NEW YORK: Brian X Chen, The Times’ personal technology writer, who is based in San Francisco, discussed the tech he’s using.
You explain, highlight and solve everyday tech problems for readers. How do you use tech to keep track of the issues and new tech that is coming out?
Twitter, Facebook and Techmeme.com are useful for keeping up with new gadget trends. But when it comes to staying in tune with the tech-induced headaches of average people, I turn to reader emails or conversations with non-techie friends.
Nothing beats listening to people rant about the tech they’re frustrated with. Nearly everyone seems angry about connectivity issues: Sluggish, unreliable Wi-Fi, spotty cell coverage or shoddy broadband service. Other than that, battery life continues to be a source of people’s misery.
At The Times, we have access to analytics about the people reading our articles, and the consistent strong readership we get from stories about these topics reaffirms that people continue to be frustrated with these issues.
What kind of testing setup do you use to tell us if a whiz-bang gadget or app or service is for real?
Oftentimes before I start testing a product, I jot down an objective set of tests for tasks that I can reasonably expect a product to do. For example, when I compared virtual assistants last year, I drew up more than a dozen basic tasks related to productivity, music, mapping, dining and entertainment, and ran each assistant through all the tasks to see which was the most competent. After I plugged the results in a spreadsheet, Google’s was superior.
In addition to objective tests, my reviews are subjective. I keep in mind what I know average people care about when it comes to tech, other than a checklist of features. The setup needs to be simple and intuitive, the product needs to be durable and work well, the company’s customer service needs to be delightful, and a gadget’s design needs to be aesthetically pleasing enough that you would feel proud about carrying it around or leaving it on your coffee table.
What is the favourite piece of tech you have reviewed for The Times so far?
The Nintendo Switch. If you’re getting paid to play “Zelda,” you’re winning at life. Plus, it was a fun gadget to test because it was essentially two products in one: a home console that converts into a portable device when you yank the tablet off the dock.
Do you still use it?
Rarely. After finishing “Zelda,” some of the newer games have been less interesting. But I’m eager to try “Super Mario Odyssey” when it comes out this fall.
What was your least favorite tech product to review and why?
Probably the Echo Show, Amazon’s smart speaker with a screen built into it.
It’s a decent product, but the problem with reviewing it on Day 1 was that there were no great “Skills,” or third-party apps, available for it yet to get a feel for whether an always-on, always-watching gadget in your home would be useful. Blank-slate products like Echo Show create a dilemma for reviewers. Should we evaluate the product based on what it can do currently (which is very little), or what we think it has the potential to do in the future? I’m not a fortuneteller, so I lean toward the former and render a “wait and see” verdict that seems repetitive. But even when people take the latter approach and predict a gadget’s potential, it’s unhelpful for informing people whether they should buy something today.
Beyond your job, what tech products are you currently obsessed with using in your daily life?
I fell down a rabbit hole with indoor gardening after I bought a so-called smart planter called the Click & Grow. It’s basically a planter with built-in drip irrigation and a timed grow light; you can buy dirt pods containing seeds for growing different types of plants. Even if you lived in a tiny New York apartment with little natural light, you could grow fresh basil, chili peppers and cilantro. What a novelty.
In my kitchen, I’m currently growing basil and scallions, and I’m experimenting with propagating succulents and other types of nonedible house plants with the planter.
What could be better about it?
The pods are too expensive. You can buy them in sets of three for US$20, which seems like too much for dirt and seeds.
When you’ve had enough of tech and want to get away, what’s your escape route?
My corgi is the boss of me, so on the weekends you’ll usually find me at a dog park, beach or mountain trail.
By Brian X Chen © 2017 New York Times News Service