The Biggest Hardware Flops of All Time

Super-successful hardware launches are the stuff of legend. From the first Apple IIs, Commodore PETs, and TRS-80s, there came the Atari 800, the IBM PC, and the Apple Macintosh, all the way up to the modern success stories such as the Alienware Area-51, the Gateway 2000 Destination, the original IBM ThinkPad, the PlayStation, the Xbox, Samsung Galaxy phones, and of course all the Is—the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad, to name a few.

Thousands of computers, tablets, phones, and what-have-yous have arrived in all that time. The vast majority are not worth remembering, for they were neither good nor bad, just indifferent.

Then, there were the failures. The stinkers. The flops. Products that came out with some promise—or maybe even came out yet never had any promise. It could be the price, it could be the design, it could be the marketing, it could be all of the above coupled with Shakespearian-level tragic luck. Sometimes, that simply happens. But when it happens spectacularly, we take notice. As we did with all the products below. Some have become legends in their own time—but not for the reasons their manufacturers ever wanted.



(Photo: Tomislav Medak, CC BY 2.0, via Flickr/Wikimedia Commons)

Apple Lisa (1983)

Steve Jobs named the Lisa after his first daughter, but like other Jobs offerings, it was a hugely expensive device that didn’t get traction. Even in 1983, this unit with a 5MHz Motorola 68000 processor, a floppy drive (or two), plus a hard drive went for $10,000 (with inflation, that’s the equivalent of a $27,000 computer today…so, you know, normal for Apple). IBM’s PC prices undercut that at every turn. The biggest buyer of the Lisa was NASA, which wasn’t thrilled that the computer was discontinued in 1986. The biggest historical aspect of it was that the Lisa had the first graphical interface on a business computer. Something the Macintosh would take to the next level in 1984.


IBM PCjr

IBM PCjr (1984)

When the Apple Macintosh stormed onto the scene in 1984 (with a 1984 commercial), it put the world of DOS-based computers on notice. IBM’s PCs were getting cloned, and inexpensive home computers were also eating its lunch, so the company had to do something. One of those answers was the IBM PCjr, pronounced “PC junior;” it was code-named Peanut before launch. It was a still-costly $1,269 computer with a 4.77MHz Intel 8088 chip inside and a minimum of 64K of RAM (but it didn’t come with a monitor). The excitement for it was so palpable, even Ziff Davis—the publisher of PC Magazine—printed a PCjr Magazine before it shipped. But the PCjr was an oddity right out of the gate, with a weird-yet-wireless chiclet keyboard and a cartridge port used to load Lotus 1-2-3. But if you did buy a color monitor, it was one of the first to support 16 colors simultaneously, plus it could play sound. In the end, it failed because it was not even fully compatible as an IBM PC. Sales never increased even despite a refresh later that year, and price discounts didn’t help, either. By August it was called a flop by many outlets. Thankfully it inspired some future PCs that did much better with color and comfort.


NeXT Computer


(Photo: Rama & Musée Bolo, CC BY-SA 2.0 FR, via Wikimedia Commons)

NeXT Computer (1988)

This wasn’t just a case of a single piece of hardware going nowhere for a company—Steve Jobs’s NeXT Computer tried to release some ultra-overpriced computers twice. It sold only about 50,000 units total. Despite having some cool software (which would be the basis for Mac OS X when Jobs went back to Apple), NeXT systems had very little software to run, and the $6,500 price tag didn’t help. One good thing came from NeXT: Its object-oriented development tools were used to create the first web server and web browser. Also, the video games Doom and Quake were both created on NeXT machines. (And these days, you can play Doom on almost anything, even a cheap IKEA smart lamp.)


