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What Is a Pocket Computer?

By Alan Rankin
Updated May 16, 2024
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A pocket computer is a compact electronic device that is programmable in one or more standard computing languages. Pocket computers employed many of the available technologies of their era, including miniaturized processors, cell phone and telecommunications functions, and external data storage. Although widely available throughout the last two decades of the 20th century, pocket computers were mainly used by scientists and technology aficionados. Nevertheless, pocket computers pioneered many advances in portable computing. These advances gained widespread use with the introduction of portable digital assistants (PDAs) and smartphones in the following years.

The earliest computers were enormous devices; in the mid-20th century, processors filled entire rooms and could perform only simple tasks. Advances in technology, including the miniaturization of circuits and processors, allowed for the creation of the first desk-sized home computers in the 1970s. In the following decade, ambitious technology companies introduced pocket computers, hand-held devices that had previously been seen only in science fiction. Their high cost and limited usefulness for everyday functions meant that they never enjoyed the widespread success of personal computers or cell phones. By the 21st century, the pocket computer was merely an interesting relic of the early computer age.

Most pocket computers operated on standard computer programming languages such as DOS or BASIC. Some included telecommunications functions and could send and receive faxes or double as cell phones. Their memories were small by later standards; many required an external data storage device, such as a cassette tape drive. Despite the name, pocket computers were often bulky, although they could be closed and folded when not in use for storage or transport. Some models included touchscreens, an advance that would be widely employed in later devices.

As the 21st century dawned, the pocket computer was supplanted by more advanced technological devices, such as the PDA. This device incorporated many functions of the pocket computer, along with those of the home computer and laptop, both of which were becoming smaller and more advanced with each generation. The last pocket computer was marketed to the public in 1998. Less than a decade later, the first smartphone was introduced; this device was smaller than a pocket computer, but could accomplish many tasks that previously required desktop computers. This combination of size and functionality made the smartphone a widespread and influential success around the world.

Some pocket computer owners still used their devices long after they had ceased to be manufactured and marketed. Even these users eventually moved on to more efficient devices, such as PDAs and smartphones. In a sense, these are also pocket computers, although the term usually refers only to the older devices. Pocket computers can still be glimpsed in movies and television shows of the era. For example, the scientist played by Harold Ramis in 1984’s Ghostbusters uses a pocket computer in some scenes.

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