For a gadget reviewer, I’m rubbish at advice

Apr 6, 2011
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For a gadget reviewer, I’m rubbish at advice

There's an awful moment after I tell someone what I do for a living when you can see the cogs churning behind their eyes. "Oh," they say, nodding in a way that suggests they've suddenly realized they don't have to spend five quid on a gadget magazine, "I need a new phone/laptop/tablet/washer-dryer actually… what do you recommend?"

[Image credit: Tom Rolfe]

Before I go too far, I should probably make the usual "I realize how sweet my job is" disclaimer. Yes, a hobby turned into a job for me, and I get to write about gadgets and play with phones and tablets, and generally get paid to have a snarky opinion. It's brilliant and I'm not trying to say I have a tough time in life by any stretch. Please don't read any more into this than some casual observations in my geeky life.

"What phone should I buy?" is the most common question, fueled no doubt by the fact that the smartphone segment seems to have taken over from PCs, PMPs and the like as the fastest-mover of the moment. There's usually a simmering desire for an iPhone - either because they really want one or because they think they ought to have one - but mixed in with the sense that they could be stuck with a wrong decision for two long years. During which time, of course, their friends and family will mock them with their "better" phones, and call them names like "Brick Boy", "Big Mister Phone Dud" and "Silly Susie CrapPhone."

Problem is, there's no one, single answer. After all, we fill a lengthy review for every cellphone we cover, and that's not - well, not entirely, anyway - because we love the sound of our own online voice. The right gadget for one person is entirely the wrong gadget for another, and you can fill a long conversation (a whole evening if wine is involved) digging through use-cases and the like figuring out which makes the most sense.

Because of that, I've lost my ability to make snap judgements, which is a problem since that's just what people are hoping for.

Friend: "My contract is up, I need a new phone. You write about phones, what should I get?"

Me: "Ah, good question. There are some really good phones coming out now. Do you do more messaging or more calling?"

Friend: "Yeah, exactly… I've heard the iPhone is good, right? I should probably just get that."

Me: "Well, it's a good phone, yes, but it's not necessarily the best for you. Do you play games or use Twitter?"

Friend: "That's on one of those HTC Androids, isn't it. I'll get one of those, then, an Androids."

Me: "..."

I'm not the only one to struggle with giving clear-cut advice. I bumped into a guy from one of the main online retailers for smartphones and other mobile devices last week, and he too had a hard time making suggestions. He's surrounded by the newest gadgets, gets to play with prototypes well in advance of their public launch, and dreads being asked to recommend one or another. It doesn't help that - as when you fix someone's computer once - people feel they can legitimately blame you every time the device you half-recommended subsequently gives them problems. "You told me to buy this damn phone, you make it work!"

The work world seems divided by those jobs that prompt work related questions from near-strangers and those that don't. The doctors I know say they eventually get used to random people describing oftentimes deeply personal symptoms to them in the hope of an off-the-cuff diagnosis. Asking a builder friend if they could slap down a few bricks seems less acceptable, as does inviting a dentist to stick their fingers into your mouth and see if that molar really is wiggling. Maybe if they perpetually carried one of those mirrors-on-a-stick it would be different. My day job used to involve promoting safe sex, and I didn't find I would get too many questions about condoms and STIs. Well, sometimes, but I'm not really allowed to name any names.

The saving grace is that there isn't really such a thing as a truly "bad" device out there today. Yes, you get the odd model that obviously missed the final quality-control check and needs to be replaced, but it's tough to find something that's legitimately awful through and through. That's why, when pressed, I usually suggest people buy the phone that best matches their eyes.


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