For a Former Gadget Reviewer, I'm Rubbish At Advice

I was reading through Chris Davies' column on giving gadget advice, and I thought I would add my perspective. I used to be a gadget reviewer. The first product I ever reviewed was the Sony D-EJ01 anniversary edition Discman. A Discman, for you young 'uns, was a large music player that played compact discs. A compact disc? It's like a record, um, or a DVD, err . . . it's a single-use MP3 made out of plastic. I know it sounds silly. We were silly in the 90s.[Image credit: Mr B]

I was allowed to review the D-EJ01 for for the simple reason that I owned it, and the editors weren't getting a review sample. I was certainly not expert enough to offer my opinion about sound clarity, but I could talk about usability, and the DJ-01 was a unique device in those respects.

In any case, after a long hiatus from gadget writing, I started reviewing again in 2004. I started small, writing mostly about laptop bags, accessories, and occasionally software. In 2006, I started working for a gadget site, mostly reviewing phones. Within a year, I was running the site, and we expanded to cover cameras, laptops, multimedia players, GPS devices, and more.

I believe that between the years of 2006 and 2010, I reviewed more phones than any other single reviewer at a major tech site. At least that's the claim I made in my last job interview, and they bought it, so it's probably true.

Like Chris, I get the question all the time. "What phone should I buy?" My first answer? Buy a Samsung (disclosure: I now work for Samsung). But even if I stick with my paid bias, that still doesn't settle the question. There are plenty of Samsungs, after all.

My next question is always "What do you want to do with your phone?" That's a question I learned working at the Apple Store. The problem is, most people have very simple ideas for what they want to do. Most people who ask for advice have simplified their expectations on purpose so that they don't end up with something too complicated. At the Apple Store, nobody ever came in and said "I want to create awesome videos of my family vacation that look like movie trailers," or "I want to create multi-track music that I can share with friends." No, usually it was "I want to send email and browse the Web."

The same is true for phone advice. When I ask someone what they want to do with their phone, I usually get the same answer. "I want to take photos and maybe send text messages."

Face, meet palm. What I should do is tell them to walk into any cell phone store in the world and throw a dart. If they hit a phone, buy it, because it will definitely take photos and send text messages. It is difficult to find a phone that doesn't do such things.

The answer I dread is "I just want a phone that makes good calls." Sorry, buddy. Phones don't do that anymore. I'm kidding, of course. But call quality is much more dependent on where you are making your calls than on the phone itself. Trust me. I work in a lab with an anechoic chamber. Our phones sound great, but when you try making a call from a supermarket with thick lead walls or in a moving convertible with the top down, that quality is significantly compromised.

So, I don't give phone advice much anymore (except to tell people to buy a Samsung (see disclosure above)). What really interests me is the effect that reviewers have on products. It's a question I'm constantly asking. Do reviewers reflect the desires of their readers? Can reviewers gauge the tastes of the consuming public? Or are reviewers more accurately described as taste-makers?

When I was a reviewer, I tried to be the former. I wanted to reflect what my readers would feel when they actually purchased a device. I aimed my testing at real-life scenarios, and tried to express my results in terms to which most users could relate. I shunned the scientific. I hate benchmark scores, because very few consumers unwrap their new laptop and immediately run a benchmark. Benchmarks have no meaning in real life tasks. But I did describe the effect of using a very fast machine to play very awesome games, or edit very large movie files.

I tried to be as subjective as possible. There is a significant emotional component in making a technology buying decision. Because of the nature of technology today, we tend to keep our devices close, and use them more than we use almost anything else. I use my laptop far more than I use my car, my sofa, or my bath towels. I tell my laptop secrets I would never tell my food processor. My laptop is the only thing besides my house that I leave protected by a key, and I'm more worried when I leave my laptop unprotected than when I accidentally leave the front door unlocked.

There is also an emotional component to the instant the buying decision is made. If you've ever been inside a perfectly lit Apple Store, with those gorgeous butcher block tables, then you know what I mean. If you've ever waited twenty minutes for a Best Buy salesperson to come to your aid, you also know what I mean. This might not be the best way to make an informed buying decision, but it would be foolhardy to think it isn't a factor.

Increasingly, I've come to believe that reviewers are actually taste-makers more than reflections of the public interest. That isn't a bad thing, it simply changes the way manufacturers approach a potential reviewer. I see many reviewers and tech journalists fawning over products that would make little sense in the lives of an average consumer. Not bad products, just products that don't make sense to a practical, budget-minded buyer.

The MacBook Air is one example. I know far too many people who bought a MacBook Air. A disproportionate number, I'm sure, compared to the general populace. For most of these people, it was a second, or even a third machine, and it fulfilled an emotional desire more than a practical need. I have no problem with that.

When I hear tech journalists writing about having two different tablets, a 7-inch Samsung Galaxy Tab and an iPad, for instance, I start to question their judgment. I read a story recently from a writer recommending buyers consider multiple tablets for different applications. Talk about living in a silicon tower. Two tablets will probably run you $800 – $1000, and will invariably do less overall than a PC you could buy for a comparable price. Better to buy one thing that fits most of your needs than splurge on two things that only do half of what you want.

In the end, though, Chris is right. There are very few 'bad' devices out there, if you're not scraping the bottom of the barrel. If you spend more than $100 on a phone, you're probably getting a fine phone. If you spend $600 on a tablet, as long as it's not buggy and obviously rushed to market, you'll end up with a capable device. I'm not suggesting you spend too much, but there is usually an acceptable range in which almost every available device from a reputable manufacturer is going to be a satisfying pick.