The Slow Review Movement

“Where’s your Nokia Lumia 1020 review?”

Hmm. Yes. A valid question, considering that the phone was released during the summer, I’ve had it in my office as of a week before release, and though I’ve spoken and written about it, my review is still on my hard drive instead of on a website where it can entertain, inform, and delight millions.

It’s coming. Very soon. The timing of the 1020 review is significant because it illustrates a choice I made this year after much thought.

I’m getting off the merry-go-round of “FIRST POST!” reviews. All the hell the way off.

I’ve spent 2013 thinking about the work I’m doing and the work I’d like to be doing. There were times in 2012 where I had a perfectly good review in front of me and I filed and published it…even though I thought there were a couple of half-formed thoughts in there, or even though I sensed that I was right on the cusp of understanding this thing a little bit more deeply. But I shipped the review because it was the Hot New Device/OS release/Whatever and the subject of much immediate interest.

These are good reasons to publish a review quickly. My audience is the world of consumers, and during the week of the 1020’s release, TVs and bus stop shelters and billboards were plastered with ads for this thing. It was certainly on people’s minds.

But: there are so many sites out there that do a fantastic job of getting out a detailed review on ship day. A site like Ars Technica or The Verge or the fine sites under the IDG umbrella often deploy a Navy SEAL team of writers to the task, with each writer taking up a different element of the thing and putting out huge quantities of valuable stuff on launch day. So in terms of what the consumers need, that kind of review is already being done. Most times, it’s being done very, very well.

“I got it out first” doesn’t make me happy. It’s just a value-add. “I’ve figured this out” is what makes me happy. And expressing my own point of view regarding what makes technology important, valuable, or even just Spidey-Sense-Tingle-Inducingly Cool is what I need to be doing.

Also: I want to make people glad that they discovered my review. I don’t claim any victory from knowing that someone read my review before they read somebody else’s. In fact, if someone told me that they read my thoughts and then they didn’t continue collecting opinions, I’d tell them that their knowledge is incomplete and their journey must amble onward.

The Lumia 1020 impressed the holy hell out of me, beginning ten minutes after I signed for the package. I broke it out of the box and I was so excited about testing this bonkers 40 megapixel image sensor that didn’t even bother inserting the SIM that AT&T had included. I briskly walked straight into the backyard and I took a photo of a flower. I dumped the photo to my MacBook and oh my goodness, what a beautiful picture this smartphone had made! I was flabbergasted.

It then became my mission in life to find out exactly how good this camera is. I shot and I shot and I shot.

The flabbergastation held.

Then it became my mission to prove that it couldn’t possibly be as good as I thought it was.

The flabbergasting wavered. After a couple of weeks of intentionally trying to make it screw up, I was indeed able to find some shortcomings. But still: I was astounded.

I was finally ready to publish. And then, I got so busy with other new releases that I back-burnered the review.

Uhh…my bad.

Which led to Lesson Two of “how to best do my job”: yeah, focus on depth and making a statement…but there are still limits, son.

My iPhone 5s/5c review is a better case study. I received my sample hardware on ship day. After the weekend, I certainly had everything I needed re: the fingerprint sensor, so I published a piece on that. This week, I felt like I had everything I needed on everything other than the camera, so I published a second piece about everything other than the camera. I think I’ll have the last of what I needed this weekend (after some talks with Apple about a little quirk I was experiencing with a specific feature)…so you can expect that to wrap up this coming week.

And the situation with the Lumia also nudged me to crank through my review of the Kindle Fire HDX. I have pre-release hardware and I felt like I was ready to post a review as soon as my NDA expired (with the indulgent help of editors at TechHive who were able to edit and post it just a couple of hours after I filed). I felt like I “got” this thing right away. Why delay?

And sometimes, dragging my heels pays off, big-time. I also didn’t ship my Moto X review. I intentionally held that one up. I felt that the online customization tool was an important part of the product, so I wanted to wait off until I received a finished sample phone made to my color specifications. Then that was delayed a week or so (Moto wasn’t happy with the results of the custom engraving feature, so they removed it from the app; they had to re-do my “order”). Then I got information about Motorola’s new Droids, which had some of the same cool features as the Moto X. I felt like I wanted to at least handle those devices and get some kind of sense of what made the new Droids different from the new Moto X. And so, as with the Lumia review, I had to give its assigned slot in my calendar to another thing.

