This morning, I plugged in a monitor and promptly fried my graphics card drivers. No, I have no idea how I managed that, either. But it made me wonder about the worst reviewing experiences of our hardworking editorial staff and contributors. So I asked them all for a paragraph or two describing the worst product they had ever reviewed.
Of course, these are only the ones we can recall. Some products demand to be erased from memory immediately post-testing...
(We'll add more "worsts" as our contributors send us more reminiscences.)
“This is going back some way now – the 90s, frighteningly – but I reviewed a very early version of Dragon NaturallySpeaking that shipped with a digital voice recorder, one of the first I’d ever seen. Recall that this was a time when Dictaphones roamed the earth, you recorded phone interviews using a suction cap microphone and minidisc was what your very techie friend used at inordinate expense. I believe, but could be mistaken that the recorder had around 32MB of memory – a fantastically large amount at the time. I could not have been more excited – this was the future. This was my Great Australia Novel composed while walking around the streets wearing a mic headset and a sunny smile.
Sadly, the software required hours of training to even get near to understanding your voice, the recorder was plastic tat with the battery life of a sea monkey and a proprietary plug that I misplaced at least once a day. And if you think Bluetooth headsets look uncool, you should have seen the mic headset that came with the the package. I looked like I was trying to tune in Radio Free Europe.
In fairness, Dragon has done stellar work advancing its software – it was actually thoroughly cutting edge at the time. If anything, this was the worst gadget more for the breadth of the divide between my fantastical expectations and the realism of the delivery. But it broke my little heart at the time.”
Once upon a time, I was testing content filtering software, including an early version of some kind of Net Nanny-type software. I got it installed on my flatmates turquiose iMac, assuring her that it would only take me a day or so to test...
...until I discovered that the product registration code in the box was four digits short.
At that point, the product wouldn't let me into the Mac - the parental controls were such that when you switched on, you went straight into the walled garden of the content filtering software. The software that wouldn't work until I entered the registration code.
The only thing I could do was to register the software, or uninstall it. But for either of those things I needed the product code.
In order to get a new product code, I had to call the US helpline. Ouch. The manufacturer insisted I provide proof of purchase, which I didn't have, because it was a review product. Several back-and-forths later, I finally had a new product code. Which (you may have guessed this) was also four digits short.
A week had gone by, in all the palaver, and my flatmate was livid, despite my protestations that nothing like this had ever happened to me before. She insisted that I pay to get her Mac fixed, which meant reinstalling Mac OS 8.6 and $180 of my own hard-earned.
I only test on computers I'm not afraid to kill, these days.
I had the misfortune to review a limited edition keyboard a little while ago, and it was one of the grossest things I’ve ever had to touch. Why?
It was a piano black glossy keyboard. Just think about that for a moment – all that shiny, bright plastic, showing off every smear, every fingerprint, every nano-particle of human filth that you weren’t even aware was dropping off you as you typed.
I only used it for five minutes before it looked like it had been used by a greasy gnome for a decade.
Seriously – say no to mirror finish gear that you actually have to touch on a regular basis.
As it struggled to break free of its beige shackles of the nineties, the desktop PC went through some wacky phases over the past decade. Customisation became big, and in many ways one’s computing prowess became expressed through flashing lights, Perspex panels and increasingly outlandish accessorisation.
This gave rise to many a strange gadget turning up for review. But amongst the piles of electroluminescent fan grills and Perspex paneling was one that was so illogical, so out of step with trends that it became just that little bit famous. I’ll refrain from mentioning the manufacturer, who has upped its game a huge amount from the shabby plastic products it pushed back then, but the 5.25in drive bay mounted combo ashtray and cigarette lighter just could not escape without mention.
Construction was simple. It took a standard four-pin Molex connection from the PSU, and used it to power a car cigarette lighter. To be fair, it was neither the first nor the worst of these adaptors (besides lighting cigarettes they were occasionally handy for powering devices that came with car chargers). But where this particular example shone was in the slide out ashtray that sat next to the lighter.
