017, this $200/£160 hair brush is billed as the “future of hair care,” and provides a “holistic hair assessment,” something I’m sure you’ll agree we’re all in dire need of.
It boasts a microphone, gyroscope, and accelerometer among other sensors, so that it can observe your brush technique and even listen for split-ends, vibrating to warn you that you’re brushing too hard.
It then uses Bluetooth and Wi-Fi to sync to a dedicated smartphone app, from which it can give you an assessment of your hair health, track your brushing progress in a series of graphs, and recommend specific hair care routines for you.
We’re torn here. On the one hand, we’re sure there’s a market for this, and while £160 sounds like a lot for a hairbrush, it’s not as eye-wateringly expensive as some of our other most useless gadgets (and we gave five stars to a
£300 hair dryer, so we can’t really talk). But still: smart hairbrush. Just say that to yourself a few times and try and pretend it’s something you need.
Uselessness rating: 1/5
Most useless products of all time #13: Nokia N-Gage
Another one to consign to the pile of ‘a good idea done wrong’. We now know that there is a market for portable gaming devices that are also smartphones. Nokia’s mistake was to add phone capability to a games console, rather than gamifying a smartphone. The result was useless: pretend to make a phone call on your Wii and you will get the idea.
The N-Gage cost £75 more than Nintendo’s Game Boy, had few titles available to play on it, and looked awful both as a console and as a smartphone. Awful, and useless.
Uselessness rating: 4/5
Most useless products of all time #12: DivX Enhanced DVD Players
An example of good tech ruined by bad policies. DivX means something benign these days, but back in 1998 the Digital Video Express moniker was originally appended to an effort to create ‘disposable’ time-limited DVDs that could stop DVD rental discs being pirated.
DivX players may have had a chance if they were free, or at least cheaper than standard DVD players. But no, DivX ‘enhanced’ DVD players costs a lot more than standard DVD players, and required you to attach a telephone line in order to play a rental disc. This was enough to kill DivX at a time when most households needed their phone lines to make calls.
What made it a fate worse than death was the early privacy concerns customers had about faceless corporations tracking what they watched. Why worry about that, huh?
How would you describe something that costs more to hobble a standard product? One word: useless.
Uselessness rating: 3/5
Most useless products of all time #11: Datawind PocketSurfer2
My personal favourite. And another idea poorly executed, and very badly timed.
Picture the scene: it’s mid-2007, and the internet is primarily a desktop affair. Plenty of people are still on dial-up, and even those with home broadband tend to be tied to a desktop via ethernet cables. And even getting a web connection to your home was a complicated and expensive business. Tech-savy mobile communicators tend to carry BlackBerries, and the mobile internet consists of scratching around for football scores and cinema listings via [shudders] WAP.
The PocketSurfer2 offered a solution to these problems. A phone without the ability to make phonecalls, it was a mobile cellular internet device. A smartphone-sized pocket book with a qwerty keyboard that proported to offer the full internet on the go, as well as a dedicated email device. Websites were crunched through a special caching process that meant they required very little data to be pulled down. Better yet there were no contracts entered into, DataWind said. You simply paid a one-off fee, and accepted adverts when you booted and shut down your PocketSurfer2.
In a world in which the mobile internet seemed positively futuristic, it was an impressive pitch, so what went wrong? Well for one thing the device failed to live up to expectation. I had one for a year and it was replaced – free of charge, I grant you – no fewer than three times. The third time it fell to pieces I chucked it in a drawer and forgot about it. I might have persisted, but there was another problem: in order for cellular connectivity to be free forever DataWind needed sufficient users of the devices to make the advertising model work. And, well, it didn’t have them. So in order to keep pocket surfing I needed to shell out for a subscription.
Frankly, the experience simply wasn’t worth it. Anyone who used a PocketSurfer2 rapidly came to the conclusion that whatever it was – and it *was* a decent emailer – it was nothing like the full internet. What it was might have been enough, however, were it not for the timing issue. Because the PocketSurfer2 launched just after the iPhone.
We forget now just how big a deal was the iPhone, so let me remind you. It may not have added much to the market in terms of pure technology, but the iPhone offered a great web browsing experience in a desirable, touchscreen device. If it ever could have, now a clunky device with a physical keyboard could not compete. And although it limped on for a year or two, the PocketSurfer2 was finished.
