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The Best Product Myth

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Publications like to award them and companies love to receive them. But "Best Product" awards are the last thing that you should consider in your pre-purchase product research.

But even without awards, the "best product" question is one that most everyone (me included) asks when doing pre-purchase research. But it should not be a major influence on your buy decision.

Best Router

Is this really the best router for you?

Sometimes best products live up to their hype. But more often, buyers feel like fools for once again being duped by company marketing machines.

In most cases, these awards are the result of highly subjective criteria that may or may not bear any relation to what really matters in the product's actual use. And even in the best case, exemplified by Consumer Reports, personal experience with CR "Bests" has made me swear off CR as a trusted product evaluation resource.

Specs

In many cases, this is perhaps the least important "best", but the one that people spend the most money on. In truth, all you need is something that's good enough for the way you are going to use a product, especially if you are looking for best value.

In the networking part of the product jungle, the best router for you starts with wired routing throughput equal to or higher than your Internet connection speed. Buying a router with 100 Mbps throughput for a 10 Mbps connection doesn't provide any advantage. So don't pay extra for it.

For network storage (NAS), you're just wasting your hard-earned cash if you pay extra for a NAS with higher transfer speeds if you're primarily using it with wireless clients. Most 802.11n clients at best provide speeds lower than 100 Mbps Ethernet. So buying a NAS with throughput over 12.5 MB/s (100 Mbps states as Bytes/sec) for wireless use is just money thrown away.

Features

More does not necessarily mean better. The classic trap (and most oft-used marketing device) is to have the longest list of features or the most checkmarks in product comparison charts. But what good is something that you don't use? And how often do you actually end up using those extra features you bought in anticipation of future use?

Long feature lists can actually work against you in that there are just more things to go wrong. Who cares if your router supports fifteen ways to open a port if you never need to? Or has a USB port for sharing a drive at dog-slow speed?

In your quest for the right product, make sure you separate the "must-haves" from the "would-be-nices". In most cases you probably won't use the features in the latter category much, if ever.

For low-ticket items, forget about "future-proofing" your purchase. In fact, forget it even for expensive tech items. Technology simply moves too fast and product lifecycles are measured in months, not years. If your needs really change that much, there will be new products with better performance for the same or less money. And Craigslist and eBay will help recoup some of the cost from the old product to fund the new.

Reliability

This is one of the most important attributes that a product has, but the hardest to get solid information on. I spend hours, maybe days at most, with products that I review. So there is no way that I can judge a product's long term reliability and neither can you from simply reading reviews.

Reader "reviews" on this site and others need to be taken with a huge grain of salt, especially considering their anonymous sources. One person's "broken" can be another's "runs a tad slow". And then there are the trolls and just pissed-off people who post everywhere in an attempt to wreak revenge for a disappointing purchase.

The important thing for reliability is to keep it in perspective. While frustrating, a $50 router that goes belly up in six months isn't as big a deal as a $800 NAS that prematurely bites the dust. For bigger-ticket items, look at warranty length and give products with longer warranties priority over those with shorter.

And don't confuse reliability with misuse or improper application. Buying a RAID 1 NAS and treating the second drive as a swappable, removable backup isn't the way RAID 1 was intended to be used. And trusting any level of RAID to be the only protection for a primary data store is just foolish. No, your NAS vendor won't recover the data in your failed array for free any more than Microsoft will do it for a computer with crashed hard drive.

The Soft Side

Good products can go bad with new firmware or driver updates. Even the big networking names screw up and break some things while fixing others or adding features. If you're lucky, the broken things won't affect you. But if you're smart, you'll just say no to "improved" firmware if things are running just the way you like them. This is why enterprises are very careful about product updates and rarely let them happen automatically or without testing before widespread rollout.

If you are considering a firmware update, do some quick searches for problem reports. Best places to look are in vendor forums and dslreports.com.

The Deciding Factor

Given all the messiness and imperfection above, you may just want to give up and follow the crowd. We give you this option in the Popular Wireless and Popular NAS pages.

Each page has the Most Rated and Worst Rated products using our not-very-often-used product rating system. But there is also more useful information like the week's Most Popular Reviews, a four-week trend chart of Popular Reviews and up-to-date lists of top-selling products pulled from Pricegrabber and Amazon.

You should also tap the much bigger data pool of reviews and ratings at Amazon and other high-volume shopping sites. I was recently surprised to learn from more than one company that they watch Amazon reader reviews carefully to gauge customer satisfaction and keep an eye out for problems.


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