Have you ever had to buy something you knew very little about? Something like a vacuum cleaner, a gas grill, wiper blades, or maybe even replacing your brake pads? For some of the smaller items, like the wiper blades, you may do what I do: pick the one with the median price. If you do, you’re not alone. There’s suggestive evidence that people often choose the one in the middle when the merits between the choices are hard to discern.
For the larger items, you may call a friend or, increasingly, read online product reviews to see what other people think. There are, of course, some inherent problems with this approach. It’s possible you don’t know anyone who has purchased the item in question or, if they have, they haven’t given it much thought. I really like our vacuum, for instance, but I couldn’t give you a lot of comparative information. On the other hand, people who have purchased an item often have an innate need to justify their own decision so they are less likely to offer critical feedback when asked.
Online product reviews pose a different problem. I was in a restaurant recently when our waiter offered suggestions regarding his four favorite items on the menu. The problem is that we have no frame of reference for the waiter’s disposition and no way to compare his general likes and dislikes with our own. To make his recommendations worthwhile, we had to then ask questions about the types of food he likes in general, what he likes to drink, etc. Only then did we have the right context to fully understand what “best” meant to him. With online product reviews written by consumers, this additional context can be tough to come by.
Enter Brian Lam and his two awesome sites devoted to helping you make better buying decisions: The Wirecutter focusing on tech gadgets, and The Sweethome, focusing on things you need for the house. Both sites address their respective product reviews in the same, fanatical way: Brian personally digests everything he can find about each product, spends dozens of hours on research and testing, and then does something no one else seems to: He chooses the best. Not a list of the top 10; just the one you should buy to meet your needs.
“Best” is an interesting term in this regard. This doesn’t always mean the most expensive or feature-laden (though it could.) Brian thinks the top of the line models are unnecessary for most of us, depending on use case, and there are plenty of amazing things at good prices. “We live in an age where most gadgets are good enough,” Brian explains, “I generally like to find the sweet spot of cost as balanced out by the features we really need.” Perhaps the best thing about his recommendations is the depth of detail provided. If you’ve been frustrated by the lack of depth in product reviews, you’re going to love Brian: He recently wrote 4,000 words on choosing the best razor.
Brian’s background makes him uniquely qualified to be an independent testing lab. The son of an engineer who taught him how to solder at 7, Brian has been writing about gadgets for a long time: he ran Gizmodo for half a decade and was at WIRED magazine before that where he wrote the Fetish section, helped edit the Test section and special issues and helped found Gadgetlab. “For better or worse,” Brian says, “gadgets are a big part of who I am. But on the other hand, gadgets are not what I am all about. I’m proud of both. I am of the opinion that you shouldn’t trust anyone for your gadget advice who doesn’t have a life inside and outside gadgets. Context is important.”
Both sites take a somewhat unorthodox approach to what they do. You won’t find reviews for everything you’re looking for, which is partly the point. Since each product category is researched and written by Brian, updates are infrequent, with just several reviews added each month. While The Wirecutter applies his deep-dive to the entire technology category (things like TVs, computers, smartphones, Christmas lights, space heaters…). The Sweethome is dedicated to items like towels, kitchen trash bags, knives, corkscrews, and the previously mentioned razors (safety, disposable, and straight are all covered in detail.)
The result is that you may not find a review for everything on your wish list, but these sites should still be the first places you look before making a decision. In the end, you may decide to choose something different than the “best” that Brian recommends, but at the very least you’ll have the confidence of full knowledge and context when you make that decision. Which should result in the best decision for the person who matters most: You.