Paul Bonner: Terrible Tablets or Terrible Journalism?

What’s wrong with tech reviewers today? Our Paul Bonner knows — and he’s not afraid to say he still is no fan of the Amazon Kindle Fire.

Nobody would ever confuse tech journalism with great art, but they do share one characteristic — both need to be honest.

Unfortunately, mainstream tech journalism fails that test far too often.

Case in point: An article I found on a major tech news site recently listed tablets its readers should avoid. It promised a hard-hitting take on the year’s hottest gadgets. I imagined all the first-generation tablets —  from vendors like Motorola, Acer, Toshiba and Lenovo — would surely make the list.

They didn’t. The article delivered potshots, alright, but the potshots made no sense. It completely ignored tablets from any vendor whose products a reader might actually find on store shelves. Instead, it directed all of its fire at obscure tablets from minor vendors. That sounded alarms.

The few tablets I know you should avoid — the Acer A100, with a battery that’ll barely outlast one longish movie from Netflix, or the fat-and-heavy Toshiba Thrive – weren’t even on the list. They were, however, prominent advertisers on the tech site we’re talking about.

Toshiba Thrive

Photo credit – Engadget

Routine exclusion of major vendors — usually advertisers — in mainstream tech review coverage is the acceptable norm these days. No one protests this. But it blatantly ignores the fundamental precepts of journalistic ethics.

So it might come as no surprise that the review summaries in this story were filled with contradictions. One example: Several tablets received actual points for running Android 2.2, while others didn’t. In fact, the author blamed some tablets for running Android 2.2 and put them on the list of tablets to avoid.

That’s what happens when a media site doesn’t  bother to establish evaluation criteria before letting loose its reviewers.

So let’s take a look at some of the condemned tablets.

Setting aside the tablets clearly destined for the close-out bin, only three other tablets were highlighted in the article I’m talking about: the Viewsonic gTablet, and two tablet models in the Archos G9 line.

Viewsonic gTablet

Photo Credit – Engadget

Including the Viewsonic gTablet is bizarre. It was released 15 months ago. Wouldn’t the Amazon Kindle Fire have been a timely choice?

Well as it happens, the same  publication recently reviewed — and recommended — the Kindle Fire for  its virtues as a tablet. Yet a close inspection shows the Kindle Fire suffers from many of the same shortcomings – no Android Market, no Google Apps, no Bluetooth, no HDMI — that this article cites more than a dozen times as reasons to condemn the other tablets.

So how did the Amazon Fire escape the terrible judgment that befell the $89 Coby Kyros?

The Viewsonic gTablet’s selection was doubly odd, because most of its users love the thing. True, the gTablet debuted with system software so lousy that several major retailers pulled it off the shelves almost immediately.

The gTablet likely would have died right there if the Android hacking community hadn’t discovered that it had both great hardware specs and a wide-open platform for development.

They have since produced an endless progression of custom kernels and ROMS for the gTablet, including the latest version of Cyanogen 7.x for the Android Honeycomb, and even Android 4.X Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS) builds.

Their efforts keep the gTablet selling briskly — it’s got a growing following that even a moderately knowledgeable reviewer couldn’t miss. But look around, and you see that this and other tech sites are damning that gTablet based on its flawed, original software.

That’s lazy reviewing.

Archos G9 Models

Photo Credit — VentureBeat

As for the two Archos G9 tablets that these and other mainstream tech reviewers keep bashing, these two shipped with Android Honeycomb 3.2 and will upgrade to Android 4.X ISC in early February, Archos says.

The tablets offer everything a real tablet should have — full Android Market access, Google apps, HDMI-out, full and mini-sized USB ports, microSD memory expansion, a decent screen, good performance, and upcoming Android 4.X support.

In performance testing using SmartBench 2011, the newly-released turbo models, starting at about $299, trounce all the standard 1Ghz Tegra tablets by 20% or more.

