This is written in praise of online product reviews on the Internet, but also as a cautionary comment on their value. It could apply whether you are researching a new cooker, or a car, or a smaller but still expensive item like a camera or (you knew this was coming!) a laptop. At least, I hope you do carry out such research. (I'll return to that aspect later on)
The Internet is awash with professional reviews on this and that, and, taken together and used with discrimination, they constitute a wonderful resource to study when you are considering what to buy. You will get a very good impression, with a host of specifications set out in detail, exhaustive performance measurements and comparisons with rival products, and a plethora of still photos and demo videos.
Dare I suggest that it's even better than subscribing to Which? and relying only on that trusted source for guidance on what is the 'best buy'? No, I think that remark will fall on deaf ears! People really do take heed to what Which? recommends. And it is a sensible short-cut to making your mind up, eliminating all the hard-slog research I mentioned above. Personally, I'd rather put the effort in. Mind you, if Which? agrees that I've acted wisely and bought one of its Best Buys, then I naturally feel very pleased indeed! This happened, after purchase, in the case of my new laptop. A friend who subscribes to Which? - which I don't - fired up the Which? website, and looked up what they said about the Microsoft Surface Book. They had reviewed the cheapest version, which hasn't the same power and internal memory as mine, but is £300 less expensive, and they reckoned it was definitely the business:
There it is on her phone. A 'brilliant Best Buy'. [Preens herself] I'm sure the friend in question had absolute faith in the methods and good judgement used in the Which? Test Lab, and perhaps found reason to take a better opinion of my own research abilities. It's quite a coup, to buy something unaided by Which?, and find out that it was exactly what they would have recommended. But then I had looked at many, many online reviews, and felt as well-informed as any person can be.
I was also well-used to the underlying weaknesses of reviews in general. The ones on major tech websites such as TechRadar, Trusted Reviews, PCAdvisor, CNET, TechWeekEurope, Wired, Alphr, ExpertReviews, Engadget, MobileTechReview and AnandTech are all written by professional writers who know their subject, and they may well be supported by a background team. But inevitably you get a report written by a human being, and therefore you get that human being's enthusiasms and prejudices. These may be irrelevant to your own. I've commented before on this. For the purposes of this post I will simply home in on one aspect of the Surface Book - not exclusive to it, as it applies to all the latest high-end Windows laptops and ultrabooks. It comes with a touch-sensitive screen.
Again and again, I was reading rather negative things about such a screen!
It would get smothered in sticky finger-marks.
It would induce aching arms and shoulders.
Mostly, that there was no likely use for one on a laptop - which was essentially a 'typewriter with a screen'.
I seriously beg to differ! I think the ability to touch the screen and scroll it about with your finger (or thumb), and generally do what you can do with a tablet, is a great convenience. Of course the keyboard is the major input method for many, and certainly for journalists who have been pounding keyboards of one sort or another for all their working lives. Some admit that they stick almost entirely to what you can achieve with 80 wpm and an extensive knowledge of keyboard shortcuts. They do not admit this is dinosaur-talk, but it is, and you have to make an allowance for it, a correction. They have a bias. They haven't embraced fresh new possibilities for themselves, even though they are writing about them. These are the people who probably won't like the intelligent devices of the future, which may work only by speaking to them.
More seriously, their dinosaur disease may steer you towards the wrong purchase - in this case, a cheaper model without that touchscreen facility, or without some other thing that could make using the device a pleasure and a delight, and improve your life. That's a strong possibility, if you paid attention and let yourself believe that 'touch screens are an unnecessary nuisance'.
They do accumulate finger marks, but those are easily removed with a huff of breath and a cotton handkerchief every few days. (My Dad's white cotton handkerchiefs live on for this purpose) Of course, if you keep yourself going (as a journalist might) with an endless supply of sweets, sticky buns and burgers, all consumed at the office desk, then possibly the cleaning-job is a little more like a Labour of Hercules.
And yes, touchscreens could induce aches and pains, but only if you are prodding the screen every few seconds: and really you don't have to. I don't. I just flick or lightly tap the screen now and then, whenever that seems the best way to accomplish something. If, say, I wanted to create a fancy detailed drawing on the screen, I would detach it and lay it flat on a table, and use it like a sheet of paper, and in that way avoid unnatural arm movements. (The Surface Book has a detachable screen)
Let's pull back a bit. I'm having a go at the reviewers, or at least some of them, and degrading my initial point, that - used with discrimination - online reviews are a fantastic knowledge base, and a most valuable resource. Subjective they may be, and possibly a little skewed in their praise or criticisms, but if you read a range of them you will get a balanced picture that will guide you well. You can avoid making an expensive mistake. More positively, you can with reasonable assurance assess which device, and which version of it, will be right for you, and worth the outlay.
It's worked for me, and it's worked many times since I first used the Internet in 2000.
But what about the people who don't use the Internet, except for trivialities such as Facebook? Or don't use it at all? I have in mind people who never became accustomed to modern electronic gadgetry, and have never made it serve them. The sort of people who, when they want to buy something expensive, just go into a likely High Street shop - as they would have done pre-1990 - and let the shop assistant advise and guide them, so that they end up with the shop's Limited Cut Price Deal, or the Manager's Special Offer.
Do they get exactly what they need? Do they spend more than they might elsewhere? Do they face pressure to buy not only the product, but some form of insurance against breakdowns, or an ongoing help-and-advice contract?
I'm not just thinking of very old people. How many naïve youngsters on a limited budget end up with an almost-useless mobile phone, because they didn't do their research and find a source or a model or a data plan that gave them what they really needed? Too many people of all kinds underestimate their real requirements, and get stuck with something unsuitable, that is frustrating to use. I suspect that they didn't read enough online reviews - or none at all. Perhaps the effort needed was unappealing; or they had no idea they existed, nor where to begin.
I can think of at least one adult friend who seems perversely antagonistic towards everything techy, even though she relies on her tech for social contact and arranging performance engagements. She happens to be artistic and creative. But I never heard that artists in general were congenitally unable to use free online advice.
Is it an attitude of mind, then? I do often wonder whether some people (and I don't mean that friend just mentioned, but a whole lot of other people out there) actually pose as technophobes and suffer for it, ending up with foolish mistakes.
It's still fashionable to tut-tut over some application of electronic technology that doesn't always work (such as buying bus tickets online for future use, or paying for car parking by phone). I've done that myself. But it's also fashionable to flatly deny any interest in these innovations, and to be positively Luddite where the Internet is concerned. I have evidence: there are an extraordinary number of old mobile phones still around in active use. This argues that their owners use them just to make voice calls and the odd text. Well, how very quaint. I wonder how they summon up the Internet when shopping for a fridge at Currys - for a price match say, or for exact and detailed information about the product they are considering. Presumably they can't.
And presumably these are the customers that the store salesmen love to see.