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The Case Against iPhone Reviews

We’re all tech experts now — so why does every website publish a ludicrously long “review” of new phones? The answer is obvious.

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If for some reason, you were looking at Twitter around 6 a.m. ET on September 13, you may have seen more than the standard void of pre-daylight tweets. In place of the nothingness was a flurry of messages all saying essentially the same thing:

“Tip @Techmeme: iPhone 7 review.”

Yes, it was iPhone review day, and tech reporters’ semidesperate barrage of tweets asking Techmeme to add their iPhone reviews to the already-hefty slew featured on its site was just beginning. The embargo had been lifted, and it was officially time to tell people about the new device.

You may have noticed that The Ringer dot com didn’t send one of these tweets, because we didn’t write an iPhone review. There’s a reason we didn’t, and it’s because there are a lot of them — very good ones. For us, September 13, iPhone review day, came and went; before it, there were no iPhone 7 reviews, and after, there were thousands. We didn’t need to contribute another.

“The funny thing about iPhone reviews: As they became less important to readers, they became more important to news sites,” says Techmeme founder Gabe Rivera. “The function iPhone reviews perform for readers has become less vital. The various iPhone iterations generally delivered on the incremental features they promised. So reviews have mostly served to confirm, ‘Yes, this new tweak works as advertised.’”

The iPhone cycle resembles the five stages of grief: First there are the rumors leading up to an announcement. (Denial.) Then the announcement arrives. (Anger.) Then we anticipate the day we can order the phone. (Bargaining.) Then there is the Unboxing. (Depression.) And then, of course, the reviews. (Acceptance.) iPhone review day is a calculated component of the device’s release. In advance, writers are given units. They use the phones as much as possible and write reviews that will be published at the same time as all the other reviews, because there is an embargo — a day and time that companies ask outlets to wait until before publishing content about information or products that the companies have furnished.

When this happens with something as momentous as the iPhone, the internet is suddenly flooded with reviews hitting at the exact same time. The news cycle is consumed and determined before most people are awake. It is managed and repetitive, down to the content of the reviews themselves. They are usually populated with sections on hardware, design, camera, software, etc. Most feature some sort of score. (The iPhone almost never receives less than a 7 out of 10.) Nearly all of the reviews feature bullet points at the end summarizing the things readers need to know.

So why write these reviews? Why agree to an embargo that you know many other writers agreed to, only to publish something that closely resembles what everyone else will? It shouldn’t have to be said, but the reason is obvious: traffic. “iPhone X Review” is a popular search term that guarantees page views.

When the internet was still new and gadgets like laptops and cellular phones were becoming common purchases rather than luxury products, reviews were necessary. These were expensive items, and increasingly essential — they had to work to our needs. There were questions that needed answering: What should I expect from a smartphone camera? How long is battery life? Android or iOS? The reviews had answers.

That is not quite the case anymore. We have a far greater comprehension of phones (and this is especially true of the iPhone) and what they do and how they compare in the marketplace. Walk into a room and you’re likely to find a handful of useful takes on devices you’re interested in, because everyone owns a smartphone and a laptop (and maybe even a Nest and a Fitbit and an Echo). We have all quickly become electronics experts, and thus the original experts, the ones who got early access and had backgrounds using devices we’d never held, have become less necessary. That, of course, is not enough to kill the internet review, which continues to reinvent itself.

“Outlets that get review units became determined to demonstrate they have the most extensive or groundbreaking review,” says Rivera. “So the reviews got longer, or got more high-res images, or came with gimmicky videos, or all of the above. Basically everyone wanted to put the Mossberg prototype on steroids. Maybe it’s about prestige as much as anything else … or maybe they’re all performing for Apple as much as they are for readers.”

It’s true that reviews have gotten prettier, and have been upgraded with photography and interactive media tools that were formerly reserved for longer features. Some of the best-looking reviews on the internet can be found on The Verge and Wired; looking through successive iPhone reviews shows the visible upgrade in presentation. The most useful element of these reviews, however, continues to be those bullet points, the pros and cons, and the final grade.

