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Things that never go away (and should)

20/9/09

One thing I don't do on this site is phone reviews. That's mostly because it's a more mobile site than you'd believe. It's written on planes and trains, in lounges and waiting rooms. I can't be bothered with the logistics of chasing kit and waiting for courriers, then finding all the bits, parcelling it up and sending it back.

But I do think reviews are important, although not for the obvious reason that they tell people who buy phones which one to choose.  First you need to understand the circumstances under which reviews are written. Mobile phones are tested at manufacturers and operators in conformance labs with network and environmental simulators. The people doing the testing are engineers who understand the properties of antennas and what gain is. Phones are tested to standards with scripts run and empirical measurements taken. It's rigorous and scientific.

Reviews are written by people who are employed more for their skills with the written word and the ability to hit a deadline. People who are not necessarily phone experts and they do it by playing with the phone for a few days and reading bits of the manual. Sometimes manufacturers help out with guidelines for reviewers. this isn't done in a lab (unless it's Connect magazine in Germany), but the office, or in the reviewers home. Many are freelance and they'll fit the phone review in among their schedule of other things they have to write. Forget about regular office hours the testing and reviewing takes place at any time of day. And when the deadline looms the writing becomes more important than getting dressed. Reviews will be finished over tea and toast in a dressing gown to get the copy filed before the editor arrives at the office.

This all sounds pretty shoddy. Someone who isn't a qualified expert spreading their opinions which are formulated with limited experience and in a rush.

But it's important because it's honest. British reviews in particular don't pull punches, and it's  the first time a device will have encountered someone who doesn't have a vested interest. All through the year or so that a phone takes to get from portfolio planning to network acceptance it's been looked at by people with an interest in its success. Those working on it are too close. The networks who have it for testing will say that it isn't as good as rival products and they want it cheaper as a purchasing gambit. The sales people will say it's too expensive. No-one really measures the coolness, the key factor in the velocity with which a phone moves from the shelves into the consumers hands.

The reviewer isn't important because he or she shapes the opinion of the consumer but because they give the coolness feedback. They are not just the person who has seen your phone first, they've seen the rivals. They have a unique insight into where your phone fits in the imminent landscape of the shop shelves. It's where all the competitor analysis comes home to roost. Did you need to go for 8 megapixel or would 5 have been good enough? Do stereo speakers matter? The reviewer has used  dozens, perhaps hundreds of phones. A good reviewer can get to grips with the features very quickly and assess how likely they are to be used.

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