A big promise unfulfiled. An iPhone rival that was anything but. Poorly made, awful to use. Useless.
Uselessness rating: 1/5
Most useless products of all time #10: Umbrella Drone
Look, we get it. Britain is a soggy place and everyone has, at some point in their life, gotten fed up with having to carry an umbrella round with them, taking up a valuable hand that could be used for carrying bags, smoking cigarettes, or clutching your smartphone. But has anyone ever been so bothered by that problem that they’d be willing to spend more than a thousand pounds to solve it?
Announced at CES 2017, the umbrella drone received a mix of disbelief and adoration from tech pundits, though we can’t imagine why anyone was excited about it. Currently
priced at a whopping £1,299 – and that’s with £200 off, mind – this must surely be one of the most expensive umbrellas ever produced, and it’s not even gold-plated or studded with cheap diamonds (more on that later in this list).
What it does do is hover slightly above your head (you hope) and follow you around using GPS synced to your smartphone. That sounds great for about five seconds, until you start to think about all the ways it can (and will) go wrong. What about when you want to get on a bus or train? What about when some passer-by decides to grab it or swat it out of the sky? What about when it inevitably fails to track your GPS and just veers off on its own course, leaving you scrambling after it in a vain attempt to stay dry?
Fortunately, because it doesn’t have a camera the Umbrella Drone at least doesn’t fall foul of
UK drone laws, but good luck explaining that to every police officer you pass on your commute – if you ever dare bring this over-priced brolly into work. And the other good news is that it has a “long battery life” – a massive 30 minutes, so keep your walks short unless you want it to crash into your head, leaving you soaking wet, bruised, and clutching a broken piece of £1,299 tech. Brilliant.
Uselessness rating: 2/5
Most useless products of all time #9: NEC Pro Mobile 200
The history of Microsoft and mobile is a peaon to the useless. Lest we forget Microsoft touted the tablet form factor long before the iPad was created, and it has been trying to get mobile Windows of the tarmac for a decade or more.
The NEC Mobile Pro 200 was one of nearly two dozen Windows CE 1.0 devices launched in 1996. Not only did the NEC Mobile Pro 200 and its brethren not support Microsoft’s newly released Outlook, they didn’t work with any non-Microsoft PIM or email client. Win CE 1.0 handhelds were quickly rendered obsolete by Win CE 2.0 devices, which eventually turned into Pocket PCs and Windows Mobile phones.
The NEC Mobile Pro 200 is one of many useless devices, but useless it was indeed.
Uselessness rating: 3/5
Most useless products of all time #8: Microsoft Mira
Sticking with Microsoft, here’s its Mira wireless touchscreen display, which Microsoft unveiled with great fanfare at the 2002 Consumer Electronics Show. (Between the Xybernaut Poma and the Mira this must have been a great show).
The idea may still come to fruition. Microsoft wanted consumers to mount these LCDs on the walls of their homes and use them to remotely access their computers. Not for the first time execution didn’t match ambitious invention. The Mira cost $999. It also ran business Windows – an odd choice for a digital home product. And it looked awful.
Overpriced and underwhelming. Useless.
Uselessness rating: 2/5
Most useless products of all time #7: Denso Vacuum Cleaner Shoes
In a sign that there may be a god after all, this is only a concept product that will almost certainly never see the light of day. But still: vacuum cleaner shoes.
We have Japanese auto parts manufacturer Denso to thank for this one, who should probably just go back to making car components to be honest. It’s a prototype developed as part of a biannual company competition to allow employees to “foster their creative and innovative design concepts,” and if this was one of the finalists, we dread to think what the losing entries looked like.
The ‘Ecology Shoes’ boast vacuum cleaners inside each over-sized sole, meaning you can hoover the floor as you walk. Each step powers the vacuum’s motor, so at least you shouldn’t have to worry about the battery dying, but you do have the new concern of having to empty the miniscule dust box out of your shoes. We can only imagine you also have to drag your feet around in a slightly awkward shuffle to get any effective cleaning done too, so that’s your self-respect out of the window.
