Friday, May 29, 2009

Amateur Product Reviews

I’ve had some bad luck with cameras. I got a nice, compact new camera last spring, and when it was still new it suffered a little accident. I was riding on a gravelly road, of seriously steep grade, on a snowy day in Boulder, and decided to take a little “Self Portrait With Brother” while still pedaling. Max and I, crowding in to get into the photo, bumped into each other and the next thing I knew my front wheel had come off the ground and I was doing what amounted to a backward somersault on (and off) my bike. (I told you, it was a really steep grade.) In the process, my finger happened to press the camera shutter button, and I ended up with one of the most remarkable photos I’ve ever snapped:

With the hand not holding the camera, I maintained my grip on the bars, evidently never giving up hope that I’d somehow get the bike upright again. Alas, I could not, and in the fall I broke my camera. I sent it back to the manufacturer with a repair request form, writing in the “Description of Problem” area, “I fell with this camera and it broke.” I made no claim that it was defective. Remarkably, the manufacturer repaired it for free.

A Repeat Customer

When I got tired of loaning this camera to my daughter Alexa, I decided to get her a camera of her own for her seventh birthday. I started to research cheaper cameras (she’s only seven, after all), but my heart wasn’t in it. There’s just too much information out there to sift through, much of it contradictory and most of it highly complicated. I’d chosen my camera because a friend had one and it looked cool, and it was, and I ultimately decided to get Alexa the same camera, but in blue. I questioned the wisdom of buying such a fragile and (relatively) expensive camera for a young person, but Alexa never lost, broke, or misused her camera. Instead, I broke it.

I sent it in, and on the repair request form I wrote, “This broke. I don’t know how.” This time, they sent me a whole new camera. The new one looked a bit fancier—it sports more megapixels, anyway—but suddenly I needed to research it online. That may seem silly, and it is—after all, it makes no sense to research something you already own, and I wouldn’t have much recourse to return it to the manufacturer if I did decide it was lame. (I was starting to feel like the Fisherman’s Wife, to tell you the truth.) But feeling like this replacement was too good to be true, I had to know if this replacement camera was a loss leader, a terrible misstep by the manufacturer resulting in a glut of an unpopular model.

A Puzzling Review

I went to and started reading the one-star reviews. It always surprises me how easy it is to find one-star reviews on consumer websites. It’s especially surprising with hi-tech products like digital cameras that are improving in leaps and bounds while their prices plummet. Consumers can really be fickle. One guy blasted my camera model based its requiring you to remove the battery to charge it. “Of course I got my money back!” he boasted. And to think I’ve been cheerfully taking my battery out to charge it, for over a year, blithely unaware at how irritated I should be about it.

Here is the first one-star review I found of my new camera:

“Too bad I couldn't give 1 star. I had an older Lumix that lasted two years. When that camera was stolen, I purchased this model from my local B & M. The first time I took it out, I used it 8 times. I put it back in the case and when I checked the camera the next morning, the LCD display was cracked in the back of it. This happened when it was in the padded camera bag I had in my pocket. I emailed panasonic, they emailed me back 5 days later and told me to send the camera with a check for $52.50 and they will tell me whether the warranty will be honored. 1/3 the cost of the camera, just to tell me if they will fix it. Unbelievable.”

This review is kind of a classic of the genre. First of all, it gets your attention with a blatant error: “Too bad I couldn’t give 1 star.” Um, actually, dude, you can give one star. In fact, you did. Then, he proceeds to give information that is completely unnecessary. If I’m trying to decide if a camera is good, what do I care his older camera was stolen? Does it reflect well on the product that a thief would want it? And was it really stolen? Throughout my childhood, “stolen” was a euphemism for “lost.” And does it matter where he bought the replacement?

Then, the guy’s description of how he broke the camera is laid out like a court case, like he’s been deposed. Make no mistake: he used the camera not, say, a handful of times, but exactly eight. (Who counts their camera usages? Or did he go back and reconstruct his precise usage based on JPG metadata?) And what does he mean, he “checked the camera the next morning?” The morning after what? And what did he check it for? Did he have a sneaking feeling it had spontaneously broken? And would a camera in its case really fit in his pocket? Just how big was this pocket? Could it be that putting a camera in a case in his pocket wasn’t such a good idea?