Sanyo 3DO Try


(Photo: Evan Amos, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

3DO (1993)

The 3DO Company didn’t make any actual 3DO game consoles. It licensed out specs and designs to big manufacturing companies. They had names like the Panasonic REAL Interactive, the Sanyo TRY (above), and the Goldstar Alive. Creative even made a 3DO Blaster card you could stick in PCs. Founded by Trip Hawkins, who previously worked at Apple and then founded Electronic Arts (EA), 3DO designed what was the most powerful game console of 1993. But it couldn’t sell at a loss to recoup its money. So the first was massively expensive at $599 ($1,137 today—the cost of a bootlegged PS5!). Despite the ties to EA, the game selection was weak, as few developers flocked to make console games that would run on CDs—3DO was the first to go to discs. By November ’93 it had only sold 30,000 units in the US (it did a little better in Japan—a country where 3DO would later be known for porno titles.) By 1994 the first PlayStation and the Sega Saturn were on deck with more game support and better pricing, sealing the fate of all the various 3DO systems. By 1996, the company was only developing games for other consoles and the PC.


Atari Jaguar


(Photo: Evan Amos, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Atari Jaguar (1993)

The early 90s are littered with the corpses of gaming companies. Atari was a legend of gaming in the 1970s and 80s, but as our in-house Atari expert Jamie Lendio points out, the Atari Corporation behind Jaguar was not the Atari Inc. that made the classic consoles. This Atari Corp. had bought the assets of the old. It tried to start anew with several products, including Atari ST computers, the Lynx handheld (which despite acclaim, lost the market to the Nintendo Game Boy in 1989) and finally, the ill-fated Jaguar. The last was a fifth-gen console competing directly with the old fourth-gen of, you guessed it, Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation. Atari tried to extend the Jaguar’s life with an add-on that would play games on CDs, but couldn’t compete. Atari pulled out of the console market entirely by 1996. (Jamie points out that Tempest 2000 on the Jaguar was awesome, but “that was literally it.”)


Virtual Boy


(Photo: Evan Amos, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Virtual Boy (1995)

Sure, Oculus is cool, but it wasn’t the first time people strapped a giant monitor-thing to their faces. Nintendo tried to launch the world of “stereoscopic 3D” games way back in 1995 with the garish Virtual Boy. It developed the devices for four years before release and even built an entire factory in China to make them. But the gaming world was at war in the early to mid 1990s, as PCs with DOOM and Quake competed with consoles, so the Virtual Boy was rushed out in 1995—mostly because Nintendo (rightly) wanted to focus more on the Nintendo 64. Despite lots of price drops, it was not a well-loved product. Only 22 games were ever developed for it. By 1996 it was killed off and to this day remains the lowest-selling Nintendo product of all time. It brought back autostereoscopic 3D later in the 3DS handheld.


CueCat


(Photo: Tomkinsc, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

CueCat (2000)

The weirdest hardware of the turn of the century wasn’t even a computer or game player. It was a simple, handheld scanner stuffed inside molded plastic shaped like a cat. It plugged into a PC via a keyboard port (later, via USB). The goal of Digital Convergence Corporation was to give away thousands and thousands of the devices—Forbes magazine alone sent out 830,000; Wired sent 500,000. They hoped to kill the URL entirely—people could instead use this scanner to quickly get to websites by swiping a proprietary barcode that appeared in magazines and newspapers ads. The codes faded as quickly as they appeared. CueCat was criticized for requiring people to read periodicals only in front of their computers as an overall “feeble business idea.” Plus, it had some security issues. By mid-2001 the company laid off almost its entire workforce, and the CueCat’s began to be used by modders who reverse-engineered it to do much more interesting things.


3Com Ergo Audrey


(Photo: Alessandra Cimatti/Flickr)

As the “Internet” started to really go mainstream, so to did the desire by companies to create computers that would be nothing-but-‘Net. They were the precursor to the Google Chromebooks, usually in a desktop form like the Oracle Network Computer, the Netpliance i-Opener, and the New Internet Computer (NIC) from Larry Ellison. Spectacular failures, all. None were as odd-looking or as poorly named as the Ergo Audrey from 3Com, a company best known for making modems and network cards.

