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Expert hardware reviews: worthless?

Today I got this Westinghouse L2410NM monitor delivered by UPS. It's insanely nice. 1920x1200 resolution, 24 inches. It was only $400 from newegg, or $350 if you mail away your soul for a rebate.

On one hand, the internet is invaluable when buying something. I can't imagine what people did in the olden days. Wander into a store and pick something off the shelf and buy it blind? Perish the thought. Nowadays I read hundreds of reviews written by people who already bought what I want to buy, before I even consider getting it.

On the other hand, having too much information can be a double-edged sword.

This monitor got overwhelmingly positive reviews on newegg. People like the large size, the brightness, and the berzillion inputs. It has VGA, HDMI, S-Video, RCA, and YPbPr. No DVI, but a DVI to HDMI cable is $9. I very much echo those positive sentiments (given that I've only had the monitor 3 hours). It has built-in speakers which don't sound too great, but for built-in speakers what do you expect? It looks very nice too. Glossy black, with a clear plastic base and a clear plastic strip under the monitor where the Westinghouse logo is sort of illuminated. It looks great.

Contrast this with a review I found on a hardware review site. This site gave it a 4 out of 10, i.e. a pretty poor rating. This was because the on-screen menu wasn't easy enough to use, the base wasn't adjustable enough, and it doesn't go to sleep when in HDMI mode. There are also some posted graphs which I can't understand in the slightest, describing color ranges and monitor "performance".

This second review is obviously written by someone with much more technical knowledge than the average "OMG MY XBOX360 LOOKS AWESOEM" review on newegg. On the other hand, 103 of 135 people on newegg gave it the highest rating possible and were obviously very pleased. I consider myself fairly technically savvy, but when I'm making a hardware purchasing decision, which is more important, technical concerns, or other concerns?

Which is more important: That I'm now going to have four or five 1920x1200 virtual desktops in Linux (which will be, by the way, awesome indeed), or that, to quote the expert, "The color temperature tracks very close to 6500K most of the time. It's just a bit on the cool side through most of this curve. Once you get below about 15% intensity, the color temperature goes very red indeed"? What the heck does that even mean? Which is more important, that I can have my PS2 and laptop and Gentoo box all hooked up to the same monitor, saving me from having to buy a TV, or that the OSD has difficult-to-use buttons?

Had I listened to the "expert", I may have passed this up and missed out on getting something I really enjoy. I've had the same experiences in the past. I spent a month researching which MP3 player to get. Same thing last time I bought a watch. Was it really worth that much research time? Did I end up passing up something I would've enjoyed because the technical specs weren't top-of-the-line? Did I end up with anything better than I would've gotten with much less research and review-hunting?

I saw a TV show (Penn & Teller's Bullshit!) recently about how always trying to get the BEST of everything will often result in people being very unfulfilled. That's probably very true. There's a point where expectations are simply too high, and where the cost of doing more research and putting more effort into finding the BEST of something outweighs the benefit you actually receive when you end up buying whatever you end up buying.

There's a balance to be struck. Sure, you don't want to pay money for an inferior piece of technology or something that's going to break in a week. On the other hand, enjoyment isn't something that can be entirely quantified and rationalized. Sometimes it's nice to buy something that may not be the BEST product ever made, but which brings you plenty of enjoyment, and leaves you plenty of time to enjoy it. Sometimes it's nice to buy something just because it's nice and shiny.

November 07, 2007 @ 3:20 PM PST
Cateogory: Hardware


Steve Dibb
Quoth Steve Dibb on November 07, 2007 @ 5:25 PM PST

Really good writeup, I can agree with you quite a lot.

I've been learning to do the same thing lately, rely less on the experts opinions and instead read all the users reviews.

I like to start at the worst ratings first, and see what they could possibly hate about the product, since its usually stuff like that you don't find out til you've bought it. A lot of the time, you'll know you find something good when the only reasons the reviews are bad are for cases like that -- someone didn't like the onboard default menus, or they tried to do something they shouldn't and broke it.

Anyway, good stuff. :)

Quoth Brian on November 07, 2007 @ 5:58 PM PST

Thanks. Yeah stories about bad experiences are often helpful, if there are a lot of consistent ones reporting the same problems. I knew my new monitor was going to have a sucky OSD and a weak base, given how many people said it on newegg. It turned out to be true, but it's a small price to pay.

Quoth Baloki on November 07, 2007 @ 7:31 PM PST

I've always found that magazines and reviewers for the such (be they online or offline 'zines) are trying to aim their reviews at everyone from a technical to a non-technical base so don't really try and give a feel of what the product would actually be like if a customer bought it and had it sat on their desktop, floor, plinth, deck, etc.

That's why the customer feedback option was such a good idea, because as you say you can get an idea of how a product works in the real world. If someone else who bought it has had problems with it, more then 80% of the time they will complain about it anywhere and everywhere, you can then see this complaint, and put it into your evaluation on if the products right for you.

Of course this system does have it's downsides as I think they had on Amazon, where a company was altering a products feedback score by submitting their own 'excellent' reviews.

I dunno though, tis always good to get the advice of friends and others before buying, even if you end up ignoring them and just buying it cos it's shiny :p

Quoth numerodix on November 07, 2007 @ 10:55 PM PST

It's true that all those reviews give you a good idea of what you're looking at. But I miss the aspect of seeing the product myself sometimes. Especially for things like laptops, mp3 players etc where it matters how it behaves physically (how loud it is etc).

Quoth jwickers on November 08, 2007 @ 4:22 PM PST

While user review might be useful to spot problems, most users don't do what a pro reviewer would do: - compare it to other models - be "objective"

When you spend hard bucks on something you will be please as long as there is no obvious flaws. As an example most people are pleased by their the hearplugs that comes with their MP3 player, because that's all they get and won't find anything wrong with them. But as soon as you compare them with the real thing you realize how crap they sound. Why do you think people buying expensive headsets tell you how they "rediscover" their music ?

All LCD screens are fine for normal usage, especially if you don't have anything to compare them to. So everybody will tell you their screen is nice but they cannot tell you that new model X has better response time / very good color fidelity / etc ... for the same price.

Quoth Brian on November 08, 2007 @ 4:35 PM PST

I think sometimes, people who buy expensive things like them because they're expensive. e.g. $7,000 audio cables. I do have a good pair of headphones (Grado SR80's, which again I spent months researching), and there's definitely a difference between those and the crappy earbuds you get free with an MP3 player, but I'm not sure if finding my good headphones was REALLY worth that much effort.

Color fidelity and response time don't mean anything to me, personally. If people will be pleased with anything as long as there are no obvious flaws, that sounds like a good argument not to spend much time worrying about what you'll buy. :)