When The Ware Isn’t Firm

A viral car review by tech-reviewing’s biggest name highlights the all-too-common pitfalls of shipping before the firmware is ready.

By Ernie Smith

As I wrote about recently, the concept of firmware has largely been a good thing for computing, allowing devices to be improved and tweaked as necessary.

And when something goes wrong, it makes it possible to recover—something I learned about just last week when my UEFI got corrupted, and I had to rebuild it from a USB drive that I could only set up on a Windows PC. (That was not fun!)

But as anyone who has ever played a video game in the last decade knows, the malleable nature of software in the modern era means that it’s now possible to release products before they’re actually ready. And, unfortunately, tech reviewers are often caught on the sharp end of that knife.

A recent review by Marques Brownlee, a.k.a. MKBHD, went viral recently for highlighting this exact dichotomy. Brownlee wanted to check out the Fisker Ocean for his car channel, Auto Focus, but Fisker was being cagey about sending him a vehicle to test. So he went to a local dealership and borrowed one of theirs. And the company freaked, trying to get him to wait until the newest version of the firmware was ready before he went to review it. Brownlee, as is his right, refused—because that would effectively mean giving special treatment to the company. (The Verge recently played this very same card with its highly middling Framework 16 review.)

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Reviewers like Brownlee often struggle to prove their objectivity because their role is that of a highly popular figure getting the first look at a cool new object. Companies like Fisker attempt to carry some kind of control over the process, perhaps offering the nicest possible model or adding in some reviewer-specific add-ons, but they shouldn’t, because the goal is to highlight the average customer’s experience, not the best possible one.

Brownlee, inevitably, found the Fisker’s software experience to be completely underwhelming for a car of its cost and caliber, giving his review the title “This is the Worst Car I’ve Ever Reviewed,” which, if you follow Brownlee closely, he does not drop such negativity lightly. (Though, to offer a counterpoint in favor of the haters, “ever” is doing a lot of heavy lifting here—while Brownlee has been a tech reviewer for about 15 years, he’s relatively new to car reviewing. Auto Focus has only been active for about a year and a half.)

He talked a lot about the nice parts of the vehicle—the build, the design—but then went into the many unusual elements of it, starting with some odd equipment decisions (steering wheel buttons that are extremely easy to press when turning a corner) before leaning in hard on the confusing software experience.

“I think the theme here is it’s just a young company that doesn’t really know exactly what they’re doing with a lot of these choices yet, or hasn’t considered all of the things necessary to make a great dailyable car,” Brownlee said. “Which sounds crazy coming from me, someone who hasn’t been in cars for as long as some others.”

The original review went viral (and received some enthusiast criticism from the Fisker fandom)—but then, over the weekend, it went viral again after a TikTok video of the dude who loaned the car to Brownlee went viral. A member of Fisker’s senior management, sounding absolutely freaked, called the guy in an attempt to get a hold of this guy who torpedoed its high-profile vehicle launch by reporting on its problems.

But the fact is, Brownlee is right to call it out, especially for a vehicle that costs more than $70,000 and is already on the market. For many people, this is a year’s salary, if not moreso. And it’s not a vehicle just for the fandom. The theme that Brownlee is touching on is one that we don’t do enough to harp on in the modern day: 40 years ago, it was extremely difficult for a company to effectively ship an alpha or beta test to its actual customers. But because of the ease of installing software, we now allow manufacturers to get away with it.

Sometimes this is not possible—the problems can be too significant. A couple years back, OnePlus whiffed its intro to the smartwatch market with a device that had limited functionality and a lack of third-party apps. Three years later, it re-entered the space with … a better watch, one that greatly improved on the faults of the original, even if it’s still not perfect. This is how the review ecosystem should work: Reviewers protect consumers from bad products and manufacturers learn from their shortcomings.

Software, particularly firmware, gives them a chance to fix things, sure, but everyone would be better off if they took a beat and waited to deliver a better product. Reviewers are not your beta testers—they are advocates for the consumer, because it’s hard to hand out millions of cars for every consumer to test themselves. And if the firmware isn’t where it should be, they can’t offer a quality review. (If that firmware is shipping to actual consumers, that’s even worse.)

If you want to know whether you’re getting an objective take on a specific gadget: Apply the thinking that MKBHD shares in this video to any big-brand laptop or smartphone review. You’ll learn a lot along the way.

Firm Links

Feel like screwing around with RISC-V? The Eurocentric cloud provider Scaleway has you covered with a dedicated cloud device that costs €15.99 a month.

Aunty Donna has pinpointed my target audience: People who excitedly talk in jargon.

This novel endeavor to combine a Mac and an iPad to make it more useful for an Apple Vision Pro is impressive, but also funny. The final result, hardware-wise, is very similar to Microsoft’s Surface Book, a touted design that Microsoft nonetheless discontinued a while ago.


Think the firmware on this one is ready? Share it with a pal! And back at it later in the week.


Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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