By Chaim Gartenberg | Nov 1, 2021, 7:40am EDT
Illustrations by Alex Castro
Over its 10-year history, The Verge has reviewed hundreds of products: smartphones that have changed the way that we communicate, take photos, and engage with the world; incredible laptops that pack the power of a gaming PC into a portable package; and consoles that have revolutionized how we play.
These are not those products, though. As The Verge turns 10, we’ve taken the time to look back at some of the highest highs of the world of consumer technology… but also the biggest duds that ended up on our desks.
Welcome to The Verge’s gadget hall of shame. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.
What else could top this list other than the Red Hydrogen, which has the dubious honor of receiving the lowest review score The Verge has ever awarded? The phone was originally announced to breathless hype in 2018, with a list of specs so over the top, they almost sounded fictional. There was the “holographic display,” the promise of modular accessories that would drastically change how the phone could be used, and even the ability to pair the Hydrogen with Red’s cinema-grade cameras.
But after months of delays, what actually shipped was a gigantic, painful-to-use smartphone with outdated specs, mediocre cameras, and an awful-looking, blurry attempt at glasses-free 3D that bordered on painful to use — all of this while costing an astonishing $1,300.
The Hydrogen One was an attempt at making a unique kind of Android smartphone, but it only succeeded at making a uniquely terrible product from virtually start to finish: underpowered, overhyped, over-priced, late to market, and so bad that in its aftermath, the company’s founder decided it was a good time to retire and ended off Red’s phone ambitions entirely.
The Galaxy Note 7 is possibly the best gadget on this list; a herald of the success of big-screened smartphones, packed with the latest specs, top-tier camera tech for the time, and superb design and hardware… except for the fact that it had a tendency to burst into flames.
Yes, the Galaxy Note 7 is the phone that Samsung had to recall twice and never bothered to put back on sale again. We at The Verge took the rare action of pulling its review score once it became obvious that buyers should steer clear. It was an important moment in smartphone history, a lesson for Samsung, and a good look at how even the most thorough reviews can’t account for every potential failing of a device.
Unlike the Galaxy Note 7, the Fire Phone did not literally light things on fire. But that’s one of the only positives about Amazon’s costly smartphone misfire, which marked both the start and the abrupt end of its smartphone ambitions.
Ostensibly an Android phone, the Fire Phone was Amazon’s attempt at translating the success of its Google-less Fire Tablets to smartphones, putting Amazon’s services front and center. Its claim to fame — other than its aggressive attempts to get you to buy things from Amazon — was a bizarre quadruple front-facing camera system that tracked your head at all times. The goal was to give you a “Dynamic Perspective” system by tilting and twisting your head around, which would supposedly enable a new way to interact with your phone. Unfortunately, it was more or less useless in practice, good for shifting icons around on a homescreen and little else.
The lackluster software, over-reliance on Amazon’s services, and lack of apps (especially Google’s apps and its Play Store) all combined for a forgettable phone that wasn’t worth the trouble, landing the Fire Phone up on clearance in just a few short months.
Amazon hasn’t attempted a phone since.
Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony have dominated the console landscape for decades. The Ouya bravely asked if there was another option. What if there was a fourth console, an indie success, a crowdfunding darling that took Kickstarter by storm, that could expand the world of mobile gaming to the big screen?
The Ouya, unfortunately, failed in those ambitions. It arrived not with a bang but with a whimper: unfinished, with too few games, not enough good games, awful software, and a dream that was too far ahead of its time. The only real bright spot was TowerFall, which has since been ported to other, actually good consoles — including the Nintendo Switch, which arguably succeeds at the sort of low-powered, indie success that the Ouya desperately wanted to be.
On paper, the Ouya had a lot going for it: an interesting Yves Behar design, an Arm processor (years before the Switch would take a similar tack), and big ambitions. But the Ouya was sold to backers (and customers) on a pile of promises and unfulfilled potential, of big things it could accomplish sometime in the future, if only it had the support, the time (and the money) to pull them off. But time was one thing microconsoles like the Ouya didn’t have, and even a Razer acquisition and a spiritual successor in the Forge TV couldn’t stave off the inevitable.
Google makes a lot of great products these days: Nest speakers and Wi-Fi routers, the Chromecast, its Pixel phones. But the company’s first in-house device, the Nexus Q, was not one of them.
What was the Nexus Q? All these years later, it’s still hard to pin it down. A bizarre media streamer that predated the Chromecast, the Nexus Q was given out to attendees at Google I/O for free ahead of what was supposed to be its grand debut — but then, after reviews (including The Verge’s) called out the shortcomings of the odd sphere, it was shelved entirely before ever making it to market.
The Nexus Q was strangely useless as a standalone box: like the Apple TV’s AirPlay, content streamed to it had to be started on a different device — an idea that Google turned into the original Chromecast later on. But, unlike the Chromecast, which had a wide range of content and a small, dongle-shaped footprint that was easily concealed behind a TV, the Nexus Q only worked with Google’s YouTube, Play Music, and Play Video services and was a massive, melon-sized sphere that you had to somehow blend into your living room. Oh, and it was intended to cost $299, which is an ambitious price point for a streaming box that didn’t actually stream anything by itself.
The Nexus Q is a valuable lesson, both of the power of a good gadget review and of how not to make a set-top box.
Galaxy Tab Note 10.1
On February 24th, 2011, Engadget’s Joshua Topolsky reviewed the Motorola Xoom, the first officially sanctioned Android tablet. Sixteen days later, he left to co-found The Verge, where we continued to review shitty tablets.
