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The Network Observer

David Doering

November, 2000 | Readers and vendors alike want to know about how we elite editors determine when and if a product gets an Editor's Choice award. One of the jobs that a reviewer enjoys most is opening a box of some new hardware. Honest. It's like Christmas every week of the year when the FedEx truck arrives. I start out wanting to give every product an Editor's Choice award as I cut into the packing tape. Naturally, I always hope to find the next Palm Pilot, Snap Server, or NSM jukebox in the container.

So what will keep me wanting to give a product an award? Here are the secrets of successful award-contention.

what's not in a name?

First, use a plain ordinary name for the product. What is a Vaio anyway? Do I really want to get a Parago? If I told my mother I'd just gotten a case of Cidera, she'd tell me I'd better rush to the doctor for some ointment. Why can't companies see that successful products use human names: Palm, Apple Macintosh, Compact Disc, Snap Server?

Second, watch out for poor descriptive language. I received an LCD monitor from a vendor who will remain nameless. The PR rep assured me that her product reached "a new low" in product pricing for monitors. Honest. Okay, so the colors don't quite match across the screen. So what if the lack of a driver for this monitor causes my Windows to blow up with a perpetual error loop ("The monitor or display adapter is improperly configured. Please reboot." Reboot and the error message reappears.) It required a reinstall of Windows to fix. But hey! At least her promise of "a new low" gave me my lead.

Here's a little gem I got from another vendor--a 52X CD-ROM drive guaranteed to blast data onto the screen. Any sonic by-products of that blasting, they promised, would be absorbed by my computer casing if the internal drive was properly installed. Never mind that the sound of the drive in full swing resembled the roar of an airplane propeller at about six inches.

always the first to know

Secret number three is to use your product before you give me the chance to broadcast its failings to the world. The company that sold me my desktop PC told me that the add-on speakers would also "blast" me out of the office with my test CD titles. These four-inch jewels provide all the roar of an aging gnat. Crank them up and they squawk with distortion. At least I have my 52X CD-ROM drive to drown them out.

Then there's this cutting-edge, high-speed CD-RW unit I received. Its vendor's promise: "It will end your need for bigger drives." I imagine someone at that company actually used one of the prototype drives since it installed easily enough. It even read my CDs just fine. Only problem is, as soon as I put in a CD-RW, my system locked up. Take the CD-RW out, and it worked fine. CD-RW drive, CD-RW disc. My mistake.

Same thing for one delightful network-attached device from a lesser-known manufacturer. It promised to support Mac, Windows, and NetWare clients. Good thing I've got plenty of Mac files to archive. None of the other clients can see it.

Oh, and then there's these anonymous, low-priced mainboards beckoning to me from Taiwan or Malaysia. Sure, on the drawing board these puppies should provide me with a full 133mHz of throughput to my gHz processor. But at the price they sell for, who cares about the quality of traces and PCI bus compliance? Power them up, and half the time the system freezes even before the Windows icon appears.

Or what about the frozen motherboard where the culprit was the CPU fan? Did the vendor get a wonderful buy on these 486-style fans and just had to pass one on to me? It's about as big a fan base as the Spice Girls have these days and no, I am not interested in providing Mr. CPU with a quiet, comfortable breeze. Give him hurricane winds and keep him working.

Secret number four is to Read Your Fabulous Manual (like RTFM, get it?). It would be nice if senior management would be forced to open one of their own products and actually install and use it, based on the manual. Apparently, once a manual gets written it becomes sacred.

That's why instead of actual revisions, all we get are the blue, green, yellow, and orange sheets tucked into the box screaming "Read me first!" five or six times. These added pages seem to have come from tech support after they discovered the manual wasn't quite accurate about setup or procedures. I think if your product requires more than one sheet to alert users to changes, you need to do a new manual.

The final secret to courting a reviewer's good graces is to stop shipping products with lousy, crippled software. One product I got sent was hamstrung thus: you can install and use the jukebox for recording, but only one disc at a time (a $5000 single-disc recorder! Am I dreaming?). And as for administrative features, all the useful ones--like logging--were reserved for the "full-featured" version.

Sure, I get it. You want the license fee for the upgraded version. But since I have never used your product before, how about converting me first to all the wonders of your software, making me a lifelong friend, and then worrying about selling me on updates?

I hope vendors understand that when they send us review units, we might actually test them, and assess them based on--dare I say it--how they perform. At least I have my column to strike back at these failed products. I wonder what real users do...

The Network ObServer columnist David Doering (dave@techvoice.com), an EMedia contributing editor, is also senior analyst with TechVoice Inc., an Orem, Utah-based consultancy.

Comments? Email us at letters@onlineinc.com.


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