Saturday, October 19, 2013

What I've Learned: A Practical Guide To Picking Tech

What got me hooked on tech

I am an abherration. In a family chiefly comprised of artistic, gloomy, expressive types more concerned with what pigment to use to render falling leaves properly, I was more interested in tearing the family television apart to see why PiP (picture in picture) wasn't working. But I didn't start out that way. My favorite activity as a child was making up songs. I'd quite literally stand around outside for hours, smacking a tree trunk with a stick, singing about everything. Everybody was convinced I'd be the next Conway Twitty.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Mister Conway Twitty

But then I saw what became my favorite television show early one Sunday morning. Which was an accident because I had gotten up early thinking it was Saturday and was surfing all 3 channel looking for cartoons. I saw this:

Listening to Tom Baker talk about Isaac Newton hooked me, and I ended up watching the rest of The Pirate Planet, and I've been hooked on Doctor Who ever since. I was eight years old. For Christmas that year I asked for and received the 100 in 1 Electronic Project Kit. Which lead to an Apple II, a Commodore 64, a 286, 386, 486DX2, Pentium 100, etc. 

The thing is, I can't shake my roots. That means for the longest time, I'd have two of most things. The powerful version and the fun version. The only exception being when something is both, which is exceedingly rare. That brings us to the first rules of practical tech. They are related:

The Atari 26
1) If it is powerful, it is almost always complicated.

This is pretty straight forward. If you have an amazing tool with 5000 uses, it's probably cumbersome. You may have to learn a new language or discipline to even use it. 

The Mouth Shovel
2) if it is easy, it is almost always limited. 

Also pretty straight forward. Easy things usually do a few things well.

The American Gear Shifter
3) Automation attempts to make hard things easy

Shifting gears for you. Taking pictures for you. Selecting music for you based on your tastes. The idea is a bit of math in the form of an algorithm or equation can do some of the thinking for you.

The Buggy iPhone 5S
4) Heavily automated things are buggy and vary significantly between different versions of the same product. 

It's not a matter of if they are buggy, but how buggy. When something tries to do things for you, the level of complexity increases dramatically. Some products do complexity well. Some don't. Some things have so many features it's intimidating, but are non-intuitive. Some products do everything for you, but are buggy. Some products are non-configurable and you are stuck with what you get. 

And that last point is what makes picking tech so hard for the typical consumer. It's a series of tradoffs. 

what I need VERSUS what it does
what it does well VERSUS what it does badly
how it looks VERSUS how it performs
how long it will last VERSUS how much it costs

Hundreds of those kinds of considerations. Which makes the entire process painful to the point that a lot of people don't even bother thinking about it, and just buy whatever their friends buy. At least then you'll be miserable together. But it doesn't have to be that hard. Like anything complicated, it's all about how you approach it. If you come in from the right angle, you can make a decision you'll at least convince yourself you are happy with. It's about limiting scope right from the beginning. Lets get started.

Easily Picking Good Tech

The American Toothpick
1) What do you really need?

I had a roommate once that left the house to get a new monitor and came back three hours later with a whole new computer and two monitors, a desk, and a chair. She still had that glazed look in her eyes from being "sellraped" by a high pressure sales-wizard. Further questioning only resulted in regurgitated sales speak. "It is four times faster than my old computer at... things. Um, the pixel density on this one is for.... doing taxes I think". If she had simply got what she needed, I wouldn't have nearly broken my back hauling in the pile of crap she had managed to shove into her Honda Civic. If she had known what she actually needed, and stuck to her guns, this wouldn't have happened. Instead she got bowled over by a bunch of sales-speak and gimmicks. This is why if you don't know what you really need, you do....

2) Research

It's pretty simple when you look at it the right way. Especially in the age of Google. Using my friend as the example, she kept getting headaches when she used her computer. So lets throw that in Google and see what it says. From a few minutes of skimming pages:

1) Bad Lighting
2) Poorly Adjusted Monitor
3) Malfunctioning Monitor
4) Bad Eyeglasses Prescription

Identify the need or problem. Research that need or problem. Determine what you actually need. Ultimately, she needed new glasses. She figured this out about a year, and three thousand dollars later. Which leads into another consideration.

3) Budget

Know how much you can spend before you buy something. Not really a lot to say about this one. You should know going into it how much you can spend. This will effect what you can buy. 

The Typical Tech Reviewer

4) Understanding Product Reviews (I could probably devote an entire post just on this topic)

Other than Consumer Reports , there isn't a single trusted source for tech reviews. None. Nada. Most tech sites, especially the biased silicon valley ones, take payola. All of them. They will all bias their reviews based upon who gives them the most money, or buys the most advertising. It's a business. They don't exist to do you favors. They exist to do their sponsors favors. By all means, read a bunch of reviews, but be aware that you are getting a filtered version of reality. Be especially wary of sites that claim to be "trusted" or "unbiased". They are usually the worst.

5) Come up with a list of candidates

After determining what you actually need, what you can spend, and after reading some reviews and doing research, you should have a short list of possible winners. 

6) Go actually hold the products.

There is positively and absolutely no logical reason to ever buy something sight unseen. If you haven't actually held and played with a product, you can't possibly know what it will be like. This is the most important phase of any purchasing decision. You should be remembering your determined list of requirements, and be checking to see how the product measures up. Also, you should be ignoring any sales staff bothering you, or asking them to leave you alone. Their goal is to get you to buy the most expensive thing they can. Not to help you. You should already be the subject matter expert on what you are holding. Here you should be concentrating on fit and finish, and how much it matters. 

Now, this last one is going to be controversial, but I firmly believe this. 

7) Ignore Compatibility Arguments

What? "But Scott" you say, all confused "I've been brainwashed into believing that compatibility is the most important thing!". 


The reality is that "compatibility" in the technical sense is most often used as a wedge argument to get you to stick with a particular brand of something. And ultimately it ends up being complete nonsense. Good products are designed to work, or have to work with everything else because we all use different things. In fact, I'd caution you to avoid any products that have a track record of intentionally being made to be incompatible with other products. It's a cheap stunt done by less ethical companies to force you to stick with their substandard product offerings. If you ever find yourself saying "I'm getting this because it's compatible with....." you've probably been swindled already. 

Brand loyalty is for suckers. Don't treat your tech or your product choices like a religion. These are multinational corporations that don't deserve your worship. The only thing they care about is your money. Your loyalty earns you nothing. Judge each product based upon your actual needs and budget. Look out for pointless gimmicks. Things you didn't need in the first place. All the gold plating in the world won't matter if something keeps locking up or rebooting.

Hope This Helps

Love you guys,