That time I started a fight and got a free phone charger out of it

Disclaimer: results not guaranteed. There may not be a phone charger in it for you if you start a fight.

Last year I went to an Android development conference. One of the sessions I attended was about the process of writing a device review. It was hosted by Russell Holly of Android Central, one of the go-to sites for information on Android devices.

Device reviews—indeed, reviews of any sort—are often polarizing. I think most people see their taste in things such as movies, music, and yes, mobile devices, as a reflection of who they are, or at least how they would like others to see them. So when a reviewer’s opinion sharply disagrees with that of a reader, sometimes the reader experiences that as an attack on them as a person, sometimes with perfectly good reason.

The fight

Holly encouraged people to ask him questions as he explained his approach to reviewing devices. At one point, someone who was clearly exasperated with this whole thing asked him why he can’t simply write a factual, unbiased review.

Let’s just say this pushed one of my buttons.

I countered that not only can you not completely remove subjectivity from the review process, but I’d also argue that you shouldn’t pretend that’s your goal. We can read spec sheets and press releases ourselves. The whole reason we have reviews is to get some idea of a person’s experience of using the device. The best you can do is be up front about your biases and let the reader factor that in.

After I had finished, Holly picked up a small box and brought it to me (this was in a pretty small room). “This is for you,” he said.

The box contained a phone charger custom-branded with the name of the conference. A heated discussion followed involving the points discussed. I had a phone with terrible battery life at the time, so I was grateful for the phone charger.

Conclusion

You’ve probably picked up on this already, but I have a complicated relationship with the notion of objectivity. I don’t mean that facts don’t matter, because they do. Facts illuminate the story, but they are not the story themselves. So it is with user experience. To stick with mobile devices, let’s say Phone X performs a given task faster than Phone Y. But does that mean you should get Phone X? It depends on how important that task is to you, which is not something you’re likely to figure out from looking at a spec sheet.

Also, specs that sound impressive sometimes turn out not to be that relevant. Take the phone’s camera—for a while, it was all about the megapixel race: who could cram the most pixels onto their camera sensors. It turns out that pixel count is just one factor. You also have to consider the size of the sensor, among other factors. All other things being equal, a larger sensor will generally give you a better quality image than a smaller sensor, even if the smaller sensor has a higher pixel count. This is also true for regular cameras, by the way.

But as with regular cameras, there are other trade-offs to consider, like size and price. The late film critic Roger Ebert said that his goal when writing a review was not just to convey whether he liked it, but also whether the reader would like it if the reader’s tastes were different. I think that’s good advice for any review.

What do you think makes for a great review? Make your suggestions in the comments!

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