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28 Days Later: A look at some reviews from 2007

I posted this in WinInfo Short Takes just now, but thought it would be of interest here as well...

Product of the Year: Nintendo Wii

This one is hilarious and it needs to be mentioned first for two reasons: One, it was actually released in 2006, not 2007, though only a lucky handful of people were able to get their hands on it last year. (Come to think of it, that was true of the Wii this year as well.) Two, I never actually reviewed the Wii: I was so underwhelmed by Nintendo's latest video game console when I got one in November 2006 that I figured the most polite thing I could do was just not review it and save everyone some heartache. That said, I did finally summarize my thoughts about the Wii in an April article artfully titled "Choosing a Video Game System." I know, that's why I get paid the big bucks.


In this article, I described the "kiddie" Wii in condescending terms and basically advised everyone in the free world to look elsewhere for video game entertainment. And sure enough, the world responded to my well-intentioned advice by buying the Wii in record numbers. The device was literally sold-out for all of 2007 and is now the best-selling current-generation video game console. Game makers, which ignored the Wii to their detriment in 2006, spent most of 2007 racing to move people off of Sony PS3 games and onto the Wii.


So here's the thing. I still think the Wii is a joke. And no, I don't want to hear from you if you love it. The numbers make obvious the fact that the Wii is very popular. But I'd just like to point out that the Ford Escort was once the bestselling car in the world as well. I'm sure there's a parallel there somewhere. (Hint for the automobile-disinclined: The Escort was never a particularly nice or expensive vehicle.)


In the end, I offer a virtual toast to Nintendo, because their success with the Wii is all the more dramatic when you consider what a piece of absolute junk it is: You have fooled millions of people into buying an underpowered one-trick pony and will reap the rewards for years to come. Maybe you'll even make enough money to fund a real video game console next time around. We can only hope.


The Operating Systems that No One Wanted: Vista and Leopard

Pity poor Microsoft and, to a much lesser extent, Apple. The companies both shipped absolutely stellar operating systems in 2007. The problem is that both systems, Windows Vista and Mac OS X 10.5 "Leopard," respectively, are updates to systems that have been on the market for years and are already usable, reliable, secure, and hugely compatible with devices and software. Both landed with an almost audible thud, though of course both companies spent a lot of money on PR throughout the year to pretend otherwise. Vista, we were told, had sold 88 million licenses by October, while Leopard reportedly got off to the fastest start of any OS X version, selling 2 million copies in its first weekend on the market.


Neat. But the truth is so much more modest than either Microsoft or Apple is willing to admit. Users complained of problems with both systems, of compatibility and performance issues. Neither system appears to offer many major new features, though Vista at least comes with a dramatic new component-based architecture. Leopard, though solid, is just uninspiring, and it even makes some aspects of the system worse than its predecessor. (What's up with the flat blue folders? Yikes.)


Obviously, both Vista and Leopard will become the mainstream systems in their respective markets over time. But I think what sunk these products was that their predecessors were on the market so long they became overly familiar. While people like you and I are always clamoring for change and wondering aloud about the many delays, the truth is, the general populace just doesn't care. And with both Vista and Leopard, Microsoft and Apple committed a sin that I don't think anyone foresaw: They allowed their mainstream customers to become complacent with what they had. And because neither Vista nor Leopard offers any humongous benefits over their predecessors, few saw a reason to upgrade.


That said, I gave both Vista and Leopard 4 out of 5 stars in my respective reviews. They're both solid upgrades. It's just that no one seems to care.


Video Game of the Year: Portal

In a year in which high-profile games like Bioshock and Halo 3 got awesome reviews, apparently by people who had never actually played them for more than 40 minutes, one thing stood out: If you want to fool reviewers into bumping up their reviews, all you have to focus on is the beginning of the game. Bioshock is an amazing example of this: If you were to, say, just play the demo version of the game, you'd be convinced that Bioshock was the most stunning piece of video game immersion that's ever been created. But if you actually played the entire game, you'd realize you'd seen everything the game had to offer in the opening few scenes. The rest is all repetition, and it gets really monotonous after a while.

