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.
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 smartwatches.
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 phones and 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: best smartwatches.)
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. (See also: Amstrad – A British PC legend?)
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 Krastase and L’Oral, 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. (See also: Rethink for Nokia’s N-Gage platform.)
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.