The Verge’s iPhone 5 review (about 4,900 words)
The Verge’s iPhone 5 review (about 4,900 words)

It’s not that we don’t need iPhone reviews. We just don’t need a day dedicated to thousands of them. And we definitely don’t need 10,000-word philosophical opuses (especially given our web reading attention spans). Reviews can still solve problems and serve readers. So what does a good, helpful consumer technology review look like in 2016?

A video, probably. “I think video reviews are already the preferred method for gadget reviews,” says Marques Brownlee, otherwise known as YouTube reviewer MKBHD. “There are still plenty of valuable opinions that contribute via written publications, but I think a video gives the best medium for understanding what it’s like to own a product. A video can give a realistic product ownership experience, can literally show something happening instead of just describing it, and can even work to familiarize the viewer with the presenter better than any text.”

Brownlee says he reads “very few” written iPhone reviews these days, and gets more of this education via videos. “I probably fully read two to three phone reviews per year,” he says. “But I watch hundreds of videos.”

This isn’t exactly news to publishers, which are frantically doubling down on their video strategies for a variety of reasons (read: Facebook traffic). But most haven’t replaced long, multipage (read: more time-on-site, more page views) reviews for a video rendition — the video is just an added piece, slotted inside the text review and also standing on its own, raking in traffic from YouTube and Facebook as well. It’s certainly more work for a publication, and maybe for readers who click around trying to find exactly the best experience. Often, these videos are not full reviews but rather complements to the articles — unless they’re made by YouTube-first reviewers, like Brownlee, who says his style has evolved since the original iPhone.

“Something I’m able to do now that I couldn’t when I first started [is] reference previous reviews,” Brownlee says. “[It] makes the iPhone 7 Plus review very different if the main crux is just pointing out major differences versus the iPhone 7.”

Which is precisely how most iPhone reviews should function: We’re 15 iPhones in now, so we don’t need to write as much — or in some cases, more — about a device with which most people are fairly well acquainted.

But it’s never entirely about the readers (it can’t be, sorry). It’s a game we’ve all agreed to play — the manufacturers, the publishers, right down to the aggregators.

“[iPhone review day] is somewhat difficult for us, because we need to suddenly wade through dozens of reviews to arrive at the small number that we feature,” says Techmeme’s Rivera. “It’s a lot of work to be done quickly, and of course we’ll disappoint most of the publishers in the process.”

There’s also the matter of how publication product reviews work. It’s to a website’s advantage to get a review unit of an item early, so they can have one of the first reviews — especially if it’s for a product like the iPhone. But the manufacturer isn’t incentivized to offer said review unit to a publication early — or at all — if the outlet doesn’t have a history of writing favorable things. This isn’t necessarily how all reviews work, and there are several upstanding sites that write whatever they want. But there are certainly some eyebrow-raising business-relationship aspects at play here.

If you’re deeply conspiratorial, you might wonder if we shouldn’t start trusting reviews from consumer experts — those without embargoes, who don’t get review units for free, who don’t care if their reviews yield page views, and who are not attempting to stay in any company’s good graces.

“One of the things that distinguishes Consumer Reports from other review sites is that we purchase all of the products we test,” says James McQueen, communications counsel for the publication. “Smartphones are no exceptions.”

McQueen says that secret shoppers go out and buy a device, so that every part of the process works like it does for the ordinary consumer. “We [also] do not accept advertisements in any form. [This] is how we maintain our independence and unbiased reputation.” This doesn’t mean that pure user reviews all have such a high standard — look no further than Yelp or Amazon for proof.

For now, we seem to be stuck wading in an internet full of overlong and often unnecessary iPhone reviews that essentially boil down to the same thing. Speaking of:

The new iPhone is good; 8/10. Great camera.