But I have a bigger problem with Bioshock. Contrary to all those "Perfect 10" reviews you may have read, Bioshock doesn't know how to tell a story. The plot is advanced--and, seriously, think about this for a second--by your onscreen character pressing the Play button on tape recorders that are conveniently left all over the game. Folks, this isn't innovative or interesting, it's a failure. And all you need to do is look back three years to "Half-Life 2," which remains the single best video game of all year, to understand that it's possible to effectively tell a story and advance a plot in a video game in a way that is truly immersive. HL-2 remains a much better game than virtually everything that was released this year, including both Bioshock and Halo 3.


Coincidentally, HL-2 was also repackaged this year in something called "The Orange Box," which was released for the Xbox 360, PS3, and PC. The Orange Box also includes last year's Half-Life 2: Episode One as well as three new games: Half-Life 2: Episode Two, Team Fortress 2, and Portal. That's right, you get five games for the price of one. And while one, HL-2, is the best game ever made, another of those games is the best game of the year.


It's called Portal, and it's nothing like any of the other games in The Orange Box. It's also nothing like any other game I've ever played. The short version is that it's an innovative puzzle game that is far more accessible to a wide audience than the shooters that dominate The Orange Box. But Portal is diabolically funny, ingeniously clever, and just plain fun to play. It's awesome. And you need it. Now.


When is a Recall not a Recall?

Only Microsoft could announce the most expensive warranty repair program in history--at a cost of over $1 billion, by the way--and get away with not having to recall the product in question. I'm referencing the Xbox 360, of course, and if the reports are accurate, between 30 and 35 percent of the consoles Microsoft made before mid-2007 experienced a catastrophic hardware failure. The good news? Well, they appear to have finally fixed the problem. And everyone who purchased an Xbox 360, basically ever, can now get their consoles fixed for free, no questions asked.


Sadly, the only question we're really asking is how Microsoft got away with this. I've personally had three major Xbox 360 hardware failures, and virtually every Xbox 360 owner I know has had at least one. Irony of the year: Many of these failures occurred in the weeks leading up to the release of Halo 3. Good stuff.


Apple iPhone

I have a queasy relationship with Apple's hype-heavy iPhone. I was as caught up as anyone in the excitement over Apple's new sort-of smart phone in early 2007, and I was eager to see how it held up in real world use when I picked one up on the day Apple first offered them for sale. And sure enough, the iPhone is an important product. It's chock-full of amazing technology, as if some Apple engineer happened to be driving by Area 51 when the government decided to have a one-time yard sale. It features a multi-touch user interface, a rotating screen, a full-featured Web browser, email support, a 2 megapixel camera, and iPod functionality. Oh, and apparently you can even make and receive phone calls.


But here's the thing. For all its whiz-bang functionality, the iPhone falls apart all over the place when you actually try to use it. The rotating screen doesn't actually rotate at all, except in a very few applications, and even then not consistently. The Web browser is ... God, so third-rate ... Safari, and lacks Flash support. Email support is dodgy, and if you want to synchronize with Outlook--your only choice on Windows, incidentally--good luck, because it often doesn't work at all. That camera? There's no flash. The iPod stuff? Nice, but you can't control it without taking it out of your pocket, awakening the device, tapping in a password, and then watching the screen. It's a study in compromise, and I think the thing that's so disappointing about it is that it promises so much, so your expectations are that much higher.


The piece de resistance, however, is that the iPhone requires a data plan, so the base price of this device, after fees and taxes, is about $70 a month. And that data plan is tied to the most absolutely horrific wireless network in the US, AT&T's lackluster EDGE. In my own admittedly unscientific tests, EDGE was less than one-third of the speed of Verizon's EV-DO network, and that was using an older version of EV-DO when I did the tests. Yikes.


