Profile of Lance Braithwaite, a great of the longform gadget review

Lance Braithwaite, 81, is a gadget writer par excellence, with a keen mind for technology and a deep faith in the utility and virtue of manuals. He is now seldom-published; he roamed the magazines in the pre-Internet era, a time of long, technical reviews. "My biggest problem with many of the reviews you get, especially online," he writes, "is that every schmuck with a computer figures he's a journalist."

What distinguished Braithwaite from his peers was his deep technical knowledge and an almost holy commitment to the industry. He didn't just write reviews, but saw himself as part of a community that strived for high quality, ideally measured by precise equipment that led to verdicts driven by data rather than a vague sense of what's cool. Sometimes, Braithwaite himself would help develop the standards used to gauge a product's worth. For instance, Braithwaite is credited with developing testing procedures for the Consumer Electronics Association (now the Consumer Technology Association) that gauge the maximum picture resolution output by various types of video players. He's most proud, though, of developing a method for measuring the low-light performance of camcorders that, he says, came to him during a play watching the stage lighting. …

While writing a review, Braithwaite sometimes had to confront company engineers, asking them to explain negative test results or why a feature he deemed critical was missing. It took time to do a product review right. And each in-depth review containing graphs and conclusions that consumed multiple magazine pages.

The expert journalist used to serve as both skeptic and priest, but mass consumption, the media, the internet, and all the other postmodern solvents have made this posture much less convincing.

The middle classes talk about fashion by locating humanity in expensive things through a shared but exclusive appreciation of context and meaning. Likewise with tools and toys, and writing about them. Some of us get nostalgic and fussy when purple is cheap enough for everyone to do their own thing with it.

Whenever I write about gadgets, then, I know I'm sublimating my own bourgeois elitism. So when my future is history, I hope I'll have something better to complain about than the people who are doing it wrong.