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Another Case of Reviewing Products Without Using Them

You can bet that the day Apple announced the forthcoming release of iPhone 4 and iOS 4, members of the tech media dissected the fine details in hopes of getting a story, or even a story behind the story. Some actually had a few minutes face time with the new gadget at last week’s WWDC conference, so they were at least able to speak knowledgeably on the subject. As to the rest, well, if you can’t deliver facts, rely on something else.

So we have all those inevitable feature comparisons, bullet point listings indicating whether or not iPhone 4 has a feature, and if a similar feature is available on a competing product, usually one that incorporates the Google Android OS. If the latter has something not yet available on the iPhone, the assumption is that Apple has a potential sales problem.

Consider the new iPhone’s rear and front facing cameras. Well, some Android phones have that too. End of story. Nowhere do they explain whether or not those Android phones can do video chatting as seamlessly as the iPhone using FaceTime (they can’t, even if you include some awkward third-party app). The hardware is the beginning and the end.

When Apple touted the retina display, one or two supposed visual experts chimed in to say that it wasn’t good enough. You’d need a higher resolution setting or hold the iPhone some 18 to 24 inches away before the pixels vanish. This is where theories and the real world lie far apart. It appears that someone with normal vision — say 20/20 with or without correction — wouldn’t be able to see individual pixels at some 12 inches distant. I realize a few of you have better vision, but that is pretty much in line with Apple’s claims, but at least it made for a story about whether that claim is an absolute lie.

More to the point, which Android OS handsets sport resolutions of 326 pixels per inch or better? Everyone who has actually used an iPhone 4 extols its superior display quality, while the images on Android phones are certainly good enough, it’s not as if they are running high-resolution games and such. Apple decided that good enough wasn’t sufficient.

When it comes to the iOS, the comparisons are usually done in the same fashion, which is feature by feature. Strict bullet points, without bothering to determine how well the features are actually implemented in these devices. And, yes, I know that some people say that Apple’s new multitasking scheme isn’t sufficient to suit their needs.

Unfortunately, this lame-brained comparison scheme is the same used when one matches up Mac OS X with Windows. It’s the sort of mindset that infects such reviewing outlets as Consumer Reports magazine, although they have never actually evaluated these two operating systems in any meaningful way. They just exist, and are two roads to the same destination, period.

I would hope that, when the iPhone 4 ships, reviewers will treat the product fairly and actually use it and its rivals before making judgments. That may be a stretch, but it would at least be a logical and responsible way to approach the subject. You’d want to know not just what features these smartphones contain, but how well implemented they might be, along with the stability, performance and usability of the operating system.

You see, here’s where Apple has traditionally been triumphant. Yes, competing products may sport more hardware and software features, but Apple has a knack for integrating them in a way that makes them more intuitive, more consistent, more reliable. Perfect? No chance, but usually functional in a way that seems to elude the competition.

I recall those recent TV ads for the iPad, extolling the fact that you “already know how to use it,” which doesn’t just talk to existing iPhone and iPod touch users, but to a larger segment of the population that might be concerned over the complexities of mastering the next great gadget.

Now let me put my cards on the table: I haven’t touched an iPhone 4. I am eligible for an upgrade at the standard “discount” price plus an $18 activation fee from AT&T. Knowing my perilous finances these days, it’s questionable whether I’ll be prepared to buy one by the June 24th introductory date. On the other hand, with Radio Shack claiming they are offering substantial trade-in allowances on existing iPhones in “good condition,” maybe I will be able to get myself a late Father’s Day gift for little or no cash outlay.

I will continue to write about the new iPhone regardless, but I will make it quite clear whether I am just using facts I’ve gleaned from articles and spec sheets, or from personal experience with the new device. Once the iPhone 4 is in the stores, I will be visiting the local Radio Shack, which is a short walk from here, and will spend as much time as I can examining the new product to see whether the promise and reality are actually realized. No guesses, just the facts! I wish some of my presumed colleagues treated these subjects as fairly.