Speaking of, I’ve got to take a moment to talk about shoes’ very particular aesthetic. The giant platform soles we understand – the vacuum cleaner has to fit in somewhere after all – but why the half-checkerboard upper? Or the pink and black laces? Who on earth is expected to ever actually wear these things out of choice?
They’re heavy, they’re ugly, and we can’t imagine they even work very well as hoovers. Useless.
Uselessness rating: 3/5
Most useless products of all time #6: Sony Vaio Mouse Talk
What were they thinking? Of all ill-conceived tech products, the Sony Mouse Talk is certainly one of the more memorable. It was launched back in the glory days of VoIP (that’s Skype to you and me) when USB-connected “internet” phones were all the rage.
Instead of using your desktop speakers and a microphone connected to your PC’s sound card, you could pretend you were on a real, wired phone. Never mind that the call quality (as it was back in 2006) made it sound like the person on the other end was close to drowning a swimming pool.
The Mouse Talk, however, took things a step too far, by combining a VoIP handset with a mouse. One minute you could be clicking around in Windows, the next on call with a relative in Australia.
On paper, the VN-CX1/B sounded reasonably good. Sony said it would “control desk clutter while adding a touch of style and ingenuity to your workspace”.
But ingenious it was not, since the Mouse Talk could only perform one of its functions at a time. When on a call your mouse would be out of action, leaving you unable to check a website or look up a phone number to pass on the information to your caller.
Either that or you had to lean your head sideways with your ear almost touching the desk and attempt to use the mouse by feel alone.
Just as a smartphone with a built-in shaver would be a retail disaster, the Mouse Talk quietly disappeared from PC World’s shelves. It was useless.
Uselessness rating: 4/5
Most useless products of all time #5: Nintendo Virtual Boy
This ‘portable’ 3D gaming system may have been the biggest disaster to come out of Japan since Godzilla. Virtual Boy fans had to press their eyes into the machine’s goggles to get the 3D effect, while simultaneously holding the unit steady and manipulating the unit’s six-button control pad.
The Virtual Boy chewed through AA batteries like a hungry virtual goat, displayed monochrome images only, and offered a paltry 22 games (14 in the US) before getting pulled from the market a year later. And did we mention that using the Virtual Boy made some people ill? Nintendo advised users to take breaks every 15 to 30 minutes to avoid eyestrain, headaches, and nausea.
Impossible to use, and nauseating. Useless.
Uselessness rating: 3/5
Most useless products of all time #4: USB Finger Dance Mat
With the USB Finger Dance Mat, you could have a party on your desk with everyone invited – though discretion might have counseled you to think twice about demonstrating the digital skills you developed over many painstaking hours of practice to, say, your boss.
To use the device, you just plugged it into your PC, slipped your digits into the cardboard finger character (two choices: Disco dude or Flashdance chick), and tapped your fingers in time to the flashing lights on the 4x4in dance floor. It was fresh, it was funky, it was totally embarrassing if anyone ever caught you doing it.
Which, apparently, few did, since the Dance Mat was discontinued shortly after it debuted. Still, it was a fun way to take a break between cleaning out your desk and picking up your P45.
Job-losingly useless, but fun.
Uselessness rating: 2/5
Most useless products of all time #3: King of Key
King of Key arrived in the offices of our publisher IDG in 1999 – and its sheer brilliantly hilarious awfulness has stayed with us ever since. It manages to be crap in so many ways, it’s almost a field guide for newbie reviewers on what makes a product terrible: its concept is ludicrous, its construction is tacky and it’s pretending to be something it’s not.
The £80 King of Key was the laptop equivalent of a gold tooth from a West Ham dentist. It’s a replacement for the then-cutting-edge Apple Powerbook G3’s ‘Home’ key that’s gold and has a diamond in the middle of it – a diamond that will bring you luck apparently *cough* bullshit *cough*. The gold turned out to be flaky paint, and the 24-carat diamond – which was accompanied by an authenticity certificate – was valued by a nearby Hatton Wall jeweller as being worth less than a tenner.
