Why so many product reviews are worthless

Few products or services are truly “great” in the sense of being ideal for everyone. Whether a product is great for you depends on your budget, your feature preferences, your sense of style, your tolerance for complexity, your intended use of the product, etc. That’s true of movies, books, furniture, cars, computers, hotels, cell phones, lawn mowers… just about everything.

The greatest horror film ever may be “great,” but I would hate it because I dislike horror films.

Unfortunately, many product reviews say “this is awesome!” or “this sucks!” and leave it at that. Reviews by people with quite different needs/wants than us — even ignoring “reviews” by interested parties — not only waste our time but contaminate our decision-making process: “Well, this book looks like what I need but has only 3.5 stars while that book has 5 stars.”

So I love this review because Cory Doctorow begins by stating his biases and desires (which, even better, happen to coincide exactly with mine):

Ever since the iPad shipped, I’ve been waiting impatiently for a comparable Android device to emerge – something of like shape, size and capacity, but from a more open ecosystem than the one Apple offers.

Like Apple, Google operates an Android App Store that it controls – if your app doesn’t please Google, it doesn’t go in the store. But unlike Apple, Google allows you to install apps from unofficial sources, meaning that you can download apps directly from their authors or buy them from stores that compete with (or complement) Google’s store.

This is the kind of thing that’s important to me. After all, a tablet without software is just an inconveniently fragile and poorly reflective mirror, so the thing I want to be sure of when I buy a device is that I don’t have to implicitly trust one corporation’s judgment about what software I should and shouldn’t be using.

Because the author states his criteria up front, the reader can choose whether to continue reading or not waste her time. My family has had an iPad for the past year that four of us use quite often, so we’re toying with buying a second device. I hate proprietary systems — and find the iPad’s closed nature especially frustrating, so I’m curious what more open alternatives exist and couldn’t wait to read this review, since the author had done my work for me.

Samsung’s tablets – for no discernible reason – use a custom tip that isn’t any of the standard mini- or micro-USB ends. Instead, it’s a wide, flat connector, like the one Apple uses, but of course, it’s not compatible with Apple’s cables, either. I’ve already lost mine, run down the battery and now I can’t use the tablet again until I find another one. I passed through three airports recently, and none of them had a store that stocked them.

I have phone charger cables in my office, my travel bag, my backpack and beside the bed. The very last thing in the entire world that I need right now is to have to add another kind of USB cable to all those places. The decision to use a proprietary connector in a device whose major selling point is that it is non-proprietary is the stupidest thing about the Galaxy Tab 10.1 – even stupider than calling it the “Galaxy Tab 10.1.”

Likewise disappointing was the decision to omit the microSD card slot on the Wi-Fi-only version…. [and] They’ve preloaded the device with several Samsung apps that, insultingly, can’t be deleted without “rooting” the device, a process that voids your warranty.

I had already ruled out a Galaxy Tab for its lack of a USB port, but what I read next soured me on Android (for now):

[U]ntil now, Android devices showed up on your desktop as standard USB storage, and you could move files off or onto them by dragging them around in your file-browser. This was straightfoward, fast and easy…. [T]he adoption of MTP means that Android now requires a proprietary desktop app to effect simple file transfers – an app that is, if possible, even worse than iTunes, and represents no selling-point for those of us who want non-proprietary, “just-works” mobile devices.

The perfect review… for me. The author’s “eyeing up the forthcoming Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet.” Can’t wait to read his review!

Posted by James on Monday, July 25, 2011