Both models suffer from pretty annoying case-design issues, but even so, their relative trimness and feature sets put a lot of other tablets – ones widely lauded by the tech press — to shame. The Archos G9 80 weighs less than an ounce more than a Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 and is within a few millimeters of its size in all dimensions.

Yet you continually see the Archos models blacklisted due to petty complaints about a lousy camera and awkward button placement.

And this from so-called serious tech journalists.

Maybe the Archos models would have been received better if they had no camera at all — and an on/off switch smaller than the hole in a Cheerio — just like the Kindle Fire.

In the interest of full disclosure: I recently bought an Archos G9 80.  Sure, the G9’s camera does stink, but I have a good camera. I was looking for a tablet. The misplaced volume rocker is more annoying, but I’ll get used to that, and save $250 over a name-brand tablet without those issues.

The bottom line here is clear: A review on just about any tech site may look and sound  authoritative, but if it’s based on lazy, corrupted journalism, its conclusions are worthless. Take what you read with a grain of salt, and do enough independent research to double-check the reviewer’s facts.

And notice if they mention their review criteria; it helps them stay consistent.

About the author

Paul Bonner

Based in Texas, Paul Bonner returns to tech coverage here at aNewDomain. An award-winning journalist and author renowned in the 1980s and 1990s for his work at such pubs as PC Week, PC Magazine, PC/Computing, and Electronic Entertainment, he took a 15-year break from the biz and began a new life as a software developer specializing in web-based applications. His work here marks the end of that hiatus -- and he's back with a vengeance. Love his work? Hate it? Either way, follow him on Twitter @paul_bonner or as +Paul Bonner on Google+ (https://plus.google.com/u/0/108245244384733915421)

21 Comments

  • Is that an either/or? Terrible tablets — or terrible journalism. Certainly there is plenty of both. Nice NICE job, PB gs : _)

  • Paul,
    This issue is an ancient one. I used to compete with tech pubs in the 1980s that pandered to advertisers. Happily, there are still plenty of journalists–and savvy bloggers–who call it like it is.

    • @Newt
      I agree, the issue is old as sin. I’ll never forget an elevator ride down to the street back in the early 80’s, right after the first product release announcement I’d ever attended. I rode down with two long-time tech journalists, neither of whom I knew. I couldn’t believe it when one said to the other, “Nice product. Wish I could cover it, but their competitor is an advertiser and they aren’t.”

      • That said, I think the problem is far more pervasive today than ever before. There are so many factors that encourage it. Online publications are in a much more precarious position in relation to advertisers than they were in print’s heyday, which leads to all kinds of sweetheart deals and ethics-chilling sponsorships. The writing is rushed and superficial and the editing is non-existent. I’ve seen far too many lead stories in major publications that didn’t have half the depth of the press release rewrites we used to use to fill back pages. And too many stories like the one referenced in my piece — where the editors obviously started with the headline and then tried to come up with the least advertising revenue-threatening content they could find to with it.

        Overall, there’s way too much emphasis on generating page views and pleasing advertisers, and far too little on serving the reader’s interest.

        aNewDomain feels different, so far. For sure, it’s a bit like a editorial version of the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour, but pretty much everyone involved is here at least in part because we’re tired of the crap that goes on elsewhere.

  • OK, I get it. But why doesn’t an article that takes a site to task for poor reviewing practices name that site? You make some serious charges here, so it would be nice to know who you’re talking about. If I didn’t know who you were I might think that you didn’t name the site because you write for them and didn’t want to lose a client. Otherwise, if you are going to cast aspersions on a site I’d like to see the original article so I can read it myself and see if I draw the same conclusions.

  • Paul, you make great point about the camera. I’m not likely to use a table camera to take a picture I care about. And if I want to skype or video chat, I’ve got plenty of other devices to turn to. So, why bother with a camera in a table if it is going to push me into high cost?

