Let’s try to fix tech journalism

One of the reasons I started writing my own tech analysis is because I think tech journalism has a few serious problems.  Reviews are rushed to the market because clicks matter, which means being first matters.  Don’t get me wrong, clicks matter to any site that is monetized (like this one), but there are some overarching issues I’ve noticed with tech journalism over the past few years – affecting everything from print to YouTube, and I’d like to talk about them.

If you haven’t heard of MKBHD (Marques Brownlee), he is a popular YouTuber that does tech reviews.  He has over 5 million subscribers, and he’s got some pretty serious influence in the tech review space.  He gets invites to all of the big events, receives pre-launch products, the whole bit.

At the end of every year, he posts a “Smartphone awards” video, which is basically the setup for this Tweet he posted late last week.

 

Last year, Razer released a phone (after purchasing NextBit) that had the first 120Hz LED display in a smartphone.  By MKBHD’s own review, there were a lot of great things about it, but he noted that the camera was a bit lacking, and it was a bit large.  Realistically, no regular person should buy this phone because it’s a premium-priced phone ($699) that’s lacking an essential premium feature (a great camera) to most of the market.  Granted, it’s a “phone for gamers,” so that’s not their target, but to someone like MKBHD, if that phone would’ve had an OLED display rather than a LED display, by his own admission in this tweet, he would’ve given them “all the awards,” which holds weight when you have over 5 million subscribers.

MKBHD regularly carries two to three phones because he’s constantly reviewing them, and the only phone he has long-time, real world experience with are the ones he likes the most, like the Pixel XL and Pixel 2 XL.  I don’t want to pick on just MKBHD, because most reviewers do this.  Leo Laporte at This Week in Tech does the same thing and constantly jokes about how many phones he buys and subsequently gives to one of his staffers/friends/family when the next one comes out that he needs to be familiar with.

The problem with this is that they never get to experience what it’s like using a phone like the Razer phone as your only phone for more than two weeks because they live in a bubble.  Who knows if that phone will ever receive Android updates?  Who knows what kind of support Razer has?  But to tech journalists, it was a great phone for the two weeks they used it.  And speaking as a person that bought a 2nd gen Moto X, which MKBHD recommended and was a great phone at first (except for the camera), the experience on that device quickly deteriorated after two months, and the camera proved too hard to live with over time.

Single specs do not deserve “all the awards.”  MKBHD gave the Razer phone an award only for best battery life of 2017, which is probably fair, but if he’d given it “all the awards” based solely on the screen technology, that would’ve been a disservice to people that rely on his advice.

Another thing that both MKBHD and Leo Laporte have both done was to state subjective opinions as objective fact.  Leo once said that Android was “objectively better than iOS,” which is undeniably false.  One of the biggest issues I have with Android is that the update system is spectacularly broken, the magnitude of which is nearly transparent to a person that is constantly getting new phones that have the latest updates on them.  They never have to deal with issues that arise over time and require OS-level patches to fix, only to see those patches delayed weeks and months by handset manufacturers and/or carriers.  To many people, Android is subjectively better than iOS for the things it does do right, but that’s as far as you can take that statement.

MKBHD said in his smartphone awards video that the Galaxy Note 8 “objectively has the best display in any smartphone,” which is patently false as well.  DisplayMate says the iPhone X has the best display they’ve ever tested, so who do you believe?  Well, Samsung is known for color saturation while Apple is known for reproducing the most natural colors possible.  So if you like saturation, then yes, the Galaxy Note 8 probably has the best screen, but that is clearly subjective.  If you want accurate colors, the iPhone X has the best screen, again, subjectively.  Stating opinion as fact is bad for your audience.

In the age where it’s “cool to hate Apple,” iMore is one of the only places to find Apple news that isn’t sensationalized for the point of getting clicks, but it’s interesting to see what happens when the tables are turned.

Take this article, published on iMore on February 3rd of 2017:  “Consumer Reports Fails to Earn MacBook Pro Credibility.”  At first glance, lots of Rene Ritchie’s articles come off as very “Apple apologist,” but even if you consider them to be that, they’re accurate, which is an important distinction.  This article is no exception, and it was nice to see facts cutting through the click bait.  Consumer Reports wanted to make headlines and they did it by publishing FUD without all of the facts.  They’d done it before, they’ll probably do it again, and Rene states his distaste for this.

However, a few months later, Rene was very quick to agree with Consumer Reports that the Microsoft Surface line of products was being “graded on curve,” citing that products that are “NOT APPLE!” get better reviews specifically because they’re, well, not Apple.  And that makes headlines.

It’s interesting to note Rene’s tone shift here.  He cites Paul Thurrott for credibility, (probably the biggest Microsoft apologist on the planet), and is very quick to condemn the Surface line as being not as good as the reviews may suggest.  Quite the opposite reaction from the previous article, where he gave Apple the benefit of the doubt.  Microsoft later responded to Consumer Reports, saying that their internal metrics do not match Consumer Reports’ findings at all.  But no matter who you believe, one company here got a pass from Rene and one didn’t, ironically “grading on a curve,” as Rene himself put it.

