Hands-on or hands-off?

I’m very thankful for Danny Sullivan writing this article, because it touches upon a subject I’ve increasingly been frustrated with: the inflation of the term ‘hands-on’. Hands-on used to mean that a journalist, blogger, or reviewer got to properly use a device to get some sort of first impression, usually guided by some words from the manufacturer. These days, however, it seems as if even merely getting a glance at a device is regarded as a ‘hands-on’.

Microsoft’s Surface launch is a perfect example of this. Everyone who saw the event knew it was thrown together at the last minute, and felt rushed and at times quite incoherent. It seemed as if Microsoft caught wind of whatever Google is going to show during i/o, and wanted to steal the thunder – even though the device itself was far from ready to step into the spotlight.

As a result, nobody actually got to use a Surface device at the event. Sullivan was also invited to the event, and got the same playtime with the device as everybody else. “‘Hands-on’ was used in plenty of headlines, and that irked me, because I know we weren’t given any real hands-on with the device at all,” he notes, “That is, unless you believe holding an iPad or a Kindle Fire that’s not turned on is ‘hands-on’. That’s pretty much what it was like with Surface.”

The way Sullivan details the goings-on of the time journalists got with the device paints a picture of a very nervous Microsoft, who really didn’t want anyone to actually use the device at all. The prime feature of the device, the fancy Touch Cover, wasn’t even seen working at all. So, how on earth can it be that TechCrunch, The Verge, AnandTech, Mashable, and many others, called this a hands-on?

“No journalist seems to have really used any of these at the launch event. None of the hands-on reviews that I’ve read, having been in that room and toured the stations, have anything that reflects any real hands-on activity to me,” Sullivan states, “There’s plenty of careful photography that can give the impression that hands-on was going on. Some of it doesn’t even illustrate how the last station with the Surface tablets with keyboards in them literally had a rope to keep us away.”

It’s died down a bit now, but up until, say, a year or so ago loads of sites popped up that claimed to offer “reviews” of Linux distributions. We received an endless stream of submissions from these sites, and as far as I can recall, I rarely, if ever, linked to any of them. Why? The reviews were usually only 3-5 paragraphs long, covered installation and the empty desktop, posted a few screenshots, and that was it. Of course – the sites would be laden with SEO spam and ads to the point of being utterly unreadable.

The term ‘review’ had seen so much inflation by that point that honest reviewers had to add on terms like ‘in-depth’ or ‘thorough’ to distinguish themselves from these scummy “reviews”. I’m trying to stick to the term ‘review’ without modifiers as much as possible, because I think you guys can determine perfectly fine for yourself if a review is ‘in-depth’ or not, but I do understand their quandary.

After diluting the term ‘review’, we’re now seeing a dilution of the term ‘hands-on’, all moves in a race for being the first with something. Competition between the large gadget sites has increased considerably, but it’s sad to see that reputable sites like AnandTech and successful newcomers like The Verge have to resort to stretching the term ‘hands-on’ as much as they do in order to gain those precious hits.

As for Surface itself – a device which looks to have a lot of potential, but since nobody has used one other than Microsoft employees, it’s technically vapourware, and ought to be treated as such. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.


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