I suppose I wouldn’t nitpick so much were it not for the punch line of the review: the arrogant manufacturer wouldn’t stand behind its product. I have to agree with one thing the reviewer says: his story is unbelievable. In fact, I don’t believe it. If I’d had a great warranty experience only one time with this manufacturer, I could attribute my good fortune to a mistake. But twice these guys took care of me, even though I never claimed either camera was defective. How did this other guy have such a bad experience? Did his e-mail just tick them off? Or are we not getting the whole story?

Why Trust Amateurs?

You might ask why, with so many professional reviewers out there, I would seek out the amateur reviews to begin with. It’s a fair question. I think there are several good reasons.

First of all, I’m tired of professional reviewers who aren’t impartial. Pick up any buying guide magazine—Gear, Stuff, Complex—and (once you’ve gotten past all the babes) you may notice that the products “reviewed” are really just described, invariably in glowing terms. There’s never any bad news. Consider this: when’s the last time Bicycling magazine gave a bike a bad review in a road test? Believe it or not, in the magazine’s early history there actually were negative reviews: two, to be precise. The first was in 1981, and the bike was the San Tropez 710. It is a testament to the rarity of the bad review that I remember this so many years later. I can’t remember the specific complaints, only that the magazine completely trashed it. I don’t think anybody cared, though, because nobody had ever heard of this bike, nor has anyone since.

The next bad review in Bicycling was in 1982, and it was a review of the Motobecane Prolite. It was a glorious review, citing readings from Bicycling’s frame flex testing machine (which they called the Tarantula) describing massive frame flex. There were also subjective impressions; one staffer came back from a road test “laughing at the rubber bike.” I was thrilled at the magazine’s candor, and thus crestfallen a month or two later when they retracted the review, saying the Prolite was actually a very good bike. The magazine mysteriously carried its first full-page Motobecane ad in that same issue. I was young but not stupid, and recognized how this whole thing works. To this day, I’ve never seen another negative review of any bike in any bike magazine. And yet, I’ve spent enough time working in bike shops to know how many truly crappy bikes there are out there.

Another reason I’m not fond of professional reviews is that they’re just too complicated. Especially in the case of electronic items, the language is way too technical for me. Looking at camera reviews, I find pages and pages of stuff about ISO, lens faults, sensitivity, noise and noise reduction, recycling time, and so forth. I’m not a professional and I don’t know much about cameras and I really just want to know if a camera is easy for the average joe to use. Granted, I often come across amateur reviews that fail the “sanity test,” but if lots of reviewers have the same complaint, I can start to put some stock in it. For example, when I looked at amateur reviews of a laptop computer, tons of people had complained about the labels on the keyboard being too hard to read. I bought that very laptop, figuring it’d be a bargain based on all the bad reviews. (I have no use for key labels, as I use the totally nonstandard Dvorak keyboard layout, about which I’ll likely blog one day.)

But really one of the best reasons to read amateur reviews is simply because they’re amusing. For me they’re a guilty pleasure, like Parade magazine. For once, I don’t have to suffer a sense of inferiority while reading something. It’s bad enough that professional product reviewers far outpace my ability to understand them, but when I’m reading for pleasure it’s usually either a classic work of literature or an article in the New Yorker, either of which can be a humbling read. (I often commiserate with an M.D. friend of mine about the doctor/writer Atul Gawande’s obvious superiority to us. Not only is he a bestselling writer, but he’s an esteemed surgeon and an Associate Professor at Harvard, has degrees from Stanford, Oxford, and Harvard, and is more handsome than either of us. We like to joke that his kids probably love him more than ours love us, and that either of our wives would leave us for him at the first opportunity.) So yes, I’ll admit it, I enjoy the occasional foray into off-the-cuff—yet often impassioned—product reviews from mere mortals, especially the frustrated ones.

A Couple of Gems

Here’s a fun one-star camera review:

“I don't know. But I have a problem with the colors and noise sometimes when taking shots with this camera. The colors are not that shinny. When taking the photos without flash - even in day light - the photos still seems dark when displayed on my computer screen. It looks fine in the camera screen but not on the computer.”

I just love the opening: “I don’t know.” So humble, so honest. I could learn something from this approach, I know. About those non-shiny colors, though … I suspect this problem isn’t related to the camera, if the pictures look fine on the camera screen. This person probably has a bad computer monitor. I wish I could help him.

