Trying to buy the best of everything is actually the worst
Photo: Tayler Smith. Prop Styling: Caroline Dorn.
When I?m making major purchases, my obsession with buying the very best product can be? the worst. I?ll research bizarre specifications (like the types of backlighting for 4K TVs) for hours, read reviews, and ensure I?ve exhausted all available options before actually hitting the buy button. I worry about the FOMO I might have if I make the wrong choice.
I wasn?t always this way. Just a few short years ago, I?d happily walk into an electronics store and buy the TV I liked most, with the handful of features I cared about, then take it home and enjoy it without considering the alternatives.
What happened to me was that I found a glorious product review website called Wirecutter, which painstakingly tests both the exciting and banal in almost every category. It has reviews of air beds, TVs, kitchen knives, printers ? you name it. Now, every time I need to buy, say, a screwdriver or a tent, I begin with a single search: ?best tent Wirecutter? to see if the site has the answer.
The Wirecutter?s premise is that there is a best option, and that it can be discovered through rigorous testing. And this idea has ruined me.
Because the truth is there isn?t really a ?best? anything out there ? it?s just easier to rely on these reviews than choose for yourself. Other people?s ?best? is never going to include the most important factors to you, personally. I love Wirecutter, but what happens if the best isn?t the best for you?
When I grabbed the publication?s top pick for an air purifier, the Coway Mighty, I found out the hard way. It worked fine, but its iPod Shuffle aesthetic was unsightly in my house, it took up a ton of space, and it randomly fired up loudly for seemingly no reason. My partner told me to return it. In general, aesthetic beauty, which is an important factor for me, doesn?t seem to be a factor Wirecutter considers in its reviews.
Other ignored criteria can be more fundamental. Walt Mossberg, a longtime reviewer and journalist, discovered that for himself when he bought the Panasonic FlashXpress toaster oven. Wirecutter tested the $120 appliance for ?over 90 hours? before badging it as the best. But Mossberg found that the oven ?was dangerously hot? and difficult to use ? factors Wirecutter didn?t mention in its review.
Wirecutter reviews can also focus so closely on a product?s utility that they ignore other contexts. This was the case when the site recommended a Ring video doorbell as the best smart doorbell camera, for instance. The review completely ignored revelations that the Ring software was working in secret with police, as well as its poor data security practices with customer footage.
Other people?s ?best? is never going to include the most important factors to you, personally.
When Wirecutter makes mistakes, it does a good job of actively engaging with commenters who raise them, and the site engages with readers who disagree with its recommendations. After months of complaints about the Ring doorbell, the site updated the review to make the doorbell a ?runner-up? choice, noting that Ring?s app has ?generated controversy.? Eventually, it published a full explanation of Ring?s dubious practices behind the scenes.
In another case, Wirecutter?s washing machine guide omitted the internet?s favorite washer, dubbed the ?Speed Queen.? Fans were furious that their longtime favorite wasn?t even considered. Instead of ignoring those fans, the site dove deep to understand why fans were so rabid about such an old washer.
But the problem may not be so much with Wirecutter?s individual reviews as it is with its overall promise that it can actually tell you what the best product is. Review sites like Wirecutter are incentivized to pick products, even if they aren?t perfect, because they don?t make money unless you buy something. Instead of running advertising on their pages, Wirecutter relies on affiliate links, offered by sites like Amazon. When you click ?buy? on something the site recommends and follow through with the purchase, Wirecutter gets a cut of the sale price, which is higher the more expensive the product is.
In truth, if you?re an expert on any single category, such as camera lenses, the ?best? pick on these sites is likely to be something you disagree with. The top pick is the choice that?s better for a wide audience, but it might not be the absolute best possible product ? because the highest-performing one is too expensive or complicated to use.
This is true for me in the case of its mesh Wi-Fi recommendations. I?ve extensively tested meshing hardware and disagree with Wirecutter?s top Wi-Fi mesh network recommendation ? Netgear Orbi ? because it is unreliable, with sync problems and dubious ?improvements? to network quality. Other readers have also complained about the choice, and now Wirecutter recommends Eero routers instead. I still believe Ubiquiti?s UniFi devices are the only ones worth buying, but I know the average person doesn?t want to invest the time into configuring a higher-end system, which is why the pick isn?t UniFi, even if it?s arguably the best.
The optimal way to approach recommendation sites is simple: If you need a product, like a printer, and don?t have strong opinions on it or want to avoid overspending on a potential lemon, buy the top choice. It?s almost certainly been tested more than any of us could feasibly do on our own, and you?ll save hours of research. But if you are an expert about a device and the pick isn?t what you?d go for, that?s okay! The recommendation probably wasn?t really targeted at you anyway.
Finding one ?best? option for everyone might not actually be possible, but that doesn?t make Wirecutter?s reviews useless. Online shopping provides endless choices for the consumer to the point that it?s crippling, and sites like Wirecutter help simplify the buying process.
Perhaps there?s a better spatula or sleeping bag out there, but I just want to be told what to buy, because the alternative ? wading through thousands of results and dubious star ratings ? is overwhelming.