Imagine pulling up a browser on this appliance to surf at dial-up speeds. It at least had a touchscreen and had two USB ports, a wireless keyboard, and an Ethernet port for early broadband users. But that’s about all it had going for it. The “low” price of $499 didn’t save it, nor did the multi-color options. What really killed it was being an internet appliance released in time for the great dot-com bubble crash. 3com killed Audrey after only seven and a half months on the market.


Microsoft Kin Two

Microsoft Kin (2010)

Did you know there was a phone from Microsoft before the (also flopped) Windows Phones, like the Microsoft Lumia 950? You probably missed the Kin during the six weeks they were on sale in 2010. They were meant to be social phones, using tech from Danger, the company behind the old T-Mobile Sidekick, which Microsoft scooped up in 2008 for $500 million.

There were actually two of these garbage phones released simultaneously. The problem was, for being all “social,” they didn’t support basic things like, oh, Twitter, plus they cost an extra $30 per month for a data plan. For all that, a full smartphone was the smarter buy. The write-off to get rid of the Kin in that short amount of time was $240 million—almost half of what it cost to buy Danger in the first place.


JooJoo


(Photo: PJ Jacobowitz for PCMag)

 JooJoo (2010)

In 2010, the iPad swiftly dominated the tablet space it essentially created. So along comes a company named Fusion Garage with hopes of taking a slice via a Linux-based tablet called JooJoo (previously the CrunchPad). It was…not good. PCMag handed it a withering 1.5 stars out of 5 in a review in April. It was barely capable of surfing the web between crashes and the need to charge it every few hours. This despite the mammoth heavy size at 2.4 pounds. Sales weren’t reported, but the lawsuit from the original CrunchPad partners revealed the pre-orders for the JooJoo never got over 90 units. By November, Fusion Garage put the JooJoo out to pasture; the company itself was in liquidation over a year later.


Sergey Brin from Google

Google Glass (2012)

Google Glass, a picture and video capturing specs add-on with an AR aspect, isn’t totally dead—there’s an enterprise version still out there. But Google’s goal a decade ago was to try and transform all of us into on-the-go data collectors and absorbers. Even we called the 2.0 version a product of limitless potential back in our 2014 review. The problem was, the general public heard that anyone walking around with these things was probably recording, and they freaked the hell out. The thought of clandestine cameras—or just having a low-level cyborg in their midst—had people actually attacking those wearing them, legislation was drafted against them in some states, and there was an entire campaign called Stop the Cyborgs spawned to stop them. It all led to a public not ready to spend $1,500 for a hardware product that might get them punched in the face. Google pulled Glass off the consumer market. These days, you can do all the same picture/video capture with SnapChat’s Spectacles, with a lot less violence to your person for some reason.


Nexus Q

Google Nexus Q (2012)

Google had another product to announce that year but this one never had any promise—so much so that it never even came to market. The 2-pound, shot-putt-sized ball that was Nexus Q was meant to be a streaming music player for $299, but that didn’t include speakers—those were $399 more and didn’t even include cables. It wouldn’t stream anything but Google services like YouTube and Play Music. People complained before it even shipped… so Google quietly killed the thing even as the orders started, then sent a bunch of prototypes out for free. They let it die, likely in the wake of seeing Amazon’s Echo speakers line come to vivid, talking life, which Google would soon try to mimic.

Recommended by Our Editors


Ouya

Ouya (2013)

Imagine a world where the game console wars of the last decade weren’t between Xbox, PlayStation, and Switch alone. In 2013, Ouya seemed like the contender to take that imagined fourth slot. It was an Android-based system you connected to a TV that had already received crowd-funded success on Kickstarter. The company made some waves that year by crashing the E3 show. But reviewers and players found the $99 hardware and controller weak. By 2014 Ouya ditched the hardware to concentrate on software. That didn’t go anywhere and by 2019 Razer (which had snapped up all the Ouya assets) shut down the limping Ouya software store for good. It was an early sign that Kickstarter success doesn’t always translate to the real world. It wouldn’t be the last.