  • So Paul Bonner criticizes tech publications for not “telling it like it is”, then doesn’t even have the guts to identify by name the publication he’s accusing of “terrible journalism” so it’s got no chance to defend itself. What a hypocrite (and terrible journalism on Bonner’s part)

  • — Charlie & Jimson
    I hear you re: not naming names. I did in my initial draft, but after some debate here, we decided there were two good reasons to anonymize them. First, while the story that set me off was execrable, the practices I objected to are commonplace at many publications. We wanted to focus on the practices, not individual publications or writers. Moreover, the same publication that published that dreck also publishes a lot of fine, well-researched stories, so we didn’t feel there was a crying need to identify them. They know who they are.

    Anyway, I’m sure that smart guys like you can figure it out. Here’s a hint: the only story I ever wrote for them won a CPA award for best online feature many years ago.

  • Very well written, Paul.

    Funny stuff too. “ads on the same reviewers site” (lol)

    hackers love to get a hold of those “off brand” tabs. Some actually have good hardware (as you know) that just need some OS tweaking such as CM7.

    Nice read!

    -RAP, II

  • Paul, I didn’t really like being put in the same category as Jimson, someone who criticizes you for hypocrisy and doesn’t have the stones to sign your own name. Having said that, your answer made it worse. If you thought about this before you could have said “this happened at XXXX but is a common practice among other magazines” and even name them. You could then tell us who i does not partake in the practice. The idea that “the same publication that published that dreck also publishes a lot of fine, well-researched stories” could also be part of the report, showing some shades of gray. The way you’ve done this leaves us with collateral damage, and it is not good enough for the guilty to “know who they are.”
    You then go on to say that “smart guys…can figure this out.” Why would we? Do I have the time or energy to find about an award you won many years ago? Sheesh.
    This whole dialog makes me wary of this site, and whether you are just writing for each other with a nudge and a wink rather than including the rest of us who haven’t renewed our membership in the clique.

    • @Charlie — sorry if I offended you with the two-headed reply. I was grouping your comment and Jimson’s on the basis of related topic, not related tones. Believe me I recognize and appreciate the difference between them.

      Returning to our decision to not identify the other publication, I can tell you that we viewed the article in question as an opportunity to damn a practice we abhor, and that we’ve seen evidence of all over this industry. Singling out the publication wouldn’t have made our case about the practice any stronger. It would, however,have raised quite reasonable questions as to why we’re singling out a well-established competitor in our first month of existence, when we claim that the practice is wide-spread. That’s the kind of thing a punk journal would do that had nothing going for it but a penchant for being outrageous. aND doesn’t need that kind of reputation–we’ve got too much else going for us.

      That said, I can see why you might disagree with the solution. I hope you can see that we were attempting to act honorably, while still raising an issue that never gets discussed in this business. We may just have to agree to disagree on the decision itself.

      Finally, I apologize for the “you guys can figure it out” remark. I assumed that you’d be able to see the smile on my face as I wrote it, but I shouldn’t have been flip in my reply.

  • clearly Bonner is referring to a Cnet article, published Dec. 16, titled “2011’s Tablets To Avoid.” So Bonner is saying, without any proof, that Cnet’s reviews are bought and paid for by advertisers. That’s quite an allegation to make, again without any proof. Talk about yellow journalism!

    • I believe you’re drawing a pretty outrageous conclusion (“bought and paid for”) from insufficient data. The bottom line of tech publications is that they have always been “paid for” by advertisers, and that’s more true than ever in the online world.

      The question of whether they’re “bought” is another matter. I certainly believe that many publications step lightly when it comes to their coverage of products from major vendors. There are many reasons for that — over-familiarity is one, protecting revenues is another. In either case, I think the term “corrupted”, which we used in the article, can be said to apply. But there’s a world of difference between that and outright sales of positive editorial coverage. I, for one, am not currently prepared to level that charge against any publication.

      I appreciate your enthusiasm for the topic, but don’t put words in my mouth.