Don’t misunderstand me—finding fault with people’s reviews isn’t the point. Really, the best part is the little glimpse into people’s lives and worlds that the extraneous information can provide. Check out this one:

“My husband bought this camera in order to replace my 2 year-old Sony Cybershot that I have been using with a broken LCD screen for the past 8 months. However, I was so dissapointed because it has no video shooting option, as my old cybershot had..... I have an hyperactive crazy little dog that I love to catch on photos and videos and I cant do it with my new camera...”

This review has it all: the thoughtful husband, the stoic camera owner gamely making do with a broken camera for eight months, and best of all that hyperactive crazy little dog that she not only wants to make movies of, but wants to tell the camera-buying public about. (Never mind that this model of camera does have a video shooting mode that she must not have discovered yet. I actually get some added pleasure from the knowledge that one day she’ll figure out the video mode, and will delightedly run right over to her little dog to make her first movie.)

My Amateur Review Challenge

For no good reason other than to alert my readership, if any, to the e-mail feedback feature of this blog, and to train to you all in the use of said feature, I hereby issue my Amateur Review Challenge. What follows is a collection of reviews of a variety of products. For each product, there are three reviews: two real ones plus a fake one I made up. I challenge you to identify the fictitious review for each product. Send your submissions to The first person to guess correctly on every review will get a prize. I don’t know what it will be, but it will be similar in value to the brand-new Bike Tires Direct patch kit that was won by the first person to sign up as a Follower of this blog.

Review #1: PC printer

a) The thing I didnt know about this printer or I would have not bought it was that it takes special photo paper that has this tear-off tab on it that you have to tear off and it doesnt always evenv work. HP is not the company it used to be, how can they make you do that. Bogus. I had a Canon Bubblejet before and it had no tab and the ink didn’t smear either. I took this one back and its a good thing I had my reciept.

b) I have purchased 3 of these for family members and all 3 came without the usb cable to plug them into the computer. which makes the printer useless. I contacted your company and they sent me another printer,and that one didnt have one either. I had to buy the cables myself. I dont understand how you can sell this printer without the means to use it.

c) Realmente no puedo dar ninguna opinion de sastifaccion por que el producto no llego a su destino. [Babelfish translation: "I really cannot give any opinion of satisfaction so that the product I do not arrive at its destiny."]

Review #2: The Alchemist (a novel)

a) The most mysterious part of this book is its popularity. I understand that it’s a simple fable and I'll even grant the “follow your heart” message may be a virtuous pursuit. But the manner in which this message is delivered is tortuous…. Instead of having to resolve significant conflicts himself, Santiago floats through the story guided by a sequence of serendipitously fortuitous events. Coelho attributes this to the “universe conspiring” to help him attain his Personal Legend. I attribute this to weak writing.

b) This incredibly over-rated book is a mixture of pure fantasy and mushy sentimentalism. It is more suited to children or to an American audience.

c) I read this book alongside What Is the What by Dave Eggers, about the “Lost Boys” in Sudan. The characters in Eggers’ book were realistic, and had real problems, and it was hard, in reading The Alchemist, to get excited about some schmuck searching for buried treasure. The Alchemist is a shallow, contrived, fourth-grade-reading level novel. Its millions of devoted fans should feel embarrassed.

Review #3: Anna Karenina (a novel)

a) The book is a great book even though it has fallen apart piece by piece during my read.

b) I can’t see how a book that was made into such a tight, well-paced movie that only lasted less than two hours. I thought I’d never get through it and was so boring, get to the point already.

c) Nabokov, you are a jerk

Review #4: Food Processor

a) OK, I really like this little mini-prep processor at the very beginning. The motor is strong, very easy to clean. However, this little guy only last for 10 time of use within 5 months. I handwash the bowl and found out there were cracks between the blade and the joint plastic. I emailed their customer service thru their website. It's been 10 days, no one even reply with a sorry!

b) I have had this thing for eight months and I never use it. I don’t see much use except greating cheese and then it’s a hassle to clean anyway. But the thing I can’t get is it was supposed to come with an instructive video and it but it’s VHS! Wake up people it’s 2009. I don’t even have a VHS anymore.

c) great chopper until you try to clean it. to screw the blade on tight, you are safe, to take the blade out of it's compartment to clean it, you must twist in the same direction as the sharp blades. this is the reason i am typing with one hand without the time to use caps b/c i am bleeding!