Amazon Fire Phone

Amazon Fire Phone (2014)

Amazon’s done okay with a lot of hardware, especially ebook readers and smart speakers, and we really like its cheap tablets. But when Amazon tried to make a phone, it was a disaster. The Fire Phone was more than a phone, of course. It had 3D capabilities (which was the hot buzz thing of the time in TVs), but it was meant more to help you showroom items seen in the real world and thus move the needle even higher on Amazon retail sales. As if Amazon needed it. People found that offensive at best, especially in a device that cost $650 and only worked on AT&T. Amazon killed the phone after less than a year and took a $170 million hit on it.


PonoPlayer

PonoPlayer/Pono Music (2015)

Perhaps Pono was ahead of its time. The goal of the player and the Pono Music store was to make lossless high-quality music available digitally to the masses. It was heavily backed by musician Neil Young, who hates the quality of lossy MP3 files that dominated music before streaming services like Spotify took hold. Young helped launch Pono via a successful Kickstarter campaign in March 2014, raking in $6.2 million to make the bright yellow, triangular-shaped player, even though the goal had only been $800,000.

It didn’t matter. Once the device went on sale in early 2015 for $399, the masses turned their back. It didn’t help that Tidal launched around the same time with a similar message—music quality should be better—without the expensive hardware. Pono shut down, out of money, by 2016.

Since then, other services, like Amazon Music and Apple Music, have taken up the mantle of high fidelity tunes for streaming. That was a move even Young himself appreciated, saying that because Amazon did it, that “Earth will be changed forever when Amazon introduces high-quality streaming to the masses…This will be the biggest thing to happen in music since the introduction of digital audio 40 years ago.” No one said that about Pono.


Not-on-fire Galaxy Note 7

Samsung Galaxy Note 7 (2016)

“Exploding” and “on fire” are terms you may see in marketing about hot products, but in the case of the Galaxy Note 7, they were used literally. Because the Note 7 phablet was popular and well-liked (we called it “one of the best smartphones on the market” in our August 2016 preview)—and it caught fire enough that the company had to issue a recall. Twice. The blame went to the batteries being faulty. Or maybe it was a bad design. It didn’t really matter. The damage was done. Samsung fixed it all in time to put out a limited edition Note 7 in Korea only in 2017—so it could use up all those left-over parts. Everyone else waited for the Note 8.


Magic Leap One

Magic Leap (2018)

The fall of Magic Leap seems to be ongoing. It came to life in 2010 and dazzled people in secret for almost a decade, even securing $500 million in funding from Google at one point. The goal was to make some kind of astonishing augmented reality gear, but the result was less than stellar. That’s not because of the product itself—though when it finally came out to a select few in 2018 it was only for the earliest of adopters, with a ridiculous price of $2,295. It’s more because even after a general release in 2019 that only sold 6,000 units, the company and the product haven’t had much direction. It has been supplanted by Microsoft HoloLens for AR, and utterly eclipsed by Oculus over on the VR side, assuming it planned to, uh, magically leap over there. It barely staved off a massive workforce layoff of half its workforce during the early days of the pandemic. We’ll see if Magic Leap can bounce back from the bad start. The Magic Leap 2 did get a reveal in October 2021 on CNBC, but who knows if it’ll make it. It would be nice to have some other glasses out there.


RED Hydrogen

RED Hydrogen (2018)

RED makes some fantastic digital video cameras—the kind used by Hollywood for top films. The company founder decided to bring that tech to phones in an overly hyped product called RED Hydrogen. And everything that could go wrong, did. Because it went for a focus on 3D, it didn’t really make that great a camera in the phone—a device that was already huge, heavy, and expensive ($1,295) compared with the substantial competition at the time. And the glasses-free 3D wasn’t even that good. The phone died not long after in 2019 as the RED company founder retired, but it lived long enough to be used in a Marvel TV show as the “evil phone,” which seems fitting.

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