But! My major complaint about the Moto X was the quality of its camera. Its photos were often…weird. Not “this camera is fundamentally broken” weird, but “the software that turns numbers into JPEGs has a strange concept of how the human eye perceives light and detail” weird. And now, Motorola has released a software update that attempts to address some of the problems that I was seeing (like a lack of “punch” re: contrast and color).

So I’ll download that update, re-do my camera tests, and then finally pull the trigger. I’ll be very, very happy to have a “complete” review that represents this phone as consumers will experience it for the majority of its release life, not based on the mistakes that Motorola made in its early days.

(But pleeeeaaasssseeeee, AT&T: make the update available to my device. AT&T has formally released it, no worries there, but it hasn’t rolled out to my specific device yet.)

(Hooray! It wasn’t available when I sat down in my chair to write this, but as soon as I woke up the Moto X, it presented me with the “Download a critical update” screen. I can now keep my plans to go on a photo trip today.)

Which provides me with another valuable data point: This update rolled out to users quickly. Traditionally, maker firmware updates are a bane of Android devices.

(Wow! Somehow, blogging about problematic software updates shames AT&T into releasing updates, even before I’ve actually posted what I’ve said! It reminded me to check for updates to my Samsung Galaxy S3, and lo and behold, yes, there is one. I hope it’s finally my update to Android 4.2.2 Thank you, NSA, for watching my keystrokes and nudging the right people.)

As I test out a new thing (hardware, software, service…doesn’t matter) I’m hoping to come away with the thought “this needed to be made.” It’s why I’m more enthusiastic about the 7″ Kindle Fire HDX than the iPad Mini or the Nexus 7. The latter two are both fine tablets. Their shared weakness is that each is “one of those, just in a different size.”

Whereas Amazon’s tablets emphatically represent a unique point of view on how people use a tablet. I think it has the same relationship with the iPad as iPads had with netbooks. Netbooks were a great idea: they rearticulated the notebook computer for ultramobile use. Then the iPad said “Yes, but you’re being way too literal. Think about how people are using notebooks, imagine the best possible device for making all of that possible, and then build that very device and OS. Don’t just make ‘one of those, only smaller and at a much lower price point’.”

The iPad Mini is “one of those, only smaller.” The Nexus 7 is “one of those — an Android phone — only bigger.”

(Each sauced with “We’re leaving money on the table if we don’t have a compact tablet in our product lineup. We should make one of those.”)

The 7″ Fire HDX understands that people are chiefly going to use a small tablet for content. Thus, it delivers the best content experience of the three.

Neither Apple nor Google were expressing that content-centered point of view. So, yes: the Kindle Fire HDX needed to be made and the marketplace is better for it.

I apply that same sort of approach when I write my tech reviews. Why does this review need to be written? What opinion, observation, or just point of view isn’t being represented?

I’ve always held this policy. It’s better for the readers, it’s better for the body of conversation about a new product, and it’s better for me. The difference now is that it’s been carved on a metaphorical piece of oak, leafed in conceptual gold, and philosophically hung in a spot where I can’t help but see it every time I sit down to write.

It has to matter. If it doesn’t matter, shouldn’t you be vacuuming or something?

Writing about technology is, in many ways, a bum job. If I’d spent a pleasant week or three writing a 10,000 word short story instead of spending a frantic and panic-filled three months writing a whole book about MacOS 10.5, it would have led to a greater sense of satisfaction, of a sort. The Mac book is utterly useless today as anything other than a source of heat. The short story would still be interesting and relevant now, and then years after I’m gone.

Such is the case with writing reviews and news. Those of us who care wish that when we die (or take up a job in marketing), we will have left behind a collection of consistent work that serves as a satisfying statement of who we are and what we believe in. I will likely never write “The Great Sermon Handicap,” (Wodehouse, 1922, utterly brilliant, published as part of “The Inimitable Jeeves“) but I’ll be damned if I die before I can tell you, through dozens of articles over several years, what I believe about the relationship between the Humans and technology and how well or poorly various companies are living up to their responsibilities.

But once again: I promise you that the Nokia Lumia 1020 review is indeed coming out soon.

I swear.