Old reviewer learns new review tricks

I wrote about a couple of new smartphones earlier this week. That’s not an unusual development, but the client–PCMag.com–was new. And so were the review guidelines by which I wrote my assessments of the AT&T Terrain and the HTC 8XT.

PCmag logoFor that matter, having review guidelines at all was different. For all the other gadget writeups I’ve done lately, I’ve had the latitude to make up my own criteria. So I elected to test battery life by playing Web radio instead of placing phone calls, write a lot about picture quality but not much about a phone’s video output, and spend little time discussing how voice calls sound.

The risk in that scenario is that I wind up writing reviews optimized for one reader: me.

At PCMag.com, however, they’ve been doing this for a while and have their own ideas about what readers need to know. As you can see in those two writeups–the first of which I expect will be a few posts a month there–they include things like observing call quality in indoor and outdoor settings, running a traditional talk-time test, recording video clips from both the front and back cameras and running benchmark tests to get a sense of the phone’s overall rank.

After I filed each review, my editors there had further questions: How was call quality over the speakerphone? What sort of frame rates did you get in your video clips? Does the touchscreen work with gloves on?

It was more detail work than I’m used to, but it helped me a spot a few issues I wouldn’t have noticed doing things my way. (For instance, the Terrain couldn’t connect to 5 GHz WiFi.) And now I’ve learned a few more things to watch for when inspecting phones–and that I haven’t finished learning how to evaluate technology.

(On a personal note. PC Magazine was the computing publication my dad subscribed to from the mid-’80s on, and therefore the one I read through high school. It’s neat to see my name on its site.)

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Why I don’t own an iPhone

I’ve written a couple of harsh evaluations of a new Android phone this week: a review of Samsung’s Galaxy Note for Discovery News and a rant for Boing Boing about how the same old vendor-inflicted problems surface on this device.This led to  predictable accusations from readers that I’m in the tank for iOS–that, as it were, I wrote those pieces while affectionately caressing my iPhone.

The problem with that scenario is that I don’t own an iPhone and never have. (My wife has a Verizon iPhone 4 from her office; sometimes she lets me borrow it to try out a new app.) My own phone is an Android device–the battered HTC Hero you see in the photo below, which has exhibited some of the best and worst qualities of Google’s operating system in the two years I’ve owned it.

hero_cyanogen_mod.jpgI didn’t buy an iPhone in 2007, even though I found a great deal to like about it, because I was in the middle of a contract with Sprint. And even if I’d been willing to eat an early-termination fee to defect to AT&T, I would have then had a phone that I couldn’t use anywhere in the subway parts of Metro.

When my contract expired in early 2008, switching to AT&T still would have left me offline for almost all of my commute. I could not wrap my head around the idea of having to use a pay phone to call my wife or the copy desk after work. So–boy, does this look embarrassing now–I took the cheapest adequate option, the Palm Centro Sprint offered for free.

The Centro was no prize, but I figured I could limp along until Android phones arrived for Sprint or Verizon. (AT&T did not wind up offering coverage underground until October of 2009–and still doesn’t work in the two stations closest to my home.)

At my next upgrade window in early 2010, AT&T had shown itself to be a poor steward of Apple’s device by supporting picture messaging months late and failing to upgrade its network in D.C. and elsewhere. On a personal level, I didn’t care to underwrite Apple’s inscrutable App Store curation/censorship–and after enduring two rounds of the “OMG, the iPhone’s here!” get-a-life-you-people media circus, I took perverse satisfaction in thinking differently.

I’d liked the Sprint HTC Hero I’d tried out a few months before, so that’s what I went with instead. In retrospect, that represented dubious judgment on my part; I could have switched to Verizon and gotten the Droid, or I could have suffered with the Centro for another few months and picked up an Evo. Instead, I got a decent phone that got old fast.

Much of that is Sprint and HTC’s fault for abandoning it. They delivered one Android update, an upgrade to Android 2.1 that arrived after I saw Google executives demo Android 2.2, aka “Froyo,” at a developers’ conference in San Francisco. Not long after, I had to root the phone to nuke the bloatware Sprint had welded to it.

After coming back from CES in 2011, thoroughly fed up with how sluggish the phone had become, I wiped the factory software to install an independently-developed build of Android, CyanogenMod. This brought the Hero up to Android 2.2 and, for a time, rejuvenated it. My phone was vastly more responsive, had better battery life, could run new software incompatible with 2.1 and, because I could park apps on its microSD Card, no longer kept flashing “phone is running low on storage” nags. I was all set to rave about the transformation wrought by aftermarket firmware when this thing started crashing a little too often.

“A little too often” degenerated to “all the damn time.” I upgraded to the 7.0 release of Cyanogen, and that briefly fixed things while also bringing free WiFi tethering and an update to Android 2.3 Gingerbread. But this installation, too, became hopelessly afflicted with crashes as its battery life steadily decayed. Upgrading to 7.1 hasn’t improved things much. When this thing crashes for no reason–then crashes again before it can finish rebooting–I feel like throwing it at the floor. (If any of you have tips about what I could to fix this, please share in the comments.) It’s a good thing I happen to have some review phones around to lean on.

I’m now out of contract, and my options are more open than ever. I could get an iPhone 4S on Sprint or Verizon, or I could get another Android phone. As a platform, I like Android. Really. Free turn-by-turn navigation is a huge benefit that makes the iPhone look pathetic. The selection of apps is tremendous–I can’t think of any iOS-only software that I miss. Android’s onscreen widgets and (in 4.0, Ice Cream Sandwich) multitasking have no parallel in iOS. I’m just afraid of what the manufacturers and the carriers might do to my next Android phone. It is reassuring that Android offers the escape hatch of third-party firmware–but would that prove as unstable as my current sorry software?

I hope I haven’t gotten myself stuck in yet another abusive phone relationship.