Again, a logical premise. Unfortunately at no point did anyone in the production chain twig that making an ashtray out of plastic was a somewhat, um, naive idea. So anyone attempting to use it as an ashtray would have to live with the peril of smouldering butts slowly working their way through the plastic. This would open up a nice little hole in the base of the ashtray for butts and ash to fall down. This would then be carefully distributed by fans throughout the nooks and crannies of not only the case but the room at large (adding a bit of water to prevent burning would be the sane runaway ashtray fire solution, unfortunately this doesn’t work well inside a metal box full of electricity).
While I've reviewed hundreds, if not thousands of products over the course of my career, the vast majority of "bad" products were arguably only mediocre. I could wax lyrical about how bad "Backyard Wrestling: Don't Try This At Home" was -- and it was. I could talk about the storage drive sent to me by a certain hard drive vendor with an Aussie plug but compatible only with 110V power. It made a nice paperweight once the burning smell had subsided. But the really woeful products stick most in the mind, and for my money, they didn't come much more woeful than the Fish PC.
You've probably never heard of the Fish PC. There's good reason for that. Launched a decade ago to compete with the very first Apple iMac, the Fish PC was an Aussie-designed computer... shaped like... you guessed it... a fish.
That was its sole selling point, really. It was overpriced, markedly slow compared to the competition at the time, and pour salt water in the wounds, it didn't actually look all that much like a Fish. Sure, the main tower had vague fishy properties (the only image I could find of it still extant was on the BBC's web site, here: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/842954.stm ) but how much fun could you have telling friends and family that you hilariously bought a PC shaped almost entirely, but not quite like a fish?
Ultimately, the joke would be on you, and the Fish PC sunk like a stonefish and stank like a three-week old haddock left out in the sun.
Worst product I ever reviewed? The idea was not a bad one. Bring one of the many dual SIM phones so popular in China to Australia. Sadly, the execution was not quite what it could have been…
The phone was, to put it mildly, woeful. The plastics were terrible, the screen resolution allegedly QVGA but seemingly nothing of the sort, and the menu system had barely been altered from the original Chinese. I.e. badly designed and almost impossible to navigate.
Oh, and the phone kept on making the most annoying noise ever invented whenever you tried to push a button. This could not be switched off, either.
To top it all off, the phone’s standout feature – a four way key that was actually a customisable LCD – had off-centre buttons from the start, which only got more off-centre the more I tried re-calibrating it.
The distributor had the cheek to charge $400 for it. This was the same price as two cheapo Nokias at the time. Guess which option I recommended?
Worst. Product. Ever? There are a few contenders, such as the horrid LG Optimus Android smartphone which makes you want to scream in frustration. Then there’s the pathetic Sony RDR-HDC500 HDD/DVD video recorder which is little more than a glorified VCR with a misleading spec sheet.
Yet, like Zara Baxter, the worst product I’ve reviewed probably would be net nanny software - in particular OpteNet, one of those recommended by the Federal government back in 2007.
I see it’s still around, and it may have improved, but at the time it was pathetically inadequate when it came to stopping horny teenagers looking at porn. It did a pretty good job of blocking porn sites, but it did a woeful job of protecting itself.
It was just a simple matter of opening the task manager on a Windows box and looking for processes that started with O-P-T. I found two, optproxy and OptGui, so I killed them. I fired up the web browser and hey presto, all those nasty porn sites were available again.
The victory was only short-lived, because within a few seconds optproxy relaunched and the sites were blocked again - but I still had my open page of porn. Sure it wasn't a very elegant workaround, but a hack is a hack and a glimpse of porn is a glimpse of porn.
The laughable thing was that the file that logged my attempts to access sites was simple to edit, so I could keep disabling optproxy whenever I wanted to look at a new porn site and then go into the log to delete the times I was caught in the act. There was nothing to indicate to the administrator that the software has been disabled or the log file tampered with. Not long after that, some 16 year-old whizkid developed an elegant hack in only 30 minutes which made it look like the filter was still running. Epic fail.