Doing your own reviews

I thought I’d provide some background on how I evaluate and review products, with the goal of helping you make intelligent purchase decisions.

It’s become much more difficult to make a buying decision with so many new products being introduced each week, many of them doing new things, some claiming to be the best, and some making unsubstantial claims to gain attention. That’s why it’s so important to research a new product before you buy.

I find that many products I test often have weaknesses, hidden costs or issues that only become obvious after using them for a while. It could be the complexity of setup, a poor user interface or being underpowered.

A good example is the previous generations of Samsung Galaxy phones that had terrific specs, but had been laden with their own non-removable software that made the phone confusing and hard to use. Microsoft’s original Surface RT tablet was touted as a breakthrough product, yet was incompatible with most software, had a short battery life, was underpowered, and suffered from a poor interface.

To learn before you buy, begin with product reviews. There are both good and bad reviewers and review sites, ranging from insightful to snarky, some of the latter aiming to gain clicks through controversy, rather than providing serious analysis.

A few form opinions without even trying the product, just serving as an echo chamber based on other reviews. Gizmodo is one of those poor sites. In contrast, Engadget, The Verge, Pocket-Lint, and Re/code (now part of The Verge), each have serious reviewers and generally do a very good job.

For more specific products, I trust Digital Photography Review, Steve Huff, Reid Reviews, Ken Rockwell, and Image-Resource for camera reviews; Stereophile, InnerFidelity, and Headroom for music equipment reviews; the user reviews on apple.com and iLounge for Apple products; and Tom’s Hardware for reviews of computer equipment.

Among the national media, the Wall Street Journal has an excellent technology staff with thoughtful reviews from Joanna Stern and others. Ed Baig of USA Today, Harry McCracken of Fast Company, and Katie Bohert and Walt Mossberg of Re/code are all insightful and unbiased. The New York Times reviewer, Farhad Manjoo, can be insightful, but a little quirky. David Pogue of Yahoo is an entertaining writer, but is ethically challenged, such as when he was reprimanded for reviewing products from companies where he had business interests. And too often his egotism gets in the way of the facts.

But even the good reviews need to be judged carefully. Every reviewer has his or her own biases, weighing the importance of a product’s attributes differently from what might be important to you, and may not always understand the trade-offs.

For example, a recent review of a Motorola G Phone praised its low cost but criticized the display, stating that while it was excellent, it was not equal to an iPhone. But the iPhone is twice the price, and the reviewer never explained the trade-off of price to display resolution or how one affects the other.

The best reviews are those that don’t simply judge how many features the product has, but how suitable the product is to use and how good a balance there is among functionality, usability and cost.

I’ve always used the product before I write a review. Many companies will lend a sample for a few weeks. Those that don’t, aren’t reviewed, which affects what products I’ve covered. Apple, AT&T, Epson, Fujitsu, Canon, Garmin, Pentax, Casio, Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint, Acura, Ford, GM, Hyundai, Mazda, Plantronics, Audi and others have been very supportive over the past decade.

However, Microsoft, Nikon, Sony, Fitbit, Jawbone, Google and Tesla have been unresponsive. When I’ve reviewed any of these products I had to buy it or borrow one from another reviewer.

I recommend you do the same — try before you buy. You will not have access to PR firms sending you products, but fortunately, you can buy online or in many stores. Try and return if you don’t like it.

Even more important than expert opinions are the customer reviews posted online. Reviews can tell you about a product’s longevity and the quality of support from the manufacturer. Good sources for reviews, which I often check after writing my column’s first draft, include some of the sites noted above and, most notably, Amazon.

With products becoming so complex, their longevity and ability to be repaired becomes important, but this can be difficult to determine on a new product. Few companies make specific repairs, and instead replace an entire part of the product, meaning that it’s difficult to use independent repair shops. For example, Apple replaces the complete display assembly when the iPhone 6 has just a faulty home button.

When I write a review I’ll often try contacting the company, much as a customer would. How difficult is it to reach someone for help? Does the product come with a phone number or email address? Does their website make it easy to get help? Although increasingly rare, a product with a toll-free phone number right on the product is a sign of good customer support.

What is the company’s policy on early defects? Does it replace a defective product with a brand new one or with a refurbished unit? You should not expect to buy a new product only to have to replace it with a used one a week later. If you discover a defect within the first few weeks, it’s better just to return the product and buy a new one than get a refurbished replacement.

That’s why I’d much prefer a company that stands behind its products by making it easy to get them fixed.

I would buy an Apple product before one from Dell, HP or Lenovo, as good as they are. With an Apple I can walk into one of their stores to have it fixed, often the same day. The alternative is to be without your computer or phone for a week. So look for companies with local service or a one- to two-day turnaround.

Judging a product based on where it’s made is no longer indicative of its quality. Almost all consumer electronics products are made in China. Quality varies by the specific design and the manufacturer rather than the country.

As I’ve been on the flip side, developing products for companies, I know that products are released before they are perfected, with potential for returns from a defect in the design or manufacturing. I would show a little forgiveness as long as the company sent me a replacement quickly. It usually takes a couple of months for a product to be in the hands of thousands of customers to really know its issues.

With a careful, methodical approach, you can be adept at making the right buying decisions. And if you can’t decide, do nothing. There will be something similar out a few months later. Just remember, a technology product is only useful if it does something you want done, and should never add more complications to your life.