Interview with Allan Campbell of KitGuru.net
Everyone has stories from the book of experience that is their life, with some more interesting than others. Allan Campbell operates KitGuru.net, a website focused on reporting computer technology news and product reviews. KitGuru is an interesting endeavor, but it's only the most recent chapter from the 39-year-old's life that began with a career in the Ireland newspaper industry where he used hot metal typography, a dying art. Benchmark Reviews present our interview with Allan Campbell, beginning with a few chapters from other parts of his life...
In your own words, please give our readers a little background about yourself:
When Apple Macintosh came out in 1988/9 it revolutionized and somewhat deskilled the design industry. However it was exciting technology and around this time I was also a PC enthusiast who was modding and building PCs for friends and family - purely a hobby. This is the early days when you needed to free enough high memory in DOS to get drivers to load. I remember spending a months' salary on the first 3dFX board so I would be able to get Tomb Raider playable with my Matrox Millennium at 640x480 resolution. The Good old days and I still laugh when I remember my friend bought a PowerVR card at the same time.
Meanwhile in work I was heavily using Apple Macintosh and the first laser printers they released which delivered a somewhat archaic 300 dpi, quality actually wasn't' as good as the LINOTYPE typographic coding machines we were using at the time. I had an unusual early career as I was into both Macintosh and PC platforms, heavily. Aldus PageMaker was the new, state of the art program, and when QuarkXPress hit the scene, it transformed the industry. At this time (not sure of the exact year) I was sent to Adobe in California and was taught the first version of Photoshop on the Macintosh. What an eye opener that was, especially when Illustrator made its impact a short while later.
My career spanned throughout the 90's, working my way up through the 68000 Motorola CPU based Macintosh systems in work, and I remember our company spent £6,500 on an Apple CX machine which had a 68040 40 MHz CPU. State of the art then and very quick. My wrist watch is probably faster now. Throughout the 90's I spent most of my money on PC equipment and ill not bore you with all the systems I had access to both at home and work, but I've basically grown up throughout the whole ‘birth' of modern day technology. Still an avid Apple user, although I don't shout it from the rooftops.
My hobbies include Photography (I love my Nikon D300S, 105mm Nikon VR lens and R1C1 flash system) and playing the guitar. I have handled some work for the rock band Queen and took the back image photograph for "Return Of the Champions" (I'm credited on the album). Some of my photography is featured on the Brian May website gallery. I have also handled many logo designs for companies throughout the industry.
Over the years, what has been the single topic that continues to motivate your audience? How did it all start?
Having a better system than everyone else? Seriously, to be honest, it is difficult to nail down ‘who the audience is'. When I started DriverHeaven.net it was purely a hobby, so I would come home from my day job and just work on the site. It would cost me money every month for hosting and site expansion but I didn't care - the fact I could actually earn money down the line wasn't even in my thinking. The site became quite large a few years later and began to take over my life.
Being totally honest though I was naïve and felt that I was pretty much winging it in the first few years. We leaked Windows builds, and helped to support Omegadrive with his modified driver builds and even created Driver Cleaning tools. But as the years progressed there seemed to be less interest in third party drivers. This is surely a testament to the driver teams at both AMD and nVidia I might add - who needs modified drivers now for graphics? The user base then was very much driver focused and we had a very DIY audience which appealed to me at the time. As the audience increased we needed to develop and enhance our content so we started liaising more with companies to get hardware samples to review. After handling the reviews on my own for quite some time I managed to get some other people to help, although they did it for a while without any financial reward. A few years ago I was involved in a serious motorbike accident and there was actually a reasonably high chance I could have died, due to internal injuries. Im still recovering from it today and trust me, your views on what you are doing and how you are living your life can change dramatically overnight.
KitGuru.net is my new project which is meant to be a little more fun for me. Over the years I built up a lot of contacts in the industry and was in the position to leak and break news on a fairly regular basis - especially with our news team all over the world. Obviously I still love the hardware aspect but I like the counterbalance of amusing and sometimes controversial news. A few companies have been annoyed with us, especially if we publish something they don't want people to know but I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a constant source of amusement for me - especially when I read from someone on the boards that one of our news stories didn't quite come true so therefore all our reviews suck also. I think it is possible to deliver great reviews, but to also delve into the lighter and more entertaining side of tech at times. I used to read the Inquirer daily and that gave me a lot of enjoyment. Treat the hardware seriously, but also let yourself relax from time to time, that's a good motto.
A good audience is one that adapts and keeps you on your toes. If you can keep up with them and deliver what they want then you are on the right track.
From the time you began testing hardware, how has the industry impacted your opinion of reporting real-world performance?
When benchmarking, I think it is important to try and present the information in a manner that people find helpful when they are thinking about buying a product. The fact that some drivers were ‘influencing' graphics scores when using pre scripted testing meant that a lot of sites moved to more ‘real world' FRAPS based testing. It is a good way of approaching testing, but there are some inherent flaws with it. The main one being that it is extremely difficult to create exact, repeatable ‘run-throughs', especially with games which have dynamic open world environments that can change on a variety of levels with every single run. You get better with it the more you do it, but there will always be room for error. It is also difficult for people to compare your results with what they would do at home on their own systems with FRAPS. This is why you often see reviews online with a variety of scoring differences. Everyone has a different take on it and to be honest they all have merit.
