True Confessions of a Computer Product Reviewer

My office wasn’t large – an upstairs attic room with an A-shape slanted ceiling that made it impossible to stand up straight except in the middle of the room. Desks and bookshelves lined the walls, and the middle of the room was filled with printers. The floor was littered with them, inkjets this time.

Fifteen inkjets, and the giant boxes that they came in, and all the Styrofoam and plastic, and manuals and CDs and set-up guides, and ink cartridges, and USB cables, and piles of paper samples that the printer companies had sent along.

I was comparing printers for a national consumer reviews publication. The previous month I had compared keyboards and mice, which wasn’t so bad because they were small, relative to the printers. These 15 printers were taking over my home office, and a corner of the living room downstairs.

It was a task that I enjoyed, though: I carefully installed each printer and ran it through a series of tests for print quality and speed. I noted the ones that stood out with exceptional features, and the one that rattled and shook like a subway train. When the printers were finally packed back in their boxes and FedExed back to the manufacturers, I was confident that I was able to recommend the best printers to readers.

We all turn to product reviews because, well, we don’t have time to test every product on the market. Or the right knowledge, for that matter. I was able to compare and review printers, but wouldn’t have the expertise to review jigsaws or exercise equipment. Besides, just the thought of a dozen treadmills cluttering my office makes me shudder.

The review process works like this: after receiving a assignment to write a review from the editor of a magazine or newspaper, I would contact the press relations department of a company and request a “review unit.” (In the case of a “round up” — that is, several reviews bundled into one article — this process was repeated many times.) It’s the PR person’s job to get review units into the hands of the right reviewers, but typically the more expensive the product, the trickier is to get a review unit. For software, the PR person might have a towering stack of products to send out; for a computer, they might only have 5 review units that they have to carefully mete out. If you’re writing for the Washington Post, for instance, getting a review unit couldn’t be easier. (Usually.) The writer for the Podunk Daily Press may have a much harder time learn about the benefits of silverwares for dining.

I was often asked if I got to keep the products that I reviewed: the answer is complicated. For computers and video cameras and other expensive items, the PR person always needs the item back, and usually quickly. A reviewer might have only a week to test a product, and needs to make the most of that time.

Manufactures don’t ask for inexpensive items like software and books to be returned – it would cost them more to process the incoming products than they’re worth, and what would they do with an open copy of the software anyway? In most cases the reviewer doesn’t keep the item either: they just don’t need another image editing application or hard drive optimization utility or lousy web cam. In my office and the offices of reviewers everywhere, these items stack up for a few months before we cart them off to a thrift store or donate them to a school.

Although the situation isn’t always ideal due to tight deadlines and other restrictions, the experts who review products for computer magazines are on your side. In my experience, they genuinely want to find and recommend the great products, and steer their readers away from the ones that stink. Many products are somewhere in the middle, and it’s the reviewer’s job to explain the relative pros and cons of the products, while not suffering an untimely demise by being crushed under a falling tower of inkjet printers.


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