Unfortunately the luck brought by the King of Key didn’t rub off on the company who decided this is really what British Mac owners needed to own – MyGate went bust in 2001. Century Corporation, the Japanese company who made King of Key, went on to produce an iMac stand called ‘Dance with i’ that it promoted with the immortal words: “can be handled easily – even by a lady!!”.
Totally, utterly, useless.
Uselessness rating: 6/5
Most useless products of all time #2: Apple Watch
Apple Watch is clearly not the most uselss product of all time. It has some uses. But it gains points for hype and cost. And the fact that otherwise sensible people (the editors of
Macworld UK) are convinced that it is a good thing, when it is clearly a joke that has got out of hand.
The problem is that our Samsung Gear 2 entry notwithstanding there are *some* things for which smartwatches are useful. It is good, for instance, to be able to view emails as they come in without pulling out your smartphone. And, you know, telling the time is a useful function.
It’s just that the Apple Watch is the culmination of all of those annoying things about Apple. There’s the smug way in which the few Apple Watch users demonstrate features long available in Android Wear, and before that on the excellent Pebble. The true believers’ habit of describing something that clearly looks like a piece of shit as a design classic. Seriously: look at the Moto 360 and tell me that you *love* the way the Apple Watch looks.
More recently I have been told by more than one Apple Watch user that although it is at first tricky to use, over time it becomes – I quote – “intuitive.” This failing to understand the meaning of the word intuitive.
The Apple Watch is massively over-priced, coming in at least half as much again as a comparable Android watch. It is at its cheapest twice as expensive as the ugly but very-far-from useless Microsoft Band. That’s right: Microsoft has made a more useful and reasonably priced smartwatch than has Apple.
Microsoft, you say? The company that makes phones which iPhone users criticise for lack of apps. A problem criticial in the smartphone world, but not a problem at all for the very much app-challenged Apple Watch. (Why you would need an app for your watch defeats me, but you must do because Apple tells us you do.)
Apple fans will never understand any of this. Nor will they care. Not least because Apple has strived to ensure that the Apple Watch is the only smartwatch with which you can reasonably pair an iPhone. So value becomes a moot point: Apple wilfully restricts the number of peripherals with which you can pair your iPhone, so at any point from 0 to 1,000 pounds the Apple Watch is the best deal you can get. Which may be just as well. Now that Google has managed to get an
Android Wear app on to the iTunes App Store, the Apple Watch looks like a very poor deal indeed. And that in turn may start to chip away at the ‘iPhone is best’ mantra that hasn’t been true since 2012.
It isn’t entirely useless. But when you ponder the gap between hype and reality, and look closely at exactly how much use you get for your money, Apple’s smartwatch is fully deserving of a place on our list of infamy.
Uselessness rating: 2/5
Most useless products of all time #1: NoPhone Zero
The name might give you a clue as to the piece of total rubbish at number one in our list of the most useless gadgets in history. The NoPhone Zero is most definitely no phone, and it is zero good. It is in fact a rectangular block of plastic that does absolutely sod all. It’s the same size as the iPhone 5, but with none of its features.
Unbelievably, 130 people pledged a total of $1,239 to make NoPhone’s
Kickstarter dream a reality, and the Zero entered production and sold for $5 each.
The theory behind the Zero is that it serves as a sort of comfort blanket for phone addicts – they’ll feel that familiar weight in their pocket, shape in their hand or black device on the table in front of them, but they won’t be tempted to pick it up and play with it because, well, they’d get bored pretty quickly.
NoPhone says: “The NoPhone Zero is a plastic rectangle that replaces the need for smart rectangle device interaction.”
Except it doesn’t. Because for all the unneccessary number of times people pick up their phones to check their Facebook news feed or glance at the clock, there are also times that you actually need a phone that works, and NoPhone can’t help you then.
We don’t know if we’re more upset by the sheer utter ridiculousness of this product or the fact that it’s not the first. The
original NoPhone, which is still available at $10, and with bulk buy discounts for couples and families, comes with cutouts and grooves to simulate the feel of a real smartphone with home button, camera and screen. There’s also a $15 NoPhone Selfie version, which has a mirror strapped to the front, and perhaps most astonishingly of all, a $5 NoPhone Air which is literally just an empty piece of packaging.
Uselessness rating: 10/5