I also went through a phase of not wanting to use synthetic benchmarks in any review, programs like PCMark and SiSoft Sandra, but ive almost circled back around again. They aren't a main buying point of any product, but I think on some level it gives the reader something they can run themselves to check against their own system and find out weaknesses and possible routes they can take to enhance their rigs. Certainly it would take some effort from readers to understand exactly what the ‘Cryptography' test in SiSoft Sandra means for instance, but if you can help improve a readers knowledge then they can better judge how they can improve system performance in the areas THEY need. Synthetic tests are only ever ‘a part' of our reviews anyway but I honestly find some value in them again.
I have found by analyzing stats and talking to other editors that people are becoming less and less interested in reference card samples - the cards we get on launch days for instance. A few weeks later the exciting stuff happens - modified coolers from companies such as XFX, MSI, ASUS or Sapphire. Cards with custom PCB's and much higher clocks.
The cool launch articles get people talking. I remember being one of the first people who tested the Intel Nehalem dual CPU system and managed to get it working with 3 x 280 GeForce GTX cards. I spent a week afterwards talking to 4 or 5 people lucky enough to have the same components in all parts of the world, comparing results, finding out new bios settings etc. The social side of this job really appeals to me, but unfortunately due to my health issues I am not often on the forums or able to respond to public emails as much as I would like.
Where do you see the desktop computer industry and its enthusiasts in five years?
That's a rather broad, open question. I think the audience that sites like Benchmark Reviews or Kitguru see, are the more educated users who already know a lot about hardware and technology. These people will always be at the cutting edge of development, or a generation behind, when they can afford to be. The mainstream audience who probably read the BBC technology pages would latch onto devices like the iPad much easier. Sales figures are certainly showing a dramatic shift in the mobile sector, and while laptop sales are still healthy it would appear that many people are wanting smaller tablets to check email and surf on the move. I have a Kindle DX and an iPad myself and I find them extremely complimentary to the desktops and laptops I use. I can rarely get away from technology, but at least with a tablet you can get out of the office, leave the desktops off and still respond to urgent emails without being sucked into the ‘while im here, I can do this and this'.
This is actually very exciting to me, because while there are obviously still limitations in this specific sector, with the release of AMD's Fusion next year I can see a lot of potential and massive development within the mobile market. In all areas we deal with daily for instance, battery technology is far behind the hardware. Not to sound like an AMD sales person here, but Fusion is actually one of the most exciting developments I have read about in a long time. We all love the powerful GTX580's and upcoming 6970's and 6990's, but I have a personal love for low power and minimal footprint. When you read that some of the ARM processors can consume 1w and still deliver reasonable levels of performance, I find that more exciting than high end graphics cards.
I recently read a press release that VisionTek are releasing a 5770 with a Killer Nic onboard, I thought that was a pretty cool idea for gamers, but whether many people buy it I am not so sure. Why not take it a stage further and have a high end video card such as the GTX580 with an outbound HD TV tuner connected to the internet 24/7 that you could record from, so it could handle all the processing time away from the CPU. There are a myriad of possibilities.
What would you like to see changed in the computer hardware industry?
Well I honestly think that the market today is in the best shape it has ever been. There are so many products available to the consumer that no one would be starved for choice. What I would actually like to change would be more with software development. We have some of the most powerful technology on the planet available to the consumer, in the shape of the GTX580 and 5970 for instance but what games are there to take advantage of it? We need more triple A games and I think AMD and Nvidia should actually put as much time into helping software development rather than rushing to release new boards. If gamers had a plethora of new titles to enjoy with the power of their high end hardware I am confident that more people would spend the money buying them. Vanquish on the Playstation 3 as a quick example? We all know how ancient the hardware in that console is by today's standards and it looked almost as good as any of the recent PC games ive been playing. So, yeah, I feel we need games which push the hardware more and genuinely give gamers a reason to upgrade, we don't actually need another 50 frames per second at 1080p.
On a side note, id also like to see the price of 30 inch screens dropping. If you knew the behind the scenes scam to keep those prices up you would be surprised. There has been some movement thanks to Hazro in the UK (http://www.overclockers.co.uk/showproduct.php?prodid=MO-009-HO) but they need to come to £599 inc vat so more gamers can really get good value for money.
If there was one lesson you could teach new hardware enthusiasts, what would it be?
Learn how to build your own system as soon as possible. The real fun comes with you get enough experience to start modding and overclocking your own systems. Don't be afraid, the chances of you killing your system are actually really low if you take your time.
Also don't take ‘it' all too seriously, there is an ancient Chinese saying ‘you can only see so much with your head up your ass'. And if there isn't, then can I claim it?
There you have it: Allan's long winding path of life experiences have led him to become the author many of you appreciate at KitGuru.net today. It's a duty that takes many years of trail and error, and a whole lot of passion. To survive in this industry you must absolutely love what you're doing, or face an early burn-out. Thankfully, Allan has managed to combine the perfect blend of herbs and spices to his recipe, and KitGuru features some of the most entertaining product reviews around. Hopefully this interview has helped our readers to better understand the inner-workings of the computer industry, and gain perspective into our trade. We welcome your comments and suggestions below: