Technology

The Bowling Ball Test

by

Technology attacks. Software changes the pictures we see. Touch screens determine our access to money. High-speed connections lob all the information of the world into our homes. In thousands of ways, technology invades our everyday life, promising sophistication and perfection, but often yielding disaster. So don’t count on the folks behind Digital Duo, a weekly public television review of personal technology, to be cheerleaders for the e-revolution.

Instead, hosts Steve Manes (a columnist for Forbes and PC World) and Susan Gregory Thomas (a technology writer for U.S. News & World Report) forge into the high-tech battleground, bearing a few arms of their own. They review everything from video recorders and toys to parlor games on CD-ROM and online registries for brides.

Manes and Thomas test the products they rank, but not always in ways you’d expect. In one episode, the pair went so far as to pour water on a laptop and throw a bowling ball at it—all in the name of testing the manufacturer’s claims about the machine’s durability. In this case, the machine held up, earning a grade of “save.” But when a product fails their sometimes unorthodox inspections, Manes and Thomas don’t hesitate to vent their frustrations by marking it “delete.”

“We are able to show people how things work—or don’t—instead of just telling them,” says Manes, who has covered the computer industry since 1982 and cowrote Gates: How Microsoft’s Mogul Reinvented an IndustryAnd Made Himself the Richest Man in America. “We never talk about something we haven’t tried.”

Now in its second season, the half-hour show, which in New York airs Saturdays at 2 p.m. on Channel 13, aims to dash the hopes of the public-relations legions, who’d have viewers believe they need to buy the most expensive tech gadgets available. Manes and Thomas will tell you if it’s time to ditch your old camera for a digital one, or if there is any real difference between a $2000 computer and a knock-off that costs $500. One of their favorite toys is the virtual PR Piñata, which is stuffed with hideous gifts from flacks. The duo swaddle the lemons in duct tape to avoid giving them a plug on the air, then pass them along to viewers who’ve sent in questions or comments.

Many of those responses come through the show’s Web site (www.digitalduo.com), where, Manes and Thomas say, some 30,000 viewers check in each day. “I discovered your program a few weeks ago,” one viewer wrote. “I enjoy your rapport, insight, and most of all ability to speak in plain English.”

The show’s viewers sling barbs, too. “I am just asking for more accurate information,” one viewer wrote. “I personally am very up-to-date with technology and have found a few (not many) errors in your show and just think you guys should make sure you clear up those issues before spending money to go on the air and make false statements.”

And one Mac lover wrote, “I find your show entertaining but hardly informative.”

Manes and Thomas say much of the show is inspired by e-mail messages from the audience, which pile up by the thousand. “I hope it shows that we work very hard at it,” says Thomas. Two years ago, at Manes’s request, she replaced host Walter Mossberg, the Wall Street Journal columnist who still provides a commentary at the end of each show. “I immediately accepted,” she remembers. “It was a huge compliment to be asked by the King of Technology to cohost the show.”

Since then, the two technology veterans have brought the depth and experience of their years in print journalism into this medium. “Television adds an extra dimension to what we already do with the written word,” Manes says. “Digital Duo isn’t a dull show for computer geeks. It’s more like Car Talk for computers.”

The show airs on almost 100 PBS stations, covering about three-quarters of the country. For airtimes outside New York City, check the Digital Duo Web site.