Updated on 08.12.10

Interpreting Reviews and Knowing What to Buy

Trent Hamm

Wendy writes in:

I know that you have touched on this a bit in the past, but I would love to see an article specifically addressing how you research an items technology, durability, and expected lifespan when making your purchasing decisions.

I have two categories of interest:
– rarely reviewed items. Ex: two different motion sensor light switches that only lasted 2 years each?
– changing technology, such as where they constantly come out with new models and it is difficult to do lifespan reviews. Ex: our expensive TV only lasted 4 years, then filters went bad and the pictures appear yellow?

Finding trustworthy reviews of specific items can be pretty hard, even today with the huge amount of information available on the internet. I use a lot of different avenues to make up my mind about specific purchases. Here’s what I do when researching anything.

First, I turn to Consumer Reports. They’re my first line of defense for any consumer product, from televisions and dishwashers to soap and razors. I often mark their highest rated products and their “best buy” products for future purchase possibilities, particularly on disposable and replaceable items. It’s always my first stop when researching something I’m considering buying.

If I can’t find a review of the specific product or if it hasn’t been around long enough to give long-term data, I look at the brand. Does this company have a history of producing high-quality and reliable products? Or do they make things that break frequently and need replacement quickly?

Similarly, I want to know about their customer service. If a company has a reputation for strong customer service – like Apple, for example – I feel more confident about purchasing a product from that company. If the product turns out to be faulty, a company with good service is much more likely to take care of you than a company with poor service.

If I can’t find such information about a company, I don’t buy the product. This is especially true as purchases grow more expensive. If I can’t find any information about the company producing the item and the item costs more than a few bucks (or I’m going to be relying on this item in any way), I won’t buy the item. I have had too many bad experiences with no-name items that, if I’m going to be investing any significant money, I need to have some information about who is making it and what their reputation is.

I do use Google searching and Amazon reviews, but I put less trust in them than I do on other sources. I’ll look up items and see what the peer reviews say, but I do recognize that sometimes those peer reviews are bought and paid for by the company (“Employee X, you have a couple hours to burn, go review our stuff well on Amazon”) and sometimes the negative reviews are competitors trying to do a hatchet job.

On any significant purchase, I ask around my social network. I’ll put out an email to some of my closest friends stating that I’m looking for some type of item or service and I’m wondering if they have any comments or suggestions. Almost everything I get back in this regard is golden – it’s almost always honest, quality stuff.

I also pay it forward – whenever I have a bad experience or an exceptional experience, I find ways to share that experience widely with others. I’ll put up reviews in various places or even mention them on The Simple Dollar.

These techniques almost always add up to enough information for any purchasing decision I need to make.

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  1. Matt says:

    While I’m generally a Consumer Reports fan, I feel like sometimes their rankings don’t match well with other reviews. If you know of a reliable source of information on an item type (cars, cameras, etc) besides Consumer Reports, I’d probably head there first – or at least factor it in as well.

  2. Scott says:

    For electronics, newegg.com has a very good product reviews section. Whenever I look for electronics, even if I don’t buy it from newegg.com, I’ll check the number and quality of the reviews on an item I’m interested in purchasing. For general household items, I go to Costco. It’s a lazy man’s approach, but I figure Costco will do the research on the items they sell to avoid a flood of returns. For everything else, I use the reviews on Amazon.

  3. k.sol says:

    When looking for reviews, your local library may have not only physical copies of Consumer Reports, but also electronic ones going back years in licensed electronic databases. Depends on the library system, but check. Librarians can help you access these and search specifically for what you need. Don’t hesitate to ask.

    Also — the Better Business Bureau has a searchable database online that can give you info on companies.

  4. WendyH says:

    Thanks Trent!

    To expand on my TV example: I went back and looked, reviews were very positive when the model came out (major manufacturer with what we thought was a good reputation), it was two years after model release that comments started appearing about yellowing issues. From the sounds of it ours has taken longer to have issues than many others.

    I guess I didn’t consider items like TV’s really short-lived and “disposable” now days, but maybe I should be changing my expectations?

  5. Justin says:

    I will say that when it comes to buying electronics and computer gear, I always start with NewEgg. They have a great site layout and their customers take the time to write honest and useful (mostly) reviews for just about everything they buy.

    Once I find the highest rated item, I usually then hit up Google Shopping to find the lowest price.

    Works well for me.

  6. That is very good advice. I notice about myself that I usually go for the same brands, just because I trust them more.