So what you get for the $2000+ ( $399 plus at least $1680 for two years of AT&T EDGE access) that the iPhone will cost you in the US is an absolutely stunning compromise. It's the most beautiful phone ever created. It's also the most frustrating, not that all the reviewers falling all over each other to praise Apple will ever actually tell you that.


So here's the thing. I use the iPhone every single day. Despite my expectations that I would simply go back to whatever Windows Mobile-based device I was using on Verizon, I've stuck it out with the iPhone. I have not done this solely out of love, though I do like the iPhone quite a bit. Part of it is that I'm technical enough to overcome the iPhone's limitations. (For example, I use third party software to overcome the iPhone's horrible Outlook syncing issues.) Part of it is that I use a lot of Google services and they've shipped an astonishing collection of iPhone-based services, most of which are quite nice. Part of it, too, is that Google has subsequently made Gmail available via IMAP, which makes iPhone-based email suddenly possible for me. And part of is that Apple has pledged to open up the iPhone to third party applications in 2008, and I'm willing to stick it out to see how that works, at least until Google's Android phone platform becomes a reality and I can make another decision.


The question, of course, is whether the iPhone makes sense for you. Ultimately, I write my reviews for you, the reader, and not for me, the tech geek. And I'm still advising against it, unless of course the thought of tossing over $2000 into the wind doesn't trouble you at all. Certainly, it will buy you the coolest phone on the market. But I'm sticking by my review, in which I awarded the iPhone 3 out of 5 stars, because the iPhone is a compromise between promise and reality, weighted a bit too much on the promise side. That may change over time. I honestly expect it to, and in Apple's favor. Let's see what 2008 brings.


Kindle for Your Thoughts: eBooks Finally Get Interesting

Finally, I'd like to introduce you to a little pet project of mine, which involves getting people to read more often. As a life-long reader and advocate of the activity, I've been astonished at the baloney I've seen written about the Kindle, Amazon's new e-book reader. I've been using this wonderful little device every single day since it arrived and it's stunningly innovative, spelling the beginning of the end of paper-based books, magazines, and newspapers.


And before you get your panties in a bunch over that comment--yeah, yeah, I know: Books are the last bastion of analog media--why don't you actually try a Kindle first? No, it's not perfect: At $399, the device is far too expensive, for example. But the pros absolutely outweigh the cons: It's small, lightweight and very portable. The battery life is excellent. You get free wireless access to Amazon's online store, which has more e-books and other content than any other similar device, all selling for much less than their paper-based equivalents. The Kindle is compatible with a small but high-quality selection of newspapers and magazines. It is, put simply, a commuter's dream device.


I've now read several e-books on the Kindle, and I've subscribed to three newspapers, one since dropped. It's replaced my paper-based subscription to the New York Times, saving me $30 a month. I've yet to fly with the Kindle, but the thought of having so much available content to choose from, in such a small device, is just thrilling to me. That I'll be able to buy more content at any time, from any place, is just amazing.


The Kindle is a deal changer. Too many reviewers are fuming over non-existent problems (too many buttons) or exaggerating issues (you have to pay 10 cents to have Amazon wirelessly send you documents from your PC, but few reviewers note the free version of this service too). And that tells me they're not giving the Kindle the benefit of the doubt that they were all too willing to give to products like the iPhone. I guess it matters who made it and in whose good graces you want to be.


Not for me. The Kindle is amazing. Wait until the price comes down if you must, but get one.


Final thoughts

What most of these products have in common is that my reviews of them are basically at odds with the reviews you might have read elsewhere. And that makes me feel wonderful, to be honest. I'm not a lemming, and I don't expect you to be either. Sometimes you have to look a bit harder to get to the truth of a thing, and even if you don't agree with all of my assessments here--I'm looking at you, Nintendo Boy--we can at least agree to disagree. Besides, you're wrong.


Just kidding. Kind of. Happy New Year!

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