  • I’m not putting words in your mouth, you state clearly (and without any evidence) that you believe Cnet focused on obscure tablets so as not to offend their advertisers. You also accuse them of being unethical. Yet it is your piece that raises serious ethics questions by taking blind potshots at a competitor. The following are your words, are they not?

    “Routine exclusion of major vendors — usually advertisers — in mainstream tech review coverage is the acceptable norm these days. No one protests this. But it blatantly ignores the fundamental precepts of journalistic ethics.

    So it might come as no surprise that the review summaries in this story were filled with contradictions.”

  • Let’s not get into a pissing contest here Jimson. Neither the passage you quoted nor the rest of the article mentioned any publication by name, because the intent wasn’t to attack a single competitor, it was to raise the point that the entire tech publishing industry needs to pay more attention to ethical issues and to providing the reader with honest, valuable content.

    Finally, let me assure you that no one spends 30 years in or around this business without encountering plenty of evidence of an ethics gap.

  • Hey, guys. Just thought I’d remind you all: This is a commentary piece. Opinion. Paul’s opinion. A well-argued one and it’s great to have a debate going. Glad that Paul brought up this issue — and it is an old one, true — but that doesn’t make it less valid. We can’t let ourselves get desensitized to the pandemic of advertorial-leaning blogs. One bad apple … etc …

  • I take your point about the Acer Iconia A100, but not sure what exactly puts the Thrive in the avoid list. Sure, its thicker than the current crop of tablets, but its 16 mm, just 3 mm more than the ipad 1. The extra girth allows it to have a number of unique features, a full sized USB port, HDMI port and a replaceable battery. People have also criticized its laptop style charger, but that allows it to charge from 0 to full 2-3 times faster than the other tablets. It has shortcomings, but they are outweighed by its advantages and its low cost.

    • I’ll concede your point Jagan — the Thrive popped into my head as I was writing, but I could have named pretty much almost any first generation Honeycomb tablet in its place. Personally, I think that, with the exception of one or two, the rest of the field was uniformly mediocre.

      Of course, lots of tech reviewers took potshots at the Thrive, but I think that reflects more poorly on the tech reviewing profession than on Toshiba’s tablet. The beauty of the Android ecosphere is that it leaves room for lots of variation, but too many Android reviewers — perhaps feeling a bit too much iPad envy — have settled on a single definition of good: that of a tablet that’s as light and thin and finely shaped as Samsung’s Galaxy Tabs. Which is silly because that criteria only works for some users. The Galaxy Tabs could have been laughed off the stage if reviewers had instead elected to prize expandable memory and full-sized ports — in which case the Thrive would ended up at the top of the heap. Heck, if the profession had collectively decided that a kickstand was the most important feature for a tablet, Archos’ G9s would have reigned supreme.

      Many years ago, my physics professor told our class that the relativity theory was accepted primarily because we live in an age that prizes elegant simplicity. If we prized baroque complexity instead, we’d still be tinkering with a Copernican universe. In other words, it all came down to fashion. I think the same can be said of tech reviews.

      Anyway, sorry for besmirching a product you’re obviously fond of. That matters way more than any tech writer’s opinion anyway.

  • Paul,

    Your Story hits on a point I have been raging to others about for years. The tech community frequently gets it wrong about many products. Especially about tablets and phones.

    I propose a BS detector algorithm that correlates customer reviews to so-called professional reviews. If there is a big disconnect, something is wrong.

    The much maligned BlackBerry Playbook is a great tablet with OSv2. Yet it is left out of the top ten in every review site, and still has mediocre to terrible reviews. The reviewers are either caressing their ipads while they are supposedly reviewing the others, incompetent, or outright corrupt.

    On Amazon, buy.com, gdgt, and other major sites, the consumer reviews are all 8/9 out of 10, or 4 out of 5 stars. Similar ratings to the ipad, and other good products.

    I would also expect to see good journalist see through slick marketing, or the lack thereof for the various products. As a fellow technically minded person, I just want the straight story.