StarTAC Overview

The Motorola StarTAC was introduced in 1996. At the time it was the smallest cellular phone in the world, so compact that it was marketed as "wearable." It's easy now to laugh at that claim, but back then a cell phone was not something you could just slip in a pocket. The earlier Motorola MicroTAC couldn't be crammed into anything short of a fanny pack. It should come then as no surprise that the small, sleek, professional looking StarTAC was soon found pressed to the ear of every person wanting to flaunt their success. It was even offered as an option on the S class Mercedes and Jaguar XJ/XK!

Right from the start it was clear Motorola was on to something great. The StarTACs revolutionary clamshell form factor has become the norm for most phones built since. A phone without a vibrate mode would seem ridiculous now, but before the StarTAC it was unheard of. And though it was not the first phone to use a li-ion battery, it no doubt had a hand in bringing them into the mass market.

Rather than resting on past success, Motorola continued to improve upon the StarTAC for many years. The LED screen found on the first StarTACs was replaced by a black and white LCD. The phone itself, having started out analog only, was later released in TDMA/CDMA and GSM versions. It was enough to keep the StarTAC in vogue until the last models came out in 2002.

Not everything Motorola tried with the StarTAC was a success. A second battery could be clipped onto the back of all but the last models. This unique add-on would extend standby time to somewhere in the neighborhood of a week, but detracted from the phones most endearing quality: its size. Even stranger was a clip-on organizer based on the Franklin REX 5000. It had most of the functions of the regular REX, as well as the ability to dial numbers stored in its address book. Like the second battery, it clipped onto the back of the StarTAC. Like the second battery, it made the phone huge.

Several related phones were sold alongside the StarTAC. A special "rainbow" edition replaced the gray/black case with a mix of colours. Later models were repackaged as Motorola Talkabouts and Timeports. The final upgrade to the StarTAC line was a colour OLED screen, but for some reason it was only released on the Timeport model. Many parts can be swapped between these different phones, as they're all based on the StarTAC.

Today the StarTAC is mostly gone. The young generation is far more impressed by full colour screens, cameras and MP3 playback than solid construction and pedigree. Asking about a StarTAC in a cell phone store will likely result in laughs and statements like "My dad had one of those!"

There is also a technical side to the disappearance. The analog network which the early StarTACs rely on has been abandoned in the United States, along with many other places around the world. Worse still, US cellular service providers refuse to activate a non E911 equipped phone. This leaves only the ever shrinking handful of existing digital StarTAC users to carry the torch in the US.
Thankfully Canadians have it a bit easier. It would be too impractical to upgrade the analog network in remote locations, so it's being left in place. And so far E911 support isn't required to activate a new phone.