Making use of misfit review hardware

One of the recurring First World problems in technology journalism is possessing review hardware that you don’t get around to reviewing anywhere. That’s easier to happen than you might think: The device you want to review only works with another one that doesn’t warrant a writeup from you; a PR shop sends along a gadget you don’t need along with one you requested; you ask for a loaner device but then can’t interest a paying client in a story on it.

Chromebook Pixel with Galaxy Note 3 and Republic Wireless Moto XEither way, I hate to send the hardware in question back without getting some journalistic value out of it. (No, I don’t get to keep review hardware for my own use–and selling it on eBay isn’t an option either.) Here’s how I’ve tried to make additional use out of three gadgets that found their way to me without making it into a detailed review by me.

Galaxy Note 3: This size-XL phone was a supporting actor in my reviews of Samsung’s Galaxy Gear watch. I’ve since used this Sprint-spec Note 3 as a guinea pig in tests of the charging speed of its forked USB 3 cable (it was only about 22 percent faster than a generic USB cable) and of Absolute Software’s Lojack kill-switch app. I’ve also been taking notes on which of Samsung’s default settings merit changing–starting with that annoying whistle notification sound. Look for a cheat sheet on that topic, here or somewhere else.

Moto X: When Republic Wireless sent me its version of this phone, I was sure I could sell somebody on an assessment of how its WiFi-centric wireless service has evolved since last summer’s cruder offering. Nope! The loaner unit got a brief mention in a post about some positive trends in the mobile-phone industry and hasn’t shown up in any stories since then. I’ve used it to check the speed of Sprint’s LTE in my neighborhood (just now at my desk, a weak 4.51 Mbps down and 4.58 Mbps up) and to check its battery life (unsurprisingly enough, it’s vastly better on WiFi).

Chromebook Pixel: At Google’s I/O conference this May, journalists were invited to take home loaner units of this $1,299 Chrome OS laptop. I thought it would be educational to see how the Web looked on an ultra-high-resolution, 2560-by-1700-pixel display. Answer: pretty sharp! But I’ve spent surprisingly little time on the thing. For me, at least, the utility of a laptop with all of my usual apps trumps the beauty of a screen bereft of those tools. My last intensive use of the machine was to set up a fake Facebook account so I could check the social network’s default settings for a how-to post at Yahoo Tech, but this laptop’s smooth gray finish has also served as a backdrop in a few gadget close-up shots.

If you have any lingering questions about these devices that I might be able to answer, speak up now–sometime in the next few days, they’re all going home.

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Relationship status with Apple PR: It’s complicated

SAN FRANCISCO–I’d planned to spend this morning covering the keynote opening Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference here. But after getting some optimistic replies from Apple PR over the last two weeks, I was told last Wednesday that they were out of room.

Apple Sept. 2010 press pass

My press pass at Apple’s Sept. 2010 event to introduce the redesigned Apple TV

An e-mail reiterating my interest (in addition to Discovery News, I had a tentative assignment from a larger regional newspaper to write up the keynote) and asking if Apple had concerns with my coverage or the scope of my potential audience yielded the same answer: sorry, nothing personal, we’re out of space.

This was not a total surprise. With Apple, working for a big-name media property does not guarantee access–while I was at the Post, smaller news organizations and even some individual bloggers got review hardware days before I ever could. But it’s also possible for a site to get an advance look at one year’s highly-anticipated Apple gadget and then get left out the next year.

I have written some uncomplimentary things about Apple–this rant about App Store rules comes to mind–and, as a Mac user, gripe about OS X issues often enough on Twitter. But  while I haven’t gotten any review hardware or media-event invitations from Apple since leaving the Post (when I reviewed the new iPad, I elected not to deal with Apple PR and worked out an alternate loan arrangement), its reps still return my e-mails and phone calls reasonably quickly, especially in recent months.

Since those steps don’t involve allocating scarce review hardware or seats in exhibit spaces, there’s always the ego-deflating possibility that my current outlets don’t promise enough exposure in Apple’s estimation. Or maybe it’s something else. With a company as set on keeping its own secrets as Apple, you never know.