Honestly, it was hard to pick just one terrible Android tablet to include on this list because there have just been so many. This trio, however, represents some of The Verge’s earliest forays into the pit of despair that was (and in many ways, continues to be) the state of Android slates.
It’s shocking to look back and see that Android tablets like the Xoom 2 were once considered contenders to Apple’s iPad lineup. Plenty of companies have tried, like Motorola (which certainly gave it its all), Samsung (which bravely still is trying to make the Galaxy Tab a thing), and even Google itself. None have managed to make much of an impact due to poorly designed operating systems and even poorer app support.
The Verge’s reviews have gotten considerably more polished since these early days. The same, sadly, cannot be said for Android tablets.
The BlackBerry PlayBook would have been an excellent place to close the book on BlackBerry’s chapter in the world of smartphones. An iPad also-ran that was meant to not only fight back against Apple’s tablets but also Android, which (in 2011) was still a young upstart steadily eating away at the market share that BlackBerry once held in mobile.
The seven-inch PlayBook boldly tried to shore up BlackBerry’s place in the industry, establishing itself as a major player in the modernized, big-screen, and App Store-powered iOS and Android. Gone were the iconic physical keyboard and the email, calendar, and contacts applications — the main business-focused features on which BlackBerry had built its empire. Instead, the PlayBook offered a unique QNX-based OS and a smattering of basic games and media apps, which collectively turned the PlayBook into a smash success, catapulting BlackBerry back into the cutting-edge relevancy that it maintains to this day.
Just kidding. BlackBerry’s utter failure at software and its attempt to launch a brand-new mobile OS and app store in late 2011 (an even worse start than Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7) doomed it before it began. Not even a hasty 2.0 software update to add Android apps could save RIM’s last, best shot at relevancy. The PlayBook was consigned to the scrap heap of history, along with BlackBerry’s good name.
The PlayBook was the last major failure RIM’s BlackBerry would endure; despite some additional flailing, the BlackBerry brand was sold for parts and only persists today as a zombie-like licensed brand for companies like TCL, though even TCL doesn’t necessarily have the rights today.
Oh, Windows Phone.
The Lumia 950 was Microsoft’s swan song for flagship Windows Phone devices, released in the surprisingly late year of 2015 with “Windows 10 Mobile” on board. Microsoft had once dominated the pre-iPhone smartphone market with its business-focused Windows Mobile OS; but as Android and iOS gained momentum, Microsoft zagged where Apple and Google zigged, going off into its own direction with the stylish, blocky Windows Phone instead.
Microsoft definitely tried: it spent years reworking Windows Phone 7 (and its Windows Phone 8, Windows Phone 8.1, and Windows Phone 10 successors). It partnered with and eventually bought Nokia entirely to beef up its hardware chops, offering brightly colored flagship phones with unparalleled camera systems.
But it was all for naught. Microsoft just had too late a start, its also-ran app store practically empty of software. Despite its best attempts, developers just couldn’t be convinced to come over to the Windows side of things, and customers never really bought them. The Lumia 950 was doomed for the same reasons. Perhaps things would have been different if Microsoft had embraced Android apps years ago instead of waiting until now.
There were other Lumia phones after the Lumia 950, but its failure feels like the final nail in the coffin for an era of Nokia devices, Windows Phone, and Microsoft’s own smartphone ambitions.
(butterfly keyboard, 2015-2020)
You know the one. As part of Apple’s 2010-era sprint toward making its devices as slim and sleek as possible, damn the consequences, the butterfly keyboard’s badness crept up on users the same way that writer John Green once described falling asleep: “slowly, then all at once.”
The thinner, crisper keys weren’t bad at first: an adjustment compared to Apple’s old scissor switches, sure, but not inherently better or worse. But as time went on, the butterfly switches turned out to be as frail and fragile as their namesake. The switches could jam, clog, or break entirely at the hint of the merest presence of dust or debris; attempting to remove the caps to fix them would usually just make things worse, shattering the delicate plastic.
Sadly, we were unable to review the MacBook’s butterfly keyboard (circa 2015 through 2020) as an independent piece of hardware. The god-awful design had the good fortune to be attached to otherwise great computers and avoided widespread detection for a time; nevertheless, Apple’s keyboard mistake stands out as not only one of the worst pieces of hardware of the last decade but one of the most widespread.
Apple would try and try and try again to fix the butterfly keyboard, with new membranes to stop dust and tweaked designs over the years, but eventually, the only solution was the obvious one: go back to the old, thicker keys and pretend the whole thing never happened (except for an expanded repair program, that is). Whereas many of the devices on this list lived and died short, niche lives, Apple inflicted the butterfly keyboard on millions of customers for years, giving it the dubious distinction of causing the most tangible badness of anything we’ve ever reviewed.
Will.i.am is good at music. Great at music, even (who doesn’t love blasting some classic Black Eyed Peas bops?).
The same can not be said about his varied and horrible forays into consumer technology, which are, simply put, terrible. Like a reverse Midas, everything that Will.i.am’s startup touches turns to coal: oversized earbuds, an illegal car, the Puls smartwatch (“the worst product I’ve touched all year”), the Dial smartwatch (because one wasn’t enough), smart home platform Wink (which nearly ran out of money and then straight into the ground), a line of overpriced iPhone cases.
The Verge has technically never reviewed a finished Will.i.am product — largely due to the fact that most of them did not pass muster to get to that point — but the ones that have crossed our path are excessive, gaudy, and just plain bad products that no one should ever have bought.
I’ve gotta feeling he should maybe stop trying to make consumer electronic devices.