A REVIEW OF REVIEW SITES

Scattered throughout the web are small islands of sleepless enthusiasts who have much to say about their passions for new stuff. They aim their opinions into review sites of varying quality.

There are two kinds of review sites: ones run by know-it-all individuals, and one powered by the peer review of a community of users. Of the first type: The advantage of a single voice is that — at their best — they make outright recommendations. The downside is that they have trouble keeping up with an expanding or fast-moving field with tons of new gear.

The advantage of the second kind built on peer reviews is that the collective can keep up with change; the fault of user reviews, however, is that they often have narrow experience and no sense of what else is out there. This is the chief weakness of Amazon and Epinion reviews; they judge too much on an item’s own merits and not on how it compares with similar products or substitutes. Clear recommendations are scarce.

What I want from a review site is an informed judgement. Ideally I’d like a very smart friend online who can give a single word answer when you asked him/her what you should buy: “Get this,” they would say. The wider the range of uses, the more choices in models, and the faster the innovation in that area, the harder it is to get a definite answer.

My model of the ideal review site then is one built on a broad base of user reviews, in addition to a field of experts conducting uniform and comparative reviews, and ends up with an extract of top picks or other recommendations of what to get. I have not yet seen a perfect site. What doesn’t work for me is a site sporting a vast matrix of all products and their features, or a site recommending a few products –ones that they happen to also sell, or a site with evaluations of gear they happen to get free from cooperative manufacturers, or heaven forbid, a site that has a few feeble reviews and is supported by a zillion ads.

There are some wonderful review sites. I found the following to be useful. For the most part they have what the weak review sites don’t have: a minimal ad environment, no direct connection to sales, a means to extract recommendations and not just feature lists, and users with enough experience to indicate how tools live up to others like it. I’ve ranked these “best of reviews sites” from 1 to 5 stars, listed here in descending usefulness to me.

I believe I have only touched the tip of all that must be out there. Where is the ideal review site for coral aquariums, horse riding, knitting, woodworking, cooking gear, kites, scuba diving? Not to mention a fair and practical review site for your own current obsession.

Send ‘em to me and I’ll add the ones that work to this page on COOL TOOLS.

– KK
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Better View Desired

Perhaps the best review site I’ve seen. This guy reviews birding binoculars. He tests them all, very thoroughly, in the field, over time, and he measures each one against his published “standard” pair — the model to beat so to speak. You get detailed and useful reviews, and a very clear nod towards the binoculars he thinks are the best in several categories. He is as close to that ideal reviewer: an extremely informed friend who has seen them all and can tell you which one to get.

How I use it: I use his standards as the ones to get.

5 stars: *****
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Moutain Bike Review

Mountain bike gear reviewed by mountain bikers. Lots of forums, classified ads, and plenty of hard-hitting user reviews based on experience. A wonderful addition are thousands of bike trails reviewed by users. All-in-all a fantastic review site; one of the best!

How I use it: The first stop for advice on anything mountain bike related.

5 stars: *****
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Digital Photography Review

This is one of the first online review sites, and by now the best known. New models of digital cameras and printers are vetted with systematic, technically rigorous, scientifically fair and precise testing. Products are compared to previous models. No aspect of a camera is left untested. DPReview deserves its reputation as *the* place to keep up with the incredible swift moving frontier of digital media. In fact for most photographers this site has rendered photography magazines as superfluous. The site also boasts extremely active discussion boards for the die-hard enthusiast, and really great buyers’ guides. I wish there was a site like this for every vocation.

How I use it: I troll for the latest and greatest by checking out which models are used as the comparison standard (a sign its the one I want) and dipping into the chat boards.

5 stars: *****
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Flashlight Reviews

Because of rapid advances in LEDs, fiber optics and batteries, the state of the art in light sources changes quickly. Reviews here are rigorous technically, pretty consistent, very thorough, fair, and quantifiable. Lots of close-up photos. They rate the lights in an easy to compare chart, which you can sort by rating, and they thankfully indicate “top picks” with a easy to spot thumbs up. It’s a great service.

How I use this: My first stop when I want to find out the best in lights, flashlights and torches.

5 stars: *****

[as of June 08, 2007, this site ceased publishing new content; archives are available -- sl]
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Backpacking Light

Not just any backpacking but ultra-lightweight hiking. Gear here is only considered worthy if it does its job and weighs less than the previous champ. More and more gear is going radically featherweight. Rather than a user forum, this site is a magazine. Reviews are primarily written by an editorial staff and a subscription is required to read them in detail. The reviews are thorough, nerdy, informative and extensive. Great stuff and well-worth the price of $25/year if you are dedicated to losing pounds.

How I use it: For formal reviews of the latest and greatest innovation in backpacking gear.

4 stars: ****
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Bent Rider

A marvelous review site for recumbent bicycles. Rather than offer an endless list of features, the reviewers on this site attempt to make a judgement about the value of the bike in context of other bikes they have known. There is a good buyer’s guide that puts different makes in relation to each other.

How I use it: I’m presently shopping for a recumbent bike and this is the place I hang out for the real scoop.

4 stars: ****
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Find a Scope

An opinionated single-author site which reviews, guides, and advises you how to select a home telescope. He does a commendable job in covering the major brands of commercial telescopes, and bless his heart, he does a great job in comparing them in context of each other. He’s really good at explaining what value and dangers lie in bargain scopes. He even tells you which telescopes to avoid.

