Tech reviews from the toilet bowl of journalism

There are constant complaints, in all areas, that the media is “dumbing down”. But it hadn’t really occurred to me until reading Charles Arthur’s blog just now that the same is happening in the tech press.

It is true that software is now so widespread, particular media players and Web browsers, that it has to be written about in a far broader, less technical way. But here are two great examples of how this more accessible approach has resulted in the most unbelievably shallow and pointless reviews.

CNet’s review of the two new browsers – Firefox 2 and Internet Explorer 7 – has been described as “perhaps the stupidest PC software review ever written”. I’m sure there must be some gems out there that beat it to the title, but it’s certainly a contendor for the prize.

Why the sad boxing analogies? Because that exactly what CNet came up with: a prizefighter, five-round review of the browsers with marks out of 10 by three reviewers which saw Explorer on the ropes and Firefox win hands-down (etc etc).

The approach was basically: give software to three Charlies, let them play with it for 20 minutes and then ask them what they thought. What is hilarious however is despite the huge amount of time, effort (specially designed web pages and graphics) and words expended on the review, the result is a staggering lack of depth. It honestly would have been more useful to have a 100-word review ending: “And our summary is that Firefox is the superior browser.” Style over substance.

A worse review?

But while CNet managed to pull out all the stops to go nowhere, I think that this coverage of Windows Media Player 11 by eWeek wins the award for Most Unbelievably Pointless Review.

I’d be tempted to spoof it, but the spoof would probably end up more informative. The muppet reviewer has literally downloaded the software, clicked a few buttons, decided he was “unimpressed” and then knocked out 250 words. It looks like a 20-minute job, although I fear it probably took all day.

Here’s an example of the kind of insight eWeek now provides its readers: “While the look of Windows Media Player has changed, much of the functionality and usability remains pretty much the same.” And: “Navigation has been improved and sorting through your music collection is now easier… In general, most jukebox tasks are easier to do now.”

This is reviewing at its very worst. And the readers have noticed, slagging it off (“I used to get F’s for this type of thing in high school”) and then provided some *useful* information about it.

One of the great things about the Internet is that such sloppy and shoddy work can no longer pass muster because information can be disseminated so easily, quickly and cheaper. Plus, of course, comment on it so you don’t feel that it’s only you despairing at the hopelessness of it all.

More toilet-bowl journalism as and when I find it.

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