The Glaring Problem with Tech YouTube Reviews
Over the weekend, I was listening to a podcast by a tech YouTuber (probably not the one you think), who was talking about their review of the 2022 M2 MacBook Air. Something the reviewer said got me thinking:
"It's fine for light computing and productivity work."
We're going to circle back to that in just a minute because I think there's a big problem reflected in that statement. But first, a little context would probably be helpful:
The M2 MacBook Air has become far more controversial than you would expect from an entry-level Apple laptop. Part of that is because it's more pricy than the device it replaces (which isn't even being replaced, you can still buy the M1 version).
I wrote in my review that the biggest problem with the M2 MacBook Air is that everything great you can say about it (it's fast, gets great battery life, is thin and lightweight), is also true about the M1, only that computer is $200 less expensive.
Not only that, some reviewers took note that Apple is now only using 256GB NAND chips for internal storage. That's deeply in the weeds of computer architecture, but the M1 machines used two 128GB chips in the smallest configuration. That means that if you bought base models of each version (M1 and M2), the SSD read and write speeds would technically be faster on the M1 version because the controller can write to both chips at the same time.
On paper, it looks like Apple is trying to save money by releasing a product that is actually more expensive but slower than the one it replaces--at least at the entry level.
Oh, I almost forgot that those YouTube reviews love to talk about how the MacBook Air does not have a fan, and is therefore "thermally throttled," which is a nerd-speak way of saying that the processor will slow down when it gets too hot under intense load.
Do you know what you have to be doing to get the MacBook Air hot enough to experience this? I don't know, I've tried. I've exported 4K video from Final Cut, bounced an hour-long podcast from Logic, and exported 1,100 RAW files into JPEGs from Lightroom. None of those tasks made the MacBook Air noticeably hot to the touch and I'm pretty sure they qualify as more than "light computing and productivity work."
More importantly, it handled all of them faster than any other computer I've ever owned, except for the M1 Pro MacBook Pro I've had sitting on my desk for six months. Most people, however, aren't upgrading to a MacBook Air from anything with an M1 Pro or M1 Max.
Most people are upgrading from something like a 2015 iMac or a 2017 MacBook Air, either of which is running old Intel processors. If you are getting by with anything not running Apple Silicon, the M2 MacBook Air will be the very best computer you have ever owned, and not by a little.
You want to know what's faster than the M2 MacBook Air at complex, processor-intensive tasks like exporting 4K video or audio projects? A handful of Macs with the word Pro or Studio in the name, not one of which you could buy for less than $2,000.
But, getting back to the statement at the top, most people aren't doing any of those things. You want to know what's faster at all of the things most people do with a computer? Nothing. Well, I guess the M2 13-inch MacBook Pro because--as YouTubers will remind you--it has a fan.
Which made me think the problem has nothing to do with whether the M2 MacBook Air is very good (it is), or even perfect (of course, it isn't). It made me think the problem is that the people who review computers have lost perspective on what most people do with those computers.
And so, I shared those thoughts in a Twitter thread:
An hour or so later, the thread was shared by Walt Mossberg, the former personal technology columnist at The Wall Street Journal, and all-around tech-journalist-legend:
To say things escalated would be an understatement. It turns out, a lot of people have very strong feelings about Tech YouTube and Twitter is nothing if not a place where people share their strong feelings.
A lot of people disagreed with me, and I'm fine with that, though I'm not entirely sure which part they disagree with. Based on a lot of the responses I saw, I think they disagree with my assertion that YouTube reviewers shouldn't push machines to the limit or provide viewers with all of the information. That, of course, is not an assertion I made. I said just the opposite, for the record.
Probably the whole thing says more about YouTube than it does about Tech YouTube or individual YouTube creators. What I mean is that if you make videos for a living and upload them to a platform where you make money based on the number of people who click on and view your videos, your incentives are to make videos that people will click on and view. That means you have to cater to a demographic of people who watch laptop reviews, which is definitely not most people.
Marques Brownlee's review, which is very very good, has a little fewer than 4 million views, which is roughly 1.1 percent of the U.S. population. That's a lot of people watching a video about a laptop, but Apple sold, I don't know, maybe 25 million Macs (+/- 5 million?) in the last year?
I'm not picking on Marques, he's probably the most successful tech reviewer on YouTube primarily because he's very good at reviewing tech. In this case, I'm just using his very popular video as an example that the numbers seem to reflect that most people who are buying laptops aren't watching YouTube videos about them first. Which means that the people who make videos are catering to a smaller audience than "most people."
I get it--if you want to make money on YouTube, you have to make videos that the people who watch videos on YouTube want to see. And, you have to make them in a way that gets them surfaced by YouTube. It's easy to lose perspective when that perspective is mostly determined by YouTube's algorithm.
That's unfortunate because the result is that there isn't anyone out there who is addressing the needs of most of the people who buy and use computers. Maybe that's because they aren't watching YouTube videos, but maybe that's because no one is making videos with them in mind. Maybe it's because there isn't someone like Walt reviewing tech for "normal" people.
There definitely should be, as Rene Ritchie put it in a recent YouTube video
Rene is no longer making tech gadget reviews as he recently transitioned to a role at YouTube as Creator Liaison. Hopefully, however, someone will figure out a way to meet the needs of most people by reviewing products based on how they use them. Or, at a minimum, perhaps reviewers will start to recognize that dismissing a product as "fine for light computing and productivity work" does a disservice to everyone.
Here's why: No one who sits in front of a computer all day thinks of what they do as "light computing." It's just "using a computer." Just because the thing they ask their computer to do isn't particularly taxing, doesn't mean it feels "light" to whoever has to do it for eight hours a day.
Opening Chrome tabs, responding to emails, sending Slack messages, doing research, writing papers, making presentations, opening PDFs, sitting on Zoom calls, making to-do lists, entering data into spreadsheets, reviewing reports, looking at photos from their iPhone, managing projects--that's what most people do on their computers most of the time.
Sure, there are certainly better computers made for more processor-intensive tasks like editing photos and video and audio, though the MacBook Air can handle of them just fine. It's also one of the most powerful computers you can buy for under $2,000. For what most people do, the MacBook Air is great. If you're reviewing the MacBook Air, you should just talk about that.