At the same time, on a personal level the Apple publicists I’ve talked to have been among the nicer people I’ve met in my work. After I announced my exit from the Post, two of the first “good luck” e-mails I received came from people there. One wrote that he hoped our conversation at the iPad 2 introduction wouldn’t be the last time we met; I hope so too, but our next chat may take a while longer.

I’m not writing this to beg for sympathy or brag about my fierce journalistic independence. Apple has its job to do and I have mine, and most of that doesn’t require liveblogging product-launch events. Worst case, the money saved on three annual roundtrips to the Bay Area (for new-iPad, WWDC, and new-iPhone events) would more than cover buying all the Apple hardware or software I’d review in any year, even if I have to do the karma-denting move of returning a review iPhone to a carrier within two weeks to avoid getting stuck with a contract.

I am, however, writing this to document that covering this company involves a certain low-level angst I don’t get when dealing with some of its competitors. That imbalance amounts to another influence I need to factor out of my evaluations–customers don’t deal with Apple PR or anybody else’s. And now that I’ve talked about this issue instead of pretending it doesn’t exist, you’ll know to call me on it if you see it skewing my judgment.

Moving out, part 1: returning review hardware

It’s been a heart-warming few days reading my e-mail and the occasional supportive blog post (seriously, doesn’t somebody want to highlight the hack work I’ve subjected readers to?), but I do have a day job.

And part of that involves logistics: returning review hardware.

One lesser-known fact about tech PR is that while some loaner hardware comes with strict return deadlines, a lot of it doesn’t. When you add in my typical level of distraction and forgetfulness, plus the storage space available here and at home, you get a backlog of gadgets past their sell-by date–despite my avowed policy of not keeping review hardware for personal use. Here’s a partial list:

  • Logitech Revue Google TV (I had legitimate aspirations of revisiting my earlier review, but when I turned it on one last time and got the only software update available, it still doesn’t feature the Android Market that was supposed to arrive “in early 2011”)
  • Xbox 360 and Kinect sensor
  • MacBook Air laptop (I have to confess that I’ve used this for some work trips)
  • Verizon iPhone, Sprint Samsung Epic, T-Mobile MyTouch 4G and AT&T Samsung Focus phones (I don’t know that I even turned on the 4G)
  • Two USB mobile-broadband modems
  • “ClearStream” over-the-air TV antenna (it didn’t seem to work better than the hardware I had at home)
  • Peek wireless e-mail reader (never turned on)
  • A collection of Powermat inductive-charging mats and adapters
  • Zune HD player (Microsoft said I could keep it around for reference purposes, then it never left a desk drawer until reports of the Zune’s demise emerged last month).
  • Various Bluetooth headsets sent unsolicited
  • Elgato eyeTV and and turbo.264 video-to-Mac adapters (the date on my eyeTV review actually understates how long that’s been sitting around)
  • ClickFree external backup hard drive (yikes, that might have been collecting dust in a drawer for even longer)
  • Far too many random, unidentifiable cables to count

That inventory leaves out things I’ve reviewed within the past month or so, such as the iPad 2 and Motorola Xoom tablets and three of the four Android 4G phones I covered two weeks ago.

It also omits an embarrassing oversight remedied only recently: Months after trashing AT&T’s HTC Pure smartphone for its “inept” Windows Mobile 6.5 software, I discovered that I must have sent back an empty box to Microsoft’s PR firm. The phone itself was hiding at the bottom of the desk drawer–and nobody had even called me on that. (See, nobody cared about WM 6.5!)

So if you’ve been wondering what I’ve been up to around the office, there’s one answer: I’m trying to contact the publicists involved to see if they want any of this back. If they don’t, I may hand the hardware off to my colleagues for their possible use.

Or it will get sent to the Post’s equivalent of the Island of Misfit Toys. Every December, we fill an auditorium with all the leftover things sent here for review, from novels to cookbooks to DVDs to bottles of wine, sell it off to employees at going-out-of-business prices and then donate the proceeds of this exercise in crazed capitalism (typically over $10,000) to the N Street Village homeless shelter a few blocks away.

That annual discounted-shopping opportunity is one thing I’ll miss about this place. But not the only thing.