What Is It Like To Test 8,000 Gadgets in 12 Years?

Her name is Katie. She has a pleasingly abrupt manner, a voice like a rubber hose being snapped. “Howdy!” she’ll say to me. A few times, when she comes to the door, she’ll hand my border collie mix a doggie treat and pat her head. “Feed her the good stuff,” she tells me.

We have a distant relationship, like a weird cousin you’ve only seen at family reunions but lives on the other side of town (thank the Lord).

I don’t know her last name and I’m not sure where she lives. Our conversations last 90 seconds. We’ve discussed the fact that my house is still not listed on Google maps, which is irritating to those in her profession – like a dull, throbbing ache in your lower thigh. “I can’t believe you write about technology and you’re still not on Google Maps!” she told me once.

I like her. But then again, you’d like someone who hands you a few wrapped gifts everyday at the same time (around 10AM), a kind of Santa’s helper with an obvious canine fixation. It’s like Christmas everyday around here – minus the reindeer poop and the funny looking elves.

In case you have not guessed by now, Katie is a FedEx delivery driver.

Back in 2001, I used to live in a different town and I was just starting out as a writer. The FedEx driver at that address was a big old schmuck. He always asked me about what was inside. When it was an Apple product, he’d give the package a soft shake-shake and wink at me. “Guess Steve Jobs likes you today, huh? he’d say.” “More than you know,” I’d say.

Back then, there was a steady stream of HD televisions and laptops, robots from obscure start-ups in Boston, fruit baskets that weighed about 600 pounds and smelled like Cuba, and thumbdrives from companies like Sony that included a note about how they were not able to send me that new D-SLR camera but here is some press info and some picts.

In 2005, I moved a few hours away to a small town in the country. Right about that time, I started doing more hands-on testing – emergency radios you can crank with a handle, six-man tents that could survive caffeinated zombies, cheese ball snack trays you’d give to your employees as a holiday gift, coffee makers designed by a guy name Fidal, a Wi-Fi plant monitoring device that helps you grow bigger tomatoes, and first-person shooter video games made by companies with names like Black Head Kill Humans Dead from some remote village in Iceland.

You might be thinking: cheese ball tray snacks? What the HECK? My reply: all in the name of journalism.

I’m not sure how this happened. One of my editors at Wired once told me they won’t put something in the magazine unless one of the writers had personally tested it and made sure it didn’t suck. I guess I took up that mantle. To this day, when I see what looks like a 3D render of some conceptual design on Kickstarter I break into the giggles.

We call this “hands-on” testing because the field of journalism seems to distinguish between the stuff you can see, feel and touch and the stuff on Gizmodo. Just today, I received exactly 12 packages. I mean, 12 packages! I know a few kids who have not received that many birthday gifts in their entire existence. I’m like the favored son of FedEx.

I’m pretty good at opening said packages. I use a Gerber military-grade hunting knife. I think it might be made for gutting large mammals in Brazil but I’m using it to open Nike shoe boxes. It’s a simple pleasure. I set the box on my kitchen counter, breathe in like they taught me in package-opening training class, and plunge. The knife is serrated, which probably helps with the leg bone, but also cuts through corrugated cardboard like butter.

My crowning achievement, noted by many in the freight delivery business, involves a connected refrigerator that lets you control the temperature of your milk from an iPhone (and sort of control it from Android if you can get the app to work). I suppose this is a little like sending a butler to your front hall closet to get your shoes when you are standing in the hallway, but it is a stunning achievement in appliance innovation. It makes me tear up a little. When you open the doors to get your chilled dairy product, or lukewarm milk if you use Android, you think you can hear an angelic choir. It’s might be the soft whir of the thermetic coupler and one of the ice cube trays rattling a little, but no one has been able to prove that. Also, no one knows what a thermetic coupler is, either. If you know, please explain.

In some ways, FedEx makes my writing career possible. Let me edit that. FedEx makes my writing career possible. Go purple and grey! This testing experience is my feed mill. The boxes come and the words flow. Some writers need to get away and experience a stunning vista in Costa Rica or hobnob with start-up gurus in silicon valley. I’m enamored by cardboard. You never know what’s inside, unless you have the tracking number handy.

How long is this going to last? I’m not sure. I haven’t ever tested a hot tub. That’s kind of a lofty goal in life, I know. I’ve done a few lawnmower tests in my time, but no tractors at all. Actually, I really have not had any farm implements of any kind. The entire boating market has ignored me like the plague – aka, zebra muscles. I mean, not even a canoe!

There are still worlds to explore: stainless steel cooking equipment, bug zappers, badminton sets – the list goes on. (I should clarify here that I’ve tested badminton rackets but not the actual net.)

If you’re reading this and have some suggestions for unusual stuff, go ahead and drop me a line. I’m sure Katie will be happy to help me out.

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