  7. Mike says:

    Another great place to look for reviews (from all sources) is consumersearch.com. They aggregate reviews from amazon, consumer reports, cnet and others, giving you full reviews and quick answers. I’ve used them for most major purchase decisions – there’s even links to low prices on the items.

    Highly recommended!

  8. Cheryl says:

    The only problem I have with Consumer Reports is that they are extremely political to the point that I question whether they are truly unbiased.

  9. jen says:

    @Cheryl, can you tell me more about the potential bias of Consumer Reports?

  10. Malaika says:

    Unfortunately, more and more, people are paid to post glowing reviews on various websites. “Associated Content” articles about a product or service are NOT to be believed. I stick with Consumer Reports.

  11. Drew says:

    I am a product research addict myself. I don’t subscribe to Consumer Reports, though I have considered it. I usually start out my product research at a website called ConsumerSearch.com. They do some of the leg work for you, reading Amazon reviews, etc. and sharing their results for free. I wouldn’t say I trust their reviews 100%, but they can usually get me pointed in the right direction if nothing else.

    Also, I’ve become fairly wary of Amazon’s star ratings. I’ve noticed a trend of folks posting reviews (good or bad) for alternate sellers on the actual product review page. I always report those reviews when I find them, but they can often skew a 4 star product down to a 3 star if enough people post low reviews for unsatisfactory alternate seller transactions. I hope they can do something to prevent those sorts of posts going through soon.

    Hope this helps someone out.

    Happy researching!

  12. Dave Morse says:

    As a former college faculty member, I enjoyed your helpful comments regarding the purchase of high-quality products.

  13. Matt says:

    Regarding Consumer Reports: to be completely honest, I haven’t looked at their magazine or website in a few years. However, I used to have a paid subscription to their website. The problem I had was that they never seemed to review the products that interested me. It seemed like they picked products to review based on a certain demographic, and if you fell out of that demographic in anyway, the reviews weren’t really helpful or applicable.

    Two examples that come to mind are dehumidifiers and vacuum cleaners. In my mind, it seemed like they only covered about 10% of what was available in both categories. As I was researching these products, the ones that looked useful to me were never reviewed by CR.

    Another problem I had with them is lack of technical depth. At least with regards to computers and computer components. I’m a professional programmer and general computer enthusiast; I’d like to think I know a lot about computers. When I read their computer-related reviews, it underscores my hypothesis. That is, they don’t make *bad* recommendations by any means, but, based on the technical depth and what they actually recommend, it is obvious to me that they are catering to a “less sophisticated” crowd.

    You may ask, why, if I know so much about computers, would I use CR to buy one? I wouldn’t! My point is, I’m the kind of guy, when I’m going to make a big purchase for something I expect to get a lot of mileage out of (e.g. vacuum cleaner or dehumidifier), if I can afford it, I don’t necessarily want the mainstream version—I want something a little more high end. Because of my interests and experience, I know what this is with regards to computers—and CR doesn’t make these recommendations. So then I have to ask myself, are they really making the best recommendations for me for other things?

    Brand history is semi useful. But, particularly with consumer electronics, many of the brands are giant conglomerates. Think about a brand like General Electric that makes everything from incandescent lightbulbs to sophisticated medical imaging technology… I don’t know anything about GE, but I’d be surprised if the lightbulb and medical divisions had any interaction. So, Trent, I’d modify your suggestion about brand history to be “brand history within a product line”. In other words, a product may have a great history with product line A, but stink at product line B. Yamaha is another example: they make everything from musical instruments to motorcycles!

    Finally, if you have the time, and are semi-obsessive when it comes to reviewing products, you can get some decent info from web forums that deal with the product type. In other words, not just reviews that Google finds, or even Amazon product reviews. But a whole forum dedicated to whatever product it is you are researching. An example is home theater equipment (TVs, stereos, speakers, etc). There are many forums, but a big one is AVSForum. Of course, just like with Amazon reviews, a company can pay a shill to go talk up their product (or talk down the competition). But most forums show you how many posts a user has, and I think it’s generally safe to trust the longer, detailed posts from long-time forum members with a huge posting history.

    Not only that, but reading other enthusiasts’ comments will expand your own knowledge of the product and the terminology that comes with it.

    Of course, the downside is it takes a lot of time to get to “know” a forum and its members. But if you take the time, it’s about as close as you can come to knowing a group of people who are enthusiasts in that product category.

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