Is Wirecutter still good?

post by Ben Pace (Benito) · 2020-08-07T21:54:06.141Z · LW · GW · 7 comments

This is a question post.

Contents

  Answers
    romeostevensit
    knite
    habryka
    Raemon
    Kenny
    Thomas Kwa
None
7 comments

I have heard from several friends I trust that Wirecutter is no longer very reliable since being acquired by the New York Times in 2016, and that their Wirecutter-advised purchases have become pretty mediocre in the last year or two.

I'd be interested in people making some of that case, as answers to this post, including things like talking about purchases they made or basic errors they found in the reviews, as I don't have strong, publicly verifiable evidence on this at the minute.

This is a biased post, I'm writing this with the hope of helping propagate this info if it's true, which I suspect it is but am not confident of. Please give whatever answers you feel are most relevant.

Answers

answer by romeostevensit · 2020-08-07T23:00:50.478Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

They're best for things that have sparse and spammy reviews elsewhere (mattresses, random accessories etc.) and bad for any area where you are a power user (computers, specific hobbies). I think of them as the 80:20, not the optimal.

comment by MTGandP · 2020-08-10T22:26:14.078Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This basically means they are perfectly achieving their goal, right? Wirecutter's goal isn't to find the best product, it's to find the best product at a reasonable price. If you're a power user, you'll be willing to buy better and more expensive stuff.

comment by romeostevensit · 2020-08-11T00:34:45.630Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

No, I mean 80:20 of optimization overall. There are often better price:performance options if you hunt for it. e.g. with laptops a budget thinkpad (e series) is much better than their budget choice for most users.

answer by knite · 2020-08-08T02:23:17.964Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've loved Wirecutter's reviews for many years, but have occasionally been disappointed by their recommendations. It's hard to say whether their quality has actually gone down or if the success/miss ratio is constant.

Examples:

External hard drive (pre-2016): no mention whatsoever of RPM, which is widely regarded as critical information when choosing a non-SSD hard drive. They didn't even include a blurb saying that RPM doesn't matter.

Bath towels (2019): Pasting my own comment: "I ordered a set of Frontgate towels based on this recommendation. After fewer than five washes (cold normal cycle with standard detergent, line dry), the towels aren't plush at all. The towels arrived feeling luxurious and spa-like, but after only a few uses they feel drab and normal." They updated their towel recommendations a week ago and Frontgate remains their top choice. I feel like I wasted several hundred dollars on an extensive set of pretty average towels. If I'm washing them wrong, it would have been nice for them to reply and update their care instructions.

Broom (2020): It's...fine. Maybe my expectations were set too high, but I thought it would be the Best Broom, not just a broom.

answer by habryka · 2020-08-08T20:48:54.813Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I had a series of very good experiences with wirecutter from 2014-2017, where I bought their bike recommendation, their laptop recommendation, their desk recommendation and their headphone recommendations, all of which were really exceptionally excellent and made my life a lot better. 

However in the last two years, basically everything I bought from wirecutter has turned out to be pretty mediocre. Their headphone recommendations are kinda OK but not great, their towel recommendation is pretty mediocre and lost tons of fabric for the first three times when I washed them (causing all my clothing that I washed them with to have lots of small towel-fibers all over them), their computer screen recommendations weren't that good. Their product categories in a bunch of places no longer make sense to me, and something about the review practices has felt worse, but it is totally plausible that I am just imagining things.

comment by mingyuan · 2020-08-31T02:14:10.945Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Huh, I think the towel is pretty great, but I'm more sensitive to physical stimuli than you are. It did lose a certain amount of plushness in the first few washes, but even still, when I use towels other than that one now, I definitely notice that they're much rougher.

Also (and I'm not putting this in a top-level answer because it doesn't contain any info about pre- vs post-2016), their recommendation for large microwave has served us well, but the small microwave recommendation (as of when we were buying a microwave) had 3 Amazon reviews saying it literally caught on fire. This seems like a flaw of Wirecutter's methodology - i.e., for a lot of products, they don't actually test out long-term use.

answer by Raemon · 2020-08-07T22:30:06.747Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

FWIW, I was disappointed in my purchases from the wirecutter pre-2016 (I think back in 2013 or so). I can only remember one distinct purchase (a set of headphones). I'm not sure if I made more than one purchase or not, but remember a cached belief from >2 years ago that the recommendations were underwhelming.

That said, I did use them for purchasing my latest mattress (within the last year), which I am in fact happy with.

answer by Kenny · 2020-08-28T17:52:34.115Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I concur with romeostevensit's answer [LW(p) · GW(p)] that they are (and always have been) good – I'd say more than good-enough – for things for which you're not a 'power user'. But I've been happy with their picks even for some of those things for which I am a power user.

I haven't noticed their quality declining since their acquisition by the NYT tho I find it plausible that that might happen.

answer by Thomas Kwa · 2020-09-18T23:50:22.812Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A glaring omission in Wirecutter's laptop recommendations: they say the HP Envy x360 13 is superior to their top picks, but don't list it. This is ostensibly due to stock shortages, but a slightly different configuration (with the 4700U) has been in stock for a while. This is important because it's $300-400 cheaper than their top picks. 

The 13-inch HP Envy x360 with an AMD Ryzen 5-4500U processor is an excellent ultrabook—it’s compact, light, and had nearly 12 hours of battery life in our tests. It has a great keyboard, a responsive trackpad, and a reliable fingerprint reader, and build quality just as good as our other picks. But the Envy x360 is out of stock everywhere, so we can’t recommend it.

They didn't recommend other laptops with AMD Ryzen 4000 CPUs either, which other reviewers say are significantly better and slightly cheaper than Intel 10th generation CPUs. They also didn't test the LG Gram (with an Intel CPU), whose previous iterations were excellent.

7 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by ChristianKl · 2020-08-08T07:31:53.686Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The story of how they downgraded NextDesk because the company wasn't willing to pay them affiliate commissions seems to illustrate to me that there's no reason to believe Wirecutter's claims about having reviewers that are independent from kickbacks. 

comment by mr-hire · 2020-08-08T07:42:49.045Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Here's their response:

https://www.nytimes.com/wirecutter/our-response-to-nextdesk/

comment by ChristianKl · 2020-08-08T08:21:23.298Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, and it seems pretty unconvincing to me. It basically affirms that messages were sent and makes no claim that NextDesk misrepresented the messages. 

The email is explicit about not having strict separation between the departments (the person asking for kickbacks is running numbers whether individual review pages are worthwhile): 

We’re having problems figuring out how to cover the costs for this standing desk guide going forward after crunching the numbers. Our site thrives on a model that is basically that if we do high quality content and feature high quality gear, and readers buy it, we support the work through kickbacks. 

comment by mr-hire · 2020-08-08T18:43:07.286Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's mildly convincing to me, but still makes me wary of them.  Shared not as an endorsement but for completeness sake.

comment by adamzerner · 2020-08-07T23:40:14.629Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

My data point: They're my go-to source so I've made various purchases based off their recommendations over the years, and I've been pretty happy with them as a whole.

Also, what Romeo says about them being an 80:20 option seems very plausible to me.

comment by DanielFilan · 2020-08-08T04:20:23.572Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

FYI it's "Wirecutter" not "The WireCutter", according to Wikipedia and the website.

comment by Ben Pace (Benito) · 2020-08-08T06:27:44.230Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Fixed.