How I use it: To get a first-class orientation and specific recommendations of good scopes.

4 stars: ****
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Equipped to Survive

Serious reviews of the serious gear of medical aid and search and rescue missions, as well as individual survival tools. This site considers low tech first aid kits and high tech location beacons and everything in between. As far as I can tell all reviews are written by one obsessed and highly informed guy, and his crusade is operated as a non-profit. While these reviews are not searchable in a comparative way, the summaries are excellent and extremely helpful for potential buyers. For an example of this detail check out the roundup reviews of pocket survival kits here: http://www.equipped.org/prsnlkit.htm#new .

How I use it: As a one-stop reality check for any tool related to first aid and survival.

3 stars: ***
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Backpack Gear Test

Nerds on this large site conduct extremely thorough, if not obsessive, testing and documenting of every type of gear needed for camping and hiking. While many reviews are written by enthusiasts who bought their own gear, most are based on free samples donated by gear companies. Like many detailed gear sites, this one lacks comparative awareness — how this pack compares to all other packs. Evaluations are markedly ignorant of other stuff. There is no rating scale either, or even a “best of” hint.

How I use this: When I have a candidate item that I want to get great detailed user feedback on.

3 stars: ***
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The Gadgeteer

Two women personally review neat new gismos. Each selected item (often sent by a manufacturer) gets a detailed breakdown and opinionated review. Lots of close-up photos are used to dissect features. They like unusual but practical items. Recently they seem to be into wearable accessories. Reviews are generally positive, however — sometimes a problem if you are spending your own money.

How I use it: I go to the index of their reviews by subject, where I often find a few cool tools.

3 stars: ***
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Coffee Geek

Yep, caffeine-high coffee geeks rate loads of coffee grinders, steamers, drippers, holders and beans — commercial as well as household. This obsession may be too deep to help the ordinary coffee addict searching for the perfect grinder. I find the reviews here hard to navigate at times, but they do cover most anything coffee related. In addition to an official in-depth review, they catalog many user reviews and ratings, which are the most helpful. It’s the best coffee gear site.

How I use it: By sorting user reviews in a particular category by highest average rating (and number of reviews), I can get a good sense of what is best.

3 stars: ***
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Whole Latte Love

Another coffee gear review site. They have a “compare-o-matic” which lists all reviews by product type. These folks encourage user tips on each product — a helpful feature worth imitating by other sites. And they have really good buyers’ guides. However I feel they are a bit compromised by the fact this site directly sells all this gear. In this sense it is a catalog with reviews (like Amazon).

How I use it: For a great orientation and buyer’s guidance. And a good place to find user tips on a product you already have.

3 stars: ***
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Telescope Review Site

More comprehensive than Find a Scope, this review site is less comparative. It’s aimed more at the hard-core telescope enthusiast who already owns more than one scope, and less at the ordinary buyer looking for “the right one.” Still, the reviews (also all by one guy) are informative and complete.

How I use it: For second opinions on a potential telescope, and to see what is new.

2 stars: **
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Ecoustics

They started out reviewing hi-fi components and now cover most consumer audio/visual gear (TV, video, home theater). No reviews originate here. Ecoustics cleverly gathers user reviews from many sites like Amazon, Epinion, Pricegrabber, etc and collates them by product item. Ditto for editorial reviews, which they also aggregate from the expected magazines online. Despite this wealth of info, finding the best is difficult.

How I use it: Mostly as a way to hunt down less reviewed items.

2 stars: **

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One Bag

One guy’s reviews and tips for traveling gear and resources. I pretty much agree with his selections and you won’t find such good advice in a more compact form. However, this is not a proper review site since actual reviews of specific brands of luggage or whatnot are rare.

How I use it: I stop by every now and then to hunt for a well-worn cool travel tool.

2 stars: **

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Great Battery Shootout

Not a site, but a long page that reviews new versions of consumer batteries. It would be great if Mr. Battery kept it updated.

How I use it: For guidance in selecting rechargeable batteries, since they are not all the same.

2 stars: **

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Boardgame Ratings

Theres’ not a lot of action here, but new and classical board games get a systematic review and a rating. The owners also go out on a limb and provide their “top picks.” My one caveat is that they also retail sell the products on the site.

How I use this: About once a year I check in to see what’s new and great.

2 stars: **
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Gear Review

These guys are trying hard, but their selection of outdoor gear items is arbitrary, and their reviews are adequate yet neither comprehensive nor comparative. It is no help in pinpointing the best item.

How I use them: As a second opinion for a particular item.

1 star: *

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Everything USB

We are talking computer peripherals: Obvious ones like USB flash storage , nonobvious ones like digital cameras, and the whimsical ones like USB powered coffee makers. There are no formal reviews here, but busy user forums dispense chat on USB products and USB tutorials, and there is a very handy comparative shopping matrix, which offers some relief in deciding which model of a USB device is best.

How I use this: I’m interested mostly in cheap storage so I check here for the best bargains.

1 star: *
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Trusted Reviews

A team of geeks review computer hardware and peripherals. No attempt is made to be comparative or comprehensive. They tend to review the newest stuff — but at least they review it, unlike most sites featuring new gadgets.

How I use it: Not very much, since I’m not that interested in gadgets.

1 star: *