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  • Newsletter Issue #1012

    December 1st, 2020

    ABOUT THE STUFF MOST OF US DON’T CARE ABOUT

    I’ve worked for years as a tech journalist. I’ve written for a number of major publications, including a large national newspaper, USA Today, and thus I want to think that I have at least a passing idea of how the other half lives. In this case, other half means someone who can enjoy lots of tech gear without taking out the credit card or making monthly payments on it all.

    Now it’s not as if you actually get to keep the latest and most expensive gadgetry from Apple and other companies. Most expect you to return that stuff within a specified period of time. Apple, for example, has a loan program for reviewers. You — or the publication you work for — has to sign an agreement, and the gear must be returned on time. While extensions are sometimes granted, if you don’t return the items, you won’t be able to borrow any more. Despite having more money than many countries, Apple watches every dollar, and that certainly makes sense.

    Some companies let you hold onto the gear on an extended basis, meaning you probably don’t have to bother to return it. After all, it’s not as if the company will recondition and send the item to another reviewer, although some do that. So despite what some people think, I am not awash in tech gear. I have to actually pay for this stuff I own, so I have one iPhone, my wife has one iPhone and one dying iPad. My desktop gear consists of a 2010 MacBook Pro (regarded by Apple as “vintage” for several years), and a Late 2014 iMac (which has just been declared “vintage”).

    Now there is a notable exception to the rule: VIZIO sent me one of their recent 55-inch M-Series TV sets with the requirement that I review it. They didn’t specify what conclusions I should reach; only that I try to be fair. In exchange, I got to keep it. It was a fair exchange, and based on the results of my tests, they didn’t send a ringer. Its performance matched what other reviewers reported, and that includes the pros and the cons.

    In any case, being capable of evaluating all sorts of tech products can color one’s perspective, and not necessarily in a positive way. When you write a feature article or review, one hopes you will try to consider the average customer, not someone who can afford to buy the new model every year, or jump platforms with abandon. But some of the comparisons I read don’t make a lot of sense.

    So we have all those spec comparisons, say of a new smartphone, usually comparing an iPhone to an Android device of some sort. But how many of you switch from one platform to another because a particular device might just take slightly better pictures in low light? Or perhaps one device scores better in canned benchmarks, so maybe your app opens a second or two faster or scrolling seems a tad smoother.

    Now there are people who might care about subtle performance advantages. Not just the speedier apps, but if you scroll through a lot of documents, smooth and snappy performance makes the experience more pleasurable. If you take lots of photos under extreme conditions, getting that last increment of performance is important. I grant that.

    Unfortunately, the folks at such review outlets as Consumer Reports magazine fail to understand that the choice of operating system is not a casual decision, especially if you’re already tethered, more or less, to one. Sure, iOS and Android have many similarities, and OS developers are not averse from borrowing features. So they are designed to do the same things, and many of the apps are mostly the same.

    That can also be said for the eternal macOS versus Windows argument.

    But in both cases, the usability factor is important. Both Google and Microsoft have more users for their operating systems, and they are designed to provide more granular adjustments. This may be a good thing depending on your preferences, but it also means you may have to confront more steps to set things the way you want, even for simple functions.

    Apple, in contrast, wants things to “just work,” more or less. What that means is that many of you can just turn them on, allow it to migrate your stuff from an older model, and perhaps even from the other platform. I have upgraded iPhones a number of times over the years, and I rarely run into any more than a minor glitch. Same with Macs. In fact, my iMac, admittedly long in the tooth, carries emails and other documents that date back to the previous century.

    But what’s really important is getting tasks done, running apps, and if the device you have can’t do that to your satisfaction, then there’s reason to pick something else. But it’s not a casual decision, and a lot of those tech articles that imply it’s no big deal aren’t being realistic.

    It may not be a big deal for a product reviewer that almost always has a few spares around, and can jump from one to the other without fuss. Some well-heeled people might also enjoy playing with gadgets. But that’s not true of most people.

    I like to think I can be the practical Virgo and write about things in a way that represents what regular people might consider.

    Now it may well be that your employer dictates your decision, or, for students, the devices that are common at school. So if your office runs Windows, you may want to have a similar computer at home. But if you’re running apps that exist in the cloud, or are cross-platform, that decision may not matter.

    For several years, IBM has been offering its employees both Mac and Windows PCs. Take your pick, but over the years, they have come to realize something most Mac users have learned full well, and that is that their computer of choice is easier and cheaper to maintain. It doesn’t mean they are free of repairs or defects, but the less time you spend fiddling with stuff, the more productive you can be.

    Now Android users aren’t apt to jump to iPhones casually, and the same can be said with Windows users switching to the Mac. But Apple also routinely claims that some 50% of people buying Macs are new to the platform. So you’d think there has to be a steady erosion of Windows users, but the real migration may be to a mobile platform. Remember that a smartphone is also a personal computer performing many of the same functions as the traditional PC with a smaller display.

    I would hope, though, that reviewers would recognize that jumping ship isn’t a casual decision. A notable offender is Consumer Reports, who chooses to dumb down its technical verbiage to appeal to folks who aren’t so oriented. This is mostly a good thing, except when CR fails to explain to its readers the differences between iOS and Android and macOS and Windows. Such products aren’t always separated by platform, so you may find that a higher rating is granted to one or the other, but if you buy on that score and features alone, you may find yourself stuck in operating system hell. In other words, you end up with a product that doesn’t have the same operating system as the one you have.

    CR doesn’t seem to see this as anything but a casual spec rather than a significant feature that involves careful consideration in deciding what to buy. That choice is doing a disservice to the reader. Sure, comparing one platform with the other is important. Comparing specs and performance of individual products is important.

    But it’s also important to put the specs into perspective and make sure the consequences of buying one product or the other are obvious. And whether the difference, or advantage, really makes a difference.

    THE FINAL WORD

    The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible.

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