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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Large reviews for tiny gadgets

I’ve spent most of my career writing within a pretty narrow range of word counts. My Post tech column started out budgeted at 25 column inches, or 950 or so words, and then got whittled down to 22 inches, some 750 words. At Discovery News, I’m allotted 500-plus words per post; my CEA blogs have a 700-to-800-word limit; USA Today’s tech site expects 700, tops, per Q&A column.

(Writing a solid 2,000 words of reported feature for Ars Technica could have been some sort of remedial boot camp for journalists, except it was a hell of a lot more fun.)

But maybe I haven’t been writing nearly enough. A few days ago, I thought I’d compare the word counts (as measured with DEVONthink’s free WordService plug-in for Mac OS X) of four recent reviews of Sprint’s HTC Evo 4G LTE.

My post for Discovery News clocked in at 583 words. That’s about 200 fewer than I once would have considered a minimum, but after almost a year of blogging for Discovery it now seems like a natural length.

Over at PCMag.com, however, my friend Sascha Segan (in a prior millennium, he worked at the Washington Post’s online operation) devoted 1,388 words to reviewing the same device. The Verge’s David Pierce cranked out 2,458 words in his own assessment–which also included a photo gallery and a video review. And the staff of Engadget outdid both of those writers by producing a 2,841-word opus that included its own multimedia accompaniment.

I’m not going to say that 600 words is the right and proper length for a review. That limit forced me to leave out details like the Evo 4G LTE’s hidden microSD Card slot and its frustrating lack of international roaming. And in terms of strict market success, I’m quite sure that the page-view stats for the Engadget and Verge reviews utterly destroyed mine.

But I could do without many of the cliches of the extended-review genre: the throat-clearing intro “Does this measure up to [its promises/its competitors/our expectations]? Read on after the jump to find out!”; the digressions about the varying plastic and metal components of a gadget’s exterior; the table of detailed performance benchmarks without equally detailed battery metrics. Are that many people interested in this sort of long-form tech journalism?

Better question: If they are, what other sorts of long-form writing would those readers appreciate?