Autumn is a busy time for tech writers. It's when many manufacturers choose to launch their most important new products, and these need to be tested so that potential customers can form an opinion on whether they a) need the product and more importantly, b) should buy it.
As far as reviews go, I am mostly responsible for smartwatches such as the Apple Watch; I occasionally test Apple's iPhones. But that doesn't mean that I don't read reviews of other devices.
And something has struck me when reading these. This year in particular, I have noticed that most of the reviews out there seem to be written for an elite group, and not for normal users.
Missing the point with the Apple Watch Series 7
I wouldn't have noticed it so much if Apple hadn't apparently fluffed the launch of the Apple Watch Series 7 in September.
Okay, compared to its predecessor, there were only quite small changes: a bigger screen with a full keyboard and faster charging. Hardly enough justification to upgrade directly from the Series 6.
But here's the point: the majority of Apple Watch wearers don't switch every year. They use their smartwatches for two to four years. And why not? The battery easily lasts this long; my one-year-old Series 6 still has 91% of its battery capacity. If it weren't for software issues, many more owners of the Apple Watch Series 3 would have stuck with it.
And even in past generations, there were sometimes years when the latest Apple Watch didn't differ much from its predecessor. The Series 5 got an always-on display. The Series 2 "only" got a GPS module.
But if you went by the reviews in the press, you'd think the Series 7 was close to a disaster. Most assessments were along these lines: yes, bigger display, sure, faster charging, but the change is not worth it. Even my own colleague Jason Cross, in an insightful review, argues that Apple could have done without a new watch this year, so insignificant are the innovations in the Series 7.
This line of argument makes it clear what most such reviews still lack: clear practical value for the 'normal' or everyday user.
The life of a tech reviewer
Perhaps a little background is necessary here.
An editor for a tech website moves in a rarefied world full of the latest products - after all, you want to inform your readers about the innovations on the market. We either buy our test samples on day one or ask manufacturers to lend them to us for a certain period of time (from four weeks to a year up to infinity - the period depends on the manufacturer).
Every editor is excited about new features and hardware developments when they are introduced; after all, they make great headlines. If we had our way, there would be a tech revolution every year.
The problem with this is that development is generally an evolutionary process made up of a succession of changes that seem quite insignificant at first glance. The real difference, visible most easily in retrospect, is created by the accumulation of these many small changes.
To stay with the example, if the Apple Watch 7 is a small step forward from the Series 6, it's a huge advance on the Series 3: ECG, oxygen measurement, fall detection, 50% more display area, faster, better processors, an always-on screen and so on. Is an upgrade justified in such a case? Of course!
What is also overlooked is the special nature of the smartwatch market. It is comparatively young and not yet saturated, which means many buyers are not switching or upgrading, but buying a smartwatch for the first time.
The problem with iPhone reviews
And what is there to complain about in most iPhone reviews? The same thing that so many smartwatch reviews lack: they don't answer the questions that are relevant for the average user.
For example, I bought my iPhone 11 Pro in May 2020. And as it happens, I don't particularly want to upgrade; I'm interested in the new handsets, but in quite a detached way. Maybe the reviewer will come up with a weighty argument that could change my mind, but it's not something I'm seeking out.
As with the Apple Watch, however, reviewers usually compare the new iPhone with its immediate predecessor, ignoring the earlier models. The comparisons are generally between the iPhone 13 Pro and the 12 Pro, not a handset from the 11 generation.
But even with iPhones, only a fairly small target group switches every year; most people change their devices when they renew their mobile phone contract, most likely once every two years. Quite a few use their smartphones for three years or more - after all, Apple supplies its iPhones with software updates for up to five years.
What else catches the eye in most iPhone reviews is that they fixate on the tech specs, which can be expressed neatly in numbers and easily compared: 120Hz, 12MP, 4GB RAM, 4,090mAh, 6.1in and so on. However, for most people, these numbers are simply not important for the daily use of the devices. For example, I would have switched to an iPhone 13 just because the smallest model offers significantly more storage for the same price, and the constant reminder that I haven't got enough memory would no longer annoy me.
And that mentality - not an obsessive interest in tech specs, or the iterative changes from one generation to the next - is what tech reviewers should be considering if they want their articles to be valuable to the average reader.
Different Think is a weekly column, published every Tuesday, in which Macworld writers expose their less mainstream opinions to public scrutiny. We've defended the notch, argued that Tim Cook is a better CEO than Steve Jobs, and called Apple TV+ a disaster movie without a happy ending. This article originally appeared on Macwelt; translation (using DeepL) by David Price.