Review #5: Men’s Jacket

a) Shabby packing, was delivered rolled as a ball! The quality is poor, almost light as a fleece, and is a dirt magnet. I ordered thinking this brand is typically good, but not in this case.

b) Won't buy again! The lining got mold all over, the buttons were together, very hard to get apart and when I pulled them, the lining almost came off and so did the rusty buttons, is made in china that's why, if I knew it was made there will never buy it.

c) Loved the jacket at first, has that “lived-in” look I wanted, which my old jacket had but I think it was broken in by a real person wearing it around, it smelled like boiled cabbage and I couldn’t get rid of the smell. So this jacket I’m like “yes, it’s all worn in and doesn’t stink!” But then I read this little disclaimer tag that comes with and here’s what it says, I’m not making this up: “THIS GARMENT IS PREWASHED. We've put this J. Crew product through a washing process to create a softer, “lived-in” feel and look. This prewashing replicates natural aging without repeated wearings and washings. So this garment is a bit faded, a bit shrunk, and its seams are looser and less uniform (as shrinking is never completely even in all dimensions). There will also be some variations of shading and texture. In fact, some garments will have large bleached patches. Invariably, one sleeve will be longer than the other, and the collar may choke you, or else gape wide open and let cold air in. You may find that there are more buttonholes than buttons, and that the fabric may have large runs or tears in it. Some garments will give you years of service, but you shouldn't be surprised if your garment completely falls apart after just a few short weeks. These factors combine to give this garment its individual look and comfort. Please keep this in mind as you examine your new J. Crew garment: because we don't want to hear any complaints. Such variations are assets that contribute to the uniqueness and personality of all our prewashed apparel.” I was like, WHOAH! So I’ll probably return it, my god, but right now I’m actually enjoying it.

Okay, get those contest entries in! Remember, Tell your friends! Tell your family! Good luck!


If you would like to see the results of the fake amateur review quiz, click here: We Have a Winner!


  1. Apologies - I didn't make it to the end again...but I just wanted to tell you that I remember reading the San Tropez and the Motobecane Prolight (rebadged Vitus 979) reviews. I also remember the review issue from the early 80s that trashed the Motobecane Jubilee Sport -- which was my first real bike...I think that I bought it even after the reading the review because it was so pretty and Gallic and on sale -- and it was also too big at 23" -- criminal bike shop!

    I also thought you might find this book interesting... -- if i remember correctly Frank Berto was the tech guy at Bicycling way back when...

  2. Hey Dana,
    I made it to the end of the blog, but I didn't get through the contest reviews. I wanted to win the contest badly, but I'll have to give it another try when I have a little more time.

  3. Hey Dana,

    I don't have time to read your whole blog (I mean, it's long, right?), but I do have time to comment on it. i.e., your thoughts and musings ultimately bore me, but I find my own ideas to be endlessly entertaining, so much so that I am parasitically using your blog to share them with the world.



    (ok, that's probably way too mean to Martin and JP, but come on guys! It's just a few more paragraphs to the end! You can make it!)

  4. An interesting postscript: the authenticity of customer testimonials should always be scrutinized. Look at this pair of reviews:

    "once my friend called about 3 O'clock at night and said, 'hello.. I am taking off at 4 and some cabs are not answering while some says 'not available' what should i do?' I told him not to worry and called (510) 559-3333 Beleave it or not my friend was at airport half hour before the take off time. So the gray line is that no matter what time you need cab just call them and they will be there in 5-7 min....thanks to the owner of Airport Cab Exprees.‎"

    "once my friend called about 3 O'clock at night and said, 'hello.. I am taking off at 4 and some cabs are not answering while some says 'not available' what should i do?' I told him not to worry and called 510-528-3333 Beleave it or not my friend was at airport half hour before the take off time. So the gray line is that no matter what time you need cab just call them and they will be there in 5-7 min....thanks to the owner of Berkeley City Exprees Cab.‎"

    I suppose these two cab companies could be affiliated somehow, but their addresses and phone numbers are different. In any case some meddling has been done with the testimonials....