How Reviews Happen
I've been testing out new software and hardware for so long that the whole process can seem routine, but then I keep getting questions along the lines of "So you get to keep all that stuff you review?" So I thought I'd take a few pixels to explain this part of my job.
First: No, I don't get to keep all the stuff I review. More on that in a bit.
Second, most of the hardware I try arrives on a loaner basis. Sometimes the gadget in question arrives unsolicited, but most of the time I'll ask a company's public-relations representatives to arrange a loan.
There may be nagging and waiting involved. My reviews of the Palm Pre and the iPhone 3GS appeared after those of other writers because the relevant PR offices elected to ship "my" review units later than those assigned to my competitors.
It's possible that this is annoying, but if so you'll never read about it in my column -- normal customers don't talk to publicists, so their conduct is irrelevant.
You might think that because review hardware comes direct from PR shops that I only get the finest equipment. As if! The stuff sent to me has been no more reliable than what I've seen in stores. Sometimes it's in worse shape after being abused by multiple reviewers: A Hewlett-Packard monitor showed up incapable of powering on, while one Sony camera kept showing "lens cover closed" on the screen even when I had the lens cover open.
Software reviews are far easier to arrange, since in most cases I only need to have somebody e-mail me a registration code to unlock a trial downloaded from the company's regular site. Free, open-source applications are easier yet, since there's no money or registration involved.
When I'm testing a new gadget or application, I tend to focus on subjective qualities -- is it easy to use, can I discover its features without pressing too many buttons or clicking too many links? -- rather than numerical benchmark tests. (See, for example, this recap of how I test laptops.) I also stick with a product's online help or printed manual instead of turning to whatever reviewer's guide the PR department may have sent along.
Occasionally, review loans comes with a strict deadline. That's why I can't tell you how the Palm Pre feels after a few months of use; I had to ship it back a few weeks after the review. Other times, I can keep a device around longer and use it for further testing. For example, if Dell and HP's PR folks won't mind, I plan on borrowing the laptops they sent for last month's feature to test Microsoft's Windows 7 when it ships next month.
But all these computers and gadgets go back sooner or later. Allowing me to keep them would be indistinguishable from bribery. Besides, I don't have room: My house is on the small side, and I'd rather use the basement to store boxes, age wine and collect power tools I swear I'll use at some point.
Review software is a different case, as it costs the developer next to nothing to burn another disc of the program. I keep a minority of these titles around for reference purposes, but most of them -- along with all the books, CDs, DVDs and other items sent to other sections of The Post -- get sold off for charity during an annual, in-house event.
(Note: I'm taking a keyboard sabbatical this week, so I won't be able to chime in on the comments here until next Monday; it'll also take me [even] longer than usual to reply to e-mail.)
September 8, 2009; 1:29 AM ET
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