RETRO TECH: Philips Velo 1

One of the hottest gadgets of Christmas 1997 was the Philips Velo 1. It was a Handheld PC (sometimes called a “palm top”) and it was absolutely tiny:


When closed, this bad boy was smaller than most paperback books. It ran a Philips MP3910 chip at a blistering 36.864 MHz (yes, that was sarcasm). It had 4 whole megabytes of RAM and 8 whole megabytes of storage space. It rocked a 480×240 monochrome monitor, had a built-in 14.4kbit/s modem and connected to your computer using RS-232.

It was, compared to even the cheapest Chinese knockoff electronic organizers of today, absolutely awful. But it was also bad ass! I could whip this puppy out at a bar or restaurant and people would crane their necks to get a peek at it. And connecting to the Internet via dial-up on this thing made a lot of people (even me) absolutely giddy! Seriously – it almost seemed like something out of a James Bond movie!

I once worked at place where I had a very specific job; it was made very clear to me by the management that if I had nothing to do, I was supposed to sit at my desk and do nothing. As a contractor, I was not allowed to have an email address. The company’s firewall prevented access to (literally) 98% of the Internet, and I was “strongly discouraged” from bringing in books or magazines to pass the time. So I’d sneak in my Velo 1 and connect to the ‘Net via dial-up. I’d check email and surf a few sites… but the main thing I’d do was talk to this 19 year-old Israeli girl I’d met on ICQ (and no, it wasn’t “that kind” of chatting; she just seemed to be online ALL THE TIME).

While I loved my Velo 1, the main problem with the thing is that it ran Windows CE 1.0. Just typing that made me wince! (Get it? Windows CE? WinCE? Wince?) That OS was a complete disaster. As you can tell by the above picture, the operating system looked just like Windows 95 or Windows 98… which would have been great, except Start Menus and taskbars and system trays are a horrible idea on a device with a 5.1″ screen. And the device, for some godawful reason, supported multitasking, which meant that you’d sometimes have to use the built-in stylus to manually move windows around… on a 5.1″ screen. I was able to eventually upgrade it to (IIRC) Windows CE 2.1, which was slightly better. But still, there just weren’t a lot of apps for WinCE out there, and many of the ones that did exist weren’t that great. And synching the device via serial port seemed to take FOREVER, even though the amount of data being transferred wasn’t all that much.

It’s really amazing that this device was almost “cutting edge” in its day… but less than three years later Compaq would release the insanely popular iPaq 3630. The iPaq had a vivid color screen, a 206 MHz processor, supported Wi-Fi via CF card, had a vast array of accessories (including a folding keyboard, which I used to take notes in meetings), and syncing with a desktop PC didn’t totally suck, either. The Velo 1 seemed like 1950s black and white TV, while the iPaq seemed like a late 1980s color TV. But a mere 30 months separated the two products!

One thought on “RETRO TECH: Philips Velo 1”

  1. I have one somewhere in the storage room. And guess what? It still works! Bought it for 5$. And it has upgraded flash card (CE 2.0) and RAM (8 MB I think). BTW, do you remember the LCD being washed out when it was new? Or it just aged?

Leave a Reply!