Design Eye Candy
Like beauty, sleekness is in the eye of the beholder. It's impossible to define easily, but you know it when you see it. It's that feeling in your gut that says "I don't know what that thing is or what it's supposed to do, but I want one--now."
The number of devices attempting sleekness is almost infinite, so to pick our 15 we had to lay out a few ground rules.
First, the gadget must be (or must have been) a real product that consumers could buy, not a concept or prototype. It must fit on a desk, even if it doesn't really belong on one (that is, no cars or rocket ships). To keep certain vendors from dominating the list (this means you, Apple), we allowed only one product per company. We awarded extra points for historical significance and/or goofiness.
So, without further preamble, here's our list. Feast your eyes on these 15 beauties.
Motorola StarTAC Cell Phone (1996)
The world's first flip phone is also the first gadget based on technology originally imagined in "Star Trek": the handheld communicator.
Back then, mobile phones didn't have to have cameras, play music, or find you on a map; they just had to let you make and receive calls. The StarTAC, number 6 on PC World's list of "The 50 Greatest Gadgets of the Past 50 Years," filled that role to perfection, with the smallest design ever seen up to that point.
Apple MacBook Air Laptop (2008)
You can have your iPods, iPhones, Nanos, iMacs, Cinema Displays, and Cubes--heck, we'll even throw in the NeXT desktop. None of them touch the MacBook Air laptop for pure sleekitude.
When Steve Jobs pulled this paper-thin, titanium beauty out of a plain manila envelope in January 2008, the gasp could be heard from Cupertino to Kalamazoo. The rest of the laptop world has been trying to catch its breath--and catch up--ever since.
Alienware ALX Liquid-Cooled Gaming PCs (2005-Present)
Any desktop PC you're almost afraid to touch has to be cool. And Alienware's powerful and good-looking gaming desktops are literally that.
From the company's original S261 monster to the 2008 Area-51 X58 (pictured here), these high-performance systems require liquid coolant to keep from overheating (and possibly causing a nuclear meltdown).
Raymond Loewy Pencil Sharpener (1933)
A pencil sharpener? Really? Yes, really. But not just any pencil sharpener; this one was created by the father of modern industrial design, Raymond Loewy, who also designed cars, refrigerators, locomotives, postage stamps, and the interior of the Saturn 5 rocket.
The prototype sharpener was sold at auction for more than $100,000. That could buy a hell of a lot of pencils.
Hillcrest Labs' Loop Pointer Remote (2009)
Though it may look like a spacecraft out of "2001: A Space Odyssey," Hillcrest Labs calls the Loop an "in-air mouse" for your TV. An internal gyro tracks your hand movements, letting you point and click your way around the dial.
A demo darling for years, the $99 Loop was finally made available to consumers last month. One thing's for sure: You won't confuse it with the seven other remotes cluttering your coffee table.
Bang & Olufsen BeoCenter 2 CD/DVD Player (2009)
Is it an extraterrestrial ship carrying our alien overlords?
Nope, it's a CD/DVD player from Bang & Olufsen, one of a series of audio components in the company's BeoLiving collection that could make an ordinary living room look like something out of "The Jetsons."
But really, just about any product from the design-crazy Danes could make this list.
Newton Peripherals' MoGo Mouse BT for PCs (2006)
Plug the tiny MoGo Bluetooth adapter into your laptop's USB port, flip down the kickstand to angle the mouse, and then navigate using the MoGo's concave "buttons" and scroll pad. When you're done, slide it into your machine's PC Card slot to recharge. Similarly sleek vermin are available for laptops with ExpressCard/X54 slots.
Photo: Courtesy of Newton Peripherals
Sony Aibo Robot Dog (1999-2006)
Sony's robodog has moved on to virtual-pet heaven, but it's still one of the sleekest nonhuman companions ever constructed. From its built-in camera to its ability to recognize 100 voice commands and its groundbreaking artificial-intelligence core, the Aibo was one sleek hound.
It reached number 44 on PC World's list of the top 50 gadgets of all time. Sony finally euthanized its cyberpup in 2006.
3Com Ergo Audrey Internet Appliance (1999-2000)
One of the first Internet appliances ever built, 3Com's Audrey was years ahead of her time.
The toaster-size dingus offered a touchscreen and a wireless keyboard for e-mail and basic Web surfing; her translucent stylus glowed a pale green when new messages were waiting.
Less than a year after her debut, though, Audrey fell victim to the dot-com crash and was unceremoniously dumped by 3Com.
LaCie 5big Network Storage System (2008)
Like Apple and Bang & Olufsen, LaCie is one of those companies that consistently turn out products that are as cool to look at as they are to use.
Case in point: The Cyclopean box above, the LaCie 5big Network, created by award-winning designer Neil Poulton, is actually a five-bay RAID storage system capable of holding from 2.5 to 10 terabytes of data.
Storage has never looked quite so interesting.
Samsung BD-P4600 Blu-ray Player (2009)
At just 1.5 inches thick, Samsung's BD-P4600 is the slimmest Blu-ray player on the market. The 18-by-8-inch device mounts on the wall below your flat-screen TV or on a table, pumping full-motion 1080p video and Dolby Digital audio to your display.
The sleekest part may be the price: This ruby and black beauty retails for less than $500.
Blue Dragonfly Microphone (2009)
Even if you can't carry a tune, the Blue Dragonfly microphone will make you feel like a crooner. With its elastic shock-mounted cradle and rotating head, it's easily adjustable--so you don't have to move the mic stand and risk an earful of feedback.
Microphones this pretty (and sophisticated) are really designed for professional recording studios; amateurs can look, but they probably shouldn't touch.
Photo: Courtesy of Blue
LG AN110 Digital Projector (2005)
This slender wall- or table-mounted digital projector won a gold award for design excellence in 2006 from the Industrial Designers Society of America, and it's easy to see why.
Weighing just 4 pounds, the LG AN110 digital projector produces widescreen 1080i images up to 100 inches wide. But even if you never turned it on, the AN110 would raise the hipness quotient of any room it occupied.
Photo: Courtesy of LG Electronics
V-Moda Vibe Duo Earbuds (2009)
Put a bug in your ear with this iPhone-compatible headset sporting an industrial design. The solid metal-alloy buds come in three accent colors (chrome, "gunmetal rouge," and "nero") and three soft silicon coverings to allow a fit for every ear.
You'll never go back to all-white earbuds.
Rejuvenique Facial-Toning Mask (1999?)
Has Michael Myers risen from the dead yet again to wreak havoc on Haddonfield? No, it's much scarier than that.
It's the Rejuvenique, a facial-toning mask immortalized in infomercials by former "Dynasty" babe Linda Evans. The claim was that the mask's 26 gold-plated "facial cushions" would revitalize your skin via "light energy pulsation."
Also useful for terrifying small towns. Bloody kitchen knife not included.
Photo: Courtesy of Pablo Soloman
For more gear and gadgets, see:
When not attempting to define sleekness, contributing editor Dan Tynan slaves over his new geek-humor site, eSarcasm, coming soon to a Web browser near you.