The crazy thing about all of this is that these are the people I choose to follow because they consistently put out the best news.  When you’re cranking out that much content, undoubtedly there will be mistakes, but it is best to admit them and follow up on them.  I feel like this is the issue in tech journalism, and the center of my argument.  From my own example, no one cared about the Moto X three months after it came out, so why would MKBHD ever make a video saying, “Hey guys, this phone might not be the greatest like I thought, so don’t buy it?”  Realistically, he flat-out couldn’t have, because he probably never used the phone again after he was done with his review, so he wouldn’t even know.  We need more reviews on proven usability, more reviews from people that don’t live in the bubble (or realize that they do and compensate for it as best they can).

And look, I try not to bring a lot of negativity into my articles, so I want to close this out by saying that I follow all of the people mentioned in this article (except for Paul Thurrott) on Twitter and subscribe to This Week in Tech, MacBreak Weekly, MKBHD, and read tons of posts on iMore (Rene’s work is some of my biggest inspiration for this site).  Generally, all of this content is very good and I’m grateful for these creators and all of the outstanding work they do.  The Internet makes it easy to hate on creators, and that is not the intention of this post.  I just want everyone to do better, so please hold me to this standard as well.



Apple’s fear of touchscreens on laptops

As far back as 2008, I can remember wanting a Mac laptop with a multitouch display.  After playing with the original iPhone, I knew multitouch technology was finally good enough to put into a real computer, unlike those old, awful resistive touchscreens that had been in PC tablets for years.

iPad vs. RockI, as well as many others, was hoping the iPad would be that magic device that brought touch to MacOS (then OS X), but as we all know, the iPad ended up essentially being a larger iPod Touch and ran iOS.  In another case of “what techies want isn’t always what the market wants,” despite running iOS, the iPad was – and still is – a hit.  I was pretty down about the decision to run iOS, but I bought one anyway, and my parents ended up using it on weekend visits more than I did in general.

It’s easy to see why Apple would push iOS for their tablet rather than MacOS.  iOS is built from the ground up for touch, and the iPad is indeed a touch-first device.  You don’t want to fumble with a dense UI designed for mouse and keyboard on a device that will rarely, if ever, have a mouse and keyboard connected to it.  And that’s not to mention that iOS is a way more profitable ecosystem for Apple.

But what about the MacBook line?  With touchscreens coming on more and more PC laptops, it feels like it won’t be long before it’s a standard feature, and having a Surface Pro 3, I can see why.  Touch is natural, and touch is fast.  On a desktop, sure, it doesn’t really make a lot of sense, considering how far away most desktop screens are from the user, but on a laptop, where the screen is literally inches from the keyboard…come on, that’s a no-brainer.

My argument for touch on MacBooks – and laptops in generally – is pretty simple.  Even in an OS that isn’t designed for touch, there are things that are faster and easier, or just more natural to do with touch, even over trackpads with touch gestures.  I generally don’t have issues using “desktop” Windows 10 on my Surface in the first place, even though it was designed for mouse and keyboard, but that’s not the argument I’m making.  For example, to open a file, the workflow is as follows:  place your finger on the trackpad, locate the cursor, drag your finger to the icon, double click.  With a touchscreen, the workflow is: place finger over icon, double tap.

The argument here is that including a touchscreen doesn’t mean you have to use touch 100% of the time, or even 50% of the time, or even 30%.  Just being there when you want to use it for things that are faster, easier, or more natural with touch is the benefit; you don’t have to try to work touch into everything you do.

Touching a picture on a SurfaceSure, you can browse photos with your trackpad, and even use gestures to zoom or pan, but touching photos just feels so much better.  In fact, I’d say that directly interacting with photos is more natural and revives something in the digital experience that was lost in the transition from store-developed, printed photos to pixels on a screen.

Web browsing, for another example, is something that is almost always better with touch, but great to be supplemented by a trackpad and keyboard.  It’s easier and a more immersive experience to reach out and touch a link to open it rather than: touch trackpad, move cursor, click link – but it’s also easier to select text for copying with a trackpad in some cases.

No doubt, Microsoft has realized this, and that’s why the Surface line exists.  However, something like the Surface Pro/Book is not at all Apple-like.  Tim Cook has made it clear that he disapproves of hybrid devices (though saying one thing has never prevented Apple from doing the opposite thing a year later), but more importantly, simply “activating” touch on MacOS is not Apple’s style.  It’s more Microsoftian to give users what they want where they want it, and it’s more Appleish to guide users to what Apple thinks is best for them (which in this case, is iOS, if you’re in the market for a touchscreen device).  Neither of these is necessarily a better approach, but it does sort of preclude Apple from putting touch into their notebook line.

My verdict:  Apple isn’t going to change MacOS, and thus will never put touch into any Mac running MacOS, because in their minds, they already have an OS for touch.  If you’re waiting for a touchscreen Mac running a desktop-class OS, you might be waiting forever.  However, that doesn’t mean you’ll never get a touchscreen Mac notebook.  I have very little doubt in my mind that Apple is prototyping ARM MacBooks running iOS in their labs, but who knows if something like that would ever hit the market.  That’s certainly not something I’m interested in, but like I said earlier, what techies want isn’t always what the market wants.