Software Reviews? Argghh!

by Craig Anderton

It wasn’t always like this: I used to look forward to having some new piece of software to check out. But now, whenever I get assigned some new program to review, I get a sense of impending doom and foreboding. Here’s why.

To begin with, the program invariably needs some hardware I don’t have. Anderton’s rule of RAM is no matter how much you have, the next program you need to review will require twice as much. Ditto processors: my 166 MHz Pentium was actually considered cool as little as a year ago. Now it’s “sub-minimum requirements.” And my Power Computing PowerMac would still be mired in “too bad you have such an old computer” if Power Computing hadn’t taken pity on me and let me trade it in for a newer model so I could run the software I’m being asked to review.

More and more software demands that you essentially tie up the entire machine to run the program, and especially on the Windows side, wants certain system tweaks (graphics acceleration on, graphics acceleration off, whatever). Now, one of the things I like about Windows is how you can customize it for the task at hand to get that extra ounce of performance, but the problem is that no two programs seem to want the same customization. I finally gave up and installed a special hard drive just for reviewing Windows programs. I wipe it clean periodically, reinstall the system, make it the boot drive, and install the program from there and do whatever it wants me to do. At least that lets me maintain my normal boot drive so I can get real work done.

The Mac side is definitely better, but not by as much as Mac loyalists would like you to believe. Invariably, something that works under 7.1 won’t work under 7.5, and as for system 8…call me a coward, but I haven’t installed it yet, and won’t until everyone else finishes beta testing it. Then you need the latest version of some extension or driver for the hardware that works with the software you’re reviewing (with which some other program on your computer is not compatible, so you have to keep the old one around anyway). Then after you have all your patches and $25 upgrades sorted out, it’s time to discover which extensions are fighting which, and why your computer crashes at seemingly random intervals.

Eventually, after a few fun hours (or days) learning about the emotional problems of computers, triumph — it’s time to actually run the program! That is, if you can figure out the manual, which is usually an eclectic mix of the printed manual for version 1.0, several loose leaf sheets of paper with updates and corrections for later versions, the special “read me” file on floppy disk which if you don’t read before installation causes the end of the world as we know it, and of course, the online documentation which contains additional information not mentioned anywhere else. And don’t you love it when the online instructions include info on how to install the program, but you can read the online file only after installing it?

So then you try the program out with your interface of choice, only to find some weird problem. The interface company says it’s the software’s fault, the software company blames the interface manufacturer. Or, they tell you to go to someone’s web site and download some patch, which typically has instructions like “to install this patch, first install the patch, then run it.” Then all of a sudden you find you can’t fax documents any more, or your system clock has been reset to the year 1834.

Nonetheless, being a Professional Reviewer, you make however many calls to tech support you need to make, then move on and start working with the program. You make careful notes of its wonders, its flaws, and spend some quality time making it run through hoops. Finally, you send a copy of the draft off to the manufacturer for fact-checking to make sure the price hasn’t changed, you didn’t miss some workaround or cool tip, etc.

Invariably, the response is “Well gee, we’re up to version 1.75ab3.45gtx.0002 now, which fixes most of the bugs you mentioned and adds a few new features. Just go to our web site and download the update.” Then it’s back to screwing up your system again with yet more extensions, .dlls, and other sanity-robbing goodies. If the computer successfully boots after re-starting, you’re fortunate indeed.

So you rewrite the review in light of the new changes, and find out that now you have some other questions. Back on the phone. “Yes, there is a conflict with (fill in the blank), but our next rev will fix that .” Of course, the next rev is always slated for release 2 days before the deadline for the article, but invariably arrives 2 days after the issue has gone to the printer.

Meanwhile, it takes another 30-60 days before the magazine hits the newsstands, at which point you look like an idiot because the review is of something that no one can buy anymore, since they’re now up to version 1.77cq.vwbug66.jb.007.

Of course, anyone who uses software – not just reviewers – has to run the same gauntlet. But what ticks me off is you guys install the program, and after eventually getting it to work, you’re home free until your animal brain overtakes your rational brain and decides to upgrade. For reviewers, as soon as that program’s wiped from the hard drive, you have to go through the same thing all over again with the next review.

Fortunately, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Eventually the magazine sends you a check, and your obtain the satisfaction of knowing that thanks to your specialized knowledge, years of experience, and hard work, that you indeed netted something more than minimum wage. (Interestingly, one magazine now pays me extra for sound card reviews…sort of “hazardous duty pay.”) Of course, you have a tech support phone bill that will make phone company shareholders smile, and your system is still screwed up, but you’ll get around to fixing it soon…in fact, as soon as you download driver patch update 2.3tu34iu5, which is going to